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.
There 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.
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.
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.
Attractive 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.
£5.58: that’s the average price we in the UK pay for a bottle of wine according to a recent survey. Doesn’t sound very much, does it? But, look behind that figure and things become a lot more worrying – both for the producer and for those who want a nice glass of wine without paying too much.
For a start, more than half of that price goes straight to the Government in tax; every bottle of still wine has £2.16 duty added to it, whether it retails at £5 or £500 – so it has a bigger impact on ultra-cheapies – and then there’s VAT, which works out at 93p included in the cost of a £5.58 bottle. The bottle itself, the label, cork or screwcap and transport costs also need to be accounted for, as does a little marketing; say 65p in all for those. And don’t forget the retailer who will, typically, take about a quarter of the price – another £1.39 out of the total. A quick calculation and you’ll realise that that leaves a paltry 45p for the wine itself – and that has to cover the costs of a year’s work in the vineyard plus the winemaking.
The one apparent piece of good news for the producer is that this average retail price has gone up 9p a bottle in the past year. But, No! 8p of that was a tax rise and at least 4p more can be attributed to the drop in the value of the £ against the dollar and the euro since June 2016. So, in reality, the producer is actually 3p a bottle worse off than before.
And, if all this isn’t depressing enough, these calculations are based on the average price paid – so half of all wine bought in the UK is cheaper than this. Just how sustainable is that?
I opened a bottle recently displaying a sticker proclaiming that the wine had won a Gold Medal in a certain Wine Competition.
So, 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.
A case of red wine was sold at auction last month for £11000. Admittedly, it was Château Latour, one of the most prestigious estates in Bordeaux and from the highly acclaimed 2010 vintage, but it set me wondering whether any wine is worth almost £1000 a bottle. And, of course, the buyer of this case is likely to have to wait at least a decade before the wine is at its peak, assuming, that is, that he or she is going to drink it, rather than (more likely) re-selling it at a profit.
The prices of top wines are now silly – the Liv-ex Index calculates that they have tripled since 2004 – and the sad fact is that it is putting the best wines way out of reach of most wine lovers. When I first started taking an interest in wine, you could buy one of these top Bordeaux for about 20 times the price of an ordinary wine – just about affordable for a really special occasion – now that figure stands at 150 and rising steadily.
So, for those of more modest means, is there any way you can sample a decent Bordeaux? Happily, I’d say yes! Look for wines with the words ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on the label. These are from estates which fall outside the Classified Growth system. Many are, nevertheless, well situated and with talented and dedicated winemakers. But, because they are not listed among the privileged few, prices are far more reasonable.
A couple of days ago I opened such a bottle that I’d kept under the stairs for a few years – even lesser bottles take a while to reach their peak.
Château Senejac 2006 had become nicely mellow and mature with soft, leathery flavours and a long spicy finish. You’d probably pay around £15 – £20 for the equivalent today. Don’t expect the length or complexity of a Latour, just really pleasant drinking – and at a sensible price.