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So you want to try something totally different?

Mexico, Hawaii, Thailand, Bali, Japan and China all make wine. Whilst some of the wines can taste “unusual”, you can find some “good” wines from unlikely places.

I once visited a vineyard just outside Bangkok, called Monsoon valley. Even more bizarre, it was a floating vineyard where the vines were planted on mounds of earth that rose up out of a shallow lake. You had to walk across a narrow plank to get from one row to the next, and the big worry was falling in and getting bitten by a water snake. The grapes were harvested by leaning out of a little canoe and snipping off the bunches.

I think it will be a while before wines from places like these feature amongst the best in the world, but modern technology has gone a long way to allowing producers to make wines in unlikely places. Nurseries can create grape varieties that are suited to very hot, or very cold, climates. Grape growers can use irrigation and canopy management techniques to help achieve optimum levels of ripeness. And with the use of temperature control and a multitude of different techniques winemakers can fashion wines to be quite palatable.

The fun is that these wines actually exist. Right now, in export markets, they are mainly treated as curiosities.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

So you like unoaked reds. What to buy?

So you like unoaked reds. What to buy?

A caveat when answering this question is that some producers do not follow the norm in their regions. But generally, delicious unoaked wines abound in the following places:

I would recommend trying some Beaujolais from France. Beaujolais is typically unoaked and if that is the major criteria then this dry, light bodied red should hit the mark.

There is some good quality Beaujolais. Check out some of the so-called “Crus”. There are 10 of them and these are the higher quality wines that typically retail for about $20-$30.

Valpolicella from Italy is typically unoaked and can be quite delicious as a simple pizza wine. They are often lighter in color, crisp in acidity, with some slightly tart cherry flavours. For the price they are very popular, if a little simple.

Another wine that is usually dry, low in tannin, and very light on oak are basic Burgundies made from the Pinot Noir grape. Whilst some AC Bourgogne wines have seen a short amount of oak ageing you would be hard pushed to tell. Again, there are lots of options here in the $20-$30 range.

Red wines from the Loire, often made with Cabernet Franc, could be the ticket because they are usually dry, light in body, and not showing much oak. But it all really depends on the producer and I’m generalizing here.

I’m not a fan of oaky wines either. But in good wine the oak shouldn’t be unpleasant. Instead, it should add another dimension to the wine, some attractive aromas and flavors of vanilla, coffee, spice and cedar. But when a wine is over-oaked then that’s all you can taste.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

What wine to buy with a $15 budget?

What wine to buy with a $15 budget?

The good news is that you can buy quite a few good quality wines for that amount. The fact is that most people don’t spend much more then $15 on a bottle of wine.

In sparkling wine I would buy Spanish Cava. Wines like Segura Viudas are exceptional value given that they are made in the same method as Champagne. Don’t expect anything widely complex, but instead the wine will be dry, medium to light bodied, crisp and refreshing and showing lots of green fruit.

In Sauvignon Blanc I would buy from Chile, which just inches out New Zealand which tends to be a few dollars more. In Chile look out for wine labeled as coming from the Casablanca valley. They are aromatic, pure and focus, with Sauvignon’s classic herbaceous qualities. Santa Rita can make good wines.

There are some pretty good Pinot Grigios from Italy in this price range, Chardonnays from Australia, and for a few dollars more you can buy delicious Rieslings and Gewurztraminers from Alsace. But if you really want me to name a single country that makes excellent value white wines from a multitude of different grapes it has to be Chile.

For red wines, Malbec from Argentina is excellent value. They’re deep, dark, full bodied and brimming with juicy black fruits. These are some of the best value red wines on the market today.

In Europe, southern Italy and southern France can offer some excellent deals on their red wines. Look for areas that are not well known. Producers here have a harder time selling their wines and that works in your favor. Portuguese reds are incredible value too and Spanish reds from La Mancha ranks amongst the best values.  

Again, I would take a serious look at Chile for Merlot and inexpensive Pinot Noir. And Australia has some unbelievable prices on Shiraz. So in fact there is quite a lot of choice.

For sweet wines you typically pay more than $15 but the best values are Canadian late harvest Rieslings, sweet Chenin from the Loire valley, and you can even buy Sauternes for $20.

To cap it all off, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port is a fantastic deal with some around  $20-$25. Plus the bottle can stay open for about one week.

You usually get an increase in quality as prices go up. But there are plenty of nice wines around $15 too.   

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

THE POWERHOUSES OF CALIFORNIA

THE POWERHOUSES OF CALIFORNIA

When you pull up at wineries like Mondavi, Beringer, Sutter Home and Kendal Jackson you might be aware that they are not exactly boutique producers. But you’d be shocked to find out that the four of them account for a monstrous percentage of California’s wine production.

In fact, the top 30 wineries in California are responsible for over 90% of the State’s wine production. Even more amazing, the top 3 companies produce more than 150 million cases, which is over 50% of California’s wine.

California ranks as the 4th largest wine producer in the world, coming in behind France, Italy and Spain. In the Golden State you’ll find over 3,500 bonded wineries. Together, they produced over 300 million cases of wine. This is not small potatoes.

So although there’s a wonderful artisan feel to some of these wineries, behind the tasting room doors is the most impressive corporate machine you could ever imagine. But big is not beautiful, at least for most wine lovers. People seem to prefer a small family struggling to make ends meet, dedicated to the terroir, and hand-selling their wine, one bottle at a time. That is another marketing position…even if it is true.

Although I love the small winery too, I am very much in favor of the powerhouse volume companies that drive the market. They have the funds to invest in viticultural and winemaking research, taking the quality levels to new heights. They can create taste profiles and brands that meet the modern consumer’s preferences. They can afford to advertise, which attracts new wine drinkers. Large companies can also run major promotions that add value for regular wine lovers. And when it comes to government, it’s the powerhouse corporations that lobby on behalf of the rest of the industry.

The king of California is Ernest and Julio Gallo, who weigh in at more than 80 million cases, although exact figures are elusive. It’s one of the most inspiring stories in wine, and I have great admiration for this company and what they have achieved. Only a wine snob and the uninformed would say otherwise.

It was started in a garage by the two brothers in 1933. They had a friendly bet which spurred on a competition. Ernest said he could sell wine faster than Julio produced it, but Julio thought otherwise. They grew the business at an alarming rate. Ernest was famous for saying “we don’t want most of the business, we want it all”. Today the company sells 1 in 3 bottles of California wine.  

I visited their main production facility outside Modesto in the Central valley. At one stage they owned almost half the vineyards in the State, and today they are the largest landowner in Sonoma. At the winery they make their own glass bottles, their own barrels, have their own printing operation, and a train actually comes into the highly automated warehouse to collect wine for shipment around the world. They have offices around the world, managing their own distribution.  

Much less well known is The Wine Group. If you’ve had a bottle of Corbett Canyon, Cupcake, FishEye, Franzia, Almaden and several others then you’ve contributed to their massive sales. This company seems to have a knack for figuring out exactly what consumer wants in a brand. They then use their extensive sales and marketing expertise to develop business with large retail chains. After all, the vast majority of wine is sold at retail in stores like Costco, Walmart and Safeway, which can turn a brand into an overnight success.

Constellation Brands is a global player. Their flagship in California is unquestionably Robert Mondavi, although the company is also the owner of Ravenswood, Simi, Clos du Bois, Franciscan and many others. And that’s just in California. They also own major brands elsewhere like Kim Crawford in New Zealand.

Although Constellation is a giant beverage company, they operate each winery independently and strive to offer a range of more premium wines, as well as covering the value sector. Certainly, when it comes to quality, the Napa wines from Robert Mondavi are the jewel in the crown. The quality of the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon proves that large companies can produce outstanding quality wines.

There are several more giants. Treasury is the name of the company behind Beringer, Chateau St Jean and various others in California. They also own half of Australia.

Trinchero is the company behind Sutter Home, the inventor of White Zinfandel. Today, Trinchero continues to hit home runs with brands like Menage a Trois, and the hot new varietal Moscato. Kendall- Jackson, Delicato, Bronco, Wente, J Lohr, and Francis Ford Coppola also appear on the list of major volume players. Coppola produces Rubicon, now called Inglenook, one of the top wines of Napa. It’s the volume brands that fund his pursuit of perfection at Inglenook.

The point is that although wine lovers get all wrapped up in the ultra-prestige brands that often sell for expensive prices, this is not the main market. Over 90% of all wine sold sells for under $20 a bottle. We rely on the major companies to deliver a great experience for the money. And the volume players are the ones that often do that the best. Like it or not.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

Are blends better than single varietal wines?

Are blends better than single varietal wines?

No, blends are not necessarily better than single varietal wines. Otherwise, all wines would be blends.

It is true that by blending different grape varieties together you can sometimes create a higher quality wine. Some of the great wines of the world are blends, such as Port, which typically has 5 or 6 different varieties blended together. A certain variety may bring depth of color, another stronger aromatic intensity, another tannic structure, and all combined there can be a myriad of different aromas and flavors that creates complexity – the Holy Grail in wine quality. Bordeaux, most Champagne, many of the Super-Tuscans and Sauternes are all examples of top quality blended wines.

But many of the world’s great wines are also made from one single variety. Fine red and white Burgundy, Barossa Shiraz, Sancerre, Napa Valley Cabernet, and Sonoma Zinfandel are all single varietal wines that are clearly outstanding examples of their type.

That said, in a certain sense, all wines are blends, even single varietal wines. A wine could be a blend of multiple vineyards of the same variety. Or a wine might be a blend of different clones of the same variety from a single vineyard. Even when blending the final wine from a single grape there will likely be significant differences amongst the various “lots” that a winemaker has to draw from. Different barrels produce different tasting wines.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

Alcohol degrees – How important is the alcohol degree on wine labels?

Alcohol degrees – How important is the alcohol degree on wine labels?

It’s very important. The alcohol degree is one of the key things I always look at on the label. When I was 19 my motives were different from today, and naturally back then I was looking for a low alcohol wine so I could still do my homework.

But today I look at the alcohol degree because it can tell you so much about what a wine will taste like. The more sugar there is in the grape at harvest, the higher the potential alcohol. So if the grape comes from a hot climate it will typically have become very ripe, and contain a large amount of sugar that can be turned into a lot of alcohol.

Conversely, if a grape was grown in a cool climate, or comes from a cooler vintage, then the amount of sugar will be much lower and the alcohol degree in the wine will be less.

So how does that change the taste of wine? A Chardonnay from a cool area, such as Chablis, will have less alcohol, less body, greener fruit flavors, and crisper acidity. Don’t forget that in the grape ripening process acidity comes down as sugar content builds.    

If you have a Chardonnay from a hotter climate, which will result in higher alcohol, there will be riper flavors in the wine. Also, there will typically be more body and a degree of sweetness, however subtle that may be. The high alcohol wine will also have a certain warmth on the palate, noted by the heat on your breath.

So if I see on the label that the alcohol degree is low to moderate (generally 12-13%) then I have an idea of the level of body, ripeness, sweetness, and acidity in the wine. If I see it is 14% or more then it should be a full bodied wine with riper flavors, some warmth from the alcohol and a touch of fruit sweetness.

Unfortunately you can’t try wine before you buy it. So you have to use everything you can on the label to get a general idea of how it might taste.

And yes, in my opinion, alcohol degrees are generally way too high for many red wines these days. Drinking a 15% + red is just too intoxicating and often there is a burn on the finish. I’m not a big fan. Moderation, my dear.

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A gift for a dinner host. Red or white?

A gift for a dinner host. Red or white?

I’d go for sparkling wine. It’s fun, thoughtful, and always a hit. You can buy Spanish Cava for under $20, or step up to a California sparkler made by a Champagne house for around $25. Then you’ll be the hero who brought over “the champagne”! Of course you could always bring the real thing, which is always appreciated and noted.

Otherwise, I’d say the safest bet is to go with white wine, mainly because most whites can be drunk without food and they often tend to complement starters. A Sancerre, a white Burgundy, a Sonoma Chardonnay, or something fairly classic is likely to be well-received. I’d be cautious about showing up with an obscure Greek white wine and then having to explain just how amazing it is. Might be, might not… so play it safe.

Obviously reds are an option. But who knows what’s on the menu. Again, I’d stick to classic regions and mainstream grapes. Save the Croatian vino for your own experimentation at home.

Another wine to consider buying would be a bottle of LBV Port, which cost between $20 and $35. A bottle of Port, some chocolate or Stilton cheese, and you just brought over dessert. To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

The more expensive the wine, the better?

The more expensive the wine, the better?

No, it is not true that quality always improves as the price goes up. I’ve had hundreds of wines in blind tastings that have come out ahead of their more expensive counterparts, and sometimes it’s quite shocking to see a big name come last in a flight. It’s equally shocking to see some of the major brands, which the wine trade loves to malign, come out at the top.

That said, as a general rule, you should see an increase in quality as the price goes up. A $30 bottle almost always does taste much better than a $15 bottle. But there is a law of diminishing returns. That’s to say that a $1000 bottle is not always exactly “ten times” better than a $100 bottle.

So where I question wine pricing is when you get into the stratosphere. Is a $3,500 bottle of DRC Montrachet really that much better than a $200 bottle of Grand Cru white Burgundy from another vineyard? It may be better quality, but the price difference isn’t warranted from a pure quality perspective. But you do get the pleasure of staring at a famous label and soaking up the mystique, and you feel special to be drinking something so expensive and rare.    

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

How do you know if a wine is “off”?

How do you know if a wine is “off”?

The short answer: if a wine smells or tastes unpleasant then it might be “off”. To be more specific, if you smell things like rotten eggs, burnt matchstick, vinegar, a musty wet cardboard aroma, then the wine may well be “off”.

But the fact is that it can be quite difficult to tell if some wines are “off”. I’ve shared bottles of wine with some of the top winemakers in the world and towards the end of the bottle they have questioned whether the wine is “in condition”. Why? We all have different thresholds for noticing certain smells and tastes. There was a famous incident when a wine critic found an entire batch of wine to be “corked”, but after the winery did a blind tasting with a focus group they decided that the taint was below “threshold” and continued to sell the wine.

Cork taint is the major fault to look for. Corks can sometimes harbor a fungi which can develop into potent organic compounds, notably one called TCA. This can dull the aroma of a wine, make it smell musty, like wet cardboard, and make the fruit taste dried out and astringent on the palate.

One of the other major faults is oxidation, which happens when excessive amounts of oxygen come into contact with the wine. This can start during the winemaking process as soon as the grapes are picked. Just like an apple, the juice can start to turn brown. Sometimes you can tell an oxidized wine just by the color. Look for white wines to have an unusual amber or dull golden brown color. The nose can smell dull, lacking freshness, and with some heavy nutty and caramel notes. Tired and stale are hallmarks of oxidized wines.

There are several other potential faults but in my experience the incidence of faulty wines is decreasing. The good news is that many good retailers in the world will replace any faulty bottles. Just don’t confuse that with a wine you personally don’t like the taste of.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com

How important is the vintage of a wine?

How important is the vintage of a wine?

The importance of vintage depends on the region of production and the quality of the wine.

The vintage date can be of critical importance in cooler, more marginal climates. If it was a good year then the wines can be dramatically better in quality compared to a year when the heavens opened at harvest time and the crop suffered from dilution and rot. Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Champagne, Piedmont, Tuscany, parts of Germany are typically more susceptible to vintage variation. Prices can fluctuate according to the quality of the vintage, so it is important to ask a Product Consultant or check on the internet for the reviews.

In some regions there is little vintage variation because the weather is quite consistent from year to year. In hot parts of Australia and California I’m really not too worried about the vintage date, but more concerned about the maturity of the wine. That’s to say that inexpensive wines are usually best drunk young while they are fresh and fruity, whilst top quality red wines often benefit from some age.

So I would be more concerned about a wine from a lesser region, or of lesser general quality, being too old. A Chardonnay that is 5 years old from California’s Central Valley, exhibiting a worryingly deep gold color, is cause for concern. It’s an unlikely scenario though.

On a few wines there are no vintage date and so it’s not an issue. Non vintage Champagne is a classic example, and so are Ruby Ports and Sherries. This is because several vintages are blended together so the producer can achieve a degree of consistency in the house style.

Yes, it is difficult to keep up on the merits of vintages in dozens of wine regions around the world and few people have the time or inclination to stay up-to-date. But if you are buying some more expensive wine from classic areas it’s definitely worth finding out because it can mean the difference between a great bottle and a disappointment. When in doubt, turn to Wine Spectator or Decanter for reviews.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com