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Thursday, 8 December 2016

Costly Signalling - The Peacock Effect

Why evolution drives us to choose an expensively packaged wine

Over a Marques et Co-op lunch at Carre des Feuillants, two bottles of wine sparked a discussion about behavioural economics, choice architecture and signalling.

Both were Rhônes, both were Very Good. But this was not about the liquid in the bottle - at least not specifically.

Rather we considered the relationship between the presentation of each wine and the quality of it.

Exhibit #1 Ortas Ico(o)n in a heavyweight bottle with a contemporary, striking-yet-understated label and matching foil cover, you would revel in a frisson of sophistication with this standing on your dinner table.
Exhibit #2 Cellier des Princes Chateauneuf du Pape 2010 standard weight bottle with a traditional chateau engraving picture and an embossed neck. Smart yet deeply conservative, traditional and unexciting.
The Ortas looks like a smart wine, it looks expensive and the heavy bottle reinforces that impression. The contemporary label is classy, modern and unfussy.

By contrast, the Cellier des Princes looks solid and dependable, but lacks the self-confident edginess of the Ortas.

There are some in wine writing with a purist view of wine labelling, considering that the only thing that matters is the liquid in the bottle. To me, this demonstrates a good understanding of wine, but a poorer concept of human behaviour and choice architecture.

The Ortas looks expensive - which it is. It makes a statement not only about itself but also about the person buying and serving it; that they are modern and sophisticated.

Deconstructing the signalling here, if the label displays sophistication and attention to detail we unthinkingly transfer those attributes to the wine itself, imbuing the product with the characteristics of its presentation.

Our dinner party guests pick up the same cues from the bottle and imbue us, the server, with the same characteristics. That we do this does not make us bad people, it merely makes us human.

Then, we taste the wine and as long as the experience is not inconsistent with the impression created by the bottle packaging we do not bother to revisit it.

For those people who feel better qualified to assess the sophistication of label than they do of a wine, the presentation is a handy short-cut to assessing the quality of the product.

The Cellier des Princes makes no less a statement about both the wine in the bottle and the buyer - but these statements are less-well aligned to the underlying reality. The label says traditional, staid, conservative, unexciting; whereas the wine is complex, sophisticated and ambitious. And the buyer of the wine would likely be equally knowledgeable and sophisticated.

A behavioural economics rule-of-thumb suggests that an effective wine label should look just slightly more expensive than the price actually charged for the wine - that way the buyer infers it is a good wine and feels they have not overpaid.

This principle holds for the Ortas. If the wine looks significantly more expensive than its actual price, it risks being deemed an impostor, an overclaiming fake, once found out. And since we do not like to feel tricked, we would be resentful of it for having duped us.

By contrast, a wine that presents itself as less sophisticated than it actually is does no-one any favours; the buyer feels slightly embarrassed, explaining to guests "It looks a bit basic but it's actually quite good" and the seller finds it harder to command the price he believes the wine is worth.

It may be true that you should not judge a book by the cover - but with a book you can always read the blurb or dip into it for a page or two.

This is not possible with a bottle of wine on a shelf. And life is too short to get out your wine guide app to check whether this wine that looks like it costs €15 is really worth the €25 price tag.

So it behoves a wine to signal its quality through the way it is presented to facilitate navigating the choice architecture of selecting something for your Sunday lunch or dinner party - the front and back labels, the foil seal, the bottle shape and weight, these all have a role to play in giving the buyer cues about what to expect and how much to pay for the wine.

Rory Sutherland has put forward the idea that all advertising is costly signalling - add to this Mark Earls' herding theories and we can make sense of why more expensive packaging connotes a better wine - we infer that the producer is sufficiently confident of his product's superiority to spend more money in signalling this.

Since the producer is doing this apparently successfully, we then infer that people must be buying the wine in sufficient quantities to make it worthwhile.

Therefore, we can successfully outsource the cognitive process required to choose the wine - if it looks more expensively packaged, it must be good.

This is no different from a strutting peacock - the importance of costly signalling is fundamental to our evolution.

Peacock image: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/Q7FKViW9mpw/maxresdefault.jpg

Monday, 5 December 2016

Two Denbies Wines

Two summery wines from Denbies

With its cool climate, England's wines are in general more summery sippers than winter warmers.

File these two wines from Denbies under fresh-delicate-and-elegant. Both will work well as sippers; match the aromatic white with goat's cheese and the red with plain roast chicken.

Denbies Ranmore Hill 2014 (£14.95, Denbies and denbies.co.uk) light, citrussy and fresh with aromatic hedgerow; elegant with delicate white peach fruit and minerality.

Denbies Pinot Noir 2014 (£16.95, Denbies and denbies.co.uk) delicate raspberry, redcurrant and red cherry fruit with fresh green herbs; light and elegant.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Marques Et Co-op - Part Deux

A follow up to the Marques et Co-op tasting in London

With a free diary, some surplus holidays and the offer of lunch in Paris, I found myself stepping down from the Eurostar and wandering to Carré des Feuillants, just off Place Vendome.
I had tasted these Marques et Co-op the wines previously, so this was a chance to take a more nuanced view.

Once again I came away with the view that the standard is high across the board, with good attention to detail; all the wines scored well for freshness, balance and precision.
A good number also showed a superior level of concentration and muscularity.

If absolutely pushed to pick a set of wines drinking nicely now for dinner, I would take the following:

- Confidences Rosé Brut 2009
- Rasteau Ico(o)n 2010
- Astrolabe Vendages Tardives 2012 Gaillac
I sorted the wines into two categories - the good and the more ambitious.

The Good

Les Combes 2013 Beaujolais-Villages fresh, balanced and elegant; textured and concentrated

Memoria Vieilles Vignes 2013 Beaujolais more old-vine core substance

Cellier des Princes 2015 Chateauneuf du Pape dark fruited, spicy, fresh and supple

Estandon Legende 2012 Cotes de Provence floral and scented, clean and pure, elegant and poised with fresh red-berry fruit

Solstice d'Estandon 2015 Cotes de Provence delicate and elegant yet athletic

Jubilation Le Pallet 2014 Muscadet Sevre & Maine creamy-leesy and fresh with a substantial texture; Burgundian

Le Fauteuil Rose 2014 Chinon fresh raspberry and pomegranate fruit with spicy, grilled notes

Ortas Rasteau Prestige 2011 dark fruit, florality, spice and liquorice with cool mint, blackcurrant pastilles; supple

Toques et Clochers edition limitee Cremant de Limoux Brut fresh, floral and expressive; substantial with toasty brioche and a southern warmth

Toques st Clochers Terroir Haute-Vallee 2014 Limoux fresh, aromatic and floral; creamy, oatmealy with sweet spices

Tutiac, Lieu-Dit Ter Pointe 2014 Cotes de Bourg varietal Malbec with dark fruits and spice; concentrated, substantial and oaky, still closed up

Prestige du President 2015 Corse rosé fresh redcurrant fruit, clean and precise

Prestige du President 2013 Corse Rouge dark fruited, expressive and inky with a Mediterranean, windswept freshness
The More Ambitious

Celliers des Princes, Les Hauts des Coteaux, Chateauneuf du Pape 2012 bigger, fuller and more complex; lots of everything. Needs 5+ years to reach maturity.

Chassenay D'Arce Confidences Brut Rosé, 2009 muscular and concentrated with delicate red fruits and a substantial, athletic core; poised, balanced and linear.

Confidences Brut BdN fresh, poised and linear; substantial, very long and fresh with leesiness, apple-and-pear fruit and a fine mousse

Ortas Rasteau Ico(o)n 2010 complex, inky texture; substantial, long and muscular with red, black and sour cherry fruit. Drinking nicely now and will age.

Tutiac, Lieu-Dit Verdot 2012 Bordeaux liquorice, spice and dark fruit with freshness and a a substantial, muscular core. Still young.

Ch Tour de Yon, St Emilion GC 2012 fresh, dark and inky with a substantial, muscular core; still closed up but spicy and full

Aurelius, St Emilion Grand Cru 2012 dark fruited with cool mint and spice; long, substantial and concentrated. Still closed up.

Astrolabe Cahors 2014 Malbec supple, harmonious and balanced with lovely, rounded tannins; dark fruit and cool mint

Astrolabe Gaillac Vendanges Tardives 2012 ripe peaches, beeswax and sweet spices cut through with freshness

Other related articles
 London tasting of Marques et Coop
An Epic Lunch - in Pictures 

Main photo by Sarah Canonge - full set of pictures here.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Washington State Wine Christmas Tasting with Circle of Wine Writers

 A tasting of Washington State Wines with Circle of Wine Writers

Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be
- Nirvana, Come As You Are (1992)

On the Pacific Northwest, Washington State is home to grunge, Microsoft and hipster coffee chains.
To that heady list, add elegant, nuanced, European-style wines.

It's as if the smart, free-spirited, bohemian winemakers of California moved north and settled in a cooler climate. Which they have, apparently.

Based on this Circle of Wine Writers tasting, the wines of Washington State show a freshness, texture and restraint that is distinctly European - but with a New World focus on clean precision.

What's not to like?
The wines were varietal and international - Riesling, Chardonnay; Merlot, Cab and Syrah.

The Syrahs showed best - with a northern Rhône-esque density and muscular core. The Merlots were fresh, focused and Bordelais; the Chardonnays pure and Burgundian. The Rieslings ranged from crystalline and mineral to headily floral.
In layman's terms, this means that if you like "classic" wines, you have nothing to fear from Washington State.

Not so much "Yee-ha!" as "How may I help you Ma'am?"
My first Circle of Wine Writers tasting revealed the European leanings of the East Coast state of Virginia - that spirit clearly also lives on the West Coast.

Detailed tasting notes to follow.

Grunge picture: https://jeanyleblanc.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/grunge2.jpg

Monday, 28 November 2016

Chablis and Rioja - The Re-match

Pairing a Chablis from Laithwaites and a CVNE Rioja. Again

Just to prove that the first successful pairing of Chablis with a starter and a Rioja with a main (plus cheese) was no freak occurrence, I decided on a re-run.

The wines on this occasion were only slightly less ambitious than previously and, in the case of the Rioja, actually drinking better right now.

The Chablis is actually a Petit Chablis - a junior Chablis grown on lesser soils with a more exposed aspect. However it is from genuinely old vines (a non-defined term) aged between 50 and 70 years; a well-executed lesser wine, what it lacks in terroir is compensated by age.

Domaine Dampt Petit Chablis Vielles Vignes 2015 (£13.99, Laithwaites) Orchard fruit, honeysuckle and toastiness; light, fresh and citrussy with good, mineral persistence. Pure, clean and adept.

Serve as a light aperitif.

CVNE Imperial Reserva Rioja 2010 (£24.40, Majestic, Co-op, Waitrose The Wine Society, independents) a hedonistic blend of ripe bramble and mixed berry fruit with spice and aged truffles, leather and gaminess. Fresh, substantial and supple with sweet vanilla spice and fine-yet-firm tannins. Very long and adept.

Very Good.

Serve with roast lamb or manchego.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Three Christmas Wines - Sensible, Classy, Funky

Three wines to keep in stock for Christmas

You never quite know what Christmas is going to throw at you; it's also an opportunity to try something new, just for fun.

So here are three wines to keep in stock - the sensible, the classy and the funky.

Dourthe la Grande Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc (£8.99 Waitrose) grapefruit and gooseberry fruit with white pepper, zippy citrus and cut-grass aromatics. Light and unpretentious but elegant, precise and deft.

Match with mozzarella and pesto or garlic and herb roulade.

Taylor’s First Estate Reserve Port (£12 Tesco, Sainsbury’s) dark cherry fruit, roasted spices, eucalyptus and some mixed fruit; warming, fresh and long with fine-yet-firm tannins. Substantial with a supple, muscular core.

Match with bitter dark chocolate, chocolate and cherry torte or Christmas pudding.

If you want to mix things up, try this Taylor’s Festive Punch:

1 teaspoon superfine sugar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
6cl Taylor’s First Estate
3cl Cognac
Orange and lemon slices and sprinkled ground clove to garnish.
 Serves 1 or multiply for number in the party.

Place all the ingredients in a pan and bring to a simmer. Serve warm. 

Croft Pink (£10.99 Virgin Wines 50cl) red-berry bubblegum with sweet red cherries, eucalyptus and spice; refreshing and vibrant.

Match with tarte aux cerises or duck breast with spiced cherry sauce; for something more adventurous, try panna cotta or white chocolate mousse.

Festive cocktail
9cl chilled Croft Pink
12cl Champagne or Prosecco
1.5cl Cointreau
2 dashes of bitter

More Croft Pink cocktail recipes here.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Private Cellar - The Very Goods+

Private Cellar Portfolio Tasting at RICS

Sometimes the snow comes down in June
Sometimes the sun goes round the moon

Just when I thought our chance had passed
You go and save the best for last

Save The Best For Last (Vanessa Williams, 1991)

All the wines on show at the Private Cellar portfolio tasting scored at least a Good - I have written these up earlier, as well as the new and exclusive wines on show.

Here are the very best wines that got a Very Good or Very Good Indeed - note that is generally reflected in the price (especially for the Phelps wines).
Hautes Cotes de Beaune Blanc, Domaine Chevrot 2015 (£19.50) creamy, nutty, oatmealy and full. Very Good

Pouilly Loche aux Barres, Domaine Laurent Cognard 2014 (£20.50) full, ripe and substantial with a zesty zip. Very Good.

Wild Yeast Chardonnay, Springfontein, Walker Bay, South Africa 2012 (£17.95) substantial with Jura-esque tangy flor. Very Good.

Senorio de Bocos Roble, Ribera del Duero, Spain 2014 (£10.25) concentrated and fresh with oaky spice and bramble fruit. Very Good.

Chablis Domaine Watson 2012 (£21.90) substantial and adept with gooseberry and greengage fruit; still youthful. Very Good.

Champagne Tradition, Legras & Haas (£27.95) orchard fruit, brioche, fine mousse. Very Good.

Champagne Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs, Legras & Haas 2008 (£38) complex with brioche and bramley apple fruit. Very Good.
Petit Cantenac, Grand Cru St Emilion 2012 (£23) red and sour cherries with coffee grounds and spice. Fresh and precise. Very Good.

Clos Cantenac Grand Cru St Emilion 2012 (£38.95) animal, leather and oaky spice; adept, supple and complex. Very Good Indeed.

Chateaux Haut Breton Larigaudiere, Margaux 2010 (£29.50) complex and fleshy with earthy minerality, spice, bramble fruit and cool mint. Very Good.

Joseph Phelps Freestone Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California (£39.50) precise and deft with complex oaking. Impressive but in-yer-face. Very Good.

Jospeh Phelps Freestone Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California (£39.50) earthy truffles, black cherries and lots going on. Very precise. Very Good.

Jospeh Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California (£52.50) minty-blackcurranty and complex with seamless underpinnings. Very Good.

Jospeh Phelps Insignia, Napa Valley, California (£152) ripe fruit, savouriness, very long and adept. Very Good Indeed.