Friday, 22 March 2013

Cheers George...!

Well, that was interesting wasn’t it! George Osborne is apparently keen to support people who sell and drink beer, but not those who sell and drink wine.  The scrapping of the beer duty escalator in this week’s Budget, whilst very welcome, is only a job half done.  What about scrapping the escalator for the rest of our favourite tipples George?  Not yet it would seem, though I hope that the positive move on beer means that the days of the escalator are numbered.  The Chancellor has two more Budgets before the 2015 general election and any tax giveaways in 2015 will just look like an attempt to bribe the electorate (which I’m sure he’ll try) but to have any credibility the escalator surely has to be axed for good next time round?

Good old George also stressed how he expected the accompanying cut in beer duty to be passed on in full to customers, and presumably he therefore intends that the increase in Excise Duty on other alcohol to also be passed on in full to customers?  Actually, retailers of wine have 3 choices:

1. Pass on the increase.  Simple enough but it’s not just the increase in Excise of course, there’s VAT as well, and this is also the time of year when suppliers put their prices up.  Oh, and have you noticed the exchange rate recently, and the cost of transportation?  All wrapped up together these will combine to add more than the 10p a bottle increase announced in the Budget.

2. Absorb the increase.  The ability to do this largely depends on the variables mentioned in point 1, but we will certainly be looking to keep any increases down to a minimum, or simply look for new lines that offer better value for money.

3. Ask suppliers to absorb the increase in costs.  Actually, this is only really an option if you happen to have your suppliers over a barrel (so to speak) and care more about attractive looking price points than protecting the quality of the wine that goes in the bottle.  As discussed in a previous blog this way is fraught with danger and there cannot be many customers who have not hoisted the message in by now that if you pay peanuts you get horsemeat….

With costs (especially taxes) on the rise, customers have a simple choice: either pay the same for your wine as you always have done (in which case be prepared to drink less good wine each year) or pay a little more to protect the amount that goes on the wine itself from being eaten away by these increases.

Consider our handy illustration of “where your money goes” which we produced last year (with figures from the 2012 Budget).  You can see that there is about 11p worth of wine in a £5.00 bottle with Excise Duty at £1.90.  This year’s Budget makes two changes to these figures; add 10p to Excise Duty (making it £2.00 per bottle) and therefore deduct 10p from the wine element.  It doesn’t leave much wine in the £5 bottle does it!  It’s why you don’t see bottles for sale at £5.00 on our shelves.

If you shuffle that 10p from wine to Excise Duty in the other 3 bottles in the illustration there is still plenty left for the wine element of those.  On the 2012 Budget figures the wine element of 11p in a £5.00 bottle goes up to £1.78 in a bottle at £7.50 – an increase of 16 times.  However, the 2013 Budget leaves us with only 1p of wine in a £5.00 bottle but £1.68 of wine in the bottle at £7.50 – that’s now an increase of 168 times! You can reasonably expect £5 bottles of wine to be significantly inferior pretty quickly.  Some consumers won’t see the difference of course, and will keep buying their £5 bottles, but my bet is that since you’re reading this you probably won’t be one of them.

With the recent duty increase it has never been more important to understand the difference between “cheap” and “good value”.  Put another way, if the only aspect of your purchase that you understand is how much it costs you should beware of the pitfalls.  After all, you wouldn’t buy a car just on price would you? Or a holiday? Or a lasagne ready meal?  Well, not now anyway.  Time to be smart and buy the best wine you can for your budget, and that means that if your budget is £15 you’re better off with 2 bottles at £7.50 each rather than 3 bottles at £5.00 each. It’s just maths really and with 2 bottles instead of 3 your GP will be happy too...

To make best use of your budget we would naturally suggest spending enough on the bit which you drink.  Visit the Wines of Interest website to browse our wide range of wines or visit the Wines of Interest shop and have a chat.  We are always happy to help at Wines of Interest. Buy wine online now - click here to start shopping.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Poderi Colla

I nearly died at Poderi Colla.  Perhaps I had better explain.  This estate is bang in the middle of absolutely prime Piemontese wine growing territory; diehard lovers of Italian wines point excitedly at the village names as they pass by.  Asti, Alba, Barbaresco and Barolo are all close and the vineyards surrounding them occupy hilltop sites, swirling down steep slopes in neat rows like green corduroy when viewed from the other side of a valley.  The hills provide many exposures in differing angles, sometimes ridging together to form natural amphitheatre structures with each sweeping face swathed in vines, verdant and vigorous in the June sun. 

At Poderi Colla they have rumbled that the astonishing views afforded by this dramatic landscape are all the more breathtaking to Brits.  Therefore part of the ritual when entertaining a small troupe of UK wine merchants involves encouraging them up to the highest point of the Poderi Colla vineyards to tune into the natural rhythm of this complex geography.  I was the oldest of the group and live in gentle Suffolk countryside; I simply do not encounter more than the occasional bump in the land and my stamina is not what it was.  “It’s only ten minutes,” lied our host convincingly and as we found ourselves at the base of a steepling dirt track that seemed to lose itself in the heat haze well before the summit could be revealed.  The path gave onto a vineyard of Dolcetto with embryonic grapes about the size of a lentil.  Mercifully, Pietro Colla stopped every now and again to explain a different property of the grape, allowing me to wheeze into listening distance just as he finished and scampered easily up to the next stop.

The view from the top of the hill - Poderi Colla

By the time we reached the top, with the temperature at about 35C and humidity that reminded me of my only and final visit to a Turkish bath, I was pretty much wiped out.  With heaving chest and shirt unpleasantly glued to my back, like an extra from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, I sank to the ground and listened for the eerie whistle of the Grim Reaper’s scythe but, happily, all I heard was the laughter of the others taking the piss.  Which I clearly deserved.  The view was worth every bead of perspiration.  Pietro explained about the prevailing wind and how some of the more tender varieties couldn’t take it, why this grape thrived up here, why that grape worked better lower down.  There were little stands of hazel wherever there was a patch of dirt that fell outside the symmetry of the vineyard.  It turns out to be a useful secondary crop for which Pietro and his fellow winemakers around the region find a ready market with local confectioners.

Pietro & Federica Colla

The only sound apart from the shuffle of tourists’ shoes in the dust was the agitated barking of a number of dogs, now alert to strangers nearing their territory.  Pietro pointed out a modest house much lower down with neat piles of dead, gnarled vines to either side of the door for winter firewood.  “That’s where the dogs live; we’ll walk past and meet them.  My neighbour is a truffle hunter and the dogs are trained to find them.”  They were a friendly bunch with a fresh puppy, widdling with excitement at such attention, being brought on to replace the oldest, now grey around the muzzle and too slow to work well.  I know how he feels.  However, the restorative properties of the announcement, “Well done my friends, we’ve earned a tasting now, I think,” verged on the miraculous.  We were ushered into the cool of a small, converted barn with a long refectory table and rows of glinting glasses and Pietro took us through the estate’s full range.

The puppy in training (The Dog Colla...?)

What became apparent very quickly was that the winemaking here follows strictly non-interventionist lines.  Some winemakers view nature as a force to be subjugated, to be constrained to deliver a style or hit a particular market or fit into a price point.  Poderi Colla act as mentors in the winemaking process, guiding the young juice towards its eventual completed state, allowing the vintage and the variety to express themselves naturally.  There’s little new oak - barrels here do a containing, resting job, not a flavour imparting one because the purity of the finished article is paramount.  There is no obvious house style; each vintage of each grape variety develops how it develops – there is no painting-by-numbers formula at work here.  If it is possible to be simultaneously sophisticated and unpolished (in the sense of not being overworked), these wines manage to do that.  They are made to be enjoyed with food; there is none of that ubiquitous dense, boozy, dark, over-wooded wine, forced into international, excessive style.  Rather there is balance and finesse, elegance and originality.

Poderi Colla Tasting Room

Poderi Colla produce perhaps a dozen wines from a juicy, evocative Dolcetto through to single vineyard Barbaresco and Barolo, via a thrilling Riesling, a tender Pinot Noir and a blend or two of Dolcetto and Nebbiolo.  We have a small quantity of their Barbera “Costa Bruna” available which holds a full flavour in a lightly tannic shell, with juicy fruit and bouncy acidity.  It is classy and considered; a clever glassful that oozes great winemaking and doesn’t shout about it. 

Others from this range may appear from time to time as it is an impressive selection and I liked them all. 

Buy wine online now from Poderi Colla at Wines of Interest.  The range may vary from time to time but we will always have some great offerings to suit all budgets and tastes so whether you prefer to buy wine online or browse in our shop we are confident we will have lots of wine you will enjoy.  Buy wine online now - click here to start shopping.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Minimum Unit Pricing "on the rocks"...?

We learn this morning that the government shows “weak leadership” on the issue of a minimum price for alcohol in England and Wales because ministers can’t agree on the policy.  Actually, this is just symptomatic of a government without a working majority rather than indecisiveness; a handful of dissenting voices would be irrelevant with a decent majority in the commons and the policy would probably go through.  The trouble is, that whilst it may be a sensible idea, it’s hardly a vote-winner and is unlikely to appear as a manifesto promise ahead of the next election.

The disagreements over Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) could still be resolved though since the crux of the problem is not whether it is “fair” but whether or not it will work as a means of tacking alcohol-related health issues.  This is, of course, unknown but the only way we are going to find out is by trying it.  Conservative MP and former GP Sarah Wollaston has now joined us with a call for introducing MUP  for a trial period of 3 years to see whether or not it makes any difference and, if it doesn’t, it can be scrapped.  We suggested this very idea on BBC Radio Suffolk earlier this year.

So far so good you may think, but there is still a problem, and it’s to do with how we measure success (or failure) of the scheme.  In his recent article in Off Licence News Phil Mellows highlights precisely this problem.  He points out that “numbers are essential to the public health approach to alcohol”.  Here is his article in full which is well worth a read.  It calls into question many of the claims made by Alcohol Concern and other similar organisations simply because the figures they use are wrong and simply trotted out as a means of supporting government policy.  It’s not even a matter of opinion, he argues, simply a matter of fact.  We will let you draw your own conclusions.

The main objection to MUP would seem to be that it would penalise moderate drinkers on modest incomes who choose to buy (or can only afford) products at the very cheap end of the market.  This is a valid observation and worth exploring further.  It has been argued that any penalisation of moderate drinkers by price rises on very cheap products would be unfair on consumers, but with the current proposals on MUP, any unfairness is effectively the price that we as a society are being asked to pay for trying to address the problem of alcohol related harm; we simply need to decide whether or not it’s a price worth paying.  It could be seen as unfair to expect a large number of people to pay a bit extra each for a scheme designed to improve the lives of a minority of others, or you could argue that such an arrangement is merely symptomatic of the caring and civilised society that we should be…

In Ipswich there is currently a campaign running called “Reducing the Strength”.  It seeks the voluntary removal of all beers, lagers and ciders from stores in the town with an alcohol volume of 6.5% or over which are sold for a very low price.  In other words, it seeks to target only those products of choice of the small section of consumers who drink specifically to get drunk.  These are drinks designed with only one purpose in mind, to deliver as much alcohol as possible as cheaply as possible.  They are not designed for flavour, or to accompany food, or to refresh, they are simply a means of delivering booze to consumers for whom booze is the only thing that matters.  This is the section of consumers for whom the health risks are greatest, they are frequent and high consumers of alcohol. Might it therefore be worth considering the introduction of MUP on just these products rather than across the board since they seem to be the main culprits?  This would surely show us whether MUP works or not.

The trouble is, the government likes us to drink because of the tax revenue that alcohol brings in, it just can’t say so.  The Chancellor will probably raise Excise Duty again next week, not because he thinks we will drink less as a result, but simply because he needs the money.  He will do it sneakily using words such as “no additional increase” in the hope that this will be widely misreported as “no increase”, saving face whilst he allows the Excise Duty Escalator introduced by his predecessor to automatically raise it by 2% above inflation.

If we’re not going for MUP nationally then local strategies like Ipswich’s own “Reducing the Strength” would seem to be the best bet to tackle the problems caused by low priced booze and we will need to look north of the border to see whether MUP makes any difference.  After all, if it works in Scotland, it ought to work anywhere.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Grape Pips...

Customers regularly ask us for a brief outline of the characteristics of the main grape varieties when browsing our shop shelves so we wondered whether we should set ourselves a challenge and attempt to provide a brief tweet for each; a snapshop of each major variety in no more than 140 characters.  They will necessarily be opinionated (us? never!) and will inevitably exclude the finer points, but the idea is to give you a flavour of each variety, what we look for when tasting samples and what you should therefore find when you make a purchase.  Please let us know if you’d like us to feature your favourite variety; alternatively just leave it to us and we will work through them in random order…

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Chateau Shergar...

Cutting corners to save pennies isn’t just a problem for supermarket ready-meals.  Some wine producers may be equally culpable.

Imagine, just for a moment, that you are a supplier of “value” lasagne to a major national supermarket.  Your costs keep going up yet your customer is not willing to pay more.  Indeed, because they buy so much from you and know that your survival depends on it, they lean on you hard to pay less for your product. 

You find yourself forced to look for ways to save money.  You will naturally look at cheaper packaging and manufacturing costs but eventually you will have nowhere else to go but to reconsider your ingredients list - the stuff that actually gets eaten.  In the case of the lasagne you could look to use less of the expensive ingredients (like meat perhaps?) and more of the cheaper ones and hope nobody notices But suppose that you’re then offered a way to make the same product, with just as much meat in it as before but which will suddenly make the sums add up?  Hey! You might even be able to turn a profit this time too!  What would you do?  Would this apparent winner be worth backing?

None of this is alien to the world of wine.  Back in 1985 the Austrian wine trade was almost killed off by the “antifreeze” scandal where diethylene glycol was added to some wines to make them appear fuller-bodied than they naturally were.  The following year methanol was used by some Italian producers as a means of boosting the booze content of otherwise thin wines.  21 people died having drunk the stuff.

There is a list of ingredients on your value lasagne (though you may have to have been rather creative in writing it) but there are no such labels on bottles of wine.  What’s the answer then? 

Well, the obvious answer in the case of the lasagne is to buy the ingredients you need from trusted sources and make your own.  You’ll know what’s in it and it won’t necessarily cost you more.  I bet it’ll taste better too!  Not that I’m advocating that you suddenly attempt to make your own single vineyard Sangiovese though.  The simple solution with wine is to make sure you pay enough for the stuff you’ll be consuming.  It works for lasagne too by the way.  I know we bang on about this all the time, but in the light of the horsemeat revelations it’s worth remembering that if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. 

Pressure from the big retailers producers to hit price points grows all the time.  Taxation constantly rises, as do fuel costs and the price of dry goods.  The recent loss of the UK’s AAA credit rating has sent sterling into a nose dive making all things foreign that bit more expensive at source.  Recent harvests have been of decent quality (mostly) but low quantity and prices will go up; it’s unavoidable.  Unless, of course, someone is prepared to sell at a loss or simply resorts to cheating of course, in which case you may still be able to find those supermarket deals, but what will you actually be drinking?

People have been caught cutting corners making wine for commercial sale before.  Now, more than ever, the pressure will be on prices.  One famous drink brand has previously used the advertising tag “Reassuringly Expensive” but it’s probably truer of decent wine than it is of lager.  Low yields, a worsening exchange rate, and George Osborne will produce an unhappy combination this year, but take comfort from the fact that there will still be plenty of winemakers (and wine merchants) who will steadfastly refuse to cut corners so that you can be confident of what you’re drinking.  After all, that homemade lasagne deserves nothing less!