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.

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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.

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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.

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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.