You know that friend who finished uni and, somehow, instantly got their shit together? Who suddenly has all these 28-year-old friends with job titles like Marketing Director and Sales Manager. One night, a few weeks ago, that friend invited me to a dinner party.
"Dress…" he added, before stopping himself. "Dress how?" I asked. "Dress sort of nice," he instructed. "These are kind of fancy people." He was gone before I could tell him to fuck off. So that is how I ended up, a day before pay day, putting a $65 bottle of wine on my card.
"You should've just got a bottle from Aldi," my friend told me, as I helped him do the washing up. "No seriously, I do it all the time. You just scrub the label off and say 'it's a cleanskin'."
I thought he was kidding until I saw that three Aldi wines had won big at the Sydney International Wine Competition. In a blind tasting, judges rated Aldi's 2014 Blackstone Paddock "The Player" Barossa Shiraz as good as Fermoy Estate's 2013 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which also retails for $65. And just look at these wine bros, they aren't messing around:
But could I really fool some Regional Account Executive into believing she wasn't necking $4.99 vino? I needed an expert opinion, and who better to ask than Banjo Harris Plane, a top sommelier who's palate VICE has already abused in our noble search to find Australia's best goon.
So I carted Aldi's three award-winning wines—the South Point Estate Rosé, the Tudor Central Victorian Shiraz, and the Blackstone Paddock—plus a bonus bottle of the supermarket's cheapest red, the Precious Earth Shiraz Merlot, to visit Banjo at his joint, Bar Liberty. The idea was to get a quick lesson in how to properly taste wine, run through Aldi's finest, and see if any of these drops passed muster.
South Point Estate Rosé
"You should use all of your senses when you're tasting wine," Banjo instructs, pouring two glasses of Aldi's award-winning rosé. "People sometimes just taste but I think it's important to look at it, smell it, taste it."
Looking at it, the South Point Estate Rosé has a colour that's maybe best described as watered down Cottee's cordial. Banjo tells me to start swilling, to open up the wine but I can't really get the technique down. My wine just slops from one side of the glass to the other.
The next step in tasting is sniffing the wine. Banjo doesn't really give any notes on technique for this one, but what becomes immediately clear is how hard the sommelier's job is. I'm immediately bombarded with heaps of smells. And this is a pretty crappy wine, it's not what those in the biz would call "complex."
A sommelier has to smell these aromas, break them apart, and assign each an adjective, which another person could then read and get a sense of the wine they were about to buy. I just smell "sweet."
"People generally say that you can't smell sweetness," Banjo corrects. "But what you can smell is "candied" kind of things. Sugar is a flavour not an aroma. But what I'm smell there is definitely sugary… There's kind of like candied raspberries, bit of strawberry, candy cane."
"Yeah I get the candy cane vibes," I jump in, perhaps over-excited at the prospect that I might not completely suck at this. "It's almost like Christmasy-mint, not peppermint… is it called spearmint?"
"I think part of that is the artificialness of it. It doesn't smell like actual fruit, it smells like something manufactured," Banjo says.
Then comes the taste and spit. Banjo sort of sucks the wine up, makes a slurping sound, and promptly spits it into what looks like a milkshake maker cup. "Do I do that?" I ask, pointing to the bucket.
"Spit in the bucket!" our photographer Ben chants from the other side of the room. I take a sip and Banjo tells me to swish the wine around my mouth. "Yeah, you don't have to shake your head," he says. I stop rocking my head from side-to-side and spit into the cup.
Sydney International Wine Competition judge Andreas Larsson seemed to like this wine, a lot. There were other judges that did as well. But I trust Andreas Larsson, simply because he looks the most like Matt Preston. And Matt Preston is the human embodiment of gourmet. Plus, Andreas Larsson was the only judge pictured with a glass of champagne, so I imagined he was a bit of fun.
What Andreas Larsson says about South Point Estate Rosé: It's a bright light ruby colour. The nose is displaying red berries with some spicy ginger notes. Mid weight. A rather soft palate but decent length and a peppery finish. It has good grip and spiciness thus it works well with the food.
What Banjo says: It's actually pretty dry. Despite smelling pretty sweet, it doesn't taste too sweet. It's got quite a lot of acidity. I guess the negative point would be that, after about five seconds in your month, you can't taste any of it. It's just very simple. A little bit crunchy, dry, fairly fresh but pretty short. I don't mind that initial burst of flavour but it goes away really quickly.
What I say: I'm not sure what rosé is meant to taste like. Maybe whatever flavour profile you'd associate with The Real Housewives of Melbourne. I might've been too busy trying to swill the wine around my mouth properly to think of a description, but this wine kind of tasted like nothing. It smelled pretty nice though. Fun fact: Rosé is not, in fact, a mix of red wine and white wine. Thanks for clearing that one up, Banjo.
Banjo's price guess: $10
Actual Aldi price: $4.99
Precious Earth Shiraz Merlot
"So this is a blend of Shiraz and Merlot grapes," Banjo said, pouring our second glass. "It says, 'Great for BBQs and outdoor entertaining, this wine is ideal for drinking while young and fresh.'" Clearly neither Banjo nor I are young nor fresh enough to tolerate this wine. The colour looked fine, but from the first sniff it seemed something was up.
"Oh shit, that smells… really weird. What do you think that smell is?" I asked, trying to put my finger on the acrid stench leaching from my glass. "That's really horrible. You get that really sweet blueberry, like really ripe berries," Banjo said. Ripe berries is overly generous. This wine smelled like low tide.
The first sip dried my mouth out completely. I felt I looked like Grandpa Abe in that episode of The Simpsons when the turtle steals his dentures. Full blown lemon mouth. Also, it tasted like "burnt."
"Basically traditional red wines are aged in oak barrels. But to buy an oak barrel is quite expensive," Banjo explained, spitting the bin juice away. "A much cheaper way is to have your tank full of wine and you throw the oak chips in there. It's meant to have the same sort of effect. But… it doesn't."
He motioned towards the Precious Earth, "It's just really exaggerated and gross."
Andreas Larsson says: Andreas Larsson didn't actually have anything to say about this wine because, surprisingly, it didn't rate at the Sydney International Wine Competition.
Banjo says: This was, hands down, the worst wine he'd ever tasted. He even took a photo of it for Instagram with that very caption. It tasted like burnt rubber.
I say: I didn't think I had standards but I obviously do.
Banjo's price: If the rosé was $4.99, this can't have been any more. It would boggle my mind if it was cheaper, I can't imagine producing a bottle of wine for less.
Aldi price: $2.89
Tudor Central Victorian Shiraz
I thought this one looked pretty okay but Banjo told me that was all part of the trick. "Like, that looks cheap," he said, picking up the dreaded Precious Earth again. "But if you spend $1000 and get a graphic designer to do a nice label… It's got these medals on there that probably don't really mean anything."
As Banjo explained the big lie that is wine marketing, I felt my youth draining away. Gone were the days where I could walk into LiquorLand and pick up the first bottle with a nice-looking label. That was no indication that it would be any good. But then we started tasting this faux fancy Shiraz.
"It smells less gross!" was my first impression. "That's a thousand times better," Banjo agreed, spitting the wine into the bucket before passing it over to me. I paused.
"I swallowed mine," I admitted, feeling bad for violating one of the central premises of a wine tasting. But the wine was really good, and I needed something to wash away the Precious Earth, which was lingering like that taste in your mouth after you vomit. I couldn't remember how much this wine cost but it was worth every cent.
Quick palate cleanser: Picking all this wine up at Aldi was one of the more demoralising moments of my year. I got carded at the cashier and somehow didn't have any ID on me. There's nothing quite as humbling as getting denied buying $2.89 wine. Unless that thing is sitting on a bench in a suburban shopping centre on a weekday afternoon, waiting for a VICE intern to buy your $2.89 wine for you. Grim.
What Andreas Larsson says: Displaying quite a sweet nose with jammed fruit, plum, orange peel, and allspice. It's a mid weight palate. Quite spicy character with hints of cinnamon and clove. It has well balanced freshness and a medium towards long finish. It works good with the food.
What Banjo says: I don't love the aromatics, it's still a little charcoal-weird. But the palate is not too bad. It's soft, supple. It doesn't have that really harsh drying thing going on but it's still got acidity, which keeps an element of freshness. There's an element of fruit sweetness but it's nowhere near as sweet as the previous wines. It's certainly the best thing we've tried but in a broader context, it's still not great.
What I say: The bottle described this wine as "succulent," which is a word that's always creeped me out a little. It also self-described as having "power, charm, and style," none of which I could pick up. What this wine sort of reminded me of though is when you're a teenager and your parents let you have a sip of some really quality wine they splash out on for a nice dinner, in the hope you'll grow up refined. Although that could've just been relative to the pit sweat we'd tasted before this.
Banjo's price guess: $8.99
Aldi price: $12.99
Blackstone Paddock "The Player" Barossa Shiraz
This final wine was meant to be the really impressive one. The Sydney judges said it stacked up against some pretty pricey wines. Plus, as Banjo explained, "because this one says 'Barossa Valley' on the label, there's a wine integrity scheme, which says 85 percent of the grapes must be grown in the Barossa."
The label was pushing the Barossa thing pretty hard too, reading: "This delightful Shiraz illustrates why the Barossa is deserving of its reputation as one of the world's greatest wine regions." On first sniff of this wine, one thing was clear: the Barossa should sue. It smelled exactly like the Precious Earth—low tide, slightly-off seafood.
The taste was hardly better, which didn't make sense. This was the most expensive wine by far. But I guess that in itself should've been a warning. There's something deeply wrong about spending double-digits on wine at Aldi. That's just not what it's for.
Yet, as Banjo explained while we emptied our glasses into the spit cup one last time, these super cheap wines have a ripple effect in the winemaking industry. Big makers like Aldi have the buying power to scoop everything from a vineyard, but they offer a very low price. It means farmers aren't making much money, and the leftover grapes, which smaller winemakers have to buy, get very expensive.
What Andreas Larsson says: A great intensity on the nose. Beautifully inky dark fruit with blackberry and plum and violet. A touch of the spice box, some clove and cardamom. The palate is sweet. Not really sweet but there's plenty of ripe fruit there indicating sweetness. Really full and rounded with grainy tannin. Layers of dark fruit. A really long supple and spicy finish.
What Banjo says: It's like you're chewing on old walnut skins that have gone a bit rancid.
Banjo's price guess: $14.99
Aldi's price: $14.99
Follow Maddison on Twitter.