Published by Wine-Searcher.com
© Pavilion Books/Wine-Searcher | In his new book, Oz Clarke selects “great wines that don’t cost the earth,” including Sociando-Mallet
In this excerpt from Clarke’s latest guide, he suggests the top end of the red wine world is out of control.
“You begin to wonder about statistics after a year like 2012. Everyone was predicting that wine production was remorselessly on the up, that global warming was releasing thousands of hectares every year for new vineyards where the grapes would never have ripened before, from Canada to southern Chile, from Scandinavia to the southern tip of Tasmania and, of course, in the vast, uncharted hinterland of China.
But it didn’t work out like that. 2012 was the smallest harvest since records began in 1975. If you were in northern and western Europe your crop was ruined by a murderous summer – it left growers gazing at a soggy handful of grapes at harvest time that could be as little as 10% of the normal crop. Some vineyards didn’t pick at all. Others, like several famous properties in the great sweet wine area of Sauternes, said they would release no wine, the quality was so poor. In New Zealand they didn’t think they’d have a crop until the sun finally came out after the date they’d usually finished picking.
Elsewhere, a vicious and ruthless drought decimated crops in central and southern Europe, and in considerable chunks of the Americas and Australasia. At least the quality is often good, but the volumes are frequently wretched. No one predicted any of this chaotic climate turmoil. And clearly no one is capable of predicting the next few years, let alone decades, either.
So what does all this mean? Well, for a start prices are heading upwards. But, please, let’s not all start weeping into our wine glasses. Too many wine producers are making no money. Too many are running at a loss. It’s easy for us to squeal and complain about the relentless rise in the cost of our Cabernet, but if we strip out the effect of duties and taxes, in most countries the typical price of wine is less than it was five years ago. Vineyard labour costs more, bottles, labels, corks cost more, transport and shipping cost more, but we still expect to pay less for the wine in our glass.
It can’t go on, and a small vintage, smaller than the global appetite requires, will force prices higher, and we will have to get used to the new reality. Wineries and vineyards need investment and profit just like any other business. Yet half the time we seem to think that the producers are in it for a laugh…
© AFP | Clarke opts for the basic labels of Châteauneuf-du-Pape over the super-cuvées
Whenever I do consumer blind tasting tests, the majority of my recommendations are in the £7–10 ($10–15) band, which allows everyone to make some profit and gives us a fair deal at the same time as really tasty flavours in the glass. And over £10, over £20, does the wine keep on getting better and better? Well, yes and no. If you’re buying from a popular area like Bordeaux or Burgundy, Napa Valley in California, Yarra Valley in Australia, Ribera del Duero in Spain or Piedmont in Italy, you’re not going to find much that’s exciting to drink below £10; indeed, much of the good stuff starts at nearer £20, then sweeps off into the stratosphere. If you’re feeling flush, should you choose these trendy wines even higher up the price scale?
Actually, no. The top end of the red wine world especially is increasingly out of balance and out of control. The reputations of wines – and their prices – are increasingly created by the marks out of 100 doled out by a handful of übercritics, led by the American Robert Parker. The preferred style is rich, lush, alcoholic, oaky, thick in the mouth, frequently difficult to drink and surprisingly similar to other 95–100 pointers from all corners of the Earth.
The wines that are most rewarded are not those of arresting, original, unique flavours but ones that have understood the formula demanded for a juicy high mark. Many famous areas – such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Tuscany, Napa, Barossa – make super-cuvées to try to snaffle the magic 95–100 mark. They are hardly ever as good to drink as the basic label of the property.
Often nowadays you’ll find a wine labelled ‘Tradition’ or ‘Classic’ or some such term, and this, strangely, will be the cheapest offering. Buy it. This is the wine that hasn’t been mucked about with – over-ripened, over-oaked, over-extracted – to try to please a few globetrotting critics. This is the one the owner and the winemaker will drink. Old-fashioned French restaurants often used to hang out a sign saying ‘Le patron mange ici’ – ‘the owner eats here’. Well, the owners don’t drink the absurdly priced super-cuvées, they drink the basic wine. So should we…
That’s if Dr Scarborough will let us. We ushered in the New Year of 2013 with a report from a Dr Scarborough at Oxford University that said we should forget all that tosh about wine being good for us, that it kept the ticker going, calmed our stress levels and generally made us nicer people. My doctor reckons three or four glasses of wine a day is fine. Not so Dr Scarborough. A quarter of a glass of wine per day! I suspect he’d prefer us to drink nothing, especially since he described half a glass a day as ‘bingeing’. Whatever happened to the hundreds of years past when wine was thought of as good for you? Did we all get exhausted by proclaiming wine’s beneficial features and so dropped our guard just long enough for this cohort of thin-lipped puritans to slither out from the shadows? A quarter of a glass a day?
Luckily there are still universities that think three or four glasses a day are good for you. I’ve seen reports from Mediterranean universities suggesting a bottle to a litre isn’t a bad idea. And they live longer down there, don’t they?
So, with concern for my health to the fore, I’m delighted to try to reduce my alcohol intake – by giving up over-oaked, over-strong, heavy-bottled red monsters in particular. I’ll drink lower alcohol, but I’ll stick to 3–4 glasses a day, if the good doctor doesn’t mind.
© Bob Campbell | Clarke is in the mood to drink sauvignon, chardonnay, and pinot noir from New Zealand
There’s no better place to start than New Zealand. 2012 has produced the best Marlborough Sauvignons for years – tangy, cool, refreshing. Add world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and I’ll be drinking Kiwi. Australia’s Chardonnays are the most restrained they’ve been for ages and Western Australia is creating tons of flavour in whites at 12.5% alcohol and reds at not much more. South Africa, too, is embracing fabulous cool Syrahs and Cabernets, and superb Sauvignons from all around the coast.
Chile’s reds and whites are glowing with balance and fruit right now, so I’ll be drinking Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Carmenère, and Argentina’s Malbecs and Torrontés are more scented than ever. I’ll need to up the alcohol a bit in California to encompass the rich delights of Paso Robles and Napa, but Lodi is my bargain tip and Sonoma’s coolest crannies are delivering some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir beauties. And don’t forget West Coast Syrah. On the East Coast, Virginia does highly original reds and superb Viognier to challenge the tangy Rieslings of New York and Ontario’s nutty Chardonnays.
France has a wonderful array of styles and vintages available. You can still find lush, ripe 2009s and elegant, focused 2010s, but although 2011 wasn’t thought of as much of a vintage, the wines are lighter, less alcoholic and deliciously refreshing. Great Beaujolais, juicy Rhône and Languedoc reds and whites, and easy-going Burgundies, Bordeaux and Loire reds will keep me happy.
There are signs that Spain is tiring of too much alcohol and oak, so count me back in for Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Garnacha, as well as Rueda and Albariño whites. Portugal has Vinho Verde – dry, tangy, low in alcohol – to balance rich but satisfying Douros and Alentejos. In Italy, Piedmont is producing a far more approachable style of red than even a few years ago. I’ll drink those, and Sicily’s reds too, with fragrant whites from Alto Adige, Marche and Campania. Greece is full of originals, Cyprus is starting to stir, Lebanon’s reds are lush and sultry, while Turkey’s are scented yet muscular. And at last Bulgaria is waking up again.
Further north, Austrian Grüner Veltliner and Riesling seem to keep improving – so refreshing, restrained in alcohol – and I’m discovering the delights of German Pinot Noir while rediscovering the beauty of pure, cool Rieslings from the Mosel and Rhine Valleys. While I contemplate all this – and still taste rather than drink offerings from India, Thailand and China for now – I’ll crack open bottles of Blighty’s best – England’s world-class fizz.”
Oz Clarke’s “World-Class Wines That Don’t Cost the Earth”
Dureuil-Janthial Rully Blanc, Côte Chalonnaise, France
Grosset Springvale Watervale Riesling, Clare Valley, Australia
Juliusspital Würzburger Abstleite Silvaner Kabinett, Würzburg, Germany
Gerovassiliou Malagousia, Halkidiki, Greece
McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon, Hunter Valley, Australia
Eben Sadie Palladius, Swartland, South Africa
Quinta do Crasto Touriga Nacional, Douro, Portugal
Fabre Montmayou Grand Vin, Mendoza, Argentina
Viña Leyda Las Brisas Pinot Noir, Leyda Valley, Chile
Man O’ War Syrah, Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Château Sociando-Mallet, Haut-Médoc, France
González Byass Una Palma, Jerez, Spain
Valdespino Fino Inocente, Jerez, Spain
* “Oz Clarke’s Pocket Wine Book 2014” is published by Pavilion Books at $14.95.