Wednesday 15 August 2012

Upmarket merchants, downmarket wine – Anima Umbra

At the posh wine merchants down the road – the ones (like all posh wine merchants) with an ampersand – austerity is clearly taking its toll. Facing the door, and hence visible from the street, a rack has recently appeared, proclaiming a selection of wines for under £10.

This is clearly designed to attract the paupers, riff-raff and ne’er-do-wells who shuffle past their door en route to the Tesco Expressnormally pausing only to raise their eyes in longing like a labrador outside a butcher’s.

An immediate posh giveaway (apart from the ampersand) is the fact that they consider “under £10” to be unusual enough to merit announcement. To put this into perspective, the web site of this merchant offers 943 wines above £10. They do have wine at over £1000 a bottle. 

Their signs look as if they are written in chalk, but in fact are painted permanently. Perhaps this is a recent development, now that they’re trying to attract the sort of people who make it so difficult to leave up a chalked sign for shitake mushrooms. 

They are clearly uncomfortable in promoting their wares at this end of the market. “Good wine for under £10” one sign declares. “Good”? As an Englishman huffily responds to most forms of advice, I’ll be the judge of that. 

“Change from £10 oh yeah!”, which sounds like one of McCartney’s clumsy earlier lyrics.

And finally, “Only got £10 no problem”, which raises a couple of issues, only one of which is grammatical. If you had literally only got £10, I suspect you would have a lot of problems, and spending your sole remaining tenner in a wine merchants would be way down your list of fiscal priorities.

However, it has to be said that this particular merchant has a few issues describing the wine at the upper end of their price range, too. Take the opening of their description for a bottle of 2004 Burgundy, costing £335: “Still only just finishing its malo, so hard and gassy …”

“Hard and gassy”? That certainly does not encourage me to spend £335 on a bottle. It sounds like a couple of the guys at Stamford Bridge.

It’s bad enough when CJ says a wine tastes of old newspapers and seems to think that’s a good thing, but at least his wine’s only £3.99. 

But, hang on. “Just finishing its malo…” – what? What??

There are, presumably, people for whom the malolactic fermentation of a wine is a key purchasing influence, and for whom terms like “needs some time”, or “not ready yet” are insufficiently specific. But what makes this particularly obnoxious is the chatty abbreviation “malo”, like, yah, that’s the way we in the know always banter about our £335 wine. Yah.

Anyway, in I stroll. Of course, I try to give off the air of someone who was intending to saunter all the way down the store, to the First Growth clarets and the £355 Burgundies finishing their malo at the far end, only to be rudely interrupted by the under-£10 display in my way. 

Oh, what’s this? Wines for under £10? Crikey! Do such things exist? How charming.

I am not interrupted with “assistance” as I look at the modest selection, because obvously for £10 you’re not going to get the unctuous fawning you expect when you’re spending £300+ on a bottle, never mind the banter about vintages and the repartee about malolactic fermentation. 

Besides, they presumably don’t want to frighten away those who have been lured, nervous as sparrows, across their threshold, but are more familiar with the self-selection of the supermarket.

It’s a sunny day, and I plump for an intriguing Italian white, Anima Umbramade primarily from the Grechetto grape, which I’ve not encountered before. It has a couple of troublingly downmarket elements, such as gold foil on its label, which lends it a sort of bonkbuster paperback appearance; and I find when I get home that it has a green plastic cork, which is a vile and unnatural thing, resembling some kind of medical bung.

But actually, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable wine. Intensely floral on the nose, lovely creamy texture, and then an extraordinary balance of full, apple and peach, fruit notes, with a crisp, refreshing aftertaste. Just the kind of acrobatics which create an excellent white to drink on its own. Yes, it is good wine for under £10.

Now, I’m not going to make any sweeping judgments about buying from merchants versus buying from supermarkets. But there is one fundamental difference. Clumsy as their promotional tactics may be, wines in merchants are properly priced. These are not short-term offers, with the wine doubling back up in price next week. And you can be equally confident that it’s is not going to be reduced next week either, to £5, or two for a tenner, or buy one get one free. This is wine which is actually worth £9.95.

Plus, I think it’s finished its malo.



  1. Hard and gassy? You 'aving a pop again?

  2. upmarket merchants, downmarket wine? Well, not entirely. Arnaldo Caprai is a pretty reliable producer (and their Sagrantino is outstanding, although also cringingly expensive). Even if going for under a tenner, I'd quite happily snap up any of their offerings

    1. Well, to my mind, any wine under £10 is downmarket - it's a fiscal, not a qualitative judgment - and if it happens to be good wine from a good producer, so much the better!

    2. ok, see what you mean. Long live good downmarket wines, then!


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