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The Weekend Wine List

Week 9: The blacklisted bottles

Source: Ben Owen

After eight weeks, ten wines, and innumerable examples of middle-class wordplay at its finest, series one of The Weekend Wine List has reached its conclusion.

Perhaps – as I hope – this column has made navigating the mysterious depths of the drinks aisle just a touch less daunting. Perhaps new-found confidence has inspired you to break with tradition, putting aside the trusty bottle of Echo Falls in favour of something more original. Perhaps select titbits of viticultural expertise have left a genuine impression; perhaps you too can now astonish friends and family by spouting big words like ‘terroir’ and ‘appellation’ at post-lockdown dinner parties. Or instead, perhaps you are simply a loyal follower of The Oxford Blue’s quality journalism.

All of these reasons are valid. And whatever it was that brought you to the column in the first place, you can rest assured that every single one of the bottles chosen for review over the last two months holds true to the wine drinker’s edict: exciting, enticing, and inexpensive.

Yet that is only the tip of the iceberg. Because for each wine that made the cut, there was at least one other that failed to do so.

In some cases, it was just a question of price. In the same week I compared three Albariño white wines from the Iberian peninsula’s north-westerly corner, I also had the chance to sample what turned out to be my favourite Spanish red to date. No surprise, really, when each bottle costs over £13. At this budget, accomplished wine becomes the expectation instead of the exception.

Exactly the same story goes for this expressive red grown just outside Bordeaux (£12), this unique offering from Cahors (£13), and this sumptuous yet eye-wateringly expensive blend from Gigondas (£22.50). All are objectively good, yet on the scale of good value find themselves obliterated by any of The Weekend Wine List’s picks.

Perhaps then, these are offerings to potentially explore in a second series after my student loan arrives next term.

However, as the title might suggest, these bougier bottles are not the main subject matter of this article. No: exclusion on the grounds of price is an altogether innocent offence compared to the following wines, which were left out purely due to their rancid aromas and putrid tasting notes. Some were so horrific that they even ended up in the viticultural sin bin: down the kitchen sink or – worse still – at the supermarket refund counter.

And so, in order to reveal the dangers of wine drinking (as well as the rigour of The Weekend Wine List’s selection process), here are six of the worst blacklisted bloopers. Be sure to keep an eye on the price, too. There are a couple of shockers.

La Fortezza Vermentino, Marks & Spencer, RRP £6

Source: Ben Owen

The bottle hopefully describes this Sicilian white as containing a “surprising hint of woodsmoke”. A more apt comparison would be to imagine opening your mouth so wide that your jaw locks into place, and then proceeding to dive headfirst into the sooty ashes of an extinguished bonfire. But the foul, lingering aftertaste is not the only issue with this wine; when holding a glass of the stuff to her nose, my sister quipped that she was “getting aromas of burnt plastic”.

Cheaper whites can often be bland, yet all in all are inoffensive. M&S’s blend tastes actively, obnoxiously, and unforgivably repulsive.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Viñedos Barrihuelo Rioja Crianza (2017), Sainsbury’s, RRP £7.50

Source: Ben Owen

A sad demise for a go-to Spanish red. Whilst I had a soft spot for the preceding 2016 vintage, twelve short months were sufficient for the quality of Sainsbury’s entry-level Rioja to nosedive. Why? The Iberian floral spice that impressed me in Weekend Six’s Campo Viejo Reserva is subbed out in the 2017 iteration for what can only be described as a battery acid back note. Even if Viñedos Barrihuelo’s offering remains potable (at a push), the fact that its more accomplished rival costs only a pound more renders this viticultural form of self-torture unnecessary.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Cepa Alegro Rioja Reserva (2014), Sainsbury’s, RRP £9

Source: Ben Owen

Another Sainsbury’s fatality in the Rioja Roulette. Just a quick whiff on the nose is enough to tell you that the primary tasting notes will be those of a chemical manufacturing plant. Whereas in superior blends, the reserva status and the three years’ ageing entailed help to add elegance and unity to the different flavours, the only thing that time seems to have achieved for this wine is to make it fester further. Peculiarly heavy on the stomach, too.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Beronia Rioja Gran Reserva (2012), Majestic, RRP £22+

With eight years of ageing and an obscene price tag, this Rioja should have tasted supreme. Then again, it should also have carried a toxic hazard sticker, and an accompanying Gaviscon prescription; such was the destruction to my digestive tract. Ruined Christmas Day 2020 and the following Boxing Day morning.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Anciano Tempranillo Gran Reserva Valdepeñas, Waitrose, RRP £9.70

A fourth failure from Spain – what were Waitrose thinking with this bottle? I am all for the gentle vanilla aroma that Tempranillo grapes leave on the tongue, but not when that morphs into the alcoholic equivalent of liquorice mixed with Slush Puppie. The thought of pairing this blend’s candied main body alongside a red meat dish as the bottle suggests sounds nothing short of sacrilege, and the whole issue could have been avoided in the first place had the vineyard invested in proper oak barrels.

Further points detracted for dubious branding. The label hides the minor detail that the wine comes from Valdepeñas: a very, very humble growing region indeed. Not that the inflated price would reflect this.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Chateau de Sainte Gemme Haut Médoc (2013), Majestic, RRP £12+

Source: Ben Owen

We have saved the worst for last. For anyone wondering why I did not feature any Bordeaux on The Weekend Wine List, you have your answer in this bottle.

Put simply, I have good reason to believe the stuff was corked. After an initial muddy water note, I was greeted by a nauseating wave of bitter wood and musty tobacco which even the horrific Beronia above failed to conjure. The gag reflex that ensued gave me a Proustian moment, evoking my studies of Medieval witch-doctor potions in Year 8 history. A few cautious sips of this liquid deathtrap sufficed to put me off reds for a week, and months later could still make me think twice.

Rating: 0.5 out of 5.

Is there any solace to be found in such a scathing series of criticisms? Thankfully, all is not doom and gloom. As any pompous wine expert will tell you, trial-and-error is but an integral part of the drinking experience.

I do admit that taking a gamble and opting for something new will not pay off every single time. There are still far too many wines like the ones flagged up on this blacklist, and even bottles that seem to tick the right boxes can deceive. Yet it is precisely this uncertainty that makes finally unearthing a hidden gem all the more gratifying. In other words, very few of the wines featured in my reviews, which have since become personal go-to favourites, would have been found in the first place without a little luck and confidence.

As with anything in life, adversity should be embraced rather than feared.

And on that more philosophical note, it really is time for me to bid one final farewell from here at The Weekend Wine List. Salúd, Santé, chin-chin, and until our glasses cross again.

A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.