Have you ever tasted a wine and felt that it just didn’t taste right? Sometimes wine flaws are fairly obvious, but occasionally you’ll encounter a bottle with a less obvious flaw. Should you keep drinking and see if it improves, or should you ask for a replacement?
Estimates on the proportion of bottles affected by cork taint vary from around 1 in 7 to 1 in 12. Of course, we can’t be certain – many people that encounter a corked bottle will not recognise it as such, and so rather than asking for a replacement, they will make a mental note that the wine is bad and ensure that they never buy it again. Cork taint is caused by bacteria in the cork, and is characterised by a musty ‘wet wool’ smell. It can be pungent and overpower the wine, or it can be relatively gentle and quite difficult to detect at first. Once the bottle has been opened the corked wine will deteriorate, so a bottle that you are unsure about initially might reveal itself to be tainted after a short period.
If cork taint is best characterised by a ‘wet wool’ taste, sulphur is best characterised as a ‘rotten egg’ smell. A wine with a sulphuric stink might improve on decanting, but if it refuses to lift then you’re going to want a replacement bottle.
Imagine uncorking a wine, leaving the bottle open for a week, and then drinking it – it wouldn’t taste very nice, would it? This is what oxidized wines taste like – oxidization happens because the bottle has been poorly sealed and air has crept into the wine. White wines are more susceptible since the tannins in reds play a role in preventing the wine becoming oxidized. It’s actually a more common fault than cork taint so if you can’t detect that ‘wet wool’ characteristic but your wine still doesn’t taste right, it could be an oxidized bottle.
Ask the sommelier
If you’re not enjoying the wine, ask yourself whether the wine has a flaw. If you can’t taste any fruit in the wine, or the fruit is overpowered by off-flavours, something is probably wrong. It’s absolutely fine to return it to your wine merchant (depending on their policy, of course) or if you’re in a restaurant, ask the sommelier to try it and get a replacement if appropriate.
Chateau Pontet-Canet, regularly regarded as one of the wines of Bordeaux that punches above its fifth growth status, suffered a blow recently as the 2012 vintage of its second wine Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet failed to gain AOC Pauillac status. Consequently it will be bottled as ‘Vin de France’.
Second wines are made by many prolific Chateaux and are often considered to be wines for the consumer to enjoy while they are waiting for their top wines to mature – embodying the ‘house style’ of the Chateau in a wine that is approachable in its youth. Increasingly second wines of first growth Chateaux like Les Forts de Latour and Carruades de Lafite are being snapped up by the Chinese market.
Thinking outside the amphorae
Pontet –Canet’s owner Alfred Tesseron has expressed great surprise that his wine was rejected by the tasting panel responsible for approving or rejecting AOC status. Wines can be rejected if it is thought that they are not typical of the appellation they represent. A change did occur with Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet in 2012, in that the winery began using amphorae (large clay, gravel and limestone vessels) to age the wine, reducing their use of new oak. This may have contributed to the perception of the wine as not typical of its region.
Appellation rules dictate that when a wine is submitted for AOC Pauillac status is rejected, it cannot be sold under the lesser AOC Bordeaux label, so it is automatically relegated to Vin de France. Early signs suggest that in spite of the initial shock, sales of Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet 2012 will be largely unaffected.
Does status matter?
The fact that sales of Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet are likely to be unaffected raises the question as to how much AOC status matters. Whether it is AOC Pauillac or Vin de France, the wine still bears the name of Chateau Pontet-Canet, an undeniable stamp of quality. Elsewhere in France, many producers have become jaded with having their wines rejected by AOC panels and rather than bother with the expense and inconvenience, they choose to release their wines as Vin de France. This also gives them more freedom to experiment with wines that are perhaps less typical of the region.
Watching with interest
Time will tell how significant the downgrading of Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet will be in Bordeaux’s history – press attention on this story and the pioneering use of amphorae could end up making the wine even more desirable in the marketplace, which undermines the notion that a wine must be typical of its region in order to gain quality status. Watching this story emerge undoubtedly are the owners of Chateau Pichon Baron, having recently launched a new second wine of their own from the same vintage. As the market for second wines continues to grow, there will be plenty of others watching with interest as well.
It has been a tough year in Bordeaux, and on the back of negative press surrounding the lacklustre en primeur campaign for the 2013s, much sympathy has been felt for growers this year. As July brought unseasonably cold conditions, and August brought extensive rain, it seemed like nothing could salvage 2014.
The Indian summer that saved Bordeaux
But a bright, sunny September has done just that, and far from being a salvage operation, it is starting to look like 2014 could be rather a good vintage. As the Merlot grapes are being picked, it has become apparent that they are in impeccable condition. Very little sorting has been required indicating exceptional quality, and this is a good sign for the Cabernet grapes that will remain on the vines a little longer before they are picked. In 2013, the inconsistency in quality of the grapes required an immense effort to sort them in order to achieve the precision required at this crucial point in the harvest. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild reportedly required almost 700 pickers in one day. Additionally, the quantity of grapes in 2014 is large – which is great news for growers since 2013’s harvest was relatively small. Another small harvest could have caused substantial problems in supplying the market.
Merlot… and then Cabernet
As late as mid-September, the red grapes were still being left on the vines while growers everywhere crossed their fingers that the weather wouldn’t change in order for the grapes to reach the correct level of acidity. It’s a risk of course, and if the weather changes, it could be the case that the Merlot-based wines fare better than the Cabernet-based wines, which has happened in previous years.
The rest of France
Across other parts of France a similar pattern is emerging with Champagne, the Loire Valley and Alsace set to produce more wine than last year in the North, and Beaujolais, Burgundy and Rhone also up on last year’s production. However there is some inconsistency across Burgundy’s appellations due to problematic hail storms during the season affecting some vineyards, and similarly in Languedoc-Roussillon whose production is likely to be less than last year.
There is plenty more finger-crossing to be done before 2014 can be declared a success – but it is a tribute to the exceptional skill of Bordeaux’s winemakers that it now seems very likely that some classic wines will come from this harvest when early signs suggested that it was set to be a disaster. We say, watch this space!
Wine writer Jamie Goode recently reported on the first vintage of London Cru, the first ever UK-based ‘urban winery’. You might think a city center is an unusual place for a winery, and you would be right! Unsurprisingly, the grapes are not grown in London, but rather sourced from several well-known European wine-making regions such as Languedoc-Roussillon and Piedmont. However all of the vinification is done in London, and it will be very interesting to taste these wines. London is not the only unlikely place where wine is made though – so today we’re looking at some of the other more unusual locations around the world where wine is made against the odds.
Northern Territory, Australia
You might not expect grapes to grow in the baking heat of the climatic extremes in Australia’s Northern Territory, but there are a small number of vineyards there. Hampered by a short, hot growing season, achieving ripeness is a struggle and consequently fortified wines tend to fare better. Existing largely as a tourist novelty, slightly better examples can be found around Alice Springs where the land is slightly higher and cooler.
Even as Syrian rebels and government troops exchange fire nearby, the successful Golan Heights Winery continues to cultivate grapes for wine in this Israeli occupied plateau. In spite of the war they continue to grow the business. Golan Heights is not the first winery to attempt ‘business as usual’ in the shadow of a war, many exceptional wines were made in Lebanon during times of civil war including Lebanon’s most famous wine Chateau Musar, whose winery was known to transport grapes across the front line while the war was raging.
Not satisfied with snapping up top Bordeaux, China now has its own thriving wine industry. The sheer size of the country means there are plenty of suitable areas for grape growing, although there is a substantial shortage of quality indigenous grapes, making it difficult for Chinese winemakers to impress internationally. But there are one or two award-winning wines starting to emerge, and many winemakers achieving great results with grapes like Merlot, Riesling and Chardonnay.
So, will our wine shops soon have sections designated to Chinese wines, the same as they do for Chilean, New Zealand or South African wines? There’s a long way to go, but ‘watch this space’ is the message here.
A new Napa Valley wine has recently been tipped for ‘cult wine’ status. King of Clubs, a collaborative effort between Robert Mondavi, restauranteur Justin Anthony and entrepreneur Christopher R. King, is likely to follow in the footsteps of wines like Screaming Eagle and those of Harlan Estate and other Napa superstars. But what factors give a wine ‘cult’ status?
A big name doesn’t hurt
Robert Mondavi is one of the world’s most influential winemakers. Other wines that he has been involved with such as Opus One, a collaboration between Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, are representative of the Californian blockbusters with which his name is associated. So it’s no surprise that this latest project involving Mondavi is set to be a huge success.
Parker describes your wine as ‘utter perfection’
It doesn’t hurt to have Robert Parker give your wine 100 points, which was the case when little known boutique Californian winery Screaming Eagle found their Cabernet Sauvignon suddenly in high demand. Parker’s ‘utter perfection’ comment was actually about the 2010 vintage, sending its price per bottle skyrocketing and generating interest in older vintages on the second hand market. Due to small production, tiny allocations, and allegedly a waiting list to get on the waiting list to buy a bottle directly from source, Screaming Eagle’s cult status has all but ensured most of us will never see a bottle, let alone taste it!
The elusive artisan factor
Spain’s Bodegas Vega Sicilia winery is the home of the country’s most praised wines, including flagship wine Unico. But the estate’s most elusive wine is Unico Reserva Especial – an extraordinary wine that is a blend of great and often very old vintages. The Reserva Especial is a blend of Spain’s indigenous grape Tempranillo with Bordeaux’s Cabernet Sauvignon. It is impeccably crafted, and has a true artisan quality. It is released infrequently and in high demand, so allocations are small.
For the most part, these cult wines exist as an intriguing distraction to both the fine wine drinker and the investor – the drinker might spend a lifetime trying to secure a bottle and hoping it will meet with their expectations. The investor will do well to remember their names and look out for the next King of Clubs in order to get their hands on it before Parker does.
Few Bordeaux vintages have generated as much speculation and subsequent commentary as 2009. Thanks to Robert Parker’s glowing endorsement, there was a genuine scramble to get hold of the top wines with an unprecedented 21 wines receiving the ultimate accolade, 100 Parker points.
The power of Parker’s endorsement
Although prices were undoubtedly high, Parker’s endorsement ensured that the 2009 campaign was a successful one, just as the market began to peak. So, in the wake of a couple of weaker vintages, and with Bordeaux having fallen out of favour somewhat as the pricing debate continues, is it possible to find good value wines from the 2009 vintage?
Liv-ex points to three specific groups of wines from 2009 – first growths, wines scoring 100 points, and Parker’s ‘Magical 20’, a group of second to fifth growth wines declared by Parker in a fascinating 2011 Hong Kong-based tasting to be punching substantially above their weight. Among the three groups the first growths saw a decline when the 2012 in-bottle tastings took place, but the Magical 20 wines and the 100-pointers’ value started to soar.
First growths overshadowed
The problem that the first growths encountered was that the wines were so expensive when they were released that the prices barely moved until the wines were actually in bottle. Parker’s selection and evaluation of his Magical 20 meant that the first growths fell out of the spotlight, with everyone clamouring to get hold of the wines he evaluated to be the most exciting overperformers of the vintage.
There is some crossover between the 100 pointers and the Magical 20 of course with some wines falling into both categories. Oddly despite the prestige and pedigree of the wines that fall into two categories, there is potentially some value to be found here for those wishing to buy 2009 wines today, with Liv-ex’s blog describing the current prices as recently as July 2014 as ‘off-peak’.
Buying ‘historic’ wines
So if you are considering purchasing wines from the vintage that Parker said ‘may turn out to be historic’, it may not be the worst time to do it. Ultimately we can never be entirely sure what’s around the corner with Bordeaux – factors such as the annual weather, the size of the harvest, the emergence of new markets for the top wines, and whether these markets buy for drinking or investment will all continue to play their part in Bordeaux’s fortunes. Meanwhile, what remains from the extraordinarily good 2009 vintage will continue to improve in bottle for years to come, and those that didn’t invest in those 100-point wines might come to wish they had. And we certainly shouldn’t write off those first growths just yet!
When you buy a wine to drink, do you ever find yourself gravitating towards one that has a little sticker on the label indicating that it has won an award? Lots of people do this – in the same way that they will tend to choose the half-price wines in the supermarket assuming they are getting a bargain, they will identify an ‘award-winning’ wine as better than the alternatives on offer. But there’s often more to that little sticker than meets the eye.
The International Wine Challenge & Decanter
Some awards are quite prestigious, such as those given out annually by the IWC (International Wine Challenge). It’s very desirable for the winemaker to display the IWC sticker on their wine and will greatly enhance their sales, so the wine that wins one of the IWC’s awards such as the ‘Argentinian Red Trophy’ will have faced some pretty tough competition. Decanter’s awards are similarly well-regarded. Wines which are up for consideration are tasted by a panel of wine industry insiders with ‘expert’ palates and allocated accordingly. So, surely it makes sense to choose a wine that has received the seal of approval by expert tasters rather than one that hasn’t?
What would Jancis do?
Well, what are the alternatives? We could make the decision to ask a wine merchant’s advice, or buy online and put our faith in a short description of the wine, or we can look for suggestions from a particular critic like Jancis Robinson or Jamie Goode. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting some guidance when it comes to buying wine, it is a very personal thing. Although what one person liked, no matter how revered they are in the wine industry, won’t necessarily be to every consumer’s taste.
There is some snobbery about wine awards though, many who are dismissive of them are quick to point out that wines that genuinely are ‘the best of the best’ are not entered into competitions because the producers can sell their wines without the endorsement of a sticker on the label. There’s some truth in that certainly, but for the others it is a great way to promote their product to a greater audience and to improve their credibility.
Awards worth winning
If it is just guidance you are after, that little sticker awarded by the IWC or Decanter tells you two things – the wine has been entered into the competition, so the winemaker thinks it is good enough to win. And secondly, the panel of tasters, many of them highly credible Masters of Wine, journalists and household names in the industry, agreed that it deserved their seal of approval. So don’t be afraid to plump for the award winner – it is likely to be a much better buy than the cut-price supermarket wine that appears to be a bargain, but ultimately tends to disappoint.