Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Why it's not worth bothering with cheap champagne

This year has been a vintage one for cut price champagne offers. Good for us, the punters? No, not really.

Very few cut price champagnes are worth the money. As a matter of interest we tried a bottle of Nicole d'Aurigny (No score) a champagne that Somerfield is selling for £9.99, more than 50% off. Frankly we'd have done better to buy a cut price bottle of Cava. It was thin and weedy with none of the complexity you have a right to expect from a bottle that originally cost over £20. Think what kind of a still wine you could have got for that.

The best cheap bottle we tried was H. Blin (RATING:***) which costs £15.99 from Oddbins if you're buying a mixed case (£19.99 if you're not). It was elegant and fresh and even at the full price a good deal less than the amount you'd pay for a better known brand such as Laurent Perrier or Taittinger (£31.99 and £33.99 respectively) A better bargain still was a bottle of Philipponnat Royal Reserve (RATING:****) which sells at £22.39 at Oddbins if you buy a mixed case, £27.99 if you don't) which really is the real deal with all the honeyed, toasty richness one expects from champagne.

The moral? If you're not spending more than £15 on fizz buy a less expensive sparkling wine instead. And if you are, be prepared to buy lesser known names and the supermarkets' own brands which tend to be much better quality than the cheap brands.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mulled wine for one

Most mulled wine recipes (including mine) cater for around a dozen people but if there are just a couple of you - or you're addicted to mulled wine and just want a single portion - there's a solution. Rocks, the company that makes very nice organic cordials has an organic Spiced Fruit Punch Cordial which I picked up in my local deli for £2.49 which is roughly on a par with mulled wine spice sachets but much more flexible.

You could either use it to make mulled wine using roughly 1 part mulled wine cordial to 2 parts each of wine and water (and a dash of port if you have some) or a non-alcoholic punch replacing the wine and water with apple or pomegranate juice - and leaving out the port, obviously. Popping in a slice of orange at the end provides a nice orangey twist.

I think Bottle Green makes a similar cordial so look out for them in your local deli or health food shop - or supermarket if you can face the last minute crush.

A very happy Christmas to you all!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A stylish sweetie and a rough Spanish red

More feedback from my recent shopping trip to Aldi. A good buy, a bad buy and a (slightly) corked bottle.

Good news first. For £5.99 you can procure yourself a stylish looking bottle of Eiswein (left in the picture on the right) that would look great on any Christmas table and stand up to both the Christmas pud and the Stilton. It's produced under the St Amandus label in the Rheinhessen region of Germany and has a lovely, delicate grapey flavour (it's only 9%). Eiswein, which is made from naturally or artificially frozen grapes, is normally far more expensive than this - and normally more intense and syrupy - but for the price it's an excellent buy. RATING: ***

Disappointingly the Beerenauslese in the same range was corked but it tasted slightly weedy by comparison, unsurprising at £3.99.* RATING: ** (if it wasn't corked)

I also wouldn't buy the 2004 Vina Decana Crianza from Utiel Requena again, despite the fact that it's only £2.99 and packaged like a Rioja. It's thin and slightly sharp with not enough fruit to support the oak. Even with food (an easy-to-match shepherds' pie) it tasted a bit rough. A bargain's not a bargain unless it's actually enjoyable to drink. RATING: no score

* For those of you who don't know what to do if a wine is corked the best thing is to taste a small sip first to check it's OK rather than pouring out wine for everyone then stopper the bottle if it's faulty and take it back to the shop as soon as possible together with the receipt. The shop should exchange it without question.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Why buy Baileys?

One of the brands that's been most heavily promoted this Christmas - as it is most Christmasses - is the Irish cream liqueur Baileys.

The discounts look impressive admittedly. Tesco is selling it at £9.97 and Sainsbury's at £11 instead of £12.79 but given that it's only about 17% ABV you wonder why it costs that much in the first place.

For £9 you can buy a litre of Sainsbury's very decent (if you like this sort of thing) Taste the Difference Irish Cream Liqueur while Aldi is selling its own 'Specially Selected' Irish Cream Liqueur for just £4.99 which I thought was pretty good when I tried it this week - rich, creamy and caramelly with a good belt of whiskey. Serve it over ice and I doubt if anyone would notice.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Roger Protz's 10 best winter beers

I just found this feature on Roger Protz's beer site Roger and I used to be neighbours in St Albans (also home of CAMRA) and despite the number of excellent up and coming beer writers I still regard him as Britain's best beer writer, bar none.

This is a great selection of beers for Christmas, impressive not only for its quality but the price of the bottles, hence it's inclusion in this blog. My own favourites are the Thomas Hardy's Ale and the Lees Harvest Ale - the ports of the beer world. Do try at least one of them with your Christmas cheeseboard.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cut price port

As usual there are a whole raft of offers on port this Christmas but how do you tell what you're getting? Port goes by a confusing number of descriptions. Most of the offers are on basic ruby port which can be made to sound grander than it is by calling it Special Reserve or Vintage Character or somesuch name.

One step up from that is Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) which will have been aged for at least 4-6 years - enough to round out its rougher edges then there's vintage port which is port from a single vintage, bottled when it's still young and aged for 10 years or more. (That's the kind that throws a deposit and which you need to decant. The others you don't)

There are also tawny ports which are aged in wood and have more of a toffee-and-nut flavour as opposed to the warm brambly flavour of ruby ports. They're usually marketed in 10 year bands - mostly 10 year old, occasionally 20 and very rarely 30 or 40 year old.

There's nothing wrong with basic port - in fact it's useful to have some that will do for cooking and mulled wine as well as sipping with mince pies. Here are two that are on offer at the moment:

Cockburns Assured (Normally £9.99, on offer at £4.99 at Somerfield)
With its handsome non-traditional bottle and silver label this is obviously designed to appeal to the younger port drinker. I'm not sure what they mean by 'assured', nor would I get unduly excited by the 'exclusive edition' claim (apparently it's exclusive to Somerfield which some might say is not very exclusive at all) but it's a bright, breezy, berry-flavoured mouthful and certainly a bargain at this price. They say try it with dark chocolate which sounds like a good idea. RATING: ** (**** for the packaging!)

Warre's Warrior Special Reserve (£5.99 Tesco though annoyingly now £8.99 in Sainsbury's which had it at £5.99 last week)
Interestingly the back label tells you almost nothing about this port, merely how incredibly old the Warre's label is and what jolly good vineyards its parent company, the Symington family, owns. This is one of their cheaper ports but still rather more substantial than the Cockburns with a rich, spicy brambly flavour. Could pass for an LBV (which would cost about £4 more) RATING: ***

*Sainsbury's now has a half price offer on Dow's Trademark Finest Reserve at £5.99 which is also a good deal and is selling its own Taste the Difference Vintage Port for £16.99, again cheap for vintage port.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Yet more wine offers!

Hardly a moment goes by, it seems, when I don't get a message in my inbox about some new money-off deal or promotion on wine. And we're talking big savings.

In the unlikely event that you have £250 burning a hole in your pocket, one of London's best wine merchants Berry Brothers & Rudd will give you £50 of it back if you place an order to that value with them by midnight tonight.

Wine Rack has just extended its 40% off offer until New Year's Eve although this is only slightly better than the 3 for the price of 2 offer they normally have which is not quite as generous as it seems given their prices are higher than elsewhere.

All the supermarkets are slashing prices though again the discounts are not always as good as they look. A 50% off offer on Cava, for instance sounds fantastic but may only reflect what the product was worth in the first place. (Tesco's 3 for £10 offer on its own brand Cava looks like the best deal for party drinking)

I also picked up from fellow blogger Jamie Goode of Wine Anorak that there's a fantastic competition on the Duchy Originals website to win a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 2004. Now that is worth a punt!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Two Christmas beers

Will you put beer on the Christmas table and if not, why not? I’d almost guarantee that at least one of your guests would prefer it to wine and it’s a great deal cheaper to buy a good beer than it is a good wine.

It’s funny though that people don’t take it as seriously. Even men (and it is still mainly men who drink beer) who religiously go to the pub after work and love nothing better than a good pint feel they have to serve wine when they have friends round. Hopefully this blog will help change that.

Anyway - two Christmassy bottles:

Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale 2008 Available from the brewery by the case for £33.95 for 12 bottles, carriage included and from the Co-op for £1.69 a 500ml bottle. Someone also told me they'd seen it in Lidl . . .)
A rich, sweet, strong (7%) malty brew with a taste (apparent or real) of honey and Christmas spice that suggests treating it an alternative to port rather than as a companion to turkey. It would go brilliantly with Stilton or cheddar and even, I think, with sweet things like Christmas cake, Christmas pudding and mince pies. It would also make a cracking beef stew or festive steak and ale pie. RATING: ***

La Chouffe bière blonde £3.99 for 75cl Oddbins
Not a Christmas bottle per se but the rather kitsch gnome on the label suggests this unfiltered, bottle-conditioned, slightly spicy Belgian beer might the one to open with the turkey. Like the above beer, it’s a strong (8%) which means it should take all the trimmings in its stride. Although more expensive than the better known Leffe Blonde it has considerably more character. If you don’t get round to drinking it this Christmas it will still be OK next year and the Christmas after that. The ‘drink by’ date is April 2011!j RATING: ***

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Famous Grouse for £9

Just in case you've missed the ad in the papers today I thought I'd pass on that Morrisons is selling Famous Grouse for £9 until Sunday. Usual caveats about 'while stocks last' but if you can get your hands on a bottle it's a steal.

I expect they hope that while you're at it you'll pop a bottle of Absolut Vodka and Blue Sapphire gin into your trolley, both reduced by £5, according to the Morrisons website, but that doesn't make them cheap. With the discount, Absolut would still be £14.98 and Bombay Sapphire £16.96. You can get decent vodka and gin for less than that.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A good champagne offer

The big lure in the run-up to Christmas is always the special offers on champagne but most of them leave me cold. For a start the prices from which they're discounting are so ridiculous that even 40% off is no big deal. If you're having a party and want to drink fizz there are many cheaper options about which I'll be writing shortly.

If you do want a bottle to celebrate Christmas morning or see in the New Year there is however one particularly good offer for the next two days at branches of Budgens which is selling 2002 Heidsieck Monopole for just £18.99, less than half the original purchase price. And you don't have to buy more than one bottle to get the discount.

2002 is a very good vintage and the champagne has had 6 years to mature which means it will have acquired a honeyed richness that cheaper sparkling wine simply can't match. If you've got a branch of Budgens nearby I'd snap it up.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Two £6 wine bargains

Six quid, I can already hear you saying. Doesn't sound much like a bargain to me! But bear with me - they could both pass as wines that cost at least a pound more. What you're getting - and this is useful in the run-up to Christmas - is wines that look and taste posh. Your family and friends will be fooled

Both cost £6.19 from Somerfield - less if you buy six bottles in total which entitles you to 5% off, bringing the cost per bottle down to an even more reasonable £5.88.

Domaine la Tuque Bel-Air, Côtes de Castillon 2006
A smart-looking inexpensive claret from the so-called 'right bank' of Bordeaux meaning it's Merlot-dominated and therefore quite soft, smooth and supple. It'll please traditionalists - it's fruity but not too fruity and has a nice touch of spicy oak without being too oaky. It would go well with simple roasts and grills or with a home-made shepherds pie. Not great with cheese though, despite what the back label says. (These types of reds rarely are). RATING (see top right): ***

Vacqueyras 2007, Vignerons de Beaumes de Venise
Some villages in the Côtes du Rhône region are entitled to have their own appellation - Vacqueyras (pronounced vac-keh-rass) is one of them. This bottles comes from a co-operative better known for the sweet wine Muscat de Beaumes de Venise but it's a cracker with lashings of ripe juicy fruit. At 14.5% it's certainly big enough to take on the turkey but would also be great with a beefy stew or a steak and mushroom pie. Frankly this is as good as many over-priced Châteauneuf-du-Papes (but not the best ones, obviously). RATING: ****

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A drinkable £1 bottle of wine, but . . .

Good news and bad news. The good news is that I’ve found a drinkable £1 bottle of wine. And the bad news? It’s only on sale in France! An annoying way to start a new blog, I admit but since I imagine a number of you will be nipping over the Channel for a pre-Christmas drinks raid let me suggest you take in a branch of Lidl.

The bottle in question is a Bergerac, a sort of Bordeaux drink-alike which comes from the Dordogne region of France. OK, it’s not great but far better than you have any right to expect for the price.

Having spotted an ad in the paper for Lidl’s wine bargains I actually bought five different bottles to see what they were like. Only one - a Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire (amazingly an AOC wine but in truth ‘ordinaire’ enough) was undrinkable but what do you expect of burgundy at €1.49 (£1.29)? The best, and the only one I would have bought, to be honest, was a perfectly decent Premières Côtes du Blaye for €2.99 which should be dirt cheap but works out at £2.59 thanks to the dire exchange rate with the euro at the moment.

Bergerac 2007, Uccoar €1.19 (£1.03)
OK, this is a bit weedy but it’s perfectly fresh and fruity - there’s nothing confected about it at all. Perfectly OK with a hunk of baguette and some paté. RATING (see right) *

Cotes du Rhone Villages 2007 €1.75 (£1.52)
Recognisably Cotes du Rhone which is something at this price. I can detect the Grenache on the nose which obviously dominates though the back label also lists Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault. A slightly artificial touch of sweetness which suggests chaptalisation (added sugar). You’d be reasonably pleased to get this in a pub. RATING: *

Costières de Niimes, Caves du Pré 2006 €1.99 (£1.72)
A handsome looking bottle and label and the deep colour raise expectations that this is going to taste better than it does. It doesn’t have the concentration you normally expect from a Costières de Nîmes and there’s a slight vegetal note I don’t like but I’ve tasted a good deal worse. Fine for knocking back with a takeaway pizza. RATING:**

Premières Côtes du Blaye 2006 €2.99 (£2.59)
A pleasant light, fruity red Bordeaux that you could happily drink with simple meals like charcuterie or a plate of bacon and eggs. What used to be referred to as a ‘lunchtime claret’. Looks the part too. It even has a real cork (as opposed to a synthetic one) RATING: **

Friday, December 5, 2008

Credit crunch drinking

I guess the credit crunch has made us all more conscious of what we spend on wine and other drinks but if you think that cutting back means drinking dross think again. (Unless you're in the habit of drinking Krug and Château Lafite, of course, in which case you probably won't need my advice ;-)

So what do I know? Well, I'm a drinks writer AND a blogger who blogs as The Frugal Cook so I've had a fair bit of experience of drinking (and eating) on a budget. In my time I've written weekly wine columns for the Daily Mail, various monthly drinks columns for glossy magazines and a spirits column for the Guardian and I've written a book on beer (with my son, Will, as it happens) I also have my own website which basically does what it says on the tin - concerns itself with matching food with wine and other drinks.

But this blog is about value for money drinking. I'll be highlighting wines, beers and other drinks that I think you might like and which will enable you to show off your bargain-spotting skills to your friends. Most, but not all, will come from supermarkets. Some will be worth picking up across the channel or looking out for in duty-free. Come along for the ride . . .