As the year draws to an end, it’s natural to want to look back on the highs and lows. Sadly, for 2017, I suspect that there are few connected with the wine industry who will remember the year with any great pleasure or affection. I’m thinking particularly of those growers in California, central Portugal and the Galicia and Asturias regions of northern Spain, all of whom have suffered such catastrophic fires in the last few weeks and months. I’m sure all Bristol Wine Blog readers will want to join with me in saying to those affected that our thoughts and good wishes for the future are with you.
But the year’s problems began months earlier. Damaging spring frosts then severe summer droughts reduced crop yields by almost a quarter in Italy and a fifth in France. And it was the same picture across much of Europe. Further afield, Argentina, though improving on 2016’s dreadful El Niño-affected harvest, still produced far less than its long-term average and Chile suffered a 2nd successive drop. Other major countries such as South Africa and, despite the recent fires, the USA look to have turned out quantities roughly in line with expectations. But, among the wine world’s top 10 producers, only Australia are really celebrating with their highest output since 2005.
As a result, based on current estimates, the volume of wine produced worldwide in 2017 is expected to be the lowest seen since the 1960s. So, should we expect prices to go up? Some rises are inevitable particularly where there are shortages of popular wines but it’s worth looking at the wider picture:
Overall, just about enough wine has been made this year so that, together with reserves that are already in stock, most of our demands should be satisfied. And, hopefully, 2018 will prove to be a happier year for both producers and drinkers alike.
There’s been lots of talk in the press here recently about the use of ‘Best Before’ or ‘Use by’ dates on food packaging and whether products are safe to eat after the date shown. But how about wine? Does it have a shelf life and, if it does, should it, too, have a recommended date on it?
I certainly don’t recall ever seeing such a date on a wine bottle but I generally advise that most white wines bought in supermarkets and cheaper bottles (say under £10) bought elsewhere are normally best within about a year of purchase; for red wines, you can probably extend this to two years. The wine should still be perfectly safe even after this time, but wine matures and changes when it is in the bottle and so it may be past its best if left too long.
On the other hand, many (usually more expensive) wines take much longer than this to reach their peak and it would be a shame to open them too early. Often, good wine merchants and websites will quote ‘drinking windows’ – the period during which they suggest a wine is likely to be at its best. But these are only a guide; everyone’s taste is different and, unless you know the wine, deciding when you should open any particular bottle is, unfortunately, a bit of trial and error.
A wine I think is drinking perfectly now is Faustino 1 Rioja Gran Reserva 2004 (Sainsbury’s, £15).
It is already 13 years old and has spent more than 2 years in oak barrels and a further 3 years at the winery (as required by the ‘Gran Reserva’ designation). Yet, when I took it along to a tasting recently, a couple of my colleagues suggested that it needed still more time or, at least, should have been opened earlier in the evening to further soften the tannins.
I’m not convinced but, as I said before, everyone’s taste is different. However, this is certainly a wine made to be drunk with food and its mellow, harmonious flavours would work well with so many of the rich dishes that are likely to be on the table over the festive season.
As a Wine Educator, this is one of the busiest – and most interesting -times of my working year but I’ve just run my last tasting of 2017 and so I can relax for a few weeks. This year, that final event featured one of my most popular themes: a contest between wines from Europe against the Rest of the World with the audience voting for their favourites. It’s one that almost always makes for an enjoyable evening.
With the sales figures showing that UK customers prefer wines from the Rest of the World to those originating in Europe, it’s often a surprise to many when I tell them that the tasting is a David and Goliath battle – with Europe, not the Rest of the World, as Goliath. In fact, most years Europe produces around twice as much wine as the Rest of the World and either France or Italy alone turns out more than USA, Argentina and Australia (the 3 largest non-European producers) together. 2017 was a different story but that’s a blog for another day.
The contest this time featured 8 different wines in 4 matched pairs, all tasted blind so that no-one (except me!) knew the identity of any wine. When the votes were added up, the Rest of the World was the narrow winner overall, but Europe put up a fair fight winning one of the 4 rounds and tying in another.
The European success was the delightful, herby, fragrant Stella Alpina Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige in northern Italy (£10.99 – all the wines for this tasting were bought from Majestic), while the ‘Rest’ winners were from California and Chile. The latter, Montes’ Single Vineyard Chardonnay from the cool Casablanca Valley (£8.99) showed a lovely buttery richness and just a hint of vanilla and spice from brief oak ageing.
California’s winner, Majestic’s Parcel Series Old Vine Zinfandel 2012, was the cheapest wine of the evening and a real bargain at £7.49. 5 years old and with all the soft, harmonious flavours that age produces – this is remarkable for the price.
And, indeed, with none of the wines above £11, this tasting showed that, by shopping around you really don’t have to spend a fortune to find winning wines.
“Can you run a tasting of sparkling wines for us?” It’s not a request I get often – sparkling wines can be quite expensive and, perhaps, more for a celebration than for talking about. But there’s plenty to say (for me, at least!) and a vast choice. It’s not just Champagne and Prosecco, virtually every cool climate area of the wine world produces some fizz.
Why the emphasis on a cool climate? Both the most common ways of making sparkling wine (the ‘traditional’ method – the one that used to be known as the Champagne method until the Champenois objected – and the ‘tank’ method) involve a second fermentation – adding more grape sugar and yeast to an already made still wine to produce the carbon dioxide that forms the bubbles. But this process also raises the alcohol level in the wine by 1 – 1.5%. If you try this with a wine that is already 13% or more, as is typical in warm climates, you lose the aromatics and the wine becomes heavy and unappetising. Hence the importance of a cool climate and a lower alcohol level to start with.
What of the evening itself? We sampled 6 wines ranging through France, Italy, Spain, England (of course!), South Africa and New Zealand and at prices from £10 to £25.
And the reaction of the tasters? Perhaps not surprisingly, the Champagne (Charles Lecouvey’s Brut Reserve) was the clear winner with everyone present scoring it in their top 2. Although not expensive for a Champagne (£23.99 from Waitrose), the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave it a lightness and freshness that appealed to all.
The same grape varieties were used (although with Pinot Noir dominating rather than Chardonnay) for the group’s 2nd favourite: Lindauer’s Special Reserve Brut Rosé from New Zealand (widely available from supermarkets and wine shops at between £11 and £14). Delicate crushed strawberry flavours and aromas and a really attractive pink colour made this a delight. Certainly one to consider if you’re looking for an easy-drinking fizz at an attractive price for the festive season.