The grapes of wrath
Recommending what to drink is easy enough. Instead, expert Tom Harrow offers a rare and honest guide as to which wines should be avoided at all costs
April 9 2020
BY TOM HARROW
Wine writers tend to follow a calendar, from low-alcohol options for a detox January to bolder, spicier wines for September onwards, as leaves and game birds fall. Our challenge nowadays is that there are plenty of drinkable wines all over the place – in wine warehouses, budget supermarkets, and online – not just St James’ merchants. The nuanced differences between bottles that excite sensitive wine writers are less likely to interest the drinking public, whose primary concern is to serve the cheapest wine that guests would rather drink than discreetly pour into the plant pots.
So here follows the most useful wine guide you’ll read this year, each entry unaffected by seasonality, vintage, or even Brexit – and best left on the shelf.
This insipid Teutonic hybrid is mostly grown and consumed in Germany, and one of the tremendous upsides of global warming is its increasing scarcity in England’s vineyards as viticulturists gleefully rip it up and plant more Chardonnay. As English still white wines are starting to improve, it would be a great shame if your first experiences included this nasty grape. Likewise with Dunkelfelder for even more nascent English red wines. As a rule of thumb, if your choice of bottle contains grapes that sound like the pilot of a Fokker Triplane or one of the last generals out of Hitler’s bunker, put it down and walk away.
Torrontés is Argentina’s signature white grape – a signature scrawled by a toddler with a blunt, bile-coloured crayon. Most examples – young, old, unoaked, barrel aged, whatever – smell like a truck of lychees has ploughed into a Glade air-freshener factory, but then, just after you’ve braced yourself for a corresponding mouthful of carbolic soap and tinned apricots, it turns out to be unexpectedly dry – often quite austerely so – leaving you terribly confused. With its dubious initial allure of semi-sweet Muscat and undercarriage of weak vintage Chablis, this ladyboy grape is apparently well matched to seabass ceviche and mango salsa – an equally baffling combination.
The most interesting thing about California’s Zinfandel is its family tree – proven latterly to be the same variety as Puglia’s Primitivo and Croatia’s Tribidrag. (Who knew?) There are a handful of producers with old vines who can tease out of this alcoholic and overly sweet grape red wines with more complex fruit and spice characters – anise, pepper, sandalwood and so forth – but most taste like liquidised raspberry jam. Rather more offensive are the rosé or blush versions, which run the full range from bland to sickly depending on the production method. I still have a bottle of Sutter Home from a village-fête tombola in the mid-90s that I can never quite bring myself to cook or sully a sangria with. There are plenty of other cheap, grim rosés to fall foul of, but you can at least cross Zinfandel firmly off the list.
Pinotage was spawned in a laboratory at the University of Stellenbosch in the 1920s, probably for a dare, by crossing Pinot Noir, the noblest of red grapes, with Cinsault (pronounced, fittingly, sans soul) – a southern French blender that props up most overpriced Provençal rosé and only impresses in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Characterised by overripe bananas and Liquorice Allsorts coated in emulsion paint and then set on fire in an old tyre, Pinotage, the Brundlefly of the grape world, is best enjoyed with hyaena biltong. By someone else. Apparently its popularity is on the rise, which is janother sure sign the Apocalypse is nigh.
(Pale) Cream Sherry
Every few years, sherry is discovered by someone in their twenties and, like re-animated corpses, bottles lurch across drinks columns and wine-bar lists before sinking back into obscurity for another decade. Cream Sherry is different, however. It has not been on-trend since Doris Day was No. 1 in the charts and is only enjoyed by those who bought her hits on original vinyl. The method of production is to carefully blend numerous subtly nutty, richly complex, and very old Oloroso and Amontillado sherries, and then add enough sickly-sweet rectified grape must to obliterate all flavours except for sultanas mashed in syrup. Imagine if, after three years of painstakingly applying layers of oils onto canvas to create The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s final flourish was to lob a can of Dulux primer over his masterpiece.
Of course there may be exceptions to the rule for all the wines above (except Reichensteiner and cream sherry), but why take the risk, unless you have to buy a bottle for someone you really can’t stand? Like potholes and creditors, these are the most important to remember and avoid.
Tom Harrow is the WineChap and founding director of Honest Grapes - an inclusive wine club providing nationwide delivery and online tasting events