Robert Parker is the most influential wine judge in the world. His nose has been insured for a million dollars. In America, where he has the most power, customers will return a wine brought from a retail shop because they didn’t like it, and then return a week later to buy exactly the same wine because Parker rated it highly. If this influence sounds bad, it gets worse. Parker enjoys high alcohol Australian reds. He is unashamed to say this is his preference, and many wineries in Australia have been criticised for making wines in this style only to suit this one journalist.
In Spain the problem also exists (or existed). I remember being on a buying tour where each winery was proud to show their New World Style reds. These were big on oak and big on alcohol. They were heavy packed wines made to suit a market they thought was popular. Unfortunately for them we buyers didn’t enjoy the “Parker Wines”, we liked the old European styles with more subtly, and this is often used to explain a shift in the market.
Mr Parker no longer reviews Australian wines for his magazine, passing the role off to some guy with less celebrity. The result is that less Australian wines are being sold in America based on Parker’s points, and the high Australian dollar is also having an impact. Because of this more emphasis has been placed on local distribution, where shop buyers and reviewers prefer a less robust and less alcoholic wine. Combined with this is the view that local consumers also prefer lower alcohol wines – believing it means they can drink more or that it is healthier. For these reasons it seems the fad of making high alcohol wines has waned. The funny thing is that, by and large, this is not the true.
While it is true that some idiots chased high alcohol, for many producers their higher than historical alcohols was not cause by a fad. Instead it was the effects of climate variation. As example, fruit in Bendigo is now picked early to mid March. Ten years ago it was late April.
To get the ideal flavour extraction of a long growing season, such as when Bendigo harvest was in April and would produce wine of 12.5% alcohol, grapes are left to hang for as long as possible. In recent years drought and high temperatures have naturally reduced juice in the berry and this makes for a high sugar to juice ratio at fermentation. Winemakers hate high sugar levels (+14%) as this causes difficulties with fermentation and results in high alcohol wines that don’t age well. While these wines can impress when young, because of the obviousness of their flavour, they lack the nuance most winemakers desire.
The best way to reduce alcohol is to pick under-ripe fruit (which is what they do in France) and add sugar to get a fermentation happening (which is what they do in France). This is called chaptalisation. It is illegal in Australia.
The other way is to add water and dilute the sugar. This also dilutes flavour. It is also illegal in Australia.
One of the reasons alcohol levels are coming down is because label laws allow for a 0.5% margin of error. Therefore, while writing 14.5% alcohol on a bottle was marketable, wineries will now write 13.5%, when in fact the same winemaking conditions produce a 14% alcohol wine.
Beyond a 0.5% shift in alcohol the reduction could be because over the past ten years Australian winemakers have adapted to the climate, by watering the vineyards more to maintain juice and/or picking fruit on sugar level rather than historically desired ripeness or time of year.
It is unlikely that picking fruit in April will return soon, as currently that fruit will be shrivelled and most climate scientists believe worse conditions are coming. This is an effect that Parker and his love of 15% alc wines will not be able to stop.
A few years ago, owing to boredom, I used a 1996 Penfolds Grange in cooking. There was 50mls of wine left after a work function, and this was added to my gravy. Sitting on the floor of the lounge room — occasional fifth bedroom — in a share-house with friends, we ate a roast lamb dinner, and it was delightful.
I told Gabriel Martin, chef, sommelier, Frenchman, and co-owner of Metropolis Eating House, this story recently. He didn’t appreciate it.
“It is because you are stupid!” Martin said with his accent. “Because it is in your head. You think, ‘I’m using this Grange, it must be good.’ I bet you $10,000 you can’t tell the difference.” And with that, the challenge was made.
We had been talking about cooking with wine. I have seen many restaurants use cheap cask wine in their cooking, which is something Martin does not do. “I always use quality wine,” he said.
So why not Grange? “Of course there is a bit of background of shiraz — but it is a joke.” He didn’t like my use of the iconic, $600+, Australian shiraz, I could tell. “You have cooked it! If I used a pinot noir I would have had the same result.” Continue reading “Cooking with Grange”→
In case you have not noticed, wine is not a car. It would be great if wine was a car, but it is not. There are many steps separating wine from being a car. This is a few of them…
You cannot race wine
Ok, obviously you can race wine – sending two “streams” of it down the pavement outside a Hungarian restaurant. But that is not in the way I mean, cause you can’t place a row of wine bottles across a start line, fire a gun, and see which sprints to the finish line first. Trust me, without some buggy system, it can’t be done.
There is a game called Options, played by wine-wankers. What we do (yes I said “we”) is each take a bottle of wine to dinner, the label and any other identifying marks covered. The goal is to taste each wine and, by answering questions, to deduce exactly what it is. This is achieved by selecting the correct option from a range provided by each wine’s owner.
One wine is quizzed at a time, and there are usually three options offered with each question. These questions classically concern the wine’s nationality, region, vintage, grape(s), and winery (in no regimented order, though the winery’s name comes last).
It is important to remain professional in the face of stupidity. One must always remain professional. Imagine if Michael Caine, sprawled on the floor of a seat-less bus and stretching between a gabble of crim mates and a palate of bullion, lost his cajoles while hanging over the edge of the Andes. If he started blithering gibberish and whinged in truly unbecoming self-pity, like a school child with a cheese and vegemite sandwich instead of plain peanut butter like he asked for and offered to make himself mum you never listen, he wouldn’t have got anything done.
Yes, as the astute of you will gather, it is important to remain calm no matter the circumstances. Britton wasn’t built by cry-babies (it was mostly done by the Romans) and Australia wasn’t founded by fly-swatters (they had hats).
One such situation of calm in the face of bewilderment happened upon this writer in the not too distant past. It occurred while discussing the menu for a food and wine function. Food and wine – you will understand – can be jolly good bedfellows, or can be as prone to agitation as a mongoose and a cobra stuck in a pit with a chicken holding a blade surround by a ring of fire lit by a scorpion.
Considered by many in the wine industry to be a noxious weed, sauvignon blanc has infiltrated wine circles much the same as Kim Kardashian has infiltrated the news cycle—by being completely devoid of legitimate worth but (somehow) being popular among the plebs.
Still, despite the accompanying bile, since it is popular we must talk about the best things to do with it.
1. Run it through an RO (reverse osmosis device to remove alcohol), copper (to remove phenolic characters) and charcoal (to remove its basic poisons aka flavour).
This way you can drink the pure water that remains.
2. Graft it with cabernet franc to make cabernet sauvignon
The only good sauvignon blanc has done is to remove itself from the food chain and become something supremely better. The grafting of SB with CF to produce CS is G8 for all M8’s of wine, OMG.
3. Cook the bejesus out of it
The acid in Sauvignon Blancs make it perfect for pasta’s and broth’s, and you wont miss the lack of wine flavour if you overcook.
4. Weed out guests
If the guest says, ‘I’ll have a glass of sauvy b thanks’, then you know you can put away the good china.
5. Put Semillon in it
For hundreds of years the French (and then Australians) blended sauvignon blanc with semillon to give the wine some taste. Then the lazy kiwi’s couldn’t bother with the semillon (possibly because they didn’t read the instructions) and started selling semillon devoid sauvignon blanc to an unsuspecting, and kindly, international market. What cheek!
6. Get kick backs
Apparently, owing to Australian/New Zealand Fair Trade Agreement NZ producers can claim the Small Winery Tax Rebate from the OZ government. In other words, if a New Zealand winery sells one million dollars of wine to Australia, the Australian government pays them three hundred thousand in tax rebate. Choice eh bro?
7. Eat Smelly Cheese
A sauvignon blanc is very acidic (that crisp character which is shown better in riesling). This means the wine cleans the mouth a little before it can get smothered in something tasty, that being the cheese.
8. Taunt homeless people
Standing around drinking completely useless semi-alcoholic crap aka Sauvignon Blanc really gets the ire of homeless people. They watch your brown-paper bag with lustful imaginings of spirits, or beers, or real wine. Seeing the label of Sauvignon Blanc is an insult! You’re rubbing in their face your total disregard for the money you have and the options they desire.
9. Remember Your Evil
Barbarian, mass murderer and warlord Genghis Kahn loved a tipple of sauvignon blanc. Consider him when you drink it.
10. Hurt Children
Like rubbing betadine into wounds, pouring sauvignon blanc into children’s open eyes really smarts. It is also a more practical use for the muck than drinking it.
In case you don’t know; mulled wine is what idiots drink when they have brought too much Beaujolais Nouveau (or some other cheap peudo-red-wine goop) and need to make it drinkable. They do so by mulling it, which is a process of adding spices, heat and anything else that might dull the taste of the rancid muck they started with. It is like mixing coca-cola with bourbon (in that order).
Not to be confused with ‘mulling over wine’—which is even more preposterous.
Victoria has seen one hundred and fifty years of wine. Vineyards here have produced world beating wines, helped form the international identity of Australian wine and changed the way wine is made in the world. Yet still growers in Victoria feel that they are learning the land. One new region learning and making big impression in Australian wine is the region of Heathcote.