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?

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.

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!