Sunday, 15 January 2017

Wiggia on Wine

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 public

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 bottles.  ??

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 view.

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 marginally.

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 Spains 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 worlds 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 it isn’t.

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.


Sackerson said...

Fascinating. Told me so much I didn't know.

Anonymous said...

What a delightful article and so informative - thank you. Heavens above - Majestic - I thought they disappeared years back.

wiggiatlarge said...

Roger, I think you may be thinking of Oddbins, which was a great loss to us wine buyers and a classic case of a successful business being ruined by accountants and dogma, in their case by the new owners the French wine chain Nicolas, it has been resurrected but on a much smaller scale.

Demetrius said...

Ah, the picture, it reminded me of the happy times we patronised a number of camp sites in the area. On return, I was always worried about whether the customs then would think the large trailer was overloaded.

CherryPie said...

Lovely to see a seasonal wine article from you. I am glad you were able to sample at least a few :-)

Sancerre and Pouilly Fume are both wines that I enjoy, particularly Sancerre. I am reminded of an occasion in London when Mr C & I chose Sancerre to accompany our meal. Let's just say it took the waiter by surprise especially when we told him it was a wine of choice at home.

James Higham said...

Ah, I see.

The Jannie said...

We just don't get the wine thing. So much so that when, some years ago, we drove through Nuits St Georges and Chambolle-Musigny; we didn't stop.