Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Wine classification: do we really need it?

My initial reaction to reading Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer's (3rd) classification of New Zealand Pinot Noir was akin to that of watching your 15 year-old brother being dragged out of school to go and work in the mills. Why does such an interesting and growing wine country need a classification that only implies stasis?

Well the first answer is probably that the classification is revised yearly, so no stasis is implied. The problem with yearly revisions (similar to St Emilion's abortive attempts at a 10-year classification) merely hints that classification as such is impossible.

As a potential guide to the current darlings of the region, that's fine. But set in stone? I doubt it. It's simply Jukes and Stelzer's 'favourite wines so far'. So why call it a classification?

Wine writing is merely the attempt to make the ephemeral concrete. Just because a critic doesn't smell or write down 'the aroma of camphor' or 'my granddad's aftershave' doesn't mean it isn't there. But that doesn't mean the wine writer won't give it a go. So the same with classifications.

Faced with such a vast array of wines, I believe there is a desire to pin down the best. And to do it in a league table? Perfect: it's like Polo rankings and booze combined. You can talk about it until the cows decide they've had enough wandering in other paddocks and prefer the comforts of the hearth.

I believe that part of the desire to classify wines also serves no other purpose than pure bragging. It is the perpetuation of the notion that the likes of Jukes, or Langton's (which classifies Australian wine), is 'supposed to know' more than the rest of us. If he did not believe he was the authority on New Zealand Pinot Noir, would Jukes say: 'Three years ago I had a bit of a rant and told producers they weren't as good as they thought they were'?

The point, I think, is that wine cannot and should not be classified. The ultimate classification, the 1855 in Bordeaux, is so distanced from reality I believe that its perpetuation is due to the desire to keep five châteaux at the top of the pile with a few other potential investment opportunities below. Imagine a Dow Jones or a FTSE where five companies were always at the top and could be guaranteed as such. Haut-Brion, Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Mouton are those five companies.

Perhaps we should all draw our inspiration from Pomerol and leave aside a classification.

  • Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we should physically force all wine critics nail their flags to the mast and classify each region according to their taste? In fact, I would love to see that.

    Labels: , , , , , , , ,

  • Monday, 25 January 2010

    The wine news roundup (25 Jan 2010)

    I was in London last week, tasting Burgundy, Oregon & Washington, anything that looked appealing from Liberty and tea. I can thoroughly recommend the TeaSmith masterclass and Canteen in Spitalfields is now confirmed as my favourite place to eat. Anyway, here's what you might have missed:

  • Maybe it’s to be expected that a financial institution, the FT, publishes a piece on investment in wine. But this time it’s as long as a column by their wine correspondent, Jancis Robinson. Who, one suspects, is likely to be less enamoured of the concept of wine as an investment vehicle.

  • A group of New Zealanders are to use their ‘marketing force’ (ie, wads of cash) to persuade the world that they make ‘fine wine’. Which is great, in and of itself, but what happened to the persuasive art of actually making fine wine? As I keep saying, wine experts will be bypassed in the future, with wineries relying on marketing and new media.

  • Mariah Carey turns bad PR into good by using her embarrassing acceptance speech to promote her Champagne. Good work by the Guardian but (a) no need to be quite so harsh – by all accounts her performance in Precious is very good - and (b) had you been reading my blog, you might have noticed this last year.

  • Bloomberg publishes an embarrassing gush-fest on the late Italian winemaker Edouardo Valentini. The opening gambit alone (‘I’ve been drinking wine with pleasure for a very long time…’) prepared me for the rest in the way saliva and stomach spasms makes me reach for a bucket. From the description of his personality in the piece, I doubt Valentini would have enjoyed it much either.

  • Eric Asimov produces yet another interesting piece for the New York times on affordable Bordeaux, saying that much of the low-end stuff is ignored and publishing the results of a small tasting of wines between $10 and $20. All well and good but when you look at the wines that came top, they’re still the likes of Liversan ’05, Olivier ’06 and de Sales ’06. Six of the top 10 were priced $19-20 and all were above $15. Perhaps not the best illustration of ‘affordable’ Bordeaux.

  • Worst article Goes to the Daily Mail (the paper you love to hate) for its piece on the Marques de Riscal winery which opened four years ago. Not that you could tell from the headline: ‘Guggenheim architect Frank Ghery to create City of Wine complex for Marques de Riscal’ which suggests the future but is in fact talking about a past event. Still, those kind of headlines are great for SEO, right? For a minute I thought the piece might be an examination of how the Marques de Riscal winery has fared since its opening, but it turned out to be yet another puff piece that left me wondering whether writer Graham Keeley had been a guest at de Riscal in the not-too-distant past.

  • Runner up for best article Only for the sake of puerile amusement, this goes to a bunch of lads who decide to microwave a bag-in-box wine. The whole thing explodes in four minutes. Or is it a fake? Either way, you might entertain a few people.

  • Best article Goes, without a doubt, to Mark Schatzker of the Toronto Globe and Mail for investigating the loophole in Canadian legislation that allows shops to sell, tax-free, ‘sacramental wine’. It’s no different from any other wine (albeit much cheaper) but you’ll need a signed letter from your Rabbi, Priest or Vicar to buy it.
  • Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

    Friday, 8 January 2010

    French Kiwi labels, or how to debase what's in the bottle

    It's as ironic as The Times says it is: a French Sauvignon Blanc called 'Kiwi Cuvée'. Imagine if a New Zealand winemaker tried to market 'Loire Cuvée'. The INAO (France's appellations body) would be all over it in the courts, just as they were with imitation Champagnes, imitation Chablis and so on. But no, New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc is fair game.

    Let us put the irony (and the sheer cheek of it) to one side for a moment and look at it from another angle.

    Who will buy this wine? Well, two kinds of people. The first will be fooled, believing they've bought a New Zealand wine, only to discover that it's French. The second will realise the brazen trick and be impelled to buy it out of curiousity.

    In the first instance the label is an insult to consumers' intelligence and in the second it's a gimmick. I have no idea what the wine tastes like (it's probably pretty good), but if a wine's label is that cynical, you have to wonder how much more you can debase what's inside the bottle.

    You could have the text in Comic Sans perhaps?

    Have a good weekend.

    Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

    Wednesday, 29 July 2009

    Spare a thought for the CRAV


    Of late, we have been quick to denounce any of form violent action. Although I agree with Orwell that dictatorships (and democracies for that matter) can stand peaceful protest until the cows come home, people can get hurt. Although in most cases nowadays (ref. G8), it’s the police that do the hurting.

    So we are quick to condemn the CRAV, or protesting French winemakers, for acting with violence in reaction to what they see as unfair prices. They want better prices for their wines so as not to be driven out of business. Even in Bordeaux, we have little sympathy with the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur producers who complain that barrel prices of €750 are barely enough for them to break even. They say they're not getting enough help.

    It’s the law of the market, of the free market, we say, deal with it.

    Read this (published today in New Zealand's National Business Review):

    Some wine companies are exporting Marlborough sauvignon blanc in bulk to clear large wine stocks, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry says.

    "Continuing down this path may affect the longterm future of the industry," said MAF economists.

    "This risks damaging the value of the premium Marlborough sauvignon blanc brand," said MAF director-general Murray Sherwin.’


    Essentially, New Zealand is telling its own producers not to go for lower prices, trying to shore up value against the market trend.

    Now, the NZ government can say what it likes – it doesn’t change the overall economic picture – but you have to wonder if the French government would be so active in trying to help the industry. Would it step in to stop supermarkets trying to cut prices? I have to be honest here, and say it wouldn’t do toss.

    So why do we accept the NZ government’s attempt to try to keep value in its wines, why do we accept that so much 1st growth wine is dumped into their second wines, why do we accept that most of the world’s diamonds are dumped at sea, and at the same time insist in the face of the CRAV that they must accept the vagaries of the financial market?

    (Picture from the Associated Press)

    Labels: , , , , ,