Category Archives: Buying wine

No Bad Wines?

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SL Supermkt 1“You never say anything bad about a wine on your blog” commented a friend recently.  “Does that mean you never open a bottle that was truly awful?”

It’s a good question but, thinking about it, I can’t recall the last really poor wine I tasted.  I have, of course, opened faulty bottles, which isn’t the same thing at all: bottles can be corked or oxidised or display some other characteristic that means that the wine doesn’t taste how the winemaker intended it to taste.  Faulty bottles can occur in any number of ways – bad batches of corks or poor storage, for example – but that doesn’t mean it’s a poor wine; another bottle of the same bought at a different time might be delicious and so it would be unfair to blog about the bad one.

But, back to the question about truly awful wines.  This is a bit more subjective but, taking the standard as one that was so badly made or unpleasant tasting as to be almost undrinkable, I really can’t remember the last time I met a wine like that.  Admittedly, I’ve opened some that had very little character (and so didn’t blog about them as there wasn’t anything interesting to say!), but even those, in the main, were correctly made and not unpleasant to drink, simply rather bland.  Incidentally, some that fall into this category are among the best-selling brands on the UK supermarkets’ shelves!

Things weren’t always as good as this; turn the clock back to when I first started appreciating the wine I was drinking and I often found bottles that were only fit for pouring down the sink.  Maybe such wines are still made but the fact that they almost never reach our shelves is down to the skill of the professional wine buyers who visit growers on behalf of the major supermarkets, high street wine chains or wholesalers.  They are the people who weed out the rubbish and ensure that, although there may be the odd faulty bottle or wine that isn’t to our taste, we rarely open one that is truly awful.

 

 

 

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Acidity: Good or Bad?

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Tahbilk Viognier Alsace Gewurz Faustino 1

‘Lemony’, ‘citrussy’, ‘refreshing’, ‘clean’: you often see these words in descriptions of wine.  What they’re really saying is that the wine has plenty of acidity, but in a good way.  And, so long as the acidity doesn’t dominate and is in balance with the rest of the flavours, I’d generally agree that some acidity in a wine is a positive.  It can make the wine more refreshing and attractive on the palate and it can also help make it more food-friendly by cutting through any richness or greasiness in a dish.  But a few people – including a very good friend of ours – are particularly sensitive to acidity and my ‘lemony-freshness’ becomes their ‘tart and shudderingly unpleasant’.  As a result, they need to choose their wine very carefully.

Wines made from certain grapes tend to be naturally more acidic than others: famous varieties Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon all fall into this category.  So, despite their attractions for the rest of us, acidity-haters should concentrate their attention elsewhere.  But it’s not just the grape variety that’s important: as grapes ripen, the level of sugar in them increases but the level of acidity decreases, so wines from warmer regions of the world, where the grapes are likely to be riper, will, in general, be less acidic than those from cooler climates.  Those are two useful factors to bear in mind but, as with much in the wine world, things are not as simple as that:  some producers actually add acidity during the winemaking process – it’s quite legal and they would argue that they’re just compensating for what would otherwise be an unbalanced wine.

So, where should those who dislike acidity look?  The pictures above suggest a few good places to start: for white wines, Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Semillon are all varieties that are naturally quite low in acidity while, for reds, Tempranillo – the main Rioja grape – or Grenache – a key player in many Côtes du Rhônes, are the same.  And, watch out for wines made by less interventionist winemakers, as they are less likely to have acidity added.

But, most of all, taste widely and, if you find wines that suit your palate, stick with them.

 

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?

 

 

‘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.