Thursday 25 October 2012

A little knowledge – Chateau Saint-Paul 2010

Some say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, which if true would render CJ a public menace. All I can say is that a little knowledge is a time-consuming thing, as I wander in and out of my local wine-retailing establishments, trying to find a wine which accords with my unfortunate combination of high aspirations and low income.

The trouble with learning just a little about wine is that you know only too well why you do not want to buy most of the stuff you can afford. Blended rubbish, plain rubbish, too young, horrible, won’t go (too bland), won’t go (too spicy), can’t imagine that on the table.

It’s Sunday evening, and Mrs K is doing one of her splendid dishes for the two of us. My (supposedly simpler) job is to provide a bottle of wine to accompany it.

I have now calculated that there are some nine establishments within walking distance of my house where I can buy wine, from the posh merchants with an ampersand, through the supermarkets and popular off-licences, to the Mace on the corner. I calculated this by the expedient of visiting all of them in search of a bottle. And out of sheer desperation I ended up in Marks & Spencer, where I spotted this, Chateau Saint-Paul, a 2010 Haut Medoc.

Facing the right way, as it obviously was on the shelf (and as I would ensure on the table) this looks magnificent, reminiscent of Chateau Margaux.  Turn it the wrong way, however, and you are deluged with useless information from Marks & Spencer, telling you how the glass bottle is recyclable, and that you will need a corkscrew to open it. I think even CJ’s little knowledge would stretch that far.

But what really sold it to me was this “shelf-talker” as I believe they are called, quoting Jancis Robinson’s wonderful website:

So, it’s a done deal. Even at three times the amount CJ would spend, it should be worth it for such a claret. 

Now, should I avoid the queues and pay at the self-service till? No, because I am buying a bottle of wine, and despite the fact that its pricepoint is way above that which a teenager would pay to get drunk, the whole supposedly efficient process will have to be halted until an assistant comes over to confirm the sad but blindingly obvious fact that I am over 18.

Would I like to have a bag? Yes, I would rather not wander up the road swinging a naked bottle of claret by the neck like an Indian club. Would I like to have a bag for 5p? No, not unless you have one which does not bear your name. I don’t mind paying for a bag, but I do mind paying to promote your establishment on my journey home.

But my little knowledge was nagging at me while I paid. This is 2010 Bordeaux, a great year I thought, but only just released. Surely it needs more time? Surely this is too young for a good Bordeaux? Not thoughts which would trouble a less-knowledgable M&S customer, who might be expecting wine as fresh as their meat. 

Nevertheless, I was worried enough by my little knowledge to taste the wine while Mrs K was cooking. Its colour was plum, rather than crimson – and it was as firm as a fence. Hard and unyielding, even after a couple of hours. Mrs K’s abrupt verdict was that it tasted like paint, which put a interesting gloss on it.

So I thought after dinner that I ought to check the Purple Pages for myself. Was I right about the vintage? Well, guess what; first, M&S are actually quoting a review of the 2009, not the 2010. In terms of proper Bordeaux, that is not the same wine at all.

And worse in a way, like one of those edited movie reviews, that quote is missing its final punchline: “Only problem is that ideally you should keep it a bit.” 

What Jancis’s site actually says about this wine, the 2010, tasted just last month (Sept 2012), is: “Dark purple. Evolved, rather vegetal wine. Correct and smooth but not very vital. Dead, rather bloody finish. Very chewy finish.” Perhaps not as enthusiastic as the 2009 review they quoted? 

And here’s the thing. Jancis suggests drinking this wine 2015 to 2020. 

Which could be fine, given that Homeland’s not on until 2100. But she’s talking about years. This wine needs to wait for another 3 to 8 years, and Mrs K’s polpette don’t take that long.

Whether they quote the right review or the wrong one, M&S clearly have no intention of telling you the bit in either of them about this wine needing time to mature. Because of course, the average M&S customer is not in the market for a wine to lay down for 8 years. They are buying ready meals, for tonight; the clue is in the word “ready”. M&S wouldn’t sell an apple which wasn’t ready to consume; why do it with a wine?

I should have trusted my little knowledge. It may be a dangerous thing but, like many dangerous weapons, sometimes it’s your only defence.



  1. "Jancis suggests drinking this wine 2015 to 2020.
    Which could be fine, given that Homeland’s not on until 2100." Best wine joke of the year (though admittedly the competition is not strong.)

  2. Sorry, but surely you should have seen this coming... when the best they can come up with on the supermarket shelf card, the soundbite that's supposed to get you drooling and loading cases of the stuff into your trolley, is "a slight whiff of odd oak", it can't be a good sign. I'm not quite sure what odd oak smells like - but possibly my dog, and lovely though she is, she is not what I want in my glass. And "really quite opulent" sounds somewhat begrudging, as though Jancis had just downed a couple of bottles of the stuff, and felt that perhaps she ought to say something nice. "Opulent" sounds impressive; "really quite opulent" sounds apologetic...

    1. Up to a point, Lord Copper - the "soundbite" was still about a different wine!

      But perhaps that's something else I need to learn about retailers...


  3. really enjoyed reading this!


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