Archive for November, 2011

What Kind of Wine Reviews Should You Trust?

November 29, 2011

With holiday season now well upon us, I thought it might be good to look at the whole “wine reviewer/wine score” issue. Many people tend to buy more wine during the holidays for parties and dinners and often rely on wine scores/reviewers/magazines as a way to make their purchases. But is this a good idea?

Well, like many things in life, it depends!

First, a few words on wine reviewers. There are really two that dominate the business in North America — The Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate. The first is a glossy publication that helped revolutionize wine’s popularity a few decades ago, using articles, great photography and 100 point rating scales. It also has lots of lovely, expensive advertisements, which led some to voice concerns that the ads were impacting the wine scores.

The second major reviewer is Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Mr. Parker started his magazine as an “independent publication” taking no ads, and that continues to this day. He also revolutionized the 100 point scale, which ended up causing some winemakers to try and deliberatly make 100 point wines (more on that below). He has also become incredibly influential — a great review/score can virtually guarantee the success of a winery, and a poor one…well, you can guess. Those who like him rely completely on his reviews and those of the people he hires. Those who don’t call him “Colonel Bob” and decry his impact on the industry (check out the movie Mondo Vino for some of that).

Interestingly, in BC and Canada, we have a couple of wine publications, including Wine Access and Wine Tidings. For me, they are characterized by one main thing — there are few, if any, bad wine reviews. All appears to be good with BC/Canadian wines (don’t get me started on that one).

So what about wine scores? Almost everyone now uses the 100 point scale, with different components (look, smell, taste, potential) all factoring into the final score. As mentioned above, this has resulted in everything from trophy wines apparently made to get high scores to “90 point snobbery”, whereby some people will only buy wines that get 90 points or above.

So how do you wade through all this to find the best wine for your dollar?

Well, the thing about wine ratings to remember is that everybody’s tastes are different and — in particular — people like some styles of wines more than others. The latter is especially important, because that can’t help but impact how you rate a wine i.e. a style you like is more likely to get a higher score than one you don’t.

Because of this, I pay as much attention to the review as I do to the score. Because I like wines with more fruit in them, I tend to stay away from descriptions that include words like “herbaceous, cedar, coffee, mocha”. Even in 90 point wines, the result — for me — is not very favourable.

This is especially the case when looking at the kind of grapes used and where the wine is from. I know, for example, that Bordeaux — many people’s favourite expensive wine — leans towards herbaceous, cedar flavours that tend to mask the black currant and cherry fruit in the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc-based wines. But those same grapes in Australian, Californian and — to a certain extent — BC wines have the reverse flavour profile. So I tend to stick to those if the reviews emphasize those flavours.

Same thing with Grenache-based wines. In the Cotes du Rhone, the result is dried cherries and an interesting mixture of herbs called “garrigue” that is not woody at all. But in Spain, the use of oak barrels usually ads a lot of woody/herbaceous flavours which I don’t like.

At the end of the day, I come back to my mantra — its all about style, and knowing what you like. This can be especially important during the holidays if you are going to spend extra money on wine (either quantity or per bottle). Look for the flavour profile you like, and then spend the extra money if you want. Do the opposite, and you can still brag about your 90+ point wine…but you may not enjoy drinking it.


Chile – Bordeaux-style in South America?

November 22, 2011

The upcoming 2012 Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival is having Chile as the feature country and I was fortunate enough to be invited to a preview of some of the wines — and wineries — that will be featured.

Chile is a conundrum to me from a wine perspective. When I first encountered it over 20 years ago, it was THE source of great value, ripe, fruit forward wines. Conch y Toro, Cousino Macul, Santa Rita, Errazurriz — all were making nice every day drinking wines, many for ~$10!

But then, as the years went by, something changed. Too much success, overharvesting, under ripeness, more oak and wood — whatever it was, the style changed. For the reds, there was more of a Bordeaux style, with greater emphasis on cedar and herbs than fruit. And for whites, higher acidity meant leaner wines, perhaps designed to go better with food.

And so we get to today. I was curious going in to the tasting — what would the wines be like?

Well, the short answer is pretty much like my most recent experience, more Bordeaux than California/Australia. But it also reminded me how important style is in wine.

First, a few wine notes. There were 3 whites, all Sauvignon Blancs, and 2 of 3 were great, and great value. The ’10 Reserva by Santa Carolina is a lot of wine for $12.99, with classic grassy, herbal aromas and lush, citrus fruit. The ’09 by Mont Gras is lighter and fresher, and still good value at $16.99.

Of the 9 reds, there were only 2 made in my style. The best was the ’09 Ocio Pinot Noir by Cono Sur, a beautiful, California-style Pinot full of ripe cherry fruit with nice vanilla and earth overtones. But…at $64.99? No way!

Not quite as good, but a way better value, was the ’09 Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet. Dark, with classic Cali vanilla covered black currants, it was a bit tannic, but with enough fruit to carry it through. And $19.99…that’s more like it!

For the remaining mixture of Cabs, Carmeneres, and Syah Blends — well, I had trouble finding the fruit, even in perennial ’90 pt’ wines like the Cousino Macul Antiguas Reserva Cab and the Santa Rita Medalla Real Cab.

But while they weren’t my style, it seems everyone else in the room just loved them! Even discounting the presenters (as a professional PR person, I am always suspicious of spokespeople who can only say good things!), the supportive comments for the cedar, graphite, lead pencil, even greeness was…amazing! And there were some heavy hitter wine writers in the room.

So somebody obviously loves this style of wine…and that’s a good thing! Because if we all loved the same things, then life would be pretty boring.

But at the same time, when it comes to wine – just like music, food and other of life’s pleasures – it’s important to know the style you like. But just don’t force it on somebody (like me!) who likes something completely different!


If It’s the “Best of BC”…Then Why Isn’t It Selling?

November 9, 2011

I was in the two main government specialty liquor stores today (Alberni/Bute downtown and 39th and Cambie) and found it interesting that the latest “Best in BC” release was, mostly, still sitting unsold on the floor of both stores. Jackson Triggs, Osoyoos Larose, Mission Hill, Sandhill, Poplar Grove…lots of wine priced at $35 and above…just sitting there.

For those who aren’t familiar with this, it is the annual (or sometimes bi-annual) release of what someone decides are the best wines in the province. This year, that occured on October 29th, I believe. Much fanfare, limited quantities…and yet most of them still sitting there.

That got me to thinking about “why”? Was it price? Quality? Selection? Promotion?

Interestingly, the two wines that I thought were the best in the bunch — the ’08 Tantalus Old Vines Riesling and the ’09 Moon Curser Border Vines — were long gone. As were the Burrowing Owl wines (Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage, I believe).

But what about the rest of these? Big names, to be sure, award winners (don’t get me started…)…so why are they not selling?

Could be the economy, of course. Although the 2008 Bordeaux vintage is almost completely gone, so some wine lovers spent some big money.

Could also be the selection. Everyone has a different opinion of what is the “best”. And most of what I consider to be the best of BC — La Frenz, Kettle Valley, Nichol, Blue Mountain — weren’t represented (none of them VQA, by the way…perhaps another reason?).

Promotion may be another factor. As I blogged last week, the current vintages (2008 and 2009) didn’t exactly receive glowing reviews from the powers that be. One review I red actually said it was a “good effort for the vintage”…why would anyone spend lots of money on a wine like that?

But the real reason for the lack of sales, I think, is the price and quality/value ratio. When you get over $30 for a bottle of wine, there start to be lots of different options from around the world for wine that, quite frankly, offer better quality and value than what we usually get here in BC. And when you get above $40…well, as the Sopranos used to so, “fugettaboutit!”.

So why try to sell BC wines at this price, particularly to us here in BC? It obviously doesn’t work at the retail level. And for restaurants…can you imagin paying 2.5 – 3 times as much on a wine list? Not me!

So what to make of the “Best of BC”? Well, I don’t think they are the best. And, judging from sales — or the lack of them — either do a lot of other people.

Maybe its time for many of these wineries, and the government liquor bureaucrats, to change how they do things?


What does “vintage” mean anyway?

November 2, 2011

It’s Fall, so perhaps not surprising that the idea to blog on the “vintage”. But what brought the idea up, actually, were three separate but inevitably related incidents, all of which showed how important — and controversial – each separate vintage can be.

For those who don’t know, vintage — in wine-speak — is both the year and the wine made during that year. It would seem to be a fairly simple concept, right? But instead…well, read on and find out.

What first gave me this idea was a meeting with Vern Siemens, the owner of Mt. Lehman winery in Abbotsford, B.C. I was out there picking up some wine for one of my wine club members (they are going to use his ’09 Pinot Noir as a corporate Xmas gift, a fabulous idea given it is only $15.99). We got to chatting and — again, because it’s Fall — he was saying what a challenge this year was going to be for his wine. All the rain we had in May/June/July set everything back so far that even when it got nice in August, the vines were just so far behind it was tough to get many of the grapes ripe before it started to rain again last month.

But what struck me most about his comments was how much weather impacts not just his wine, but his livelihood. As a winemaker, you wait all year for those grapes to grow, and then no matter what they look like, you have to make wine from them. And then hope it is good enough to sell. Not only that, but for many reds, you have to store them for a year or more before you can even start to market them! Talk about risky overhead!

Fortunately for Vern, he is a great winemaker and I expect will be fine. He was able to buy some grapes from the Okanagan which — combined with his talent — should still produce a good product. But for others? And the folks who will buy their wine? Who knows…

Then, during the week I noticed that the annual “BC Release” was happening in government liquor stores. The wines aside (don’t get me started…way too many $40 +++ wines of questionable quality and value), I noticed in the back of the guide they had produced a vintage chart, going back over ten years and rating the vintages (out of 10). And, much to my surprise, I saw that none had been rated very highly, including 1998 (which most winos I know consider the “coming out” vintage for BC wines).

So I thought…what’s up with that? Right now it doesn’t mean much…virtually all of those wines (with the possible exception of the ’98 Hayman Vineyard Pinot Noir from Kettle Valley) are way over the hill. But how could they have seemingly got it so wrong in the past…and what did that mean for their assessment of more recent (and current) vintages?

Finally, I noticed in my last trip to the government liquor stores the vestiges of the latest Bordeaux release (2008, I believe). Critics had, I believe, said it was a good, but not great year….and yet the prices were still very high (most wines well over $50 a bottle). And yet…even in these unstable economic times…almost all the wines were sold out? Was the vintage that good to risk money on? And how did people know?

So there you go…three vintage stories, all different but related by the subject itself. What the moral is I don’t know, except maybe that weather and other factors do make wine different from year to year…and it is “buyer beware” if you buy it based on someone else’s recommendations.

My advice? Know the style you like…and if you can taste before you buy, do it. Because, ultimately, you are the best judge of what is good, and good value. And it’s way better to know that before you fork out a lot of money on the latest “vintage of the century”.