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  • Richard Hemming MW
Written by
  • Richard Hemming MW
14 Mar 2018

Everyone knows that much of what you read online is untrue, very possibly including this sentence. But far fewer of us realise that we only ever scrape the surface of this online waffle. Estimates vary, but search engines apparently index only something like 4% of the internet.

Most of the rest is known as the deep web; this is largely benign content including anything behind a paywall, plus email services, online banking details and the like. Huge parts of the internet remain out of bounds to the majority of its users.

For wine, there's a similar statistic: 96% of the wine sold in the UK retails for less than £9 per bottle, according to page five of this report (thanks to Tim Jackson MW for this information). So while all wine is theoretically available to everyone, anything above £9 is restricted to a small minority of drinkers.

That means that almost all the content on this site – in excess of 11,000 articles and 160,000 tasting notes, plus the complete Oxford Companion to Wine, amounting to many millions of words, all for only £8.50 a month or £85 a year, folks – is dedicated to just 4% of the wine that Britons actually drink.

So to do my bit to correct that imbalance, I'm filling this month's Spittoon with a tasting of the UK's top ten wine brands.

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Within a half-mile radius of my front door, I visited four off-licences and found all ten of them, buying five each of Merlot and Shiraz, the UK's most popular red wine varieties.

The average price per bottle was £6.50, with Isla Negra the cheapest at £5 and Casillero del Diablo most expensive at £6.99. The line-up, in tasting order, was as follows:

  1. Isla Negra, Seashore Merlot 2013 Central Valley
  2. Echo Falls Merlot NV California
  3. Blossom Hill Merlot 2016 California
  4. Gallo Family Vineyards Merlot 2015 California
  5. Casillero del Diablo Merlot 2016 Valle Central
  6. Barefoot Shiraz NV California
  7. Yellow Tail Shiraz 2016 South Eastern Australia
  8. Hardys Varietal Range Shiraz 2015 South Eastern Australia
  9. Jacob's Creek, Classic Shiraz 2016 South Eastern Australia
  10. McGuigan Estate Shiraz 2016 South Eastern Australia

I confess it wasn't the highlight of my year. But neither was it an affront to my over-pampered tastebuds. In fact, it was a useful insight into what the majority of wines really taste like.

Overall, they were not at all bad. Yes, they are very simple, but most of them were at least drinkable, fruity and balanced. A few suffered from artificial-tasting oak treatment (Gallo and Yellow Tail), but that's hardly a crime at this level. Several had generous residual sugar (Isla Negra has 6 g/l, while Yellow Tail is more like 12 g/l), which we all know helps the medicine go down.

Only one of the ten displayed gross faultiness (Blossom Hill, which had putrefied fruit flavours and harsh, stripping acidity), while several others were positively enjoyable – I was especially impressed by Barefoot Shiraz, which had proper varietal flavour and decent tannic feel too.

There's a general presumption among wine lovers that big high-street brands will taste bad. Inevitably they're going to rank lower than the 4% of wines with which we are normally preoccupied, but the quality of the ten that I tasted was entirely fair for their price.

There's another general presumption that the entire internet consists of the 4% that we see via search engines, unaware of the whole other world lurking beneath. Wine can be similarly rareified, so it's rather reassuring to find that the other end of the scale is, well, largely benign.

My tasting notes follow below. Of course, they are only my personal opinion – so in the interests of fairness, here are some eye-opening alternative views on these wines, found where else but on the internet, courtesy of Vivino.

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These notes are arranged in the order of tasting.

  • Concha y Toro, Isla Negra Seashore Merlot 2013 Central Valley

    Candied red fruits on the nose, plus something sulphurous and something else a little bit green. Processed and confected, but still smells like wine, at least. Predictably soft and smooth, but structurally balanced and dry enough to be reasonably appetising on the finish. (RH)

    12.5%
    Drink 2014-2016
    14.5
  • Echo Falls Merlot NV California

    Very juicy berry fruit. None of the herby character of the Isla Negra. More residual sugar on the palate though. Totally uncomplex, but the cordial fruit is at the very least drinkable. (RH)

    13%
    Drink 2018
    14
  • Blossom Hill Merlot 2016 California

    Less fruit definition than the Echo Falls, and there's a touch of putrefaction on the palate – seems to have a rotten element to it. Over-acidified too, leaving the palate stripped and harsh. (RH)

    13.5%
    Drink 2017
    12
  • Gallo Family Merlot 2015 California

    Ripe if vague red berry fruit with a fake oak sweetness on the nose and palate giving a sawdust sort of flavour. Good flavour intensity, but the nature of those flavours is very fake. There's a sickly sweetness to the finish too. (RH)

    13%
    Drink 2016
    13
  • Concha y Toro, Casillero del Diablo Reserva Merlot 2016 Central Valley

    Rich plummy fruit with appreciable savoury characters and a slight touch of tannic shape on the palate too. Perhaps just a bit of liquorice and clove to add a degree of complexity as well. Less accessible than the Californian brands – I can see why younger wine drinkers might find this less immediately appealing. But like their Cabernet, this has a lot to recommend it to wine lovers in search of a value option. (RH)

    13.5%
    Drink 2016-2018
    15
  • Barefoot Shiraz NV California

    Proper Shiraz aromas – jammy, spicy blackberry fruit. A decent amount of tannic heft too – this is much more ambitious and vinous than most wine lovers would realise. Very drinkable! Clean and pure. They must be doing something right ... (RH)

    13.5%
    Drink 2018
    15
  • Yellow Tail Shiraz 2016 South Eastern Australia

    Juicy, confected, and very concentrated on the palate – almost as if this has been 'boiled down' in some way. Perhaps that's just the sunshine in a glass style? Pretty sweet on the palate, with a fake oak sheen – but the balance still works, and there's lots of persistence. For better or worse, this stands out as the most powerfully flavoured of the top ten brands. (RH)

    14%
    Drink 2017-2019
    15
  • Hardys, VR Shiraz 2015 South Eastern Australia

    There's something a bit overripe about the red fruit on the nose – almost as if beginning to rot. Seems more dry than the Yellow Tail, but less persistent. Lots of candied fruit. No excess acid though. Soft and smooth and gluggable. (RH)

    13.5%
    Drink 2016-2018
    15
  • Jacob's Creek, Classic Shiraz 2016 South Eastern Australia

    Less obviously fruity on the nose than the Hardys and Yellow Tail. Smooth, balanced, simple. Light body, slightly metallic, rusty note on the finish. (RH)

    13.9%
    Drink 2016-2017
    14
  • McGuigan Shiraz 2016 South Eastern Australia

    Dull fruit on the nose, simple and light on the palate. Very slight tannic chew on the finish. Slghtly sour finish. Undefined black fruit. Wishy-washy. (RH)

    13.5%
    Drink 2016-2018
    14