|Château Pichon Longueville|
A post from Wiggia
Normally at the end of the year I write a
piece on wine giving my opinions on wines tasted and consumed and
recommendations for those who having read the piece believe what I have written
has any value and might act on it or simply just enjoy their own choice of wine
anyway. I will never know.
Last year that did not happen for two
simple reasons. Firstly I was on a diet, much needed and overdue, and my
consumption was curtailed to assist that end goal, and then in August/September I was hospitalised and drinking was verboten for a period. All adding
up to a situation that meant I simply had not drunk or tasted enough wine
during the year to be able to write an article about the merits of x against y.
Going back a little the previous year I had
made a conscious decision to drink less, something my wife thought I couldn’t
do! and drink better but less often. So really I have had two years of the same
for different reasons. What all that has done is to give myself an opportunity
to look at wine in the way I first did all those years ago when I first became
fascinated with the whole process of wine as an agricultural product and what
ends up in a bottle.
So this is not a buy now listing, but a look
at the way wine has progressed as a product, or not, during my lifetime. One
thing is for sure wine has progressed beyond anything one could imagine since
the sixties where unless you lived next to the likes of Berry Bros &
Rudd or could afford one of few select
restaurants, you would offered claret, hock, Bulls Blood or the then trendy Mateus Rosé. There really was little else other than the ubiquitous cream sherry.
But all started to change in the seventies
with Bordeaux beginning to use science
in the wine making process and then combined with the string of good vintages
in the eighties the climb in quality spread beyond those few top chateaux and
spread elsewhere. And with global warming/climate change/hotter summers making
its contribution in the Northern Hemisphere, even vintages that would or should
have been written off became largely tamed by man and very acceptable wine has
been produced in all but the very worst years, Germany being a shining example.
Being so northern its vineyards rely on good long summers for Riesling to ripen,
yet since 2000 there has hardly been a bad vintage. Which for me being a lover
of good Riesling and its low comparative price for such outstanding wines
because they are out of favour has been a positive boon, but I digress.
Bordeaux of course deserves a whole article
or book on its own and there are many in circulation so I will not dwell there
for this short piece.
What was happening on the other side of the
world at the same time also had a profound effect on Europe, all those
vineyards where quality was a by-product were jolted into action by the arrival
of first Australian wines, a country that had no history of any premium
products apart from Grange, being the producer of bulk “jug” wines. Science and
technology were introduced big time and wines arrived here at the lower price
end that eclipsed what the majority of Europe had been selling us. It was what
Europe had needed, a proverbial kick up the bum. All the cheap blending wines
from the Italian south and southern France for instance were no longer wanted.
The wine lakes shriveled and disappeared and the surviving vineyards had to
change or grub up their vines. Many did the latter but the remainder bit the
bullet in the way they made wine and joined the technical revolution, in many
cases calling in oenologists from Australia and New Zealand to help. The
“flying wine makers” of the time.
All that is now history and the same
principles have now been applied to other wine producing countries, in
particular the Americas. Wines from California and other states join those from
Chile and Argentina among others on the supermarket shelves, for it is the
supermarkets that now dominate wine sales.
The supermarket phenomenon was initially a
godsend for those who just wanted to take a bottle of Chardonnay from a shelf
without having to become too cerebral about it all. The supermarkets in those
heady early days of non-stop expansion in the area all tried to outdo each
other and employed Masters of Wine in their buying teams alongside other
experts to give them an edge over the opposition. Poaching staff to retain that
edge was not unknown.
Sadly supermarkets having attained the
position of total dominance began to jettison their early lofty ideals. In many
cases the sheer volume that they shifted of any given wine meant that only the
bigger producers and conglomerates could supply that volume, so that what you
see today for sale in supermarkets means they mirror many of the major brands
to a large extent. Thereby, despite
having aisles of bottles for sale actually reducing the choice to the
That in no way means there is nothing of
value to buy in supermarkets. There are plenty of good everyday drinking wines
of all hues on those shelves, it is just evermore difficult to find those
genuinely cheap winners. The driving down of prices by the same supermarkets is
making it ever more difficult. Occasionally one can find wine that punches
above its weight - buy again and you may wonder if you have purchased something else. The vineyard in order to
satisfy supermarket demand has had to bring in or use inferior grapes to make
up that difference.
There was even one well known case that was
brought before trading standards years ago when Sainsbury's award winning
champagne subsequently lost its fizz in later batches. Someone complained this
was not the same wine that won this award and investigation showed that the
producer had indeed substituted an inferior wine as he had run out of the good
stuff. For reasons no one was able to fathom the complaint was rejected and the
champagne was allowed to carry on using its award sticker on the inferior
The upshot of that is it is almost certain the same thing has happened since as a loophole was discovered and it is perfectly legal to present wine in this way. I have on several occasions had wines that have changed dramatically for the worse in later bottles but funnily enough never the other way round.
Which brings me to the tricky area of wine
awards. Much revered by all and sundry when they started up as an easy
indication of whether a wine had any merit and a good way to get lesser known
names and grapes purchased by the general public.
Over the years the wine awards, the two
biggest being the International Wine Challenge and the Decanter awards have
grown into the behemoths of the wine awards business world wide. Huge numbers
of wines are entered and all pay to have their wines appraised by the bottle. So
this along with the labels for the successful entries that are also paid for is
now a very profitable business for the organizers. Oh and just remember that
when you see a wine bottle without an award it doesn’t mean it is a worthless
drain-cleaning fluid but was almost certainly never entered for any competition
in the first place. It is not obligatory.
There is no question about cheating as all
wines are tasted blind by teams of experts and wine trade buyers etc, but what
has happened is that the categories have become bloated with awards for everything
and the sheer number of wines winning awards dilutes the value of those that do.
A commended wine for instance - the lowest rated award in reality means it is
drinkable, no more no less. Plenty of wines not entered into competition are
drinkable so the commendation is on a dubious footing as to public value and
thousands of wines receive this label - and indeed the higher value ones.
Is the wine awards concept a racket? Good
question. Various wine writers and critics give opposing opinions. The truth probably
lies somewhere in between, but having to pay to attend the dinner where the
awards are handed out at £250 a go smells of organisers’ greed and throws a dark light on
the true reason for these competitions.
As far as I am concerned the only label worth
pursuing is a Gold Medal, though because there are now so many of those they
introduced a new Platinum award on top of which are trophies for best of all of
everything. All to much methinks and certainly far too much for the general
public to take in or want to take in. As an example I purchased a wine I had no
knowledge of, a Spanish Tempranillo, the grape used in Rioja, with good reviews
and a Silver medal. How this wine (there was nothing corked or faulty about it)
won any award I have no idea, half went down the sink, and as before this is
not isolated in its occurrence.
Though to be fair that sort of sink moment
is much much rarer now than twenty thirty years ago. Screw tops have made a big
difference to keeping wines fresh and free from the ravages of air and
oxidization. Corked wines are no longer the worry they were, the pros and cons
of cork versus screw top and compound corks goes on unabated. All methods have
merit in different situations, so there is no reason to bid one against the
other and the demand for cork has lessened meaning the problems created by
using under-age cork have now been eliminated to a large degree.
Along with the screw top the other plus for
the occasional buyer was the grape/grapes variety on the label. Europe never
has and still largely doesn’t do this with the noble exception of Germany,
whose labels despite legislation some time ago to simplify them have become
ever more indecipherable, proving if nothing else the Germans can’t do simple! Mind
you, some of their Gothic script labels are the finest of all wine labels to
Trends and styles as with any consumable
in this day and age are in constant change, not always for the better but at
least it means wine is no longer stuck in a time warp of tastes and choice as
it was to a degree in the past
In reds the New World has brought us fruit
dominated wines, mainly because ripening grapes is not as difficult in say
Australia as in northern Europe. Yet when the American wine writer and critic
Robert M Parker started his influential magazine The Wine Advocate and became
the most influential wine critic in the world, his preference especially for up-front
fruit laden wines changed even the Bordeaux Chateaux direction especially in
the right bank communes of Pomerol and surrounds because Parker points sold
wines often at inflated prices, and who wasn’t going to have some of that?
Parker having stepped down from his tasting
duties has meant that in 2015 the last great vintage being released there is an
obvious though slow swing back to less fruit driven high alcohol wines and
whilst many of these “fruit bombs” were exceptional in their own right many
were not. Too much of everything made them unbalanced and so some good has come
of Mr Parker leaving the scene whilst on the other hand he had a big part in
raising standards as he was not afraid to slate bad wine, something the Chateaux
were fully aware of hence bending their product to his tastes even if only
In everyday wines the move to introduce new
wines and grape varieties has slowed along with supermarket profits. In red
wines the only significant new additions in quantity are from South America
with Malbecs from Argentina and Carmenere from Chile appearing in greater
numbers. Malbecs in particular are great value for quality and value and the
more expensive ones are every bit as good as anything else in the wine world at
their price points. Carmenere is still not so easy to find but the better ones
again are well worth seeking out. Other grapes from these countries will follow
and especially Pinot Noir the red Burgundy grape, so difficult to grow. It is
the reason why small growers and limited supply have made this wine so
expensive in its native homeland Burgundy.
New Zealand now has large plantings of this
grape and many are on sale in Europe, but in my experience the majority of the
cheaper ones suffer from unripe fruit and are not worth the purchase. For the
real thing you are looking at the 20 pound bracket and up which is why Chile
could be the supplier of cheaper drinkable Pinot Noir. I have sampled many and
apart from a couple of duds at least you know you are drinking that grape as
the fruit is ripe, it should only improve from that source.
Other reds that have appeared are Italian
Aglianico, the good ones are great the rest mediocre, and Mencia from Spain
very trendy at the moment but little around to form much of an opinion. Though
Spain’s other areas outside Rioja are appearing more readily and are top
quality, especially Ribera del Douro and old vine Grenache wines from Priorat,
and from Portugal Touriga Nacional the main red grape of the country is also
making some very good wines.
None of these grapes and areas are “new”
they are either resurgent areas that became in many cases forgotten backwaters
or in the case of the grapes that went out of fashion revived. No doubt that
trend will continue and with white wines there is no greater example than
Chardonnay. The grape is one of the great white wine grapes responsible for
white Burgundy, yet because it is relatively easy to grow was planted
everywhere in the new world resulting in Chardonnay overload and the cliche
“anything but Chardonnay”. Its place as number one white selling grape is
Sauvignon Blanc providing everything from sublime to bland and the grape that
made New Zealand the wine nation it is.
But if you fancy SB don’t forget that the
Loire with its Sancerre and Pouilly Fume still makes lovely SB European style,
not so fruity but, crisper more tangy and better with food in many cases. It’s
a style that many have forgotten in the rush to purchase the fruit driven NZ
Sauvignons. Pinot Grigio is another white that sells in large quantities. God
knows why. Most is without any merit yet still it fills the shelves.
There is more obvious grape variety on
offer in white wines on sale, many especially the Italian ones don't merit
bothering with and the superior versions of wines like Soave are priced way
above what they are worth. If you want to try something a bit different in
white wine without breaking the bank, Spanish Godello, very trendy but worth
sampling. Picpoul de Pinet from the South of France, and the better Verdicchios
from Italy along with Greco de Tuffo and Arneis a wonderful grape in the right
hands and a poor one elsewhere. There are literally hundreds of grape varieties
that are used in blends and remote areas
and some can make very good wines in their own right, but most unless you know
your stuff are indistinguishable to a large degree and not worth bothering with.
The Italians again are very good at promoting wines in this category.
Italy by the way is still the biggest
producer of wine in the world, a claim that can have good and negative
connotations. Variety both red and white is Italy's strength but getting the
quality out into the real world is another matter. I love Italian wines and
their variety but balk at some of the rubbish they export. It is improving but
still too slowly. Even their fine wine areas, Piedmont and Tuscany get away
with overpriced mediocrity. I know I have purchased it. Sad, as a great Barolo
is up there with any other of the world’s top wines.
Rosé has really taken off in its own right
in wine terms those few odd bottles of “girly” wine found in the corner of
off-licenses in the past have now grown to whole sections of display shelves,
and the styles range from sweet to dry as in the red wine they are mostly based
on it is only grape skin pigment that gives the colour and this can be adjusted
by the method either of pressing the grapes straight away or leaving them for
awhile and running the juice off early. It is still very much a fashion
statement but no harm in that, and its current popularity is shown by the fact
that vineyards throughout the world are now producing it.
And further proof of quality elsewhere is
the Austrian Gruner Veltliners in the shops. Not long ago I would not have
touched any Austrian wine on principle after their ethanol scandal, but these
old vineyards are giving us some very good bottles of something a bit
different. Along with Gewurztraminer from the Alsace, these are among the few
new trends in supermarket wines. In overall terms the supermarkets are moribund,
the bottom line dictating all.
Yet for all that the wine scene has never
been rosier. Japanese wine has appeared on our shores. China is planting huge
acreage with vines. Mexico, Brazil, India and here in England vines are
increasingly being planted. We are restricted mainly to sparkling wine aka
Champagne but the results have been staggeringly good with many giving
Champagne a real run for its money. The proof of the quality being that several
French Champagne house are either buying land in the South Downs or are making
deals with British vineyards.
In fact Champagne with its total grip on
the market is under pressure with Italian Prosecco having for the first time overtaken Champagne
sales in this country. A cheaper product and at the bottom end a worthy rival
and better value than Champagne. Champagne has a problem, the cheap versions
taste mainly very uninspiring and are not in monetary terms exactly cheap,
Champagne has done a very good job of selling as a luxury product when much of
Will we grow other grapes successfully
here? The Romans did and temperature rises if they happen will ensure other
worthwhile grape varieties will be planted. Most of what is currently planted
struggles to make anything you can’t buy better and cheaper from elsewhere, yet
with well over a thousand vineyards up and running here and growing by the year
in the long run why not? Add to that the Eastern European countries that have a
long tradition in wine production.
The Crimea was the supplier of wines to the
Czars, and you have another area, a sleeping giant where money is being
invested and the results are being awaited. This a fascinating glimpse of the
vineyards in the Crimea, the video is from the NYT.
Crimean Vineyards of Last Czar Withstand Time and Tumult
My own trip last year in May was to the
Rhone valley, one of the oldest wine regions in France and even more revered
than Bordeaux at one time and more expensive to buy. Everyone recognises the
names Cote Du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Pape yet there is a lot more to Rhone
wines than that. The latter have never been cheap and the great Northern Rhone
wines like Hermitage ditto, but the southern Rhone in places like Gigondas and
Vacqueyras supply increasingly good quality and sensible prices. The region is
on the rise, the Cotes de Ventoux being a treasure trove of bargain wines with
rising quality and I did my bit by bringing back a couple ! of cases.
Just a final note. Despite the situation with
the supermarkets with the possible exception of Waitrose, all is not lost as
the internet is supplying evermore more online retailers and even the high
street has at least got Majestic plus a lot more independent wine merchants
reappearing. The reality being the choice has never been better.
And whatever reviews experts awards tell
you - only use them as a general guide. Never are they sacrosanct. Buy what you
enjoy, enjoy what you buy. By all means go out of your comfort zone now and
again - you will be pleasantly surprised. Remember wine was created to go with
food to be shared at the table with friends and family as well as enjoyed for
its own sake. Enjoy.