It was a Life on Mars moment. Hearing about the imminent relaunch of Black Tower made me feel like Sam Tyler, the detective in the BBC television series who gets hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in the 1970s. Black Tower Liebfraumilch was one of the culinary low points of that undistinguished decade, alongside Spam, Smash and Alphabetti Spaghetti. I thought it had joined the likes of Corrida, Hirondelle and Lutomer Laski Riesling in the great spittoon in the sky, but I was wrong.
Well, partly wrong. Black Tower may have stopped making Liebfraumilch in 1989, but it still flogs 12 million bottles to 54 countries, making it Germany’s best selling wine brand. Its latest incarnation comes with a redesigned, two-ton bottle and a series of “Special Releases” to complement its, er, classic lines of riesling, rivaner, rosé, pinot grigio and dornfeler/pinot noir. The price of the new wines — a chardonnay, riesling and pinot noir at £7.99 — proves that the Germans have a sense of humour after all. Let’s hope they’re better than the mediocre core range at £5.49
Black Tower isn’t the only wine from the 1970s that’s still with us. Mateus and Piat d’Or are surprisingly popular, too. I have a (small) soft spot for the former, solely because of a photograph that was taken of me and my brother when we were children. There behind us on top of my parents’ over-sized television is a lamp stand made from an empty bottle of Portugal’s most famous pink, hinting at my future career.
Piat d’Or is a different story. The urban legend — that it was conceived by someone who found that Liebfraumilch coloured with red food dye did well in taste tests — may be untrue, but its 1970s advertising was scandalous enough. “Les Français adorent le Piat d’Or”, we were told. Most of them, as it happened, had never heard of it and those who had didn’t drink the stuff. I once saw it lumped in with “vins étrangers” in a hypermarket in Calais with wines from Italy, Spain and the New World.
What do these 1970s survivors taste like today? Well, Mateus Rosé is still off-dry and slightly sparkling, with a hint of Portuguese tannin, while Piat d’Or has improved dramatically, now that most of it comes from the Languedoc region in southern France. I’m not saying I’d pull a hamstring sprinting to my nearest stockist to buy some, but the four wine range of chenin blanc, chardonnay, merlot and grenache rosé is perfectly drinkable and appealingly dry. The bottles look good, too.
This is more than you can say for Blossom Hill, an American wine brand from the same drinks multinational. Whenever someone tells me that the UK has the most sophisticated wine consumers in the world, I like to put a bottle of Blossom Hill white zinfandel rosé in front of them to prove otherwise. Blossom Hill is our best selling wine brand and it is a disgrace: sweet, simple and confected.
The biggest difference between the leading brands of the 1970s and those that are popular today is origin. Thirty five years ago, Europe dominated the scene and Australian wine was a joke. Remember Monty Python’s Côtes de Rod Laver? Now it supplies seven of the top 20 brands. Add wines from South Africa (4), the USA (3), Chile (2) and New Zealand (1) and Europe barely gets its toe in the off-licence door these days. Only JP Chenet and Canti feature in the top 20, with Black Tower and Piat d’Or at numbers 26 and 27, respectively.
The New World has helped to improve the quality and image of branded wines, despite the occasional Blossom Hill-style aberration. Ignoring those from the United States (and I would) the other best sellers are mostly well made and fairly priced. For all that, there are only two in the top 20 that I would actively seek out: Jacob’s Creek and Concha y Toro. When they arrive in May, the new “special” releases from Black Tower may yet challenge the likes of Jacob’s Creek Riesling and Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon, but somehow I doubt it. Black Tower has improved since the 1970s, but it’s still on a different planet.
2009 Torres Viña Sol (£4.50, 11.85%, Asda until June 14; from £5.99, Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Co-op, Majestic, Morrison’s)
Made from parellada, one of the three local grapes used to make Cava, Torres’ entry point white wine has never been better: youthful and appley with an undertone of pear drops and a bone dry finish.
2008 Jacob’s Creek Riesling, South Australia (£6.79, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrison’s, Booths)
Jacob’s Creek makes a range of good wines from Down Under, but this is my favourite excluding the pricier reserve range. Limey and fresh, with bracing, citrus fruit acidity, this has a little bit of sweetness for balance
2008 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Seventy Six Shiraz/Cabernet, South Australia (£8.99 or £6.99 each for two, 14.5%, Majestic)
Penfolds hasn’t always performed to its best over the last decade, but this is the sort of wine that established its name. Deeply coloured, blackberry fruity and spicy with lots of coconut and coffee bean oak and mouth-filling flavours.
2009 First Cape Limited Release Pinotage, Western Cape (£6.99, 14%, Morrison’s)
Weird grape, Pinotage, created by crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault in the 1920s. But when it’s good, as it is here, it’s supple and aromatic with flavours of summer pudding and supple, easy-going tannins. Try it chilled.
2008 Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Valley (from £6.99, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Waitrose, Morrison’s)
The price may have crept up in the last year or two because of exchange rates and duty, but this is still one hell of a red at less than £7.
2008 Montana Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, Marlborough (£8.99, 13.2%, Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s)
The basic Montana Sauvignon is pretty good — and preferable to Oyster Bay — but this is a step up and worth the extra money. It’s nettley and pleasantly tart with gooseberry and greengage notes and a bracing tingle of acidity.
Originally published in The Times