£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.

Wine ‘Falls Apart’

ageingWine is a living thing; just like the people in the picture above (thanks to all-free-download.com), it has a youth, a middle period when it’s in its prime and an old age. And, depending on the wine, that lifespan can range from as little as a year, as in a Beaujolais Nouveau, to several decades or even longer for a fine Bordeaux or Rhône.

But, once you open a bottle, the wine will start to change – for better or worse – as a result of the wine coming into contact with the air. So, a very old wine may have become quite fragile over its lifetime and will only show its character for a few minutes once uncorked and poured into your glass before moving to a sad, vinegary end. At the other extreme, a young, tannic red may be completely ‘closed’ at first – lacking in any smell or much taste – until it is decanted, which exposes it to lots of air and brings out the flavours that were initially hidden. In a few cases, like some Portuguese wines, this process may take up to 24 hours, but it’s worth it.

But a young white I opened recently surprised me. At first, it made pleasant, easy drinking as an aperitif and continued very attractively accompanying our meal. But, there was some left in my glass at the end of dinner that (unusually) I forgot about and, when I went back to it a couple of hours later, the wine had noticeably darkened in colour and, in my wife’s words, ‘it has fallen apart’. This described perfectly what we were now tasting: the wine had become oxidized, with that distinctive sherry-like taste, the acidity had become far more prominent and sharper and, although alcohol has no actual taste, you could clearly detect the alcohol on the wine that had not been noticeable earlier.

The reason for the change? I suspect a spoiling bacteria called acetobacter – the same rogue I mentioned earlier responsible for turning an old wine into vinegar. But, it is very rare for this change to happen so quickly in a young wine. Although the winemaking may have been at fault, acetobacter thrives in high temperatures and, more likely is that, somewhere on its way to me, this bottle had been kept in an overheated warehouse. A disappointing finish, but most of the bottle was very drinkable.

No Bad Wines?

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.

 

 

 

A ‘Blind’ Challenge

Two glassesTwo glasses of wine; you’re told that they’re from the same region and the same blend of grapes but nothing else – except that one is from the bargain basement shelf (£4.50), the other more than twice as expensive (£11).  How confident would you be of distinguishing which was which?

That’s the challenge I gave to a group recently during one of the day courses I was running at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  How did they do?  All except 1 person got it right!

So, are ‘blind’ challenges easy?  It depends on what you’re being asked to do.  Those where you have to completely identify a wine are difficult – no, let’s be honest – they’re bordering on impossible unless you’re an expert in that particular type of wine.  However, simply having to pick the better quality wine is much easier.  In fact, as I told my group, you need to ignore what the wines taste like and just concentrate on two aspects:

Firstly, which of the wines has greater length in the mouth?  By this, I mean, when you have tasted both and swallowed or spat them out, which has flavours that remain in your mouth for longer?  Better wines usually have more staying power while cheaper ones, however attractive at first, disappear very quickly.

If that doesn’t answer the question, then see how many different flavours you can pick in each wine.  Complexity is always a sign of a good wine and the more different flavours, the better.

By choosing a £4.50 wine as one of the players, I actually made the test much easier than if I had asked the group to compare, say, a £10 and a £20 wine.  In the UK, the way we tax our wines means that, proportionally, a cheap wine bears a higher rate of duty than a more expensive one.  Stripping out this and other non-wine costs (the bottle, transport, retailer’s profit, etc) meant that the wine alone in the dearer bottle was worth not twice the cheaper but closer to 10 times as much.  A tip for us all!

2015: A Good Year?

The year moves into November, the leaves are falling and, across the northern hemisphere, most of the grape harvests are over. So what can we expect from Europe and North America’s 2015 wines? We’re not going to see many of them on our shelves for a while (with the exception of Beaujolais Nouveau, which I’ll be blogging about in a couple of weeks), but a look at the harvest reports gives us a clue. And the news, almost without exception is good.

Une hotte or hodLet’s start in France. Burgundy and the Rhône enjoyed 2 hot, dry months in June and July and, following a slightly cooler August, were picking healthy, ripe grapes in September. Bordeaux was similar – sunnier and drier than usual – and harvests there began in mid-September with most producers very upbeat about the outcome. In Spain, they’re already talking about the best vintage since 2005 and across in Portugal the crop looks good enough for us to see the first general declaration of a port vintage since the marvellous 2011 as well as some great wines.

Much of Italy suffered from record breaking July temperatures and lower than average rainfall, resulting in lower yields and smaller grapes, so, not a bumper year for volumes but the flip side of this is that producers are saying that there’s a really good concentration of flavours in the grapes suggesting high quality wines.

Over in California, the harvest was also a small one with reports of crops often 20% less than normal. Again, drought and high temperatures were the causes and many growers completed picking by the end of September – remarkably early. Nevertheless, most are fermenting good, fully ripe fruit with the expectation of excellent wines.

Of course, we can’t know how the wines will turn out until we taste them, but with generally favourable weather conditions right across Europe and North America, it looks very hopeful that the wines from 2015 will be well worth waiting for when they start appearing on our shelves in the New Year.