April Fools’ Day Tasting

3 04 2013

It all started with an offhand remark from my friend Tyler.  “Hey, you know what we should do?…”  It soon became a plan.  The lineup was decided, the wines were procured, and a date was chosen…really, the only date that fully suited an event like this.  On April 1st, we sat down, twisted off some caps and got down to drinking some of the most popular and reviled wines on the planet.  Happy April Fools’ Day, everyone.

Oh yes.

Oh yes.

I should pre-emptively intercede to point out that we didn’t just do this to be the online jerks who make fun of cheap wine.  Like it or not, the wines picked for this tasting are embedded in global drinking culture, are a gateway for many people to more serious bottles (the marijuana of table wines, I suppose) and have had a market position that can only be described as dominant.  As someone who has studied wine quite a bit over the past few years, I had heard a ton about all of them:  Baby Duck, Canada’s most successful retro sparkler.  Mateus, Portugal’s top export and once the world’s best-selling wine.  Gallo White Zinfandel, flagship of a wine “fad” that continues in full force to this day.  Black Tower and Blue Nun, continual influencers of global opinion of an entire country’s wine tradition.  And Naked Grape, one of the most likely local inheritors of the legacy of these cheap and cheerful drinks.  I had never tried a single one of these wines, and my desire to do so was more than just morbid curiosity.  I was hoping to discover both what has made these bottles so iconically popular for so long and whether the suspect reputations that preceded them into the tasting room were well-deserved.  Let’s find out.

Since this was a celebratory occasion, we felt it appropriate to start with some bubbles and go from there, which led us to a somewhat roundabout pink-then-white-then-red tasting order.  First up, of course:  the Duck.

#1:  Andres Baby Duck (N.V.) — 7% alc., $9.99

Photo1-169First of all:  Baby Duck is a rose??  How did I not know this?  Made from grapes of unknown provenance sourced from Kelowna BC, Grimsby ON and Truro NS (ED. NOTE:  I have since been told this is not actually the case, sadly — see the comments section), this sparking legend launched into the glass luridly pink and with mountains of foamy fizz that quickly dissipated.  It smelled like every pink and purple candy you’ve ever loved as a kid:  pop rocks, Nerds, those strawberry marshmallow things (not sure if they have a proper trade name) and especially grape bubble tape.  There was a surprising medicinal tinge on the palate, almost like cough syrup, to go along with the more expected sweet flavours of Tahiti Treat and cotton candy.  The Duck started out lush and lathery like cream soda, but the sweetness faded by the time I swallowed, leaving a flat, chemical sort of aftertaste that lingered for longer than it should.  You can barely tell there’s alcohol in this; it just tastes like pop.  I don’t necessarily say that in a bad way, though — we actually quite enjoyed ourselves putting this back, and I have no problem seeing how a bottle of BD would have appeal for someone more inclined to sweeter drinks and less into dry table wine.  It was fun in a glass, and it actually turned out to be the second best thing I drank all night.

82-83 points

#2:  Mateus Rose (N.V.) — 11% alc., $8.59

Photo1-167One of the things I discovered doing Baby Duck research is that when the Duck was initially created, it was modelled after Portuguese rose powerhouse Mateus, a wine that in its heyday in the ’80s sold over 3.25 million cases a year.  That’s THIRTY-NINE MILLION BOTTLES OF MATEUS!  Instantly recognizable for the squat gourd-shaped bottle that it continues to rock to this day, Mateus is almost assuredly the most successful rose of all time.  It also cost LESS than a bottle of Baby Duck.  Frizzante (lightly sparking) rather than full-blown carbonated like its Canadian successor, the Mateus was much more aromatic in the glass than the Duck, and, as a guest at the tasting so succinctly put it, “smelled a lot more like wine” than BD did.  Pink grapefruit, lavender, and even mineral notes played across a nose that was actually quite pleasant, and the wine was FAR less sweet to taste, leaving room for actual acidity to flex its muscles and liven up the palate.  It bordered on over-tart, with not quite enough fruit to balance the citric/pink lemonade flavour profile, and the (relatively low levels of) alcohol spiked a bit on the finish, but the Mateus was still legitimately refreshing.  On a patio, near a beach, in the summer, I am on board with this.  Wine of the night!!

83-84+ points

#3:  Gallo White Zinfandel — 9% alc., $7.69

Photo1-166I hope you soaked up all of the joy from the last paragraph, because the waters now start to get a little choppy.  White Zinfandel is such a cultural phenomenon and has been so wildly successful that a legion of casual wine drinkers likely don’t even know that Zinfandel is a red grape that produces deep, brambly, smoky wines that absolutely rock with good barbecue.  This wine has nothing at all to do with real Zinfandel.  It begins with a massive nose of candied/stewed strawberry, watermelon and red apple, as if all the red fruits in the grocery store dunked themselves in melted sugar and then jumped in the glass.  That still somehow did not quite prepare me for how shockingly sweet the wine tasted.  SO sweet, and not in a ultra-ripe-grapes sort of way, but in a somebody-added-10-tablespoons-of-white-sugar-to-the-bottle sort of way.  There was no acid to balance off the sweetness, leaving the wine tasting heavy, syrupy and flat, totally devoid of any structure.  I don’t quite have the technical skill to properly describe this, but the White Zin also tasted utterly manipulated and mechanical, like all of the constituent elements of the wine were mixed together after the fact, leaving everything seeming slightly off and disjointed.  When we came back to this wine a half hour after first pouring it, it had completely disintegrated:  the red fruit candy nose was totally gone, replaced by a one-note aroma that smelled EXACTLY like an old opened box of raisins, and all trace of flavour had disappeared.  It had became a White Zin zombie, immediately destablized outside of the bottle.  Without question, this was the worst wine of the night, and it was probably in the top 5 worst wines I’ve ever had.  I was longing for the Baby Duck after this one.

72-74 points

Intermission:  Rose Swamp Water

Yes, we mixed the three roses together…can you blame us?  We called the resulting concoction Baby Galeus, and it was quite horrible.

#4:  2011 Black Tower Rivaner — 9.5% alc., $9.50

Photo1-168If you know me at all from a wine perspective, you know that I LOVE German wine.  But unless you know German wine from a wine perspective, you might think this bottle is its whole story.  Along with Blue Nun, Black Tower is a colossus in the German wine industry, churning out primarily inexpensive medium-sweet whites that have gained massive levels of popularity over the past few decades.  Unfortunately, the blowback to this success on the lower end of the industry was that people painted the whole of the industry with the same brush, leaving the utterly stunning single-vineyard Rieslings that are the apex of Germany’s wine production tarnished by association.  This is hardly Black Tower’s fault — it’s just trying to make enjoyable wine for less than $10.  But I did carry some leftover German Riesling persecution complex into this set of wines, so be prepared.

This bottle of Black Tower (the most common one on the market, I believe) is not Riesling, but Rivaner, another name for the workhorse German grape Muller-Thurgau, a solid but non-prolific crossing of Riesling and the obscure varietal Madeleine Royale.  As an aside, there was a time when German enologists were obsessed about crossing Riesling with other grapes to create a mystical super-grape that combined Riesling’s remarkable aromas and flavours with characteristics like earlier ripening and increased heartiness.  It never totally worked.  That time has thankfully (largely) passed, but not before Muller-Thurgau ran rampant in Germany.  It was the country’s most planted grape in the 1970s and is still in the top three today.  It is used mainly to make straightforward table wines like this one, which had the unfortunate characteristic of smelling like feet when it came out of the bottle.  There was a cheesy sort of locker room funk about the Black Tower that blew off slightly with time, but some of it remained throughout, giving a tinge of sweat to the fairly faint notes of citrus and green apple that joined it.  There was a slightly fermented/miso flavour to the palate, which basically replicated the flavours of the nose but added a dose of sugar on top of them (sweet feet?).  I think there’s a strong possibility that something was off with this particular bottle, but it was not a good scene.

76-78 points

#5:  2011 Blue Nun Riesling — 11% alc., $10.99

photo-40If Black Tower is the king of mass-produced cheap German wine, Blue Nun is undoubtedly the queen.  Sadly, this is not the base-level $9 blended-white Blue Nun with which you would be most familiar — that particular offering (in its telltale blue bottle) was obviously in high demand when I went to grab these bottles and was sold out.  As a result, I was forced to splurge and buy the higher-end, single-varietal Reserve version of Blue Nun, a Riesling from the Rheinhessen region of Germany that won the title of priciest wine of the night.  Maybe it was the extra $2 on the price tag, but it smelled a whole lot better than its Teutonic running mate above — the slightly muted but tropical nose gave off hints of coconut, banana, pineapple and sweet macaroons, not a variety of aromas commonly associated with Riesling, but certainly not offensive either.  And on the first sip, I was delighted to discover that it actually sort of tasted like Riesling, with creamy (almost fuzzy even) lemon and apple notes, actual acidity and a slightly soapy but non-disgusting finish.  It faded as the night went on but still was recognizably real wine; I’m not sure if the original Nun would have fared as well, but I’ll take it.

A brief public service announcement for those reading this who have gone into their local Superstore liquor store to pick up a Black Tower or a Blue Nun recently:  if you look a little up and a little to the right from where these bottles are located, you should see the Dr. L Riesling (white label) and the Urban Riesling from St. Urbans-hof (black label, copper writing).  Both cost $12-$13, and both are dynamite entry-level Rieslings from some of Germany’s absolute best producers.  They cost TWO DOLLARS MORE than these April Fools’ wines but offer up so much more of the skill and precision and joy that German Rieslings should bring to your table.  They will change your view of German wine.  Try them.

82-83- points

#6:  Naked Grape Luscious Red  (N.V.) — 12.5% alc., $6.50

Photo1-165I bought this bottle partly because it represents the New World Order of cheap uber-brands and partly because it was the cheapest bottle of red wine I could find in the store.  Naked Grape is a Canadian company, but before you get too excited about representing your home and native land, take a look at the magic words on the back label:  “Cellared in Canada from Imported & Domestic Wines”.  This means that, instead of being made from grapes grown in Canada, this Luscious Red was made from pre-made jug wine shipped to Canada in giant tankers from Australia or Chile or some other cheap wine haven, seasoned with a dash of Canadian juice, bottled and sold.  Naked Grape is known for not oak-aging any of its wines, ostensibly so that the natural flavours of the grape can shine through, but more likely because oak is expensive, and if you spend money on it you can’t come up with a bottle of red in Canada that sells for $6.50.

I tried and failed to find out what the actual blend of grapes were in the Luscious Red, and there’s no real way to guess from the wine itself.  The strongly chemical nose smelled mostly artificial and gave off sweet, hollow aromas of cherry and permanent marker.  The thing most immediately apparent on the palate was that there was a sizeable amount of sugar left in/added to the wine, making it quite noticeably sweet for a “dry” red table wine; this use of residual sugar is the same approach that has made Apothic Red the top-selling wine in the US, but Apothic clearly starts with superior source material and does the job way better than this.  The Luscious mouthfeel seems almost TOO smooth, and the wine is glycerol-coated and unbalanced, with the burst of sweetness hitting first and the rest of the wine feeling limp, flat and waxy.  All of the components of the wine are compartmentalized and come to prominence at different times, the hallmark of a excessively manipulated wine (see the Gallo above — it was the exactly the same phenomenon).  Everything in this bottle is out of whack and false; quite simply, this is not what real wine tastes like.  It also gave both of us immediate heartburn upon swallowing.  It was just so bad.

74-76 points

Finale:  Luscious German Mix

Since we blended the first three wines together, we felt it only appropriate to mix the last three together as well.  The two German whites and the Luscious Red formed an all-powerful rose blend (tentative name:  Naked Black Nun), which tasted eerily like Mateus.  I have no explanation for that.

By the end of this experiment, I was feeling a bit loopy and nauseous from the sugar but much more enlightened on these ubiquitous landmark wines.  I can’t say I’ll be bringing any of them home again too soon, but I admit that it was a ton of fun to get to know them all a bit better.

Photo1-170

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10 responses

4 04 2013
kruzelh

A super fun idea. For BD though no grapes actually come from Truro nor Grimsby. Neither had/have vineyards. Was necessary to have mailboxes those locations for provincial tax law I believe. I don’t think I be incorrect in saying total Canadian content was low to zero.

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4 04 2013
petervetsch

Thanks for the clarification — I guess I over-optimistically interpreted the label in search of Canadian content! Much appreciated!

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4 04 2013
Tom Lee

What a lineup! That white Zin description had me longing for a Coors Light.

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4 04 2013
petervetsch

Lol, thanks Tom! My stomach wasn’t too happy with me, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice…

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4 04 2013
the winegetter

Fabulous article!! And quite daring…:) My father in law drinks the Beringer White Zinfandel from a magnum bottle placed beside the fridge…and it is open for days…so, I am feeling you…

And yes, the Dr. L and the Urbanshof offer just so much more for little more.

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4 04 2013
petervetsch

I’ve had the Beringer White Zin and can confirm that it is at least better than the Gallo, albeit not by a ton…I almost bought the Beringer for this tasting, but the Gallo was a buck cheaper. 🙂

My friend Matthijs looked at how much of the cost of a bottle of wine in Alberta actually went to the wine itself (as opposed to taxes, markups, etc.), and the ultimate message rings true for all of these bottles:

http://1855consulting.com/news-articles/why-spend-more-than-15-on-a-bottle-of-wine/

This suggests that for a $6.50 bottle like the Naked Grape, even taking into account the slimmer-than-usual margins offered by a big grocery chain’s liquor store, the actual value of the wine inside can’t be more than a few cents. Insane.

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4 04 2013
the winegetter

Interesting. In Germany, we usually make those statements about the really cheap sparkling wine. You can get it for as low as 1.99 euros. Of that, 1.01 euros are the special sparkling wine tax (introduced in the early 1900s to finance the Kaiser’s fleet to kick the English’s ass…now that worked out, but the tax remained)! Add in the sales tax, cork cost, bottle cost, labeling cost etc…and the stuff inside is virtually worth zero…

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7 04 2013
James

Being relatively new to the Wide World of Wine, I must say that I was shocked when my father-in-law brought a Zinfindel over for a BBQ, and I discovered that it was a deep red wine!
Naked Grape almost turned me off wine a few years ago, so, I’m grateful that you wrote this article and I can see that I’m not the only one.
Now, I have to go try this Dr. L ($19 in BC)

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2 10 2015
Bonnie Black

Hehe, hilarious and well done. I found this article by googling ‘worst wine ever naked grape’ to see if anyone else had shared in the misery I’d just endured. How can something this horrid be available on the shelves of the developed world?

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2 10 2015
petervetsch

Tell me about it!! When you’re getting lapped by Baby Duck you have issues. Thanks for reading!

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