Archive for August, 2014

It’s Not Just the Price of Wine…it’s What You’re Supposed to Get for it!

August 27, 2014

I was struggling a bit about what to write about this week, the last real week of summer. But then I was dropping some wine off with Lyle, one of the members of my wine club, and we got to talking about the price of wine – and I had a topic!

But not just the price. I have done that before, and didn’t feel like just venting again. Instead, it is about what you expect to get…for the price you pay!

The conversation started around the release of a whole bunch of $60 BC wines, but it quickly expanded beyond that to all wine. And the key question was – what do you expect from an expensive wine, and how do you know you will get it?

Expectations are relative, of course, just like taste and style. But – in general – I think it is fair to say that the more money you pay for a bottle of wine (or anything, for that matter), the more you expect to get.

But with wine, what exactly is that?

Some people say “quality”. But what does that mean? And how do you judge the difference in quality between a $25, $60, or $600 bottle of wine?

Well, here are a few thoughts.

First of all, if it is a newly released vintage, I don’t think – personally – that “quality” should be about how good the wine is now. If the wine is made to drink right away, or over the next few years, there are way too many options to justify paying extravagant sums for it. The difference in quality just isn’t there.

So that brings us to a wine’s potential, which means what it will taste like after it ages. And that, I think, is a legitimate argument.

If you buy a wine that is, say, $50 now, but in 10 – 20 years will develop into something special, then I think that merits a higher price. Even if you just factor in inflation, the cost of that same wine will be more expensive then. And in restaurants – if they cellar it that long – the cost will be up to ten times more expensive.

But how do you know it will taste that much better in 10 – 20 years? Usually, for wine dweebs like me, that means the tannins (in red wines) will have softened, but the fruit will still be there, so there will be this wonderful mix of fruit, herbs, wood and other aromas and flavours. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Barbaresco, Hermitage, Chateauneuf du Pape, Rioja…those are all wines that offer that promise. And that’s why you will pay $50+ a bottle when the wine is young…because it will hopefully taste like a thousand dollar wine when it is mature (which is probably what it will cost).

That still leaves the question, however, of how you will know what the wine you spend $50, $60 or even $100 now will taste like that 10 – 20 + years in the future?

That, my friends, is a skill that few people develop, and even fewer get a chance to try out (given how expensive it can be to taste many different $50 wines years before they are ready).
While I don’t claim to have the skill, I do know one piece to the puzzle – the wine must have enough fruit when it is young. Because if it doesn’t, it is not going to find anymore 10 – 20 + years from now.

That, frankly, is my problem with Bordeaux, and the blends from other countries like that. They can be searingly tannic when young, and the fruit very hard to find. So how do you know it will be there in the future?

But at least Bordeaux has a reputation to build on! My bigger peeve is BC wineries making that style of wine that have no track record to back it up. Why should I spend $60 or more on a BC wine when – as one winemaker I met said – “we don’t know what it will taste like in 10 to 15 years.”?

So where am I going with all of this?

Well, if you like old wine (another subject in its own right), then go slowly, and develop a taste based on experience. For me, I have been drinking certain Chateauneuf du Papes and Barbarescos for over 15 years now and know not just how they age, but what they taste like in 10 – 15 years. So if I am going to make a $50+ purchase (which is still rare), I am pretty confident of what I will be getting.

But I won’t take that chance with some new winemaker – in BC or elsewhere. What was the line from that movie…”show me the money”? Well, “show me the old wine”…then maybe I will pay for it when it is young!



August 20, 2014

I was struggling a bit this week, trying to figure what to write about. But then, inspiration!

While still lovely outside, it has cooled down enough to go back into my cellar for some older red wines. We were going to have barbecue leg of lamb (which turned out fabulous, by the way), so I thought…how about Cabernet Sauvignon? A peek at my cellar book showed an Aussie Cab was down for drinking this year – a 1999 Maxwell Lime Cave – so it seemed a match made in heaven!

Until I pulled the cork, that is…

First off, the cork was brittle, and almost broke off. But that isn’t necessarily unusual for a 15 year old wine. However, when I poured it and stuck my nose inside the glass…oh no!

Brown sugar, essence of tea…was it over the hill? And, hence, my topic for today (you have to wait to the end to hear if the wine was done, by the way!).

So how do you know if your wines are too old? Not “off” – meaning there wasn’t something wrong with the cork or the wine itself – but just past the date when they are enjoyable.

Well, a couple of simple tests will help you.

For white wines, it is easier. If they are oaked – meaning mostly Chardonnay – check out the colour first. If the golden yellow has deepened significantly, that is a bad sign. Worse, though, is if you smell it and…all you get is wood! That probably means the oak has completely overwhelmed the fruit, leaving you with a mouthful of toothpicks. Double check by tasting, of course, but if the wine tastes like it smells, it is probably done (unless you like chewing on wood).

Reds, though, can be a different matter altogether.

Colour may not be as good an indicator. Tonight’s wine, for example, was still a deep red at 15 years of age. So no hint there.

So now it is in your glass, dark red…what next?

Well, there are some telltale aromas that could indicated your wine as passed its “best before date”. Burnt leaves and tea are a couple of them – in my experience, that often shows that the wine has aged beyond its fruit. Sweetness on the nose might also be another indication. And the same with over woodiness (similar to the white wine example above).

But do taste it to confirm! Sometimes, older wines just get funky on the nose! It may blow off, but sometimes it doesn’t.

If you taste the wine and it is unpleasant – with the same kind of flavours as aromas – then it is probably done. But you may be surprised…

Which brings us back to my wine from tonight! A somewhat off-putting nose lead to a very nice vanilla/black currant wine! It was a bit dried out, but not woody at all. Turned out to be a great example or an old Cabernet Sauvignon, and way better than many Bordeaux of the same age!

So there you go…some tips on how to tell if your wine is too old.

But the last one is the most important one. If you still like the taste of the wine – white or red – then it doesn’t really matter. Drink it, for goodness sake! Your taste is the one that matters the most!



August 13, 2014

With the great, hot summer here in B.C. we have been drinking a lot of white wine, way more than usual. A lot of it has been local, and very good indeed!

But as I look at the bills each time I pay for it, there has been another constant – almost all of these wines have been under $20. And that got me to wondering why that was the case.

Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon/Sauvignon blends, Pinot Gris, Riesling, even most Viogniers – all at that price point. And that was the case whether the wines were made by La Frenz, Moraine, Howling Bluff, Marichel or Church and State. So what’s up?

Well, part of it might be oak – or, in fact, the lack of it. One thing all of these wines have in common is they are done in stainless steel, with little or no oak aging. Oak barrels are expensive, particularly if you use new oak, and that has to be passed on the purchaser.

Support for this argument includes the fact that there are no Chardonnays on this list. I could have added in Township 7 and Quinta Ferreira (both of which clock in at about $20), but they are not quite in the same class as some of these other wines. Similarly, the Ensemble by La Frenz – a white Bordeaux clone of oak aged Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon – is gorgeous, but around $30.

So lack of oak is probably one reason for the $20 price point.

But I suspect there is another – winemakers (at lease in BC) have decided that $20 is what consumers are comfortable spending on a local white wine.

And by “comfortable”, I mean three things. First, that may be as high as paying customers will go. There are reserve BC whites that go higher than that, but they don’t seem to be as popular. Secondly, customers may well be thinking that anything less than $20 might mean the wine isn’t that good! And, given the selection under that figure, they are probably right.

There may also be one last reason. $20 might just be “the new $10”.

What do I mean by that? Well, when I got into wine almost 30 years ago, it seemed like everyone was looking for the $10 wine. And many producers – from Chile and Spain, in particular – were providing that. I can’t remember what the BC wine prices were then, because it was pre-free trade, and there wasn’t any quality wine around.

But now – whether it is inflation, incomes or just changing expectations – consumers may just look at the $20 bill and think “what can I get for that”, in the same way they used to look at the $10 bill.

Whatever the reasons, at least in BC, $20 is the new sweet spot for white wines. And with the quality available out there at that price, I am okay with that, and wish it was the same for red wines!



August 6, 2014

Okay, after pontificating last week about “how to have a summer wine party”, I now need to report back on some serious lessons learned.

Trust me…if you heed these, you will avoid a whole bunch of pain (physical and emotional).

First off, try not to hold your party when it is stinking hot out! I had (while it was still light out…more on that later) only white, rose and sparkling wines to serve (as per my blog recommendations), but it was almost impossible to keep them all cold enough. Regardless, people still drank them, mostly because everyone was parched from the heat! I’m not sure they showed their best as a result, although everyone sure loved them.

Lesson number two is don’t serve too much food (again, when it is hot out). Our party was a pot luck, with us providing the protein and everyone else salads. Given the heat, the salads went like crazy…and we were left with lots of tandoori chicken and sausage. Fortunately, we like both, because we ate them as leftovers for two days. And since it was still hot, that meant no cooking…hey, maybe this is a positive thing!

The third lesson is be careful if kids are attending! Much wine was consumed by the adults, and while nobody was falling down drunk, everyone was pretty happy, to say the least. For the younger teenagers (13/14), they just ignored us and played in the yard or watched movies. But the 16 year olds were quite fascinated – and embarrassed – so much so that they used their smart phones to film their parents singing and dancing! I am sure some of us will be embarrassed by those videos some day on important occasions!

The fourth lesson is don’t hold the party too close to your wine cellar (if you have one). We were outside, and the cellar is just inside the basement door…as the evening progressed, it became way too easy to pop into the cellar for Port, Sauternes, etc…They were great, but it added to the overall state of many of the parents…
Fifth, if you are going to hold the wine party outside – and your neighbours are around – give them a heads up (or invite them). We ended up singing rock and roll songs till about midnight, which didn’t go over too well with neighbours on one side.

Finally, my one wine lesson of the night. After having enough (more than enough?) to drink, resist the temptation to go to the cellar for “that last bottle”! In my case it was the 2000 Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve Sixtine Cuvee de Vatican. A great wine I am sure…but I can’t even remember what it tasted like!

So there you go…it was a great evening, and we will definitely do it again. But a few lessons to help manage “the day after the night before”!