Drink Good Wine

A room in which I used to lecture had a sign on the wall which read “Life’s too short to drink bad wine”.  I agree!  Add to that a campaign which was run in France a few years ago which translated as ‘drink less, drink better’ and you have my wine philosophy summed up.

But how do you define ‘bad’ wine?  I used to pose that question to my classes on occasions.  Interestingly, the replies rarely considered the actual quality of the wine; they were usually along the lines of ‘it depends on the sort of wine you like’.  But is that true?

With improvements in vine growing and winemaking knowledge in recent decades, there are almost no badly-made wines on the shelves today (which were once all too common).  You may find the odd faulty bottle – one where the wine is corked or oxidised, for example – but they are, thankfully, quite rare. 

But, having said that about badly-made wines, there are certainly many shades of ‘good’.  Sadly, some of the most famous commercial brands produce wines that are pretty basic and unexciting with very little to interest the genuine wine lover – but even these are technically correctly made.  And many are big sellers, which brings us back to the point about ‘it depends on the wine you like’. 

And, of course, as I have said many times before, people have their own ideas about what is good and bad.  How often have I heard ‘I hate all Chardonnay’? 

Those who share that view would have left Trinity Hill’s example from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand (£18.50) on the shelf at Grape and Grind.  Fortunately, I didn’t and we enjoyed a delicious, fresh, creamy wine with lovely lemon and peach hints and a delightful long, dry finish.  Although the wine was actually fermented in oak barrels, there was none of the overt oak flavouring that I think many Chardonnay haters associate wrongly with the grape variety.  Here, the barrel added just a little extra hard-to-identify complexity that made the wine more interesting and very drinkable.

So, back to that sign on the wall.  But don’t just settle for avoiding the bad.  Look around and find the best you can.  Life’s too short to do anything else.

Nasty, smelly wine!

Ians mugshotYou open a bottle of wine and instead of the lovely, fresh appealing aromas you were hoping for, a nasty smell hits your nose. Something is obviously wrong, but what? – and what, if anything, can you do about it?

It depends on the smell. Perhaps the most likely is a musty, mouldy smell. This suggests a ‘corked’ wine. Corked wine is nothing to do with bits of cork floating about in the glass, which are harmless (take them out with a spoon or your finger and be more careful opening the bottle next time) – but is the result of a problem in the cork production process which has tainted the cork, which, in turn, has spoiled the wine. Nothing you can do except take the bottle back for a replacement or refund.

Another possibility is the wine might smell a bit like sherry or vinegar and a white wine might also be an unduly dark colour. This wine is oxidised – oxygen will, somehow, have got into the bottle and ruined the wine. This happens at times with plastic bottle stoppers that don’t fit properly or with poor corks or poor storage and, again, there’s no remedy – just take it back for a refund.

The opposite of oxidation – where too little oxygen is present can also be a fault. It is usually called ‘reduction’ (and that’s a useful shorthand, although I know that some scientists think the term is misleading). Reduction is most often – but not exclusively – found in screw-capped bottles and shows in a number of ways: smells of sewage, manure or rotten eggs are common. Happily, this problem is not always terminal; introducing some oxygen to the wine by, for example, decanting or simply leaving it in the glass for a few minutes, can revive the wine but, if it doesn’t, your remedy is as before.

There are other faults that are less common, but sometimes even wines in good condition can have unusual and unpleasant smells; one winemaker used to say that “good Burgundy smells like s**t!” So, how can you tell if there’s a problem? Perhaps, only by experience, and, in fact, even experts often argue whether certain smells represent a fault or are a characteristic of the style of wine.

I should say that none of the faults I have mentioned would actually harm you if you drank the wine. But you wouldn’t enjoy it, so my advice is, if you’re unhappy with how a wine smells, then reject it. Most wine waiters, wine merchants and supermarkets are keen to please their customers and will usually exchange or refund quite willingly. But you do need to ask – and sometimes be persistent!