This is an area that I can’t claim to have any knowledge of in the sense I have never been able to visit any of the vineyards of these continents. The nearest I got was a rushed visit whilst in NY to the state wineries and that consisted of a morning viewing from afar.
What I write is from what I have consumed and from what I have gleaned over time from articles, books, from the great and the good of the wine world and a modicum of common sense when wading through many of the writings, as many appear as eulogies to whatever is put in front of them (the commentators and critics).
The wine world is full of that, the greatest thing since sliced bread syndrome is overused and should be treated with caution. Wine consumption, after all, is governed by two main things – what you like and what you can afford.
When it comes to taking advice from those self same wine writers and critics, always remember that nearly all have had connections to the wine trade in one form or another, they are not going to bite the hand that feeds them. The wine writer who visits a chateau to taste their wines is hardly likely to refuse a case or two when leaving as a “thank you” present and will be expected to return the compliment in his review.
That is not say all fall into this category. This country has more than most when it comes to truly independent writers, i.e. those that make their living solely from their writings or online pages.
The huge rise in wine competitions is another factor to be wary of, far too many wines get awards for just turning up, all are judged by committees and the results will always fall towards a safe bet, the fail-safe, technically correct wines will always succeed over the individualistic and original wines.
An individual judge you can disagree with but you know where he comes from, a committee?
This leads to another ever increasing problem with the world’s wines – as Robert Parker, the American wine writer, put it – international neutralization of wine. The technically correct better quality wines that come of the filtration techniques and emulation of winemaking styles and the cross border use of international winemakers has resulted in many wines that, tasted blind, have lost their identity – they could come from anywhere.
Good they maybe technically but they are anonymous as to source. This is the commercialization of wine to offend the least amount of people and with the big wineries that rule the world’s supermarket shelves, it’s something to worry about for the future.
The humbug factor is not what it was but still exists, and a couple of anecdotes I hope explain what I am trying to put across.
I went with my wife to a tasting put on by Lay & Wheelers (recently purchased by Majestic as their fine wine arm). This was a quite formal affair in that there was obviously a lot of “money” floating around.
We started the tasting from the two long tables with about three groups, totalling roughly a dozen people in front of us. When a particular red was reached that I was interested in, the bottle was half full and had, as I’d observed, been sampled.
It turned out to be a faulty bottle – absolutely revolting,
I called one of the L&W staff over, pointed out the wine, a face was pulled on tasting and it was poured down the sink, what the people in front were doing taking notes holding it up to the light swirling and all the other things you are supposed to at a tasting I haven’t a clue, nobody could have drunk that wine and not noticed how awful it was.
I also had a client some years ago, a very wealthy banker (serves him right I hear the cry) who purchased a lot of premium French wines from top merchants for home use and dinner parties.
I arrived one day at their London house and could hardly move in the hall for a delivery of mainly Cru class burgundies – all the great names but all from a truly atrocious year. His wife was more concerned as to where it was all going, as the cellar was full and she didn’t understand why any more wine was necessary.
As I gently inquired to his purchase, he “only knew the names” so what had happened was the wine merchant having been told of the names and how many cases each of red and white were wanted simply unloaded at great expense on the unknowing banker all the dross years they had in stock.
Incidents like that make you wary when advice is given, whoever it is, your taste and your common sense should always dictate your purchase, as they say a little knowledge goes a long way.
Just a small note along the same lines, a line that is often used and came up in the comments to an earlier wine piece was the “they keep all their best wines for themselves”.
This is not really true, small wineries with limited production may simply not have the product to export or its not worthwhile to do so, also most Californian wines are not seen here because the local market snap them up and are prepared to pay a premium for them
Again, the shortage of en primeur wines in this country for the great ’09 and ’10 years in France was largely down to the Asian markets being prepared to pay silly money just to have the perceived best. As with everything else they are buying at the moment, at the supermarket level the choice may look huge but since they control the largest part at this time of retail wine sales, the bulk of their wines come from the big combines who can guarantee supply.
So what you largely see on the shelves is unchanging, by their very size they can’t be any other way. If you want something different, then you will have to go to an independent wine merchant. We have plenty of them, most specializing in all sectors of the market
That doesn’t mean the supermarket will not have something worth buying that isn’t mainstream – I’m always looking – but it’s a very small part of what they sell .
A little about my interest and the little I have learned and retained over the years, and it is little in the scheme of things – wines constantly evolving both in the commercial and natural sense, the scientific approach that is now the norm for almost all vineyards has meant the years when a vintage was better off being poured down the sink have to a large extent gone. Even bad years now have wines that, whilst not great, are drinkable without that look that says you’ve been conned and years ago we certainly in some years were.
When I first started work in a branch of the printing industry I would, of a lunchtime, go out for a walk locally or go further up to the West End of London. Just a little way from my firm was a small group of old buildings containing a small mix of shops including a wine merchant. At that time I had no idea really what a wine merchant actually was but the window display fascinated me, always changing it contained these bottles with strange names from France, Italy, Germany, apart from sherry and port. In those days there was little else.
I was fortunate to have access to reading material and although there was a limited amount then that referred to wine, all that was available I got hold of and devoured.
My first purchase of quality wines was when my walk to the wine merchants revealed a display of German wines of the 1971 vintage. I remembered reading this was a bit special and took the plunge after reading up further as to what were supposed to be the best wines of the year. I returned to the shop and purchased three mixed cases – three bottles each from twelve different producers, all in the spatlese or auslese level.
It was a purchase that later, when consumed, I would never regret.
’71 was one of those great vintage so rare then in northern Germany, only a couple of those purchased were disappointing, the rest superb and the last drunk some twenty years later, it was that one purchase that started my interest in wine and it is still of interest today.
It also explains why my knowledge of German wines is above that of other countries.
The Americas are like Australia in one sense – the wines until quite recently were for home consumption only, the difference being the vineyards are older, the first plantings in the Americas being in the sixteenth century. California, the first quality area in the Americas, had its first vineyard planted by the Franciscan fathers in 1769, the vineyards spread further north to Oregon and Washington State and the quality is reaching that of California.
Of course, the USA had/has in reality two wine industries – being so far apart. The east coast wineries from the NY state down as far as Florida took a long time, as did the rest of the industry, to recover from the effects of prohibition and despite some very good vineyards, it’s to the west that the world looks for the majority of the America’s best wines.
In California, a few exceptional wineries were the mainstay of quality in an industry dominated by huge industrial sized outfits. They still exist, with Gallo being the biggest in the world. The wine vats look like gasometers in size.
That doesn’t mean they produced rubbish, just very different products compared Europe.
The smaller outfits had a title that didn’t do them any favors in the marketing stakes. Small scale “hobby” wineries produced wonderful wines that nobody purchased and could be had for, as they say, the price of a steak, but that all changed in the mid sixties when the same wineries started to wine in a new style more delicate, using french oak barrels and demanding a price that made people wince.
When Robert Mondavi left his family winery in ’66 and went on his own, the revolution started, wine became news.
The Napa Valley started this change, the Sonoma, Medocino and the area south of the Monterey Bay followed rapidly, soon followed by the Pacific Northwest.
In Europe it is the Californian wines that have had the biggest impact, the Napa becoming the Bordeaux of the states. The grapes with the biggest acreage are Chardonnay, Colombard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chenin Blanc – all French with the one “rogue” Zinfandel, often thought of as America’s own. It is almost certainly the same as the Primitivo from Puglia southern Italy, but the pallette is growing bigger by the year.
A listing of great estates is for me mostly academic as I have tried only a handful. For a start, they are expensive and not that easily attainable in the UK. Ridge Monte Bello, Mondavi, now teamed up with Rothschild, Frogs Leap, Inglenook, Freemark Abbey, Trefethen, Arrowood, Beringer, Joseph Phelps, Bonny Doon and many more are the pinnacle of what the Napa and California have to offer.
Remarkably, at the bottom end, there are still good cheap wines coming out of the area. Apart from the omni present Gallo offerings, a number of smaller wineries offerings, small by Californian standards, often in lesser known grapes such as Petit Verdo or Shiraz that is not as big as a grown grape – there they offer very good value from those that I’ve tried and of all places, a good Co-Op has as good a choice as any, “quelle surprise”.
So little of the other states’ offerings are retailed here, so it’s hardly worth the mention as personally I have no knowledge of them other than some good Reislings, one dimensional compared to German Reislings but then most are, coming from Washington State and the good value wines from Columbia Crest and its sister winery of Ch Ste-Michelle both are big outfits but good products abound.
South America is a different case completely.
From the earliest offerings, I have been a fan of the always good and always reasonable wines of Chile and now Argentina. In some ways they are beginning to replace Australian wines as the costs in Aus go ever upward and many of the cheap blends and other varietals are not as good as previously – this does Australia no favours in the long run.
The only downside but rapidly changing – well in the case of Chile – has been the lack of varietals grown. They concentrated as soon as they got an international market in making sure the Cabernets Shiraz Chardonnay, a quite recent introduction and Sauvignon Blanc were up to scratch and selling before Merlot, Pinot Noir and the grapes of Malbec Reisling. They can be very good despite being out of fashion – others such as Petit Verdot are also appearing.
The wine makers have a quality of fruit envied by much of the world and growing sites, hence an awful lot of European money has been going into the industry, both as sole enterprise and joint ventures, including some big names from Bordeaux. From the valleys to the mountain uplands, there are conditions to suit all grapes.
Phylloxera is the blight of vines elsewhere and the vines grow on their own rootstock no grafting is necessary, meaning as a plus many of the vineyards contain some very old vines.
All of the big wineries, Concho y Toro being the biggest, also do “premium wines” and these are getting better by the year or at least the ones I’ve tried and for me the ones to look out for are the Pinot Noirs, always difficult to grow well away from native Burgundy.
It took New Zealand a long time to master the grape but Chile is in my opinion fast catching up. Already the supermarket offerings for the price beat anything else out there and one or two have more than surprised. The Co-Op again had an own label (bottled for them) Pinot Noir – no longer available.
It was the 2009, now replaced, that won a regional trophy award in I think the Decanter wine awards. This wine was being sold for £7.99. It went on offer at a pound or so off and was for me every bit as good as a Red Burgundy in £30 – 40 bracket, presuming you could get a good one.
If they can replicate that, I’ll buy all I can get.
The other wines that I increasingly find are getting better are the Sauvignons, unlike, to my taste, many of the NZ versions that are over the top in all areas, and many of the cheap half price bottles in your local supermarket that taste of nothing. As with Aus, they want to be careful as it will destroy the reputation that was so hard to build.
The first Sauvignons from Chile again were clean but offered little else but as I say it’s changing rapidly. Viognier is one more making great strides in Chile – a grape rarely seen in the past outside the Rhone, it’s sprung up everywhere.
Will it become the new Sauvignon on the popularity stakes? Who knows, at least most that has been sold to date from all countries seems of a good quality, unlike the other pretender to the throne. Pinot Grigio is a grape I like but there are some god awful examples for sale.
Chile has one problem. The early wines that came out of the country were limited in variety and choice of producers but the quality was amazing, especially at the price at the time. The problem is popularity, many of the big wineries have slipped in certain areas of quality in the effort to supply increasing demand over production and that has meant bigger grape yields than before and a slip in quality.
The input of European money should provide the wake up call needed to stop this
The best producers Cousino Macul, Concho y Toro, Los Vascos, Errazurizhave been consistently reliable, the likes of Santa Rita and Valdivisieso were front runners but the ones I’ve tried lately are sub previous quality.
Argentina on the other hand is still establishing itself in the market. What’s for sale is still limited, but the capability to supply good table wine is there in modern wineries (before Chile). Huge industrial wineries in Mendoza, the wine capital, have two and half times the land under vines for wine than Chile!
The mix of grapes has a strong Italian influence with evidence of Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Bonarda, alongside the old workhorse grapes of Malbec for reds and Torrontes and Palomino (the sherry grape) for whites.
The French red grape varieties exist, with Cabernet Sauvignon being the best behind Malbec the star and there are at the moment some bargains going begging, as the popularity of this grape hasn’t really happened yet. Wines that win gold medals and would cost three to four times as much if they were French are not to be discarded simply by country of origin,
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about wine it is not to be sniffy. If you don’t try, you won’t know what you might have missed. The whites that I have sampled still do not show anything that would make me buy more and for now I would bypass them but again – things can change.
Wineries to look out for are Weinert, outstanding but difficult to come by and expensive, Etchart, Catena and the bargain quality Trapiche, along with Flichman, Bianchi, Norton, and others are emerging all the time. As the world realizes what bargains are available in Argentina, the prices will rise, so take advantage of some great reds.
And just to show my cosmopolitan taste, I have also had an award winning red from Mexico – a Petit Verdo from a firm called Cotto that was brilliant some years ago – no knowledge of current status – and even a wine from Uruguay that was more than passable
In conclusion, the status of South America for everyday drinking and even more can only go up, as long as they don’t succumb to greed and start over producing and overpricing.
I am referring to South America here. We are very fortunate in this country to have all the world’s wines to choose from, unlike most countries that are very nationalistic when it comes to retail displays. One only has to look on the supermarket shelves of France and Italy to see what I mean, so make the most of it.