12.5% Australian Pinot Noir

I see that newly released Domaine Chandon’s Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2012 is a mere 12.5% alcohol.  It reminds me that Coldstream Hills, back in the days when James Halliday owned it, produced some Pinots of 12.5% alcohol.  And I recall Jancis Robinson reviewing them positively and noting the low alcohol with a statement along the lines of “good on them, Pinot Noir isn’t Grenache”.

I’d encourage a few Kiwi winemakers to take note.  There are quite a few 14%+ fruit bomb Pinots coming out from the South Island.  They remind me of young Australian Sparkling Shiraz without the sparkle.

Vintage Flip-flops

In June 2012 Steven Spurrier wrote “There is no doubt that the red wines of (Bordeaux) 2011 merit more consideration than….the hard 2004”.

And I just found a (slightly) old Decanter (March 2007) where he reiterated what he wrote in 2005 “the description most heard of the 2004s was ‘classic’ … (this) might carry a whiff of ‘old fashioned and austere’. Not a bit of it, for from both banks the wines are among the most lively, fruity and fresh-tasting that Bordeaux has ever produced….attractive for the medium term, they will have a long enough life for the collector.”

Decanter has made quite a few flip-flops on Bordeaux vintages. Good, bad, then good again.

Humpf!

Why are some wines so expensive? Are consumers being fooled?

The short answer is “supply and demand”.

But it’s worth exploring this further to gain a better perspective than the traditional marketing thoughts/stories on high prices.

Marketers like high prices (even if in practice they are so keen on discounting). It’s rare to read a student assignment or consultant report that recommends a low price. High prices are supposed to be a symbol of marketing success. And thought to be due to brand equity, differentiation, and advertising. The idea being that consumers are supposed to value the brand more highly, perhaps because they think it is higher quality than it really is.

This logic is popular with critics of marketing too, who claim that marketing rips consumers off.

But how much truth is there in this? Why are some wines so much more expensive? Why are there many bottles of wine that sell at prices that the typical wine buyer finds ludicrous?

Well first of all there are costs. Expensive wines cost more to make. Great locations, meticulous care, low cropping, qualified staff, R&D, and so on, all raise costs. And no one wants to sell a wine that cost $20 to make for only $19. So quite simply if there isn’t demand for wines of this quality selling at more than $20 a bottle then little will get made. In the long run “wines are made by their market” (Hugh Johnson).

OK but there are wines that sell at far higher prices than their cost of production. Penfold’s Grange possibly doesn’t cost much more than double to make than their Bin 389 (“poor man’s Grange”) yet it sells for 10 times as much. And there are many other such examples (although altogether they constitute a mere fraction of 1% of the wine sold in the world).

Now thinking about supply and demand why don’t Penfold’s make more Grange? Sure it would lower the price they could charge but overall you’d think they would still make more money. The answer must be that making more would actually be very difficult. In this case while there are other vineyards that can produce grapes of sufficient quality (eg old vines in the best locations) in many cases this fruit simply is not for sale – it already goes into another wine. The owners might get more by selling to Penfold’s but they have their own pride and ambitions. Now everyone might have their price but my point is that increasing the quantity of Grange would be vastly more expensive for Penfolds. Combined with the lower selling price that more supply would cause it just isn’t worth it. Plus the high selling price of Grange (and its high quality) gives Penfolds lots of free publicity that helps sell their many other brands.

So supply and demand are at work.

Other expensive wines like cru classé Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy have the same issue where increasing supply would be very expensive or impossible, at least to do so in a way that didn’t compromise quality. Increasing supply and decreasing quality hits the price of a brand in two ways, the price comes down because of increased supply and because of decreased demand.

OK but why is there demand for $600 bottles (the current retail price for Grange in Australia)? Many people simply can’t fathom why someone would pay so much for a bottle of wine. But they forget that different people have different values. Personally I find it odd that anyone would spend more than $30,000 on a car, but that’s just me. I also wouldn’t buy a luxury watch, and I find it odd that people spend vast sums on boats that spend most of life moored in (costly) marina. It’s perfectly understandable that some people are happy to pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine, and a tiny few will even pay thousands, sometimes. There are people who are earning money so fast that they couldn’t drink it away as fast as they were earning it even if they drank $1000+ bottles. And there are also even impoverished Uni students who are willing to club together to buy $600 bottle to see what it’s like. So it’s not really hard to understand why a few people, or people a few times, will buy very expensive wines.

Or is it? Why will people buy a wine for $100 when there are many other wines half the price that they would find difficult to tell apart in a tasting? Why buy the expensive wine when there others that would give similar pleasure?

This seems irrational, and it’s why marketers (and their critics), economists and psychologists like to talk about irrational demand, false perceptions of quality, market failure, and buying to impress others and signal status. No doubt there is a little truth in this but there are other better explanations.

I notice that mainly the wines that sell for very high prices have proven that they can age well, transforming themselves into something special. Most wines do not age well. Even some very good, very expensive to make wines either don’t gain a lot from age (eg most Chardonnay) or are a very risky, unproven ageing propositions. For those of us seeking age worthy wines the available wine universe shrinks substantially.

So the demand for expensive age worthy wines may not be large (tiny compared to the demand for cheap wine with no ageing potential) this demand is still large enough to bid up prices.

Now potential for ageing is difficult to assess. Most wines don’t last. Some that do don’t really improve. And this is something you can only prove over a long period of time. The wines that have proven this sell for high prices because supply is small compared to the demand. This is the big story not one of symbolic values (that’s a small story) or fooling consumers (that’s an even smaller story).

My personal wines of the year 2011

The wine that has given me greatest pleasure, over and over, this year has been Chateau Cantemerle 1996.  It’s a classy wine.  A reminder of what Bordeaux is really all about, which isn’t inky 14% powerhouse wines that garner high point scores when critics taste them before they are even bottled.

Now I’m an old-fashioned sort of guy, I enjoy claret, Champagne, Madeira, old Northern Rhones – actually always older wine rather than younger, but one of the most impressive intruiging wines I’ve enjoyed this year is Yalumba Signature Cabernet/Shiraz 2006.  A wine with a long history, in a perfect vintage for this Barossa blend.

Champagne wise Lamandier-Berneir terre de vertus remains a firm favourite.

One of the most under-rated white wines in the world continues to be Muscadet from the Loire where 2009 produced some great wines for enjoying now.  And also from the Loire this was very impressive – if too youthful to truly enjoy yet.

And a special mention should go to Australian Chardonnay which is excelling itself lately.  Complex, restrained, single vineyard cool climate Chardonnay with alcohol of 12.5% – that’s not what people think of when they think of Australian Chardonnay, it just goes to show what innovation there still is in the wine industry.

Bio-Vino Lingo

The wines are earthy but the language is lunar.

by Brian Miller – first published in the Australian wine magazine Winestate

“Biodynamics produces wines that make you think more clearly”.

This thought-provoking announcement was made by a winemaker recently in the press. He continued:

“With biodynamic wine you are tasting all of the cosmos distilled down into one spot”.

All of it.

In his novel, The Information, Martin Amis said of the cosmos:

“It would seem that the universe is thirty billion light years across, and every inch of it would kill us if we went there. This is the position of the universe with regard to human life”

So decanting biodynamic wine is recommended. The crust will be mostly dark matter anyway.

Biodynamicists glow with good intentions but, unchecked, their language can drift from earthbound common sense into esoteric eco-babble. Organics and Biodynamics tend to blur, perhaps intendedly, but there are distinctions. Organic agriculture is entry-level ecology. It involves muck, mulch, manure and the lyrics to Big Yellow Taxi. Composting is comforting, celebrity gardeners gambol in the stuff and it woos worms. On the other hand, there is a reason why potting-mix comes with a warning-label urging you to don face-mask and gloves. It’s called Legionnaires’ Disease and is as potentially lethal as it is entirely natural.

Biodynamics demands a further leap of faith, and into one. It grafts astrology to oenology and involves rites, rituals, calendars, cow-pats and a founder who believed that eating potatoes causes journalism. True. Rudolf Steiner was the cryptic mystic inventor of Anthroposophy, which was easy for him to say. He never actually practised farming but that did not stop him from authoritatively addressing agriculture and giving birth to biodynamics. He also expressed some odious opinions about spirituality and skin colour, and he wasn’t talking about grape skins.

One wine writer, who used to be as funny as Woody Allen used to be, underwent a consummate conversion and now advocates biodynamism with the evangelical zeal of a Thermomix demonstrator on heat. He wrote:

“We carry within us an archetypal idea of wine as a natural product of the earth … we carry, too, a little deeper down, a remnant awareness of wine’s ancient cultural and spiritual significance … we like to believe that the wine we drink has not been buggered around with too much.”

That’s fine, and finely written, as long as reality has not been buggered around with too much either.

Natural? Well, not quite. There is little that’s natural about a vineyard, be it biodynamic or businesslike. Grape vines in nature do not line up in regimented rows, nor trim their own trunks. Their natural inclination is not to make hooch for humans. It’s to climb trees, seek sunlight and make baby vines. We severely subvert that natural endeavour by annually offing their offspring and drinking their blood.

There is even less that’s natural about wine. Grapes in the wild do not change into Grange. They turn into new vines or sour grapes. Wine is a much manipulated beverage and is no more “natural” than raw-milk cheese, brown sugar or Brazilian blondes.

Neither is there anything natural about the biodynamic practice of cramming cow poo into a cow’s horn. Left to their own devices, cattle tend not to do that. The concept may be cosmic, but it is far from intuitive and you wonder about the first person caught doing it behind the barn.

It is true that the Earth is a profound source of natural power and elemental energy. If once-living organic matter is buried underground for a period of time, and the planet is allowed to exert its natural influence, free from human interference, you end up with … petroleum. And coal. A build-up of bird droppings will mutate into nitrate, and supernaturally into superphosphate. Some refining is required, just as organic wine is refined to make organic brandy.

The significance of the spirituality I can not speak for – and neither can anyone else without a ouija board – but the cultural influence is approaching cult status. A bunch of winemakers are now manically biodynamic, dozens are dabbling and fellow travellers are “in conversion”, which means they are converting to biodynamism about as quickly as I’m converting to celibacy. Self interest also plays its part. A cosmic connection enhances your chances of selling wine to a holistic new market-segment of caring, sharing, environmentally-conscious, new-age customers. Like British and German supermarket chains.

Biodynamic vignerons would be difficult to dislike even if you wanted to. They are invariably charming, disarming and as well-meaning as water-diviners – unless you are a stag or a steer, and value your bonce and your bladder. They could be more open about the involuntary involvement of the insides of animals in the alchemy. The excuse that “The cow was dead when we got here” – also known as the ivory smugglers’ defence – won’t wash with vegans.

Biodynamicists idolise the Moon, a remote rock that knows nothing of liquids, lunacy, months or Mondays, and does not discriminate between sea, land, water, wine or world events. Its strongest physical influence is when we can’t see it, at the new moon, and only then because it has the intense clout of the Sun’s gravity behind it. Some life-forms evolved to take advantage of the incidental, comparatively small and strictly coastal tidal pull, including sardines, soldier crabs, sea-turtles and real-estate agents. But grape-vines are ocean-ambivalent at best and equally immune to the moon. That serene Stiltonic disc sends us down three things – weakly reflected sunlight, very faint gravity and inspiration for lame song-lyrics.

But apart from that, and apart from the occasional shocker, many biodynamic winemakers make fine wines and most would not know how not to. And that factor alone may be more important than all the moonshine combined.

So I tracked down a Pinot Noir made by the winemaker quoted at the beginning of this article and shared it with a friend. By the end of the bottle – as mystical as this must sound – we were definitely thinking more clearly.

Or we thought we were.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Brian Miller is a fellow traveller of Australian Skeptics. He was cast as Devils’ Advocate at Taste Australia’s biodynamics debate and as the Devil by some attendees. Brian works with several Australian wineries, biodynamic and scientific, and does not question personal beliefs, only public balderdash.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

2011 an unusual vintage in France

Reports are that they are already harvesting in the Loire, strange since when I was there in August it was a damp miserable Summer. This is all because of the weather way earlier when the grapes were first forming.

What sort of wines will this bring, hot weather early on bringing forward the harvest, and then a cool damp (not heavy rain) ripening period ?

Bordeaux also will be an early harvest.  It too had a cool Summer.  But once again September seems better (so far), will some last minute sunshine do any good ?  If it rains what will this mean ?  Either way I find it hard to be optimistic about the 2011 vintage.

Expensive wine doesn’t always taste better

Actually, there is a rather good relationship between price and quality in wine, but there are two very good reasons why a person used to drinking sub $20 bottles will often be disappointed by a splurge on a $60+ bottle.

First of all expensive wine will often be different, a strange unfamiliar taste, and it is more difficult to fully appreciate new tastes.

But also one of the defining characters of fine wine is its aging potential – the reputation, and price, of many a fine wine is based on what it tastes like at 10, 20, even 30+ years of age, not at 5 (or less) years old.

My advice to someone seeking to learn about the truly great wines of the world is to try to taste them at (vertical) tastings that feature various vintages going back some years.

Wine in the Christian/Jewish bible

Daniel Whitfield has compiled an interesting list of mentions of wine in the old and new testaments.  His aim was to determine whether calls for prohibition are based on cultural or scriptural grounds – the answer is clearly cultural because only 16% of references to wine are negative in the bible (c.f. 59% positive).

This is another example of religious people each picking and choosing which bits of their religion they wish to believe, which, if you think about it, undermines the central concept of religion.

I quote his conclusion here:

Alcohol and the Bible: Conclusion
What is the Biblical teaching on the use of alcohol? That was the question we sought to answer in this inquiry. Based on the 247 references to wine and strong drink in the Bible, based on the life of Jesus, and in light of the common arguments that arise in a discussion on this topic, we find a simple (and, perhaps to some, surprising) answer. The Bible has several warnings against drunkenness, but only one caution against the responsible use of alcohol in celebration and with meals. That caution is to be careful, when you are in fellowship with Christians with a weaker conscience, that you don’t cause a brother to stumble. A total prohibition against the use of alcohol is conspicuous largely by its absence, particularly to an individual from a conservative Christian sub-culture.

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. Colossians 2:16

PS Probably unsurprisingly the story is much the same in the Qur’an, the other famous Middle Eastern religious text.  While a number of things are expressly forbidden in the Qur’an this is not the case with wine.  Like the Jewish/Christian texts it merely contains warnings against drinking in excess.

Halliday points – ratings of Australian wines compared to French, German and others

In the 2010 list of “James Halliday’s Top 100 Wines” in The Australian newspaper (13th Nov 2010) James Halliday answers the question of whether or not his ratings for Australian sparkling wines are comparable to the point scores he gives for the Champagnes (the only imports featured on the list).  And he says…..

“no they are not.  Nor would points for great red burgundies compare to those for Australian and New Zealand pinot noirs, First Growth Bordeauxs with Margaret River cabernet merlots.”

It’s very good that Halliday makes this clear.  It would be easy to think that the points in his Australian Wine Companion were against some international standard, but like most wine writers based firmly within one market (Halliday is the leading Australian wine writer) he has to give his readers what they want – which is high scores for local wines.  John Platter one year experimented with giving internationally based points for his South African wine annual, and experienced an immediate backlash from his readers (and no doubt the SA wineries).

Halliday’s mention of “great red burgundies” and “First Growth Bordeauxs” (sic)  is truly odd though.  Is he saying that the points aren’t comparable against these pinnacle wines, but would be comparable against lesser French wines?  But that doesn’t make sense because the points he gives for first growths are, of course, comparable against the points he gives for 2nd growths, and 3rd, 4th, 5th and unclassed Bordeaux.

Ah well, all is explained when he writes “points are as subjective as the words in tasting notes….Australian can never make Champagne, a Burgundy or a Bordeaux [nor presumably a Hermitage?  I ask] so direct point comparison is fraught with contradictions and qualifications”.  Hmmmm, indeed, such as the contradiction above.

The only way to make sense of this is to infer that Halliday is saying that his points are very contextual and should only be used to compare like with like, e.g. Champagne with Champagne.  What’s not clear is whether or not Margaret River cabernet can be compared with a less successful region for the variety (say Hunter Valley).  Also is the rating for a $10 wine comparable to a rating for a $50 wine – here Halliday often hints that they can, that he doesn’t factor in price, but I suspect that in reality he does.

Personally I adopt the practice of allocating points against an international standard.  They reflect the excitment the wine gives me – from its quality, not novelty.  But I know I judge the wine within a price level, so I’m not quite so hard on cheap wines and somewhat harder on the very expensive.  In other words, I have certain expectations before tasting a wine which I know I can’t entirely shake off.

Unlike most wine writers I’m not writing for my living, so I don’t have to review “new releases” all the time (in fact I hardly ever review these).  So I can allocate points largely on how the wine tastes like now (not a guess on how great it will be), this means that old wines will usually out-score young wines, as would be expected.  Dishing out 100 points to a barely fermented red seems odd to me – can it not get better (only worse)?

So I think the highest rated wine on this blog currently is the glorious Chateau Rausan-Segla 1985 (rated in 2010, i.e. at 25 years old).

Decanter magazine goes digital at last

100 points

In my opinion Decanter magazine lives up to its claim to be the world’s best wine magazine.  It’s wisely so much more than just a bunch of tasting notes.  I don’t see much point in buying magazines that are little more than hundreds of tasting notes when I can look up reviews of any wine online whenever I need that information.  Decanter magazine has great writers (like Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson, and Andrew Jefford), and their tastings focus on overall impressions, rather than individual wines.

It’s the sort of magazine I want to keep for reference.  But copies of Decanter magazine take up a lot of space in the house.

So I wrote to them several times asking when they would have a digital edition, e.g. for iPads. And a few days ago I received a reply saying that Decanter is now digital – click here to see.  You can read it on your mac or ipad.

So now my Decanter magazines take up no space, and they are easily searchable.  Also living in Australia Decanter reaches retailer shelves very late (I used to read their Christmas wine suggestions in February), now I get it the instant it is released in London.  And finally, the online subscription is much cheaper than the Australian newstand price (especially thanks to the weak US dollar and strong $A).  Buy now.

Bordeaux 2010 Early Vintage Report

Well I’ve been here for almost two months now, from late Jun to late August, and this has been a beautiful warm and mild Summer.  Certainly much better than 2007.  Could it be another vintage of the decade, or century? We seem to be having a lot of them lately.

An early report from Decanter reported that June was the hottest for 35 years, and the first two weeks of July were the hottest since 1921, raising fears of another 2003.  I think that is crazy talk, this Summer has had plenty of sunny days but none of the extreme heat of 2003, and there has been periodic rain.

Jancis Robinson gave a more upbeat assessment a month ago, and didn’t speak of any worries about heat.

From everything that I can see, (warning, I know little about viticulture) the weather bodes well for another very good vintage.

Chateau Rauzan-Segla 1985

96 points

Margaux. 12.5%

A truly gorgeous wine. This is one of the greatest wines I have ever tried.

Light appetizing. Classic claret. Marked by fresh acidity even now at 25 years old.

I tasted a vintage around this date as a young inexperienced wine drinker and was unimpressed by its lack of body. Now I think this style is superb. Concentrated, complex, ripe but on a fine lithe frame.

UPDATE 2012 – I have been fortunate to have been able to source a number of bottles of this wine.  Tonight I’m trying what will probably be my last.  I’m firmly convinced that this style of wine could not be made without the low alcohol and greenness that is part of the mix.  It convinces me to buy great estates in the non investment (super ripe) vintages.

I wish I could drink wine like this every night.

Growing up with wine

I remember my parents often having a civilised drink before dinner. Though when I was very young this was not wine, I think it was usually Pimms, with ice I think. No I now recall that (NZ) ‘sherry’ was most common (which had an odd deep brassy orange colour).

Interestingly today they still don’t drink wine daily, though there is nothing stopping them – they do when I visit. And they largely drink one wine, Sauvignon Blanc, and largely one brand. Again except when I visit when they really enjoy trying different wines.

I remember going to a ‘wine and cheese’ event, this was a first I believe – a new social event in New Zealand. I think it was to raise funds for a charity, church or school – these became very popular for a while. For us kids there was soft-drink and chips. At this event was a wine called ‘hock’ (which seemed, to us children, to be a very odd name). I remember adults commenting that this ‘hock’ was all the rage. It was short for something like Hochenheim I believe though it was not German, nor probably made from Riesling.

Later wine appeared at all family social occasions, it was particularly popular with my grand-mother who drank it every night I think. We all used to think it was funny when she got a little ‘tipsy’ (lovely word). My other grand-parents didn’t like table wine much, except for very sweet sparkling, prefering sweet sherry. They cellared a bottle of Black Tower a bulk German wine for decades – I’m not sure if it was ever opened let alone consumed (I’m sure it would not have been drinkable).

Muller-Thurgau became the wine, particularly a few brands like Whonsiedler (or some such fake German name). I remember its distinctive dappled glass bottle – though bag in the box became dominant. We kids were delighted by the technology of bag-in-the-box, fascinated by the tap, and the plastic bag inside. We could pour an adult a glass whereas we couldn’t pour a heavy wine bottle (they were mostly large flagons or litre bottles back then – certainly no long-necked German bottles).

Wine was seen as a posh drink, and drunk from cut crystal glasses, even if it did come from a flagon or a box.

Mueller-Thurgau was the first wine I ever drank, and contrary to its reputation my memories aren’t that it was bad. Nor that it was as sweet as people later made out – when dry wines took over this was the principal criticism of Mueller-Thurgau, dry-ness became synonymous with quality (fashion and class) in the same way as in Roman to Victorian times sweetness was the mark of quality. NZ Mueller-Thurgau was not without charm, it was of medium sweetness, quite dilute, with acidity but low alcohol (possibly chapitalised). OK it sounds pretty awful, closer to grape juice than wine, which it probably was but it was better than the awful grape juice sold in New Zealand at the time. It worked as a bridge for those of us going from fruit juice and cordial to wine.

Occasionally red wine was seen. In fact I have a vague memory of seeing red Whonseidler (same distinctive bottle) which I think was a pale sweet red!!

All this pre-dates when I started drinking wine by which time the scene was becoming dominanted by 3 classic varietals (Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon) – but that is another story.

Why I drink wine

When I drink wine I’m not just looking for a pleasurable taste experience. I loathe the idea of always trying to buy whatever wine has the highest points (within the budget).

An essential pleasure is learning more about a particular wine, or style, or grape variety, or region, or vintage. That’s why I feel it’s important that a wine reflect its ‘terroir’.

There are therefore plenty of wines I would not drink. And often in situations where these are the only available choice I opt instead for water, soft-drink or beer.

This is the difference between beverage wine and fine wine.

I seldom drink NZ Sauvignon Blanc for this reason. It’s not that I dislike it, it’s that it largely all tastes fairly similar, the variation between brands and vintages is mostly not very interesting, and it doesn’t develop/improve with age.

When a sensual pleasure is reduced to the same routine experience then we have died a little. And some people have never lived (when it comes to wine that is).

Central Otago visit 2010

Shortly before leaving to visit New Zealand I tried Martinborough Vineyards Te Tera Pinot Noir 2006 which got me very interested to take a fresh look at NZ Pinot. Much lauded by critics in recent years I’ve been underwhelmed by dark sweet fruit-bombs that have lacked complexity and restraint. They have lacked restraint in pricing too. Fortunately I arrived in Otago with the Australian dollar strong against the kiwi and producers wary about raising prices when production is up and global demand is down (due to the financial crisis).

Central Otago is very beautiful, a desert with a snow fed river weaving its way across valley floor and between steep gorges and mountains.  It has the hottest driest Summers in NZ but the locals let us in on a secret, it snows every month of the year which it did while we were there in mid-Summer – just a few flakes, but there were cold days, and days you could water-ski too (the water is very cold always though, it’s melted snow).

They once mined for gold here.  Today orchards (cherries, apricots) benefit from cold nights, sunny days and irrigation from the river.  But people have been looking for something economic to do with the land (pine tree forestry turned out to be a dead-end).  Then someone planted some grapes, including Pinot Noir.  Today 85% of the vineyards are Pinot Noir with the other 15% divided amongst Riesling (another success), Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc.

Arround Bannockburn where we stayed it’s walking distance to about a dozen wineries.  Along Felton Road there are two of the very best producers: Mt Difficulty and, of course, Felton Road.

So what did I think?  Well, there are a lot of impressive wines being made off young vines, by inexperienced (with the vineyard or even Pinot Noir itself) winemakers.  You’d have to say the future looks very bright.  However, Otago wouldn’t be the first region in the world to show an impressive start followed by years, if not decades, of very slow, patchy, further improvement.  A bit like the gold rush of yesteryear this boom is bringing in investors and  a lot of plantings.  Many vineyards will be owned by people who aren’t really interested or knowledgeable about fine wine – and there will be financial pressures to cut corners.

Is there a style emerging ?  Probably the Felton Road dark, big fruited, dark cherry style is the most distinctly Otago wine.  It’s sort of like non-sparkling Australian ‘burgundy’, sweet exotic, with the best being quite complex for young wines.  I can see why millionaires come down here and start vineyards – it’s hedonistic wine that you don’t have to wait for.  Martinborough can produce big dark wines like this but they are more savoury, the best are still better than Otago  I think.

I wonder how these wines will age.  I don’t expect them to fall over quickly, but I wonder if they develop complexity.  I’m impressed and intrigued enough to want to add some to my cellar for the first time.

Click here to read my reviews of Otago wines.

Wine protects you from heart attacks

I previously reported on a large study that found that wine had a beneficial effect on mortality due to heart disease, cancer and all causes.  That study was published in 2000, since then there has been further research including this meta-analysis of 26 studies that evaluated wine (and beer) consumption separately, i.e. not just total alcohol consumption.

It reports that the relative risk of vascular disease is 0.68 compared to non-drinkers, i.e. 68% of the risk that non-drinkers face.  This relative risk (RR) estimate is from a meta analysis of studies that controlled for social class and  other possible confounding factors.

Equally interesting was the attempt to model the dose response relationship, i.e. what is the recommended daily dose of wine.  The resulting model actually comes out at 750 mls per day (a bottle a day) as representing the lowest risk of heart disease!  Now a strong word of caution, the model is based on 7 studies (where a dose relationship could be worked out) and so could only achieve statistical significance for estimates up to 150 mls a day.  So put simply, drinking 50 mls a day is better than zero, drinking 100 mls a day is better still, drinking 150 mls a day is even better still….and this trend probably goes on for a while, maybe ‘peaking’ at 750 mls but that’s a bit of a guess, albeit a mathematically guided guess informed by the current research.  I highlight this not to recommend that everyone drinks a bottle a day but rather to highlight that many public health warnings are based on less well informed guesses plus a good deal of politics rather than the medical evidence.  Something which I’ve written on previously.

The epidemiological evidence is clear that some alcohol consumption, especially wine, reduces your risk of dying (particularly from heart disease).  This is especially true if you are middle aged, and don’t drink and drive.  There’s clear evidence that a bit more wine (possibly due more to regularity of consumption rather than drinking more at one sitting) is better for you.  At the other end of the spectrum very high alcohol consumption is associated with greater risk of dying.  So there has to be a point where the level of alcohol consumption stop lowering your risk and it starts increasing, and a consumption level where the risk of death is higher than non-drinkers but there is not sufficient evidence to pinpoint this ‘recommended daily dose’.  Not surprisingly the health warning indsutry errs on the conservative side, they probably fear that if they tell people “no more than 4 drinks a day” then many people will actually have quite a few more.

Again then, public health guidelines should be taken by intelligent people as guidelines only.  The medical evidence continues to be rather positive about non-binge wine consumption.

References:

Castelneuvo et al (2002) “Meta-Analysis of Wine and Beer Consumption in Relation to Vascular Risk”, Circulation (the journal of the American Heart Association), Vol.105, p.2836-2844.

When prices go silly

Yesterday I was offered a bottle of Trinity Hill 2006 Homage Syrah, which I turned down, due to the $170 price tag.  “I can buy buy 2005 Hermitge (e.g. Jaboulet La Chapelle) for that price”.  “Good point” said the wine retailer “though the Trinity Hill is a nice wine”.

“I’m sure it is” I replied “but it’s very young and with no history, who knows if it will turn out as well as the wine show judges hope”.

Why the ridiculous price ?  Because it won top wine at the 2007 NZ Wine Awards and presumably it is made it miniscule quantities.  It will all sell out in the brief blaze of publicity it receives.  There is real novelty in a Shiraz topping the NZ wine show.

Beware of (briefly) famous wines – they wil never offer value.

Shiraz tasting

Larry and I organized a small tasting designed to look at the diversity of wines produced with this grape. They were all modestly priced Shiraz of about 6-8 years of age. From Australia, France, South Africa and New Zealand. Australia was most represented with wines from different states and regions.

Apart from a staggering 3 faulty corks the wine quality was very good, not a dud amongst them. There was considerable difference in style though, as was hoped. The St. Joseph stood out being savoury dry with far less syrup/alcohol characters. The Peter Lehmann Barossa was at completely the opposite spectrum, and also very good in its style. While the South African was a pleasant surprise, possibly the best wine there (if it develops as it should).

2008 Bordeaux vintage harvest begins

Decanter magazine’s website reports that the the 2008 Bordeaux vintage harvest is underway as of the 4th of September.  White varieties only at this stage, reds are 3-4 weeks away:

“Harvest dates all over the region are around two weeks behind usual, due to a lack of sunshine throughout the growing season. There is, however, generally less rot in the vineyards than last year, due to good weather in the last two weeks of August.  But rain started falling again earlier this week.”

Fruit quality on the whites is looking good.  We’ll have to see for the reds.  Having spent much of the growing season in Bordeaux (see earlier report) I’m expecting them to be better than 2007, but not expecting a ripe concentrated vintage like 2000 or 2005 (and thankfuly nothing like 2003).

Look what The Weather Channel is forecasting, more mild Summer:

Terrior Australia

There are some interesting patterns in the 2009 James Halliday Australian Wine Companion. It rates 5778 wines, and an arrangement of the best wines by variety (page 14) shows clear, even stark, regional specialization.

Riesling – Clare & Eden Valleys, Great Southern (in WA), and Tasmania. Cool nights seem essential for Riesling.

Chardonnay – Margaret River, Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, and Adelaide Hills.

Semillon – pretty much completely dominated by the Hunter Valley.

Sauvignon Blanc – Adelaide Hills.

Sauvignon/Semillon blends – Margaret River.

Sparkling – Tasmania.

Pinot Noir – Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania, Yarra Valley.

Shiraz – Barossa, McLaren Vale, Hunter Valley, Grampians, and Heathcote.
Shiraz Viognier blends – Canberra, Yarra Valley.

Cabernet Sauvignon – Margaret River, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra. The importance of maritime influence shows here. Particularly in the surprisingly good showing by the rather hot (but still next to the sea) McLaren Vale.

Shiraz and shiraz blends are Australia’s super strength. The world market seems to share this opinion, and Halliday’s ratings concur. But outside of the shiraz powerhouses of Barossa and McLaren there are many other regions producing high quality wines from other varieties, also the Shiraz from other regions is quite different in style.

It’s true that many Australian wines are blends though in reality these blends often come from the same selection of vineyards each year. And very few serious wines are regional blends. The trend continues to be for regions to specialize on the grape varieties they are best at. We are also seeing distinct regional winemaking styles emerge.

So the New World is beginning to look more and more like the Old World – and vice versa as they continue to learn from one another.

July 2008 Bordeaux Vintage Weather Report

Well tomorrow is the start of August when things start to get serious.

Last year at this time there was a great deal of worry (see my post).  June and July had been wet.  Yet the grapes on the vines looked pretty developed (dark colour), more so than they do this year.

But the weather this year has been better.  Though not a picture postcard sort of Summer, there has been rain but nothing really serious, and nor has there been excessive heat.  Yesterday was hot and incredibly humid.  Today the wind is blowing hot and dry air from the South, it’s 31 degrees Celcius.  Rain is forecast for tomorrow.

Unsettled yes, but nothing to suggest anything like the difficulties of 2007 at this stage.

1855.com finally deliver – well sort of

All of my emails went unanswered, even the email to the marketing director, and the email asking for the order to be cancelled.

Instead I received an email from 1855.com saying that 75% of my order had shipped.  I thought that was a bit rude after receiving emails to cancel the order, but at least it was progress.  And today, 4 days after receiving that email, and a bit over a month after placing the order I have 18 bottles.  Fortunately I was home when the courier arrived – this was what I was worried about, and hence prompted my initial emails and calls to 1855.com.

If the last 6 bottles arrive safely from 1855.com I will post the news here.  I hope they do because they were the main reason I placed the order.  But I fear they won’t as they are no longer listed on the 1855.com web site.

UPDATE: the wines did arrive, and fortunately I was home when the courier called. The next day I received an email apologising for not replying to my (many) previous emails and asking if I wished to wait for my remaining 6 bottles or have a refund. I asked for a refund and received a prompt email saying it had been processed.

I cancel my 1855.com order

To see how this turned out click here.

From: Byron Sharp
Date: 4 July 2008 4:47:11 PM
To: contact@1855.com
Subject: Re: 1855 / Thank you for your order !

I instruct you to cancel this order and return my money (credit my credit card).

I am cancelling my order because you have not answered any of my emails.  I have phoned several times and each time my questions regarding delivery are not answered.

Byron Sharp

On 07/06/2008, at 12:35 AM, order@1855.com wrote:

Dear Friend,

Thank you for your order with 1855. (You will find the summary below)

For all your question concerning your order ( Shipping delivery, invoice, …) please contact us at +33 (0) 1 42 61 1855 or contact@1855.com

A tres bientot,

1855 Team

A delivery will be done within 10 – 15  days.

1855.com saga continues

1855.com have done nothing to change my opinion that they are one of the worst wine retailers in the world.  See my previous post on how 1855.com took my money but answered no emails or questions via phone.

Following the instruction to ring back in an hour, I spoke to a gentleman who said he could not cancel my order of tell me anything about it as his computer screen only gave my name and address.  He said I would need to speak to “an agent” and none were available.  When I asked how this could be he said everyone was busy and then hungup.  Yes he hung up on me.

Wow. I’ve never experienced anything like this buying wine, or anything for that matter.  Don’t buy from them.

To see how this turned out click here.

1855.com worst wine retailer on the web

1855.com, based in Paris, claim to be the largest wine retailer on the web.  In my experience they are the worst.

I created an account with http://www.1855.com and placed an order for two cases of wine to be delivered to an address in France where I was staying.  On the 7th of June my credit card was charged.

Nine days later I sent an email to 1855.com asking when the wine might be delivered, saying I needed warning because I had not stayed at this apartment before and was unsure of how deliveries where made.  No reply.

Three days later I emailed 1855.com again.  No reply.

Four days later I emailed again.  No reply.

So I phoned.  Several times I reached a recorded message that said all 1855.com operators were busy, please phone back.  What a great way to look after customers, and take phone orders !!  Eventually I reached a person who acknowledged that my emails had been received, she said she couldn’t answer my question but would email me the answer.  No answer ever came.

Eventually their web site updated to include a delivery date for my wine “tow (sic) to three weeks from order date”.

Four weeks after order date I rang, and rang, and rang.  Finally I reached a person, Charlotte, who told me that she couldn’t help me now and that I had to call back after the weekend on Monday.  I asked why and she said because they were busy phoning customers.  “But I’m a customer, why can’t you serve me now, I would like you to cancel my order and refund my money, I no longer trust your company”.  But she said she couldn’t do anything, or tell me anything about my order, and that no one else available could.  She could not explain why anything would be different on Monday.

In an hour I will phone http://www.1855.com again and try to get my money back or my wine.  Meanwhile I thought I should write this note of warning to others.

To see how this turned out click here.

Can New Zealand equal ‘classed growth’ Bordeaux ?

Chateau Montrose 1999 (12.5%), Te Mata Awatea 2000 (13%)

Geoff Kelly has posted to his website a rather comprehensive review of 2005 New Zealand Cab/Merlot blends. This led a very knowledgeable friend to write :

I still can’t quite believe the claims re NZ cabs – haven’t we been hearing for 20 yrs that they’re comparable to classed growth. The fruit is getting better, but what else… Or am I hopelessly out of touch”.

Which got me thinking. It’s a very good question. I’ve always been a fan of Kiwi claret, and thought it has great potential. Hawkes Bay and Auckland to my palate seem to have the ability to produce wine closest to a Bordeaux flavour profile than anywhere else (Steven Spurrier seems to agree). Western Australia comes next. There is no doubt that California can produce wine of classed growth quality, but now perhaps more than ever there seems to be quite a style and flavour difference. However, similarities in fruit flavour don’t mean New Zealand can necessarily produce wine of classed growth standard. There have long been doubts about the ability to fully ripen grapes, plus there are issues of vine vigour (too much giving a herbaceous quality, great in Sauvignon Blanc, but not so much in other varieties).  But New Zealand (like Australia) is very strong on viticultural and wine making R&D. Over the past 20 years the red wines have been getting darker, richer, and more alcoholic (like everywhere it seems). New Zealand now even makes credible, even exciting Syrah/Shiraz, a grape variety I never expected New Zealand to be able to ripen. So everything bodes well for Kiwi claret, especially considering that winemakers have had much more experience with these blends – Pinot Noir and Syrah are new for most New Zealand wine makers, while producers like Te Mata were producing very classy Cab/Merlot blends 25 years ago.

So can Kiwi claret reach classed growth quality ? And is there a range of wines at this level ?I think the answer is a qualified yes. Firstly, ‘classed growth’ is a pretty broad level. Secondly, yes there are some very fine kiwi cabernets, some that are really exciting, but not a great deal of volume is produced, and there are some serious misses as well as hits. I wasn’t impressed with the 2002 Craggy Hills Sophia (unlike Robert Parker), and I’ve had some horribly forced and showy Villa Maria reds. The fruit is more powerful and ripe now (as proof Kiwi cabernet now sells pretty well in Australia), but winemakers need to learn to use this asset wisely and aim for restraint and harmony.

As a test, on separate occasions I tried (over dinner) bottles of Te Mata Estate’s Awatea 2000 against a good quality low price Bordeaux, Chateau les Grands Marechaux 2000, and then the classed growth Chateau Montrose 1999. The Awatea outclassed the Marechaux, it was finer with the cabernet shining through (the Bordeaux being virtually all Merlot). Against the Montrose the Awatea was more noticeably green, while the Montrose surprisingly managed to be more fragrant on the nose while being a somewhat deeper, more brawny (St Estephe style) wine – but I’m pointing up the differences here, the main story was how well the Awatea sat longside the Montrose, it was not clearly outclassed. The Awatea was indeed a slightly more attractive wine, the fruit a smidge sweeter and more lively, a little more beautiful and elegant; more feminine.

The Awatea is a similar price to les Grands Marechaux, Montrose is 3-4 times as expensive. And Awatea is Te Mata’s 2nd ranked cabernet blend. So all in all a very good showing.

A warning on govt alcohol warnings

There has been a fair amount of bleating in Decanter magazine recently about the UK government’s warning to middle-class and affluent drinkers – “no more than a glass a night”.

The thing to remember is that health warnings are not entirely about objective science, it is very difficult for them to be. Guidelines and warnings are usually written with the most vulnerable, and least educated, in mind. For example, there is some evidence that smoking reduces the symptoms of schizophrenia but no public health professional will ever publicize this; not just because smoking carries far too many other risks for schizophrenics, but rather because the communicators fear that some people might take out the message that smoking has some health benefits (smoking is good for you ? !!)

Health professionals hold similar fears for alcohol messages. So in spite of the established health benefits of moderate drinking, especially for older people, few if any guidelines go so far as actually encouraging non-drinkers to start drinking (yet there are no such qualms for recommendations about exercise).

My point is that you just have to expect health warnings and guidelines for alcohol to be a bit paternalistic. They will draw on scientific evidence, but they won’t present an objective summary of it. Public health messages are not scientists talking to scientists.

That said, sometimes health educators go too far. Look at what the American Heart Association’s website says about alcohol. The evidence that moderate alcohol consumption reduces risk of heart disease is very substantial, yet the first thing they say about alcohol is is: “Limit alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and lead to heart failure or stroke.” It’s silly of them to give tautological warnings (too much of anything is bad, that’s what “too much” means). And, as it is reasonable to expect that the Heart Association website is only talking about alcohol’s effect on heart disease (that’s what they say they are writing about), then they are misrepresenting the scientific evidence. Compare their rabid stance with this article from Harvard School of Public Heath. Notice the relative risk of death chart – even subjects in the 6+ drinks per day had lower risk of death from heart attack than those who did not consume alcohol.

dark-side-of-alcohol.jpg

In summary, public health announcements shouldn’t be expected to fully represent scientific evidence, they are trying to affect mass behaviour and so have to give a simple, often simplistic, message. Unthinking consumption of health warnings can, in some cases, be bad for your health.

Can wine be good for you ?

The health effects of alcohol are arguably under-researched, given the prevalence of alcohol consumption. While government guidelines for alcohol consumption often have more to do with medical politics than science.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the World Heath Organisation estimates that in 1st world economies the impact of alcohol consumption on mortality is positive, i.e. alcohol saves slightly more than it kills. Yes, even taking into account alcohol car crashes. That said, alcohol tends to kill the young, and save the old, so on balance it lowers average life expectancy. However if you aren’t a teenage male, or just don’t drink drive, then alcohol is more likely to save than take your life.

Alcohol also causes considerable misery (violence, debt) as well as pleasure. It’s difficult to work out the balance sheet on this issue.

A wide variety of different studies (cross sectional, longitudinal, experimental) all point to a J shaped relationship between alcohol consumption and mortality/disease. Moderate drinking does you good, but heavy drinking does you bad.

However, wine is a bit special. Even controlling for socio-economic, gender, and other confounding factors, wine has a different, better, J shaped relationship. And the positive effect of alcohol on mortality comes mainly from reducing heart disease, wine also reduces cancer incidence.

Here is a particularly comprehensive study, based on 3 longitudinal epidemiological surveys (21,000 participants, of which 5,000 died during the followup years). Note the J shaped relationship for alcohol consumption and all causes of death (the blue bars), and compare this to the (orange) cancer statistic. For cancer any level of alcohol consumption is associated with greater risk, but this is not the case for wine, as the 2nd chart shows.

alctot.jpg

alcwine.jpg

So wine consumption appears to prevent heart disease, but it also has some preventative effect on cancer death. Even the group of wine-drinkers who consumed more than 35 standard drinks per week had lower mortality than the non-drinkers.

There is evidence that this effect is due to something else in the wine as well as the alcohol. It may also be due to wine being more likely to be consumed with food. It may also be that wine drinkers eat a healthier diet – the attempts to control for this suggest that there is still a wine (above the alcohol) effect, however this area is under-researched. Certainly there is a body of evidence that fruit and vegetable consumption has a quite a strong protective effect on cancer, and it’s quite possible that wine drinkers eat better.

References:

World Health Organisation 2004 Global Status Report on Alcohol, Geneva, Dept of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Grønbæk et al (2000) Type of Alcohol Consumed and Mortality from All Causes, Coronary Heart Disease, and Cancer, Annals of Internal Medicine, 133: 411-419.  The pictures above come from an excellent summary provided here.

2002 Australian Shiraz

2008 means that wines from the 2002 vintage have passed the magical 6 year mark.  I reckon that it’s around this time that mid-range (e.g. $20-$30) quality Australian red wines start to garner some real complexity, losing their primary fruitiness.

The natural acidity of the wonderfully cool 2002 may make this vintage a bit of an exception, but then there is always 2001, and both of these vintages can still be seen on retail shelves.

More recent vintages get all the more prominent shelf positions because these are the wines wine writers are currently featuring.  But look out for good 2001 and 2002 bottles.  Why would anyone want to buy a 2005 or 2006 vintage wine when there are good 2002 wines still available ?

An example is Tatachilla Foundation Shiraz 2002 which has just won the 2007 Great Australian Shiraz challenge. Although this wine needs more than 6 years, it is still somewhat amazing that you can still buy it.

PS Taylor’s St Andrew Shiraz 2002 scored within a fraction of the Tatachilla and it too is available.

PPS Red Nectar 2005 came 24th (out of 416 wines) – a good showing.

Book Review “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the historic 1976 Paris tasing that revolutionized wine” by George M Taber

96 points

Most wine books are for reference, being about a region or a producer, or a collection of tasting notes. This book tells a story, and it’s the best such wine book I’ve ever read. Campbell Mattison’s “Wine Hunter” is also a good book but “Judgment of Paris” is less sentimental, and much broader in scope.

I already knew about the 1976 tasting and had recently read the Decanter coverage of the rematch 20 years later. In spite of this I still found the book interesting.

I seldom drink Californian wine, little of the good stuff makes its way outside of the USA and it is usually far overpriced. But still I found the book interesting.

It’s more than a book about the 1976 tasting and how it came about and what happened. It tells the story of the creation of many of the Californian vineyards, winemakers, and specific wines that ended up in the tasting. But the book is more than this. George Taber is a former Time staff writer (who was living in France in 1976 and was the only journalist at the tasting) and his global perspective shows. He covers the implications of the tasting for California and for all of the New World, and for France too.

So I recommend this book not only to those interesting in fine wine but also to wine marketers.

Thankfully the book is absolutely not a rah rah we beat the French jingoistic celebration. Taber correctly points out that the facts that show that it’s a stretch of the data to say that the Californian wines beat the French ones (especially amongst the Cabernets), the more correct summary is that it showed they were very competitive. Which is quite amazing given the youth of the vines, winemakers and general US wine industry. I hadn’t realised that many of the wines were from such new operations.

Today it seems less of a story that very expensive Napa wines are competitive with very expensive French ones, but then there was a price difference and a huge perceptual one.

I was intrigued to read that even back in 1976 many of the winemakers of the ‘Judgment of Paris’ wines were deliberately making wines in a different style to their neighbours. They were seeking elegance and balance, low alcohol wines, that were food friendly. They were quality obsessed and many of them were Francophiles when it came to their taste in wine. Of course, this is partly why the english Steven Spurrier and Patricia Gallagher chose them for the tasting.

I do wonder if these winemakers are still making wines along these lines, or whether they have bowed to the pressure from the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate (which must be much stronger pressure on US wines that depend on US drinkers than on French winemakers) and upped their alcohol levels and sweetness ?