£10 or £20?

Could you tell a £10 wine from one costing twice as much? Surely, it should be quite easy – after all, that’s quite a big price difference and you’d hope that the dearer wine would be altogether better quality, justifying the extra money. But, it may be harder than you think; despite the amount lost to the government in tax (about £4 at this price point), £10 wines are generally well above basic quality and most show some character and individuality.

It’s a challenge I posed to a group of would-be professionals and enthusiastic amateurs who had signed on for a mid-level Wine and Spirit Education Trust course. I wanted to ensure they were comparing like with like (apart from the price) and so I chose a pair of Shirazes, both from South Australia.

Shiraz v Shiraz

The cheaper wine, from the reputable Grant Burge team (widely available from many large supermarkets), was rich and mouthfilling, full of red and black fruit flavours with subtle oak hints and, perhaps most importantly very, very drinkable and easily approachable. Everyone agreed it was a most enjoyable wine.

The £20 wine was an Australian classic: Penfolds Max’s Shiraz (from Waitrose Cellar). Unlike the Grant Burge, this was a wine designed for the long haul – Penfolds suggest drinking over the next 9 years. As a result, it was, perhaps, rather less approachable, with significant tannin, greater subtlety and far less of the immediate fruity appeal. Easy to dismiss at first taste as being of poorer quality than its rival. But looking beyond first impressions, its more complex character clearly shone through. Delightful sweet spice and chocolate intermingled with restrained red fruits and a wonderful long finish. But patience would be needed if it was to be enjoyed at its best.

So, it would be quite understandable if most would choose the Grant Burge. It’s clearly the one to take home for drinking today, although I’d want to leave the Penfolds under the stairs to enjoy around 2025.

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An Elegant Aussie Shiraz

‘When you find a wine you like, keep buying it’ sounds like good advice.  But things aren’t always as simple as that.  Weather variations might mean that next year’s bottle will taste very different to this year’s.  Also, winemakers move on and their replacement may have other ideas and, over time, styles and fashions change.  And, of course, so might your own taste as you sample more widely.  As a result, the wine you loved a few years ago may not be the wine you want to buy now.

But there’s another reason for abandoning an old favourite:

Langi Ghiran Shiraz

I first tasted Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz more than 20 years ago and loved it instantly.  Although a big, concentrated wine, it was far more elegant than any other Australian Shiraz I had ever tasted.  And, for a good reason: rather than coming from the Barossa or one of the other warm regions noted for the grape, this was from the much cooler, high altitude Grampians region of Western Victoria.  The lower temperatures meant that the grapes ripened slowly, picking up more flavours than would otherwise have been the case, and could be picked at lower potential alcohol levels, resulting in the style I was so taken with.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only person who found Langi Ghiran attractive and, over the years, the price has consequently gone through the roof.  A bottle that could once be (almost) every day drinking is now £50 plus – a figure I only stretch to for very, very special occasions.  But, thanks to the Wine Society, I can still enjoy a Shiraz made by Langi Ghiran: the Society’s Exhibition Victoria Shiraz (the 2014 vintage is currently available for £16) is made by the same producer and, whether it is made from younger vines or bought-in grapes, I don’t know.  But it does give much of the taste and style of the estate wine – at an affordable price.

We recently opened a bottle of the 2012 vintage that had been sitting on a rack under our stairs for a number of years and it was quite delicious with some venison steaks marinaded in sugar and orange juice and with a gin and juniper berry sauce.  It was, however, only just ready to drink (after several hours decanting) so, if you buy the 2014, as I will, do leave it for a couple of years at least before you enjoy an outstanding wine and a real bargain.

 

Wine with Lobster and Beef

“Drink with lobster risotto or rare prime rib”.  Winemakers often put advice on their labels concerning possible food matches but, I must say, this one really surprised me.  Why?  Because, in my mind, I can’t imagine a single wine that might pair successfully with these 2 dishes; indeed, in many ways, I’d be looking at almost diametrically opposite wines. 

The richness of the lobster and the creaminess of a good risotto would point me towards a big rich white – something from Burgundy or the Rhône, perhaps, or a full-bodied Californian or Australian Chardonnay. And, although I’m not someone who subscribes blindly to the ‘white with fish, red with meat’ theory, for me, a rare prime rib is definitely red wine territory with a wide range to choose from.

So, what was this miracle wine that the winemaker thought might pair with either dish? 

Cline SyrahCline Cool Climate Syrah from California’s Sonoma Coast region (Majestic, £13).  Delightfully full and rich with intense red fruit flavours and just a hint of the kind of spicy, peppery flavours that many good Rhône Syrahs display, this is undoubtedly a big wine (14% alcohol), yet everything is so beautifully in balance that you’d never feel overwhelmed – or think that you’d have to stop after a single glass.

We drank it with some orange and molasses sugar marinated venison steaks and it went really well – the fruitiness in the wine matching the sweetness in the marinade and the pepperiness going with the gamey flavours of the meat.

But, personally, I still can’t see the wine going with either lobster or risotto.  But that is the wonder of food and wine pairing – everyone’s sense of taste is unique to them and different from everyone else.  And so it should be; without that, we’d lose the very diversity of food and wines that make this such a fascinating subject.