Fortune telling and donkeys: Why you shouldn’t judge a wine by its label

It’s said you should never judge a book by its cover. When it comes to wine the same holds true, although there are some very obvious exceptions.

If you ever encounter a wine with a ‘critter’ label – one with an animal on it – most of the time you would be well-advised to avoid it.

There are specific cases when this does not hold true – Frog’s Leap, Stag’s Leap and Duckhorn Creek are three examples – but more often than not the appearance of one of our furry friends on a bottle label can only mean bad things. Case in point: Yellowtail.

Nevertheless, I have discovered on multiple occasions that it really is hard to judge something based on its first impression, no matter how strong your initial conclusions may be.

I had this same experience with The Winemaker. This counted for when I first tried his wine and then when I met the man himself.

Now, The Winemaker is a person I have written about once or twice in the past. I have alluded to his cosmetically challenged home, his collection of rather wild domestic animals and, of course, his unquestionable expertise in winemaking.

When I first encountered a bottle of his wine at a friend’s house in Birmingham, the slightly kitschy golden label with black text made me raise an eyebrow. My first impression was that it had an old-fashioned, almost tacky, French label and, given that I had this experience back when I knew very little on the subject of wine, I have to confess I had my reservations.

However, my scepticism was quickly extinguished when I had my first sip.

This might not have been categorised as fine wine, but there was no question it was well-made.  The man knew what he was doing.

You see, The Winemaker came from a winemaking family that, as far as I understood, went back generations. His father owned vineyards, his siblings owned vineyards and I’m fairly sure the same held true for grandparents and cousins. He made wine the way his father did, and his father’s father did, and so on.

He knew people and people knew him. Some of these people were owners of famous chateaux whose wines sell for hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds per bottle. Yet he was a humble winemaker whose own produce sold for modest sums. That’s the French wine lake for you.

But there was more to his life than wine. He was a conservationist who raised fish that were reintroduced into the wild. He had been a master of petanque in his youth, winning championships. And he played the drums in a Brazilian music and dance troupe.

This man might have had a dishevelled appearance, but that was only because he simply didn’t care what people thought of him or the way he looked. He was The Winemaker and that was good enough for him, for his family and for his friends.

I’d heard many stories about the things he had done and the people he knew. And I witnessed my fair share of unusual happenings. Whether it was the night he read my palm or the time my friend and I watched him corral the unruly pet donkey that had escaped his pen and dashed through the vineyards of Montagne, there were few dull moments at the vineyard.

In short: He was a man who may have appeared on way on the surface, but was another person entirely beneath the scruff exterior. Any person who judged him based on appearances would have missed out.

For his part, passing judgement was not his style. Certainly no wine was ever praised or scorned until a bottle had been opened and consumed. Until such time, he would only say, “Maybe yes, maybe no” when we showed him a bottle and asked for his thoughts.

If a wine was good, it was praised. If it was less than good, it was criticised briefly before being set aside and ultimately forgotten. The man had neither the time nor the interest to carry on drinking something substandard.

There is the old saying that life is too short to drink bad wine. For The Winemaker, whose life was shorter than expected, this was more than apposite.

Why we should probably just ignore wine scores and focus on drinking the stuff

Wine scores. Both loved and loathed by everyone in the wine profession, they have become a necessary evil as consumers seek out scores as guidance when deciding on what to drink.

After several years of trying to develop my own way of accurately scoring the wines I consume, I’ve come to the conclusion I am as flummoxed by the process as I ever have been. And therein lies my problem. If I can’t get it right, how can the casual wine enthusiast?

It seems many people in the wine world are embroiled in a debate about the way people review and rate wines. And it also seems people spend more time obsessing about wine scores than actually drinking the stuff.

Me, I find it all a bit too confusing than it’s worth. Some people advocate the 100-point system because it provides precision or – shudder – ‘granularity’. Others, meanwhile, prefer the 20-point system, which does the same with decimals, and then there are those who say ratings are really just pointless (I am aware of the pun).

Where wine scores have gone wrong is when they shift from being an innocent way of grading a wine to what can only be described as a critic’s grandiose display of machismo.

This was a great value Bourgogne for the money but if I had to give you a score I’d be at a loss to tell you.

Look no further than American critic James Suckling and the videos where he is seen shouting out scores as he whips through a series of wines, offering up numbers so quickly it makes me wonder if he’s simply pulling them out of the air.

“I’m 98-plus on that!” he said about one wine, then boldly exclaimed, “100 points. Perfect wine,” about another.

A perfect wine? Really?

If Dirk Niepoort, winemaker at Niepoort in Portugal, has anything to say about the topic, he thinks the notion of a perfect wine can be a bad thing. Why? Because it will cause prices to skyrocket and make the wines unattainable for many customers.

My gut tells me the process of rating a wine out of 100 is more arbitrary than its proponents want us to believe. Do I need to know something is an 88 as opposed to an 87? Of course not.

I can also assure you, if you asked me to tell you if the Montagne-St-Emilion I bought from The Winemaker was an 84 or an 87, I would fail.

When it comes down to it, the best way to recommend wine is to talk about it and share what is being experienced rather than apply a score to it that comes with little explanation. If only everyone else would agree.

What I’ve been drinking lately:

A South African Bordeaux-style blend…

In a tenuous link to wine scores and reviews, I came up against this quandary the other day when I had been asked to review a bottle of wine for Wines of South Africa through Twitter.

The bottle in question was a Vilafonté Series M 2009, a red Bordeaux-style blend containing a surprising 46% malbec.

Here were my [edited yet still incredibly stuffy] tweets about the wine:

“Vilafonté Series M 2009. Deep ruby, vanilla on the nose, baked dark fruits, spice.

“In mouth, more vanilla, dark fruits, higher alcohol, medium acidity, nice gripping tannins.

“I’m getting tobacco/cigar box, some leather. A touch more oak than I would prefer. Love the cepages.”

Nowhere in there could I come up with a score for this wine. Was it an 86? A 90? Maybe a 95? I have no idea.

It was a great wine, but I also thought it was too oaky and, if anyone has read my work on 12×75, you’ll know I’m not the biggest fan of over-oaked wines.

You can find this wine and previous vintages at Winedirect for £27.49.

And some great English rosé…

This past weekend I decided to make the most of the sunshine and do something I just don’t do often enough: drink more rosé.

The bottle in question was Hush Heath’s Nannette’s English Rosé 2010, a bottle that came from the Wine Pantry in Borough Market as a gift from my friend Geoff.

Made from the three most commonly used grapes in Champagne – pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay – it is the same wine used in the firm’s English sparkling rosé, but the still version comes from the ‘taille’ from the pressing.

When making sparkling wine in the Champagne style, a ‘cuvee’ comes from the first 2,050 litres of wine pressed from 4,000 kg of grapes, while the ‘taille’ is the final 500 litres.

This is a refreshing, subtle and dry rosé with a dose of strawberries and fruit as well as a mineral element to make it a refreshing choice on a hot day. Buy it at the Wine Pantry for £16.