Category Archives: Buying wine

Drinking by Numbers?

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Before my wife commented on it being an ‘adult’ wine (see previous Bristol Wine Blog), I was already thinking about a blog based on the same Argentinian Malbec but from a completely different point of view.  I was looking at the big figure ‘90’ on the capsule with the words ‘Robert Parker Wine Advocate’ underneath. 

Parker 90 ptsThe significance, as many reading this will already know, is that, for more than 30 years, Parker and his publication, The Wine Advocate, have been just about the most influential wine critics on the planet.  A favourable review and, in particular a score of 90 or more (out of 100) almost always guarantees a wine’s commercial success.  No wonder that a number of major producers across the world have said that they have deliberately changed the style of their wines to attract a high score and so more customers.

Sadly, high scores often mean high prices, too, but that’s not the only reason you might think twice about buying one of Parker’s recommendations.  How often has a friend or a newspaper critic recommended a movie or a restaurant that they’ve loved but, for you, proved a disappointment?  Well, it’s just the same with wine.  Although most of the recent reviews have been carried out by a group of tasters rather than by the man himself, (which should minimise the effect of an individual’s preferences), there is still no guarantee that you will like the same style of wine as the reviewer.  And, when was the review written?  Several weeks (or even months) may have passed during which the wine itself will have changed – either improving or, perhaps, going past its best. 

Finding a wine you will like is more than simply following numbers.  As Parker himself has often said, the scores should only be used to enhance and complement his detailed tasting notes – but how many read those?  And how many just look at a big figure and follow it?

 

 

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‘Use By’ Dates for Wine?

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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). 

Faustino 1It 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.

What’s in a Name?

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Flower and BeeThere are many good reasons for choosing a bottle of wine: something you’ve enjoyed before, a recommendation, a wine on special offer.  And then there are the impulse buys; I’m sure most of us have made those on occasions.  “I wonder what that wine’s like?” as we pick up a bottle that our eye is drawn to.  And the wine pictured above must be a prime candidate for that sort of purchase: unusually named ‘The Flower and the Bee’ and, with a label reflecting the name and even the foil over the cork in yellow and black ‘bee’ colours, the entire packaging of this wine says ‘look at me’.  And ‘buy me’, of course.

But the design is not the only reason for giving this wine a try: it’s on the Association of Wine Educators list of the top 100 wines under £25 and, having tasted it (bought from Grape and Grind in Bristol, £13.99), I can confirm that it fully deserves its place.

It’s a delicious unoaked dry white from the Ribeiro region in the north-west of Spain, made from the local Treixadura grape.  Quite peachy and fresh on the nose leading to a rich, full flavoured mouthful with lovely peach and ripe pear flavours and a good, long finish.  Although I’d be happy to drink it on its own, it’s also a great food wine: ideal for some white fish in a creamy sauce.

So, why ‘The Flower and the Bee’?  The wine comes from the Coto de Gomariz estate which is run organically (although not certified as such) and is moving towards biodynamic methods which involve nurturing the entire eco-system of the estate; the flowers and the bees are as important as the grapes to the producers and the naming and the label reflect that.

It’s a neat idea and certainly good marketing.  But, try the wine and I’m sure you’ll buy it again – regardless of the eye-catching packaging.

The Bargain of the Year

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I couldn’t write a wine blog this week without first mentioning the serious fires that have affected Napa, Sonoma and other areas of California.  I’m sure all readers will join with me in sending support and sympathy to all of those affected by the tragic events.

On a happier note, if you took one message from my last blog, “The Price of Wine”, it was probably that you should avoid any bottle selling at £5.58 or less.  However, the wine world is not quite that simple as that, as a tasting I went to earlier this week, organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle, showed.

Our speaker was Master of Wine, Ed Adams, a consultant for discount retailer, Lidl who brought along a selection of their wines for us to taste including a very quaffable juicy Malbec for a mere £4.99 and a crisp, tangy Gavi for just 50p more.  So, were these wines lucky flukes or is there some other explanation?  The answer lies in the fact that Lidl, unlike most large retailers, is a private company, not quoted on the Stock Exchange and therefore with no shareholders receiving an annual dividend.  As a result, their profit margins are often less than 10%, as opposed to the more usual 25%, allowing them to offer even modestly priced bottles for £1 or £1.50 less than the opposition would charge.

But, at just slightly higher prices, the real delights that Ed brought along were from Lidl’s ‘Cellar Range’ – a small, regularly changing selection.  The Cellier de Monterail Rasteau (£7.99), from a village close to Châteauneuf du Pape in the southern Rhône, is a smooth, chewy black-fruit flavoured red with a delightful old rose fragrance.  Rasteau

Lovely though this wine was, my favourite of the night was J.P.Muller’s slightly off-dry Riesling from the Alsace Grand Cru of Mambourg. 

Alsace Grand CruAttractive flavours of citrus peel and ginger and a finish that went on and on – and, if you have the patience to keep it, it will improve with another few years in bottle.  When Ed asked us to guess the price, the replies were between £12 and £14 – for me, the top end of that range didn’t seem excessive.  The actual figure?  £7.99!  Surely, the bargain of the year but get in quickly as the idea of the Cellar Range is that Lidl buy up small quantities and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

 

Going for Gold?

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I opened a bottle recently displaying a sticker proclaiming that the wine had won a Gold Medal in a certain Wine Competition. 

Assyrtiko Gold MedalSo, how much should that influence you in buying?  Or is it just another marketing ploy? 

It’s certainly marketing but how seriously you should take the award depends on a number of things.  There are many wine competitions all around the world each year and it’s often impossible to know how strong the opposition was, who the judges were and how skilled they were and whether they knew which wines they were tasting (and so might have been influenced by the labels) or if they were tasting ‘blind’? 

As a result, with one or two exceptions for internationally recognised competitions, I generally ignore medal stickers – and not just for the uncertainties I’ve already mentioned.

However professional the judging and however strong the competition, medals are the opinion of a small number of people (sometimes just one) tasting the wine on a particular day.  Wines that stand out from the crowd – either because they have intense flavours or are in some way different – often attract attention from judges whereas subtle and elegant bottles (which may be far more food-friendly) tend to be ignored.  The same applies to wines that open up slowly once in the glass – busy judges may spend just a few seconds on each wine and miss this development.  And several weeks (or even months) later when the results go public, the wine itself will have changed – either improving or going past its best.  But, perhaps most important of all, do you and the judge have the same likes and dislikes?  There’s one judge (who shall remain nameless) whose high scoring wines I carefully avoid!

But, back to the wine that prompted this blog.  I already knew it well and have recommended it previously (Hatzidakis’ Assyrtiko from the Greek Island of Santorini, £13.50 from The Wine Society or Waitrose).  I knew it was good and was pleased it had been recognised in this way, even though an award from the Thessaloniki Wine Competition may not have the prestige of some!

So, by all means, look at stickers, but there’s so much more important information to help you on a wine label than the fact that it has won a medal.

 

Why No Grape Names?

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“Why don’t the French put grape names on their wine labels?  It’s so confusing.”  A familiar comment – and one I heard again at a tasting I ran recently. 

I can fully understand the view; grape names (or the 20 or so most popular ones, at least) are recognised by most customers buying wine and they know what to expect when they pick up a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay or a Pinot Grigio.  But, when they’re faced with a wine labelled ‘Chiroubles’ or ‘Cairanne’, things aren’t so straightforward.  Sadly, there’s no easy solution.2013-11-18 10.29.53

These – and many other French (and Italian and Spanish) wines – are labelled after the place they come from, not the grape (or grapes) they’re made from.  There’s a good reason for this: in most of the traditional winemaking areas of Europe, there’s a very strong attachment to the land (as anyone who has ever been stuck in a traffic jam behind a French farmers’ protest will confirm!)  So, it’s not just the grape variety that is important, it’s the soil, the climate, the slope of the land, the traditions of the area – all contribute to the taste in the bottle.  The French call this ‘terroir’.  And, given that, why would they single out just the grape name to put on the label when it’s the place and all it offers that makes the wine what it is?

Compare that to much of the New World, where things are very different: particularly in Australia, it’s quite normal to blend grapes grown in different areas, even different States.  So, without the same link to a place, why not use the grape name to sell your wine?  The fact that it’s easier for customers is simply a bonus – one that’s been the foundation of the great New World wine success story over the last 30 years or so.

It may seem strange, but I can’t see the French changing anytime soon.  Terroir is vital to them and so it will remain.  For the rest of us, it’s just a case of learning which grapes make which wine (or, sometimes, checking the back label). 

(For those who are interested, the Chiroubles I mentioned earlier uses the Gamay grape, whereas the Cairanne is likely to be a mixture including Grenache, Syrah – aka Shiraz – and probably several other local varieties).

Turkey – or something else?

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christmas-wines

Last time in Bristol Wine Blog, I looked at sparkling wines to welcome your family, friends or guests when they visit over the holiday season.

Now, my thoughts turn to wines to match the food and I’m going to focus on the main course.  So, where to start?  Turkey, obviously!  Turkey, itself, is very wine friendly and would work well with almost any dryish wine – white or red.  The problem comes with some of the traditional accompaniments; bread sauce, cranberry sauce, chipolata sausages and stuffing all present their own problems – and that’s before you consider the ultimate wine-killer: brussel sprouts.  My view would be to go for either a big white – an oaked Chardonnay or Rhône, perhaps – or a really fruity red, say a New World Merlot or Syrah/Shiraz.  Either way, I would leave my best bottles for another time – there are simply too many conflicting flavours on the plate for a fine wine to show at its best.

But not everyone will be having turkey; if you’re having beef or game, the decision is rather easier and, in most cases, will involve a good quality, fairly robust red – Bordeaux, Burgundy, California or wherever your preference lies. 

And let’s not forget our vegetarian friends; many vegetarian options are really wine friendly.  Aubergine-, lentil- or mushroom-based dishes all work well with not-too-heavy reds – try something from Southern France or a nice Rioja.  The creaminess of a risotto would be brilliant with a creamy white – a Mâcon-Villages, perhaps – while spinach dishes need a red with plenty of acidity, such as a good Valpolicella.

The key with whatever you’re eating is to try and match the strongest flavour – that may be the sauce or one of the side ingredients, rather than the main – and also to consider how ‘big’ the flavours are on the plate; don’t overpower delicate foods with a chunky wine or drown subtle wines with strongly flavoured dishes.

And, above all, remember rule no1 of food and wine matching: there are no rules; drink wine you like, not the wine someone tells you is right for the dish.