I expect this article to ruffle a few feathers, especially among professionals such as sommeliers, distributors and some wine writers, so I will preface everything with a disclaimer – this is article mainly aimed at your regular, everyday wine consumer.
The Internet is flooded with so much information nowadays that the wine neophyte has no idea where to start. There may be some vague awareness of different varietals and countries or some notion of certain years being better than others without knowing exactly why, but true understanding is made difficult by a barrage of data coming from all directions.
This article aims to simplify the process by noting the things that are of least concern. These are not completely useless, but merely trivial, and you should exercise a certain degree of selective ignorance when these come up.
5. Brand Names
Well-known brands are important because they are a quick source of information. Brand names promise predictability, which is a part of the economics of information – when you see a familiar brand you know what to expect, and are therefore more likely to choose it over something unfamiliar.
The danger of sticking with your old favourites is that you close yourself to new experiences. By being open to trying new things you may even find a gateway wine that will change your preconceptions and inspire you to experiment more.
In recent times, brands are more often abused as a sales/marketing tool, rather than a symbol of style or quality. When all you see are those that attract high prices and ratings, that limits your perception of the hidden gems that are also available.
Learn to distinguish which wines your palate has an affinity for and work from there. Don’t let big brands distract you from finding the hidden wine that is best for you.
4. Individual Producers
I hesitated to add this to the list out of respect to the people who work hard to bring wine to the world, but for the sake of completeness it needs to be mentioned.
The referencing of individual producers, declaring that a wine was “Made by [Insert Name Here]”, is effectively another form of branding, attaching a noteworthy personality to a wine in the interests of attracting sales.
The person may have different approach to winemaking due to his personal convictions and philosophy, and this will profoundly affect the wine he makes, but in many cases you really don’t know. All you have is hearsay from third-parties about how their wines won this many prizes, scored this many points by some wine critic and the high prices that they command.
There is no need to elevate them to the status of celebrities or demi-gods without justification. This is why I am such a proponent of tasting wine in a rational manner – it’s the only way to objectively judge the quality of a wine on your own terms. Do your research and keep your awareness on constantly.
By all means be respectful, and if you can please meet them in person – some of my fondest memories are of talking with winemakers from the Barossa and Hunter Valleys, exchanging stories and partaking in samples of some of their wines, and because this is a personal, first-hand account I would be more likely to recommend them to friends and family.
3. Soil Types
Considerations regarding soil types are important. One varietal may flourish in a certain region, whereas another may struggle to develop properly, simply due to genetics, parasites, or other reasons. Winemakers will consult with specialists to decide where to plant new vines, and which varietals will be most suitable for the purpose.
While it may be a fun intellectual exercise to talk about and wax romantic about how the earth crafts the wine, ultimately there is little meaning. It would be unreasonable, for example, for someone sit at a restaurant and demand a Riesling that was specifically made from vines growing in clay soils.
The main point is that the consumer has no say in this – the wine producer will grow what they want to grow, what they think is most suitable or profitable according to the resources that they have on hand. Because planting the wrong varietals in the wrong soils isn’t just a matter of quality, the vines might even die due to incompatibility, this is one area where you have to trust the professionals to do their job right.
2. Vintage Charts
Vintage considerations are relevant because each year the climatic conditions in which the vines grow under are different. One year there could be hail and rain, reducing yields and diluting quality. During another year, conditions could be sunny and hot, which can speed up ripening, but cause water stress at the same time. And then, occasionally, there is a “perfect” vintage, where the stars seem to align and the conditions are ideal.
Vintage charts try to compress the totality of these regional and climatic conditions into a number. Unfortunately, they seem to have become an exercise in rote memorisation with little explanation as to why certain years are better than others.
Vintage charts are also less than ideal because climatic conditions that are bad for one varietal may be favourable for another. Bordeaux is a good example of this, and by planting multiple varietals they are able to hedge their bets.
There is also too much variation between neighbouring regions, not to mention different countries, for the average wine consumer to seriously take into account.
Finally, modern winemaking techniques are increasingly more able to deal with bad years and still come out with a quality wine.
Rather than committing vintage charts to memory, vintage years are more easily applied in a mathematical aspect: Current year – vintage year = level of development, and the higher the number, the further along it is on the development scale. Practice with vertical tastings to develop your sense of the development scale.
Example: This year is 2014. You have a bottle of 2004 Shiraz. 2014 – 2004 = 10 years ageing. You would not expect such a wine to still be youthful, but more mature and developed.
1. Wine Ratings
There’s no question that wine ratings have made wine that much more accessible to the consumer. Words can be deceptive and confusing, whereas numbers are clear and logical, and many people will rely on them to make their purchasing decisions.
But points do not matter as much as stylistic considerations. Chardonnay is a good example: one rated 99-points may be woody and creamy, whereas you may enjoy fresh, crisp, fruit driven styles that might get a lower rating, simply because of the critic’s own prejudices.
Basing your purchasing decisions on ratings may backfire too, because everyone else is reading them. In one stroke, the demand can outstrip supply and you will be left disappointed when the wine you had set your sights on has sold out.
It’s more important to understand what you want and then find a wine to match your personal tastes and preferences. This way you can be more flexible, and are less likely to be swayed by the opinions of others.
My reviews have no ratings other than a brief quality assessment at the end of the notes (Acceptable, Good, Very Good, etc…). The idea is to objectively judge a wine on it’s own merits before deciding if this is the one for you.
Once again I want to reiterate that this list is aimed at the casual wine drinker looking for more information.
If you’re a wine professional of course it would, for example, pay to be aware of how different soil types subtly affect the character of the final product, but I hope I have made a clear case above for why this, and other considerations, should not be the main concern for the casual wine drinker.
PS – Now that you know what to ignore, find out what you should pay attention to with a Personal Wine Consultation.
Read more: The Main Attribute of a Wine Snob