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.

Burgundy: A Nightmare

Red wines from France’s Burgundy region are among the most sought-after and expensive wines in the world. The price for a single bottle of one of the top names can easily run into 4 figures. Whether such a price can possibly be justified, I leave to you, but many of these wines are made in very limited quantities and, as I learnt in my first Economics lesson at school many years ago, when demand exceeds supply, prices go up. It doesn’t help either that the top wines are bought, not just for drinking, but as investments to re-sell.
The problem of limited supply isn’t just restricted to the trophy bottles, it occurs throughout Burgundy. To explain why, we need to look back into history.
Wine has been made in the region since Roman times and, over those nearly 2000 years, the very best vineyards have been identified and classified. This has given Burgundy the most precise and complicated Appellation Contrôlée regime in the whole of France. The best sites in some villages are designated ‘Grand Cru’ followed by ‘Premier Cru’. Below these come wines from lesser sites in these villages and from less prestigious villages. Finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, you have generic ‘Bourgogne’. By fragmenting the area in this way, you have very limited supplies of any particular wine apart from, perhaps, the generic bottles.
But, it’s worse than that! The region’s vineyards have also suffered from the Napoleonic system of inheritance under which assets were divided equally between the male children. This resulted, over the years, in vineyard holdings becoming smaller and smaller. In many cases, you find adjacent rows of vines being owned by different people – some of whom will be excellent growers and winemakers, others less good. You can see the effect of this in the picture above (taken in spring) where some strips are clearly more advanced than others.
All this means that buying Burgundy, particularly red Burgundy, can be a nightmare. Not only do you need to know one site from another but also, who are the best growers. Added to this, often quite simple bottles aren’t that cheap and, as I found recently, despite my knowledge, anyone can find themselves disappointed. I opened a village-level red with our dinner a few nights ago; it was OK – a bit of cherry fruit and some spice but, at rather more than £20, I really expected a lot more and, as my wife correctly remarked, if this had been a New Zealand Pinot Noir at that price, it would have been something truly special.

Good or Very Good?

How do you decide how good a wine is?  Most professionals today will give it a mark out of 100 – the higher the score, the better they rate the wine (although I wonder why 100 was chosen as nothing ever gets less than 50 and few score below 70).  This system originated in the USA with Robert Parker and has largely replaced the one most European judges used until a few years ago: marks out of 20 – although the same criticism applies: virtually nothing scored less than 10.  Indeed, the Australian wine critic Len Evans once crudely observed, “even the spit bucket gets 7 out of 20!”

Some wine lovers will buy their wines based on these scores (fine if your taste and that of the critic scoring the wine coincide, but beware if not), but, for most, the best way to assess a wine is ‘do I like it?’, possibly closely followed by ‘is it worth the price?’

When my wife and I share a bottle (frequently!), we usually sample it while we’re cooking, continue with it during the meal and, if any remains, drink it through the evening afterwards.  Although some wines don’t last that long!  We opened one like that recently:

Pazo villareiPazo de Villarei’s Albariño from Galicia in North West Spain (Wine Society, a bargain at £10.50) was just so drinkable.  Lovely peach and pineapple aromas and flavours and a real richness that went perfectly with some baked hake with chorizo.  The bottle went down so quickly, there was no need to consider whether we liked it – our empty glasses told the tale.

But not all wines disappear that fast and, if some lingers throughout the evening, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not enjoying it.  There are some wines that are made like that; the Italians have a lovely name for them: Vino da meditazione, literally, ‘a wine for meditation’, a wine to be savoured, to be enjoyed slowly, a wine of depth and character.  They can be just as good as our rapidly disappearing Albariño, but different.

And, after all, who wants to eat or drink the same thing all the time?