Wednesday 28 September 2011

Do we want 'unusual' wines? - Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Marzemino

Do we want our wine to be ‘unusual’? I’m only asking, because that is the adjective Sainsbury's have used to describe their Taste the Difference Marzemino. “This unusual wine…”, begins their description on both the back label and the shelf-talker. And frankly, I don’t think ‘unusual’ is a characteristic one looks for in a wine.

Offered something ‘unusual’, the common human reaction is somewhere between the wary, the cautious and the downright suspicious. Would you, for example, tell guests that the meat you are serving to them is ‘unusual’? People would be expecting fillet of stoat. 

“Yes, we’re having ocelot this evening. They say it’s ‘unusual’.” I bet it bloody is…

Surely there’s an inherent criticism if someone looks into your dining room and says, “That’s an unusual colour…”. What if someone said to a mother, ‘What an unusual baby…’?

Or imagine, somewhat in the vein of a New Yorker cartoon caption, pausing at the bedroom door to say to your partner, “Tonight, I thought we might try something…unusual”.

With drinks perhaps above all else, the notion of the usual is something positive. “Your usual?” asks the barman, and a whole relationship is established; he knows you and your tastes. He doesn’t think you’re a boring old fart for having the same thing over and over again. He thinks you’re a person of discernment, who has sampled widely and arrived at an ideal. And he compliments your initial choice by asking, “Same again?”

Yes, the same again, please. We spend years (not to mention pounds) hunting around for wines we really like. And when we find one, we immediately buy a case, so we can repeat the experience twelve more times.

We mourn the disappearance from the shelves of a wine we like; we regret the inevitable passing of a good vintage; the final bottle from the case. We grieve for a wine we know whose cost has risen to the unaffordable. We want our usual.

Part of this whole business of understanding wine is about predictability. You choose a wine for a dish, a meal or a guest based upon anticipating how that wine will taste. When you open a Chablis, you expect it to taste a certain way. An unusual Chablis is one which doesn’t taste like a Chablis. Perhaps it tastes like a Sauternes, which would be very unusual for a Chablis, not to say unwelcome.

Oh, those of us who like to explore wine, and broaden our drinking experience, do like to try something different – but we wouldn’t serve something described as ‘unusual’ unless we’d tried it ourselves and could vouch for it. “What’s the worst that can happen?” is a phrase suited to a mass-produced soft drink, but inappropriate to the serving of potentially appalling wine, where consequences can range from embarrassment and social exclusion to nausea, choking, vomiting, headache and other symptoms drawn from the back of pharmaceutical packaging.

Fortunately there are some, like Sediment, whose sheer curiosity outweighs the imagined threat of medical emergency. Of course one must try such wines alone, but avoiding any risk to one’s carefully nurtured social status (let alone marriage) is just a further benefit of drinking ‘unusual’ wines by yourself, a benefit unaccountably excluded from CJ’s post on solo drinking.

(When you consider the wine he usually consumes, solo drinking is virtually a necessity.)

Marzemino is certainly uncommon, even rare, both terms which might actually intrigue potential purchasers. A regional varietal of North-Eastern Italy, often used for blending, it’s drunk by Don Giovanni on the way to Hell in his eponymous opera (“Versa il vino, eccellente marzemino!). And given the number of times I’ve been told to go to that particular destination…

And this Marzemino has much of the Gamay about it, with cherry, plum and delicate red fruit flavours. It’s like a very light Beaujolais, innocuously drinkable and hard to believe it’s 12% alcohol. The flavour drifts past, just a fleeting nuance of berries and floral notes. It probably works best with food, because it surely offers insufficient entertainment on its own. But to answer that classic police question to witnesses, “Did you notice anything particularly unusual?” the answer would have to be no, officer, I did not.

However, in store I found it reduced from £5.99 to £4.49, perhaps an indication that it has not found favour with a mass audience. And at the time of writing, Sainsbury are actually offering it online at £12 for three. £4 a bottle is absurdly cheap for any wine which you can actually keep down.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say it’s unusual…


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