Big Mac vs Dead Hippie: On junk science and fine wine

Can you tell theID-100261094 difference between a £2.59 Mcdonald’s Big Mac and the £8.50 Dead Hippie burger from London’s MEAT liqour, purveyor of fine but pricey burgers?

Of course you could. One is anaemic and flat in flavour, clearly the product of mass production and cheap ingredients. The other is literally dripping in flavour, is handmade and cooked to order, and most important of all, loaded with expensive ingredients.

Few would dispute the vast differences between these burgers. So why is the opposite true when it comes to wine? The flow of news stories telling us that seasoned wine experts, from Masters of Wine and some not, who are unable to point out the cheap, £4 wine out of a group containing some of the world’s most expensive wines is practically interminable. But recently it seems that the volume of these articles has been on the increase — helped along the way, no doubt, by publications like the Daily Mail.

If you thought it was safe to progress through the summer without encountering a news article that dismissed wine tasting and wine critics as being entirely useless, well you were wrong.

Back in July the Mail, our favourite sensationalist newspaper and purveyor of mindless twaddle designed only to stoke rage among anyone remotely reasonable in character, proclaimed that its taste test of cheap wines from Lidl and expensive wines from top Bordeaux chateaux resulted in ‘hilarious’ results.

The article featured Oz Clarke, the expert, and two people who, shall we say, are more likely wine ‘experts’ insofar as they are expert at drinking it.

The only thing hilarious about the article, from what I could surmise, was that Oz Clarke pretty much nailed the entire tasting and yet the Daily Mail still tried to convince its readers that no one could ever tell the difference between a £4.99 Aldi Bordeaux and a £514 bottle of Chateau Haut Brion. Except Oz Clarke for the fact that Oz Clarke clearly could and in fact did.

This is a topic that gets more than its fair share of coverage, both in the anti-wine snob national press and among snooty bloggers like me. Politics has the debates over taxes and the welfare state; the wine world has the debates over natural wines and whether or not critics can do the one thing they have spent their careers doing: picking out the good ones from the bad.

Newspapers love a good headline. The Daily Mail knows this better than anyone, but it isn’t alone. The New York Times has been known to weigh in on the debate. So too the Guardian, which more often than not prefers to make absolute declarations in order to drive more traffic to its site more than it probably cares about the topic itself.

Then there is one of my favourite media outlets: NPR. It could, just like the others, spice up its stories to more sensational levels to drive traffic. But this is the house of reason and analysis we’re talking about. Sensationalism doesn’t  register in a radio network where the newsreaders sound as though they are whispering the news to you while sitting in a wing back chair by a roaring fire.

NPR also has a reputation for analysing a topic at a level much deeper than most other media outlets, so it came as no surprise that their discussion about the validity of wine tasting (Is wine-tasting junk science?) briefly veers into discussions philosophy rather than the mechanics of comparing a £5 bottle of wine with one worth £500.

The article also sums up wine tasting in a much more eloquent manner than my burger analogy above:

If you know English, then you are expert not only at discriminating significant English sounds, but you also spontaneously and reliably appreciate their meaning. Someone with no acquaintance with English can’t do any of this, even though his or her sensory organs may be in fine working order.
— Alva Noë, NPR, 8 August 2014

So is wine tasting junk science? The question I ask is, who ever said it was a science? I think the Daily Mail article provided us with all the conclusions that we need, even if it was unintentional.

We need to talk about brett

Few things are more satisfying than an earthy, rich red wine from the south of France. Those deep, dark fruit flavours. That whiff of garrigue. The hints of herbs and spices.

But…maybe not the stench of barnyard so strong that it seems as though a horse has dropped its posterior onto your nasal passages.

Blame brett.

Experienced wine drinkers will already be familiar with brettanomyces, that naturally occurring yeast that is either loved or loathed and can enhance or destroy a wine depending on its potency.

Brett can divide a room. The Aussies? They hate it and the style of wine they make down under reflects their dislike for the whiff of barnyard and sweaty horse that it adds to a wine. The French? Well they don’t mind.

At its best, a dash of brett can add a bit of tobacco, leather, bacon, smoke and so on. At its worst you wonder if the winemaker blended in a few bushels of manure from his neighbour’s grazing livestock.

DSC_0074It isn’t often that a wine’s aroma actually makes me recoil, but in the case of this bottle of Les Obriers de la Peir Terrasses de Larzac 2012,which was part of a review case that Berry Bros sent to me, the odour of manure dominated the wine and diminished anything else that was good about it.

I recall the first bottle being a little stinky, but nothing could have prepared me for the blast of cow dung lurking in this bottle’s inner recesses.

For £18.45 a bottle as listed on the BBR site, this wine isn’t exactly on the value end of things. I would expect a higher quality level, but the fact remains that something like brett can’t always be controlled. Had I bought it myself, I would have taken it back — and that’s saying a lot because most of the time I like a little barnyard in my wines. It’s precisely the reason I prefer the earthy wines of the Rhone and Languedoc to the typical laser-sharp Aussie shiraz.

UPDATE: A day after opening this bottle, the overpowering aroma had diminished and fell away to the background, although there were still clear barnyard notes. This wine is apparently not known to be bretty, so did I misinterpret it? It could have been something else, but it doesn’t change what I first picked up when I opened the bottle.

So what is this thing called brett and how prevalent is it? Jamie Goode did an excellent job explaining brett back in 2003. In short, it is a yeast — a unicellular fungus — that appears regularly in winemaking. It is often believed to spoil a wine, but this is the topic of hot debate.

During the winemaking process, all of the yeasts that exist in the grape juice usually get eliminated as fermentation progresses and the alcohol level rises. Normally, all these critters disappear when fermentation is complete, but if there are sugars and nutrients left over, this can open the door to our little friend brett.

Brett is a big fan of juicy, opulent red wines (like the Obriers de la Peira above) that are made with ripe grapes, have higher alcohol levels, high pH levels and low acidity. It likes to lurk in the vineyard on the grapes as well as in the winery. Good hygiene and clean winemaking equipment can go some way to holding brett at bay, but the fact that it exists on the grapes themselves means that it can pop up any time it likes. Filtration helps to hold it at bay.

At lower levels, brett is often one of the main contributors to a wine’s aromas and complexity. For example, it has a long history in Bordeaux wines, but its effects have been reduced over the years as winemaking practices have modernised and improved.

I’ll come out and say that I don’t mind a little bit of brett. But only a little. I draw the line at the point when my wine glass smells as though it’s filled with manure.

Reviewed: Aglianico del Vulture and GSM two ways

It came as a shock, but someone recently told me I should review more wine and spend less time writing about the usual nonsense that blackens these pages. Under normal circumstances I would scoff at a suggestion like this, but then a clutch of sample bottles turned up at my doorstep and I realised I might have to do some actual work for a change.

In entirely unrelated news,  this past weekend I found myself entangled in one of those weird exchanges on a friend’s Facebook status update where a preference for wine was being determined through nationalism. I expect this with sports and even the way words are spelled (aluminum vs aluminium being a typical example), but wine?

The only thing I am truly nationalistic about is maple syrup and hockey. And even then, maybe only the maple syrup (if it’s made in Vermont, it isn’t allowed in my house). This is for good reason. Only recently has Canadian wine become something to be proud about, so it will take us some time to develop deep-seated nationalistic feelings towards it.

So, anyway, the main thing that I learned from this experience was that, for some people, there is only one wine worth drinking. The mere thought of this frightened me. What do we do if phylloxera were to decimate all of France’s vines again? If global warming renders California too hot for grapes? If invasive species overtake Australia? Better to have a taste for all of the world’s wines, I should think.

With that in mind, the following is a themeless and unstructured round-up of several wines that I’ve been tasting – and actually enjoying – lately.

More from the Berry Bros case
As I discussed in the spring, Berry Bros offered me a short trial of their new wine club and since then I have been putting their selection to the test. One such test was to including one that faced the most challenging crowd of all at the regular 7WordWineReview dinner. That wine, a St Hubert’s Pinot Noir Yarra Valley 2011, earned high praise. So far, so good.

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Yarra Valley pinot is a bit too easy though. So here we have something from a region of Italy that most wine drinkers probably don’t know very well: Basilicata. This region borders Puglia and is in the centre of the instep of the boot of Italy. The wine, made from the aglianico grape and known as Aglianico del Vulture, is deep in colour and backed up by tannins, acidity and ample dark cherry fruit to match.

This Musto Carmelitano Serra del Prete Aglianico del Vulture 2011 doesn’t come cheaply, but you would be hard pressed to find this kind of quality at a lower price. This isn’t just some over-baked red wine from broiling hot southern Italy. It is deep and savoury, balanced with tannin and acidity, and surprisingly fresh with that dose of minerality that people talk about so much these days.

Out of the Penfolds bin
And now, to Australia. There is something about Australian wines that I always find distinctive. To call it ‘sterile’ would be insulting. What I mean to say is that there is a preciseness about them that makes them razor-sharp, fresh and clean. There is often a touch of eucalyptus or mint in there that adds to this effect.

20140715-071004-25804582.jpgThis wine, a Penfolds Bin 138 Shiraz Grenache Mataro 2012, is a long way removed from those lesser Penfolds wines you find in the supermarket. It is approachable now, but it gives clues of its ageworthiness. It is precise, finely balanced in acidity, tannin and fruit, but is also deep and bold without having any flabby characteristics.

This is one of those GSM wines (grenache, shiraz/syrah, mourvedre/mataro) that have become popular not only in Australia but other realms that offer ideal growing conditions for Rhone-style wines. I am not entirely sure of all the major retailers of this wine, but you can buy this one from Frazier’s Wine Merchants for £22.50.

This is a good wine that is worth seeking out if you want something Australian that aspires to deliver more than those Aussie shirazes and Rhone blends on supermarket shelves.

GSM the old world way
Let’s say you just want to drink an old world version of this wine. Surely the whole point of jumping on the GSM bandwagon is to select something genuine, right? Something cheap, something rustic, something from, say, the Rhone itself? Grenache, syrah and mourverdre are just three of 19 grapes found in the southern Rhone, so there is the potential for a lot of variety here, but the reality is that they tend to most commonly appear in wines from this region.

I could rattle of dozens of Rhone wines worth trying. Coudoulet de Beaucastel, while still not cheap at about £17, is one of the best. Then there are the old standby volume-made wines: Guigal Cotes du Rhone Villages and M. Chapoutier Cotes due Rhone Belleruche, each for around £11-£12.

As always, I recommend asking your local wine merchant to suggest a bottle. They probably have a great one on the shelf that was made in limited quantities by small producers.

20140715-071004-25804421.jpgWe aren’t limited to just the Rhone, here. There are plenty corners of the south of France that get ignored because Rhone shouts the loudest. When thinking of GSM, we probably don’t drink enough wine from Saint-Chinian. This bottle, a Terrasses de Balaussan Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun 2010 that I bought for £12.49, was one of those wines I brought along to a 7WordWineReview dinner hoping for the best.

Unusually for my recent contributions to these dinners, this one wasn’t rubbish. Sometimes, the wines you buy are duds. but this one earned praise. It expresses the warmth of the south of France, the garrigue, the stones, the sun and the dark fruits.

This is just an honestly good wine that offers genuinely enjoyable drinking for the price.

Where is this Saint-Chinian place then? Well, it’s between Minervois and Faugeres. Has that confused you yet? Look on a map of France, find the border with Spain on the Mediterranean and look for a city called Beziers. It’s about 40 km inland from there.

The Rhone isn’t the only part of southern France that does wine well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo post: California Zinfandel…just can’t say no

pedroncelliThere are certain wines, and wines from specific regions, that I simply can’t resist.

In this case, it’s a region: California.

More specifically: Sonoma County.

Even more specifically: Dry Creek Valley.

I bought this wine not because I know it to be incredible. The reviews for it on CellarTracker suggest it is good, but not a masterpiece. But Dry Creek is one of those areas where you can still stumble upon a winner you’d never heard of before.

So as I was impulse-shopping on my lunch break, the prospect of this being a winner was too good to pass up.

As you drive down Dry Creek Road between Healdsburg and Cloverdale, you have about as much chance of missing some vineyards if you happen to blink while you are passing by their driveways. I recall making multiple passes down that road to find some wineries. Over and over. And over.

And so this: Pedroncelli Bushnell Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2011.

Now let’s hope it’s a winner.

Rosé, merlot and something from the Balkans: Better than you think

This post would have been a perfect round-up of three wines from countries competing in the FIFA World Cup were it not for the fact Bulgaria isn’t even at the event. This is what happens when you don’t actually pay attention to the sport.

So, now that I’ve got the pointless and frankly unrelated mention of the World Cup out of the way, let’s talk about wine.

Let’s start with merlot. It can divide a room. Few grape varieties find themselves on the receiving end of as much revile and hatred as merlot does.

Blame Rex Pickett Alexander Payne. Few people could be considered more responsible for the derision aimed at this grape than the man who wrote the screen adaptation of Sideways. While most of the story was centred on the wonder of pinot noir, merlot was the whipping boy. Pinot: lithe and lovely; merlot: fat and flabby.

Anyone who has sampled a merlot from California’s bad old days will understand. Overbaked, over-extracted, over-oaked and overdone – not much about it was charming. So too the chardonnays.

photo 3This is a real shame because there is no sane reason to be opposed to merlot in the same way there is no sane reason for anyone to have luposlipaphobia.

All of this rushed through my mind when I was drinking a Bulgarian merlot that I found on a shelf at Marks & Spencer. Peach Garden Merlot 2012 didn’t fill me with many expectations; Merlot fromBulgaria excites me about as much as chardonnay from California’s Central Valley.

I’m not going to say this wine knocked my socks off. It was basic, lacking in complexity and not memorable. But, for around £7, you can’t expect too much either.

A few reviews online castigate it for lacking fruit, for being thin, for being the embodiment of all those negative qualities that come with cheap merlot. But I am going to stand up and say that, for a simple, cheap wine, it isn’t that bad. It’s correct to the merlot style. It’s medium-bodied and basic, but it has the red fruit you would expect and an easy-drinking style. If you want complexity, spend more money. If you want a perfectly serviceable wine that you can pour into your gravy and sip on the sly, this one will do.

photo 1And so this brings me to another wine that gets a bad press. Rosé. As was written in these pages some time ago, rosé is one of those wines that can divide a room. This is particularly true among those people whose only experience with the wine includes the sickly sweet Blossom Hill and Echo Falls offerings, it can attract leers.

But this is summer and sometimes we not only want a crisp, cold drink, but we want something that says F-U-N.

And so rosé.

In fact: I love rosé.

Recently I was sent a sample bottle of Gerard Bertrand Gris Blanc 2013. I drank it over two warm evenings.

Many rosés from the south of France are brimming with the pleasant aroma of strawberries and cream with a dry palate that often pairs well with seafood. This one delivers exactly this, although it seems less full-on with the red berry notes than other wines of its type. This one is particularly crisp and a little bit more like a typical white wine, complete with a spritz and a good deal of minerality. For a wine in the region of £8 to £10, this is well worth a look, although it doesn’t seem widely available in the UK just yet.

photo 5Now, moving back to the Balkans.

Croatia might be best known at the moment for its football team’s penchant for nudity, but perhaps it should be better known for its wine.

When I was a teenager, I knew Croatia as a war-torn land that didn’t seem to be a part of the world where anyone would want to do much of anything. I was only a teenager, after all, and the Balkan war was in full swing.

But today, it does wine. It does wine quite well in fact. I could have chosen to feature a wine from any number of merchants, but my own laziness has brought me back to Marks & Spencer, thanks in part to  spate of shopping sprees there on recent lunch breaks.

We have here a bottle of M&S Golden Valley Grasevina 2012. Grasevina is, apparently, the most widely planted white grape in Croatia and offers up fresh, intense flavours backed up by a good dose of fruit and just the right amount of acidity. There is plenty of citrus and tropical fruit here, and this would be good for shellfish. Definitely worth seeking out if your usual choice for wine is a sauvignon blanc or Bourgogne blanc. And I hear their football team is better than Bulgaria’s.

 

 

 

A reader offer you say? Yes, a reader offer: IWC gold medal tasting

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So the other day the IWC asked me if I would kindly spread the word about their upcoming tasting event for gold medal-winning wines and I thought, why not?

As you might recall, back in November the IWC allowed me to attend one of their judging days and I have been worried ever since not all bothered by the fact that I cocked up their results a little bit. As a consummate professional, I blamed it on the fact they made me taste interminable flights of rough-and-ready Rioja and crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc, rather than my untrained palate.

Now you can decide yourself if I got it right (even though there’s actually no way of knowing which Riojas I judged), rather than take a chance by buying one of those award-emblazoned wines during your next trip to the supermarket.

Not wanting this to read like an advertisement or anyone to be under the impression that I take inducements, the only reason I agreed to do this is because I’ve always been treated kindly by the IWC and its PR team.

So, why not? Here are the details:

The International Wine Challenge is hosting an event that it calls A Taste of Gold on Thursday 26 June. The tasting takes place between 6pm and 9pm at Lindley Hall, The Royal Horticultural Halls, London.

This an annual event featuring IWC gold medal-winning wine and sake, and it is only for producers who have won a gold medal in the current challenge year. They are also allowed to show a selection of other IWC medal winning-wines and sakes from their portfolio, so I apologise in advance if you stumble across the occcasional bronze medal winner (as an aside, a judge once told me that giving a wine ‘commended’ or even bronze medal status is akin to telling the winemaker that it’s crap, but that’s just one person’s opinion).

Tickets for the event are normally £20 but you can get £5 off if you use the promotional code ‘GRAPENUT’. (Note the cute reference to the name of my blog.)

Full disclosure: The IWC has offered me two free tickets to this event. In the spirit of good ethics (and if I actually accept the tickets) I will donate their face value to a yet-to-be-determined charity. Feel free to recommend a charity in the comments section on this page.

And don’t worry, you won’t be stuck in a room full of socially awkward punters and the squirrely folk who run the wineries. The top brass of the IWC will be there too (Tim Atkin, Oz Clarke, Charles Metcalfe, etc).

So, if you have a bone to pick about the medal-winning wines, you’ll be able to hold the senior judges to account.

All the details are here: http://goldmedal.internationalwinechallenge.com/