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On Tasting
Wine Writers Misleading Customers
Tuesday, 10th January, 2012  - David Farmer

Over the last 15 years the view has spread among wine writers in English speaking countries that wine should portray its place of origin and wines that are true to this ideal taste better. This is largely an embrace of the European and particularly the French concept of terroir. Some writers go further and enlarge this idea to include trends about 'natural-authentic' wines, and organic and bio-dynamic viticultural and winemaking methods.

These writers have grown increasingly worried about what they see as the industrialisation and commercialisation of wines and I understand this means not only the way these wines are made but how these processes end up making them taste.

Suppose though it's not true and the giant mass-blends without any sense of place end up tasting as good as the wines with a sense of place. I confess I've had a life-long liking of the basic Jacobs Creek wines which I assume fit squarely in the industrialisation and commercialisation category.

Here are a few quotes from recent articles which help illustrate these ideas.

From Victoria Moore, The Telegraph (London), 26th August, 2011, showing a dislike of heavily promoted wines: "Most "half-price" wines are made with the "offer" price in mind, and many taste so bad I would not drink them for pleasure at any cost"....." Before, I was always unable to find what I was looking for in Tesco because the decent bottles were generally so well-hidden behind reefs of undrinkable half-price rubbish."....."if you pick up a wine that's no good, or merely mediocre, youíre simply not going to like it."

From Eric Asimov, The New York Times, Joe Dressner, "Importer of Old World Wines, Dies at 60"; September 20, 2011: "In an era when most wines are made with grapes grown in chemically farmed vineyards and then manipulated with cultured yeasts and other chemicals and enzymes, Mr. Dressner championed wines that were expressions of local cultures, made from grapes grown organically or in rough approximation to it. In the cellar, nothing was added or taken away. The winemaker simply shepherded the grape juice along its natural path through fermentation."

From Andrew Neather, London Evening Standard, 'Wine books of the year: Read, drink and be merry', 15th December, 2011: ...."Yet its proponents are passionate - and they articulate a wider unease among winemakers and critics about the steady homogenisation of wine."...."And they prefer the term "authentic" to natural - wine with a clear sense of what US critic Matt Kramer calls "somewhereness", reflecting a particular terroir, as opposed to the bland "nowhereness" of the big brands."

From Elin McCoy, Bloomberg, 'Top 10 Wine Experiences of 2011', December 22nd, 2011: "In 2011, luxe wines came back, natural wines headed mainstream, Aussie wines lost market share, and Burgundy soared at auction, embraced by the Chinese. The great 2009 vintage, which produced stellar Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais and West Coast pinot noir, began arriving on shelves. Though there's still an ocean of industrial plonk, my ten picks reflect what's tops in the wine world today -- and point to where it's going next".

Alas masked tastings reveal all and I've yet to see any taster pick differences between somewhereness and nowhereness. We all agree that some wines taste better than others but does the origin and how it was put together matter much? We also care about what the wine costs and it seems the better ones cost a lot more. But do they always? I think it's quite sensible for consumers to seek out bargains which may include wines at half-price. Consider this long passage which needs to be retold and retold - and yes it's about Jacobs Creek.

From Jancis Robinson, Financial Times (London) 20th February, 2010; 'Australian myths and realities': "... but two big tastings recently have left me with newfound admiration for one of Australia's biggest brands, the one that hovered so effectively in the background to the recent Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Jacob's Creek. The first of these epiphanies took place in a private room at the new Hix restaurant in Soho, where I had been invited to lunch by Phil Laffer (pictured), veteran chief winemaker at Pernod Ricard's Australian subsidiary and therefore responsible for what goes into Jacob's Creek. 'Lunch' turned out to be an array of 20 bottles, flights of various vintages of Jacob's Creek regular Chardonnay, Chardonnay Reserve, Riesling, Reserve Riesling, Riesling from their famous Steingarten vineyard and their regular Shiraz/Cabernet blend.

"The fine quality of the Steingarten was no revelation, but what most impressed me was how well the older vintages of the most basic bottlings, currently retailing at £5.99 in the UK, had lasted. The regular Chardonnay 2007 blend, made from grapes harvested almost exactly three years ago, was, unlike most 2007s at similar price points, in fine fettle, and the current, 2009, bottling tasted as though it had not yet hit its stride. Usually, mass-market brands are made to be drunk the minute they reach retail shelves. And as for the Shiraz/Cabernets, the 1994 was still a delightful drink, all of the relics from the 1990s having an unusually thick deposit lining the bottle, showing that these wines had not been filtered or chilled to stabilise them but had been left to evolve naturally.....

".....Just one day later, at the annual UK generic tasting of Australian wines held this year in the new Saatchi Gallery in London, I had a chance to put Jacob's Creek Chardonnays in context. The organisers, those at the helm of the good ship Australian wine as it navigates the choppy export waters, decided to lay on a blind tasting of 50 Chardonnays, mostly but not all from Australia. This brave exercise was absolutely fascinating, not least because they had mixed up wines at all sorts of different prices, from some of Australia's most basic brands to fine white burgundy via some of the most reputable Chardonnays from California, New Zealand and South Africa. The only clues we had to these Chardonnays was that they were ordered by weight from 'Crisp & Refreshing' to 'Rich & Rewarding'.

"As detailed in Chardonnays - Oz v the rest, I ended up giving the same relatively enthusiastic score, 16.5 out of 20, to Jacob's Creek regular Chardonnay 2008 as to Bruno Colin's Premier Cru Morgeot 2006 Chassagne-Montrachet, and gave an even higher score to the Jacob's Creek Reserve Chardonnay 2008."

If you are not aware of Jancis Robinson she is a noted UK wine writer and in this tasting found the basic Jacobs Creek Chardonnay comparing well with a revered White Burgundy.

Masked tastings always show these unsettling comparisons and highlight the limitation of the wine movements that wine writers like to endorse versus the amazing skills of great winemakers working on an industrial scale. It takes a lot more than a great location to make great wine it would seem.

There are a lot of extravagant and astonishing claims made about the basic or poor quality of big brands but all I see is them winning bags of medals in Australian wine shows, something they have done for decades.

I think a new show is needed with the first tasting to divide the entries into three groups; those showing, somewhereness, inbetween-whereness or nowhereness, before the final taste-off for medals. After much thought I've decided the ideal location for this show is the RSL Club in Euston on the Murray, a place that time has forgotten, and yes it's in the middle of no-where and all of the grapes on nearby irrigated plots are destined for commercial-industrial wines.

Instead of alarming drinkers that all is not well with the wines of big companies, such as those put on special at major supermarkets, maybe wine writers could suggest the opposite that on average the general wine consumer is well looked after by these wines. Of course for a wine writer once you have made that point there is not a lot to write about in column number 2.

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