My friend and wine writer extraordinaire, Jancis Robinson M.W. was asked to provide answers to the most frequently asked questions about wine. The information she gave out in nugget size pieces was brilliant and I asked the Financial Times who commissioned the article for permission to publish it. I have omitted some of her most Anglocentric answers, but I thought you would be interested in brushing up your wine knowledge whether beginner, enthusiast, or expert with a good glass of wine at hand while we are confined inside by the horrible weather.
1. Is it true that the second-cheapest bottle on a wine list generally has the biggest mark-up?
This is an urban myth, although restaurateurs probably do sell quite a lot of it.
2. Is house wine generally bad, or just boring?
It needn’t be either. If the restaurant is a chain, then the house wine is probably being bought to a price and will be boring, although not necessarily bad. But if you’re in a nice place where you feel they’ve put some effort into sourcing, then I don’t think you should ever feel ashamed of ordering house wine. A small restaurant might choose a local wine made by a friend that they want to give a leg up to.
3. If you were ordering the following bottle in a restaurant, which part of the name would you read out and why? Maison des Ardoisières ‘Silice’ Blanc 2020 (Savoie, France)
I’d say, ‘Ardoisières Silice, please’. I’m picking out what makes that wine distinctive. So if you saw they had several wines from the same producer but different grapes, then you’d say the name of the grape. In a very fancy restaurant, they might have the same wine but several different vintages of it, so you’d say the vintage as well as something else that would identify the wine.
4. What about this one, from a natural wine bar? Kamara Pure, Blooming Island, Xinomavro/Malagousia/Assyrtiko, Thessaloniki
Personally, I would probably say ‘that oddly named blend of red and white Greek grapes, please’. Otherwise, I’d say ‘Blooming Island’, because I can’t believe there’s anything else called that. There’s no right or wrong here – it’s just a question of identifying the wine as precisely as possible. If you’re looking at a wine list where they only have one Merlot, one Shiraz et cetera, then saying the grape variety is a safe bet.
5. Let’s get back to basics. What makes red wine red?
The dark-coloured skin of grapes. It’s got to be somewhere in the red, purple, blue-black spectrum. And then you’ve got to keep the ‘must’, which is what they call fermenting grape juice, in contact with those skins to leach out the colour. The flesh of virtually all grapes, regardless of the colour of their skins, is the same greyish colour.
6. What makes rosé pink?
Short-term contact with the same sort of grape skins that would make a red wine red.
7. What makes white wine white?
Really, the question is, ‘Why doesn’t white wine have much colour?’ And that’s because it’s made from grapes without much colouring matter in the skins. Anyway, most white wine is separated from the skins very early on, because you don’t need any colour from them and grape skins are very astringent. You don’t generally want white wines to have much astringency.
8. What makes orange wine orange?
Extended contact with the skins. Orange wine is always made from white grapes, but you’d probably choose to make it from varieties that have quite deeply coloured skins. Something like Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer.
9. Which wines cause hangovers?
Quite simply, wines with lots of alcohol in them. Thank goodness it’s now mandatory in the UK to put the alcohol by volume (ABV) on the label.
10. Outside of a student flat, are there any wines made by mixing red and white wine together?
Most rosé champagne is a white champagne with a bit of still red wine added to give it colour. Also Palhete, which is Portuguese. Many rosés from south-east France use quite a lot of white wine grapes but you mix them in the fermentation vat. Generally, there are quite strict rules about not mixing red and white wine together.
11. On what grounds are people snobbish about rosé?
In the old days, when the climate was much cooler, red-wine producers struggled to get enough colour and ripeness into their red wines. So they would bleed off some early flowing wine so as to concentrate what was left, and that early produce was sold as a rosé, known as a saignée. That probably contributed to people thinking poorly of rosé, because it was a by-product. Senior people would also probably remember Mateus and Lancers rosé, which were two big Portuguese brands that were very mass-market and sold simply on the basis of not being white or red. On top of that, there was always that silly thing that ‘rosé is for women’, which probably coloured some people’s perceptions. But rosé is taken very seriously in professional circles now. And it’s overtaking red wine consumption in France, which is extraordinary.
12. Why has orange wine only recently become fashionable?
Again, ‘in the old days’, oxidation was much more common. So people would have been scared of a white wine that had a deep colour – they’d have thought something was wrong with it. Also, the early producers of orange wine are not in mainstream places. A lot are in Slovenia, for example. So it took some time for them to get on to the international radar.
13. Will the fashion pass?
I think it’ll probably plateau. There are many orange wines that I really like, but it’s a distinctive style and quite demanding because of its astringency and chewiness at the end. I wouldn’t have more than one bottle a month myself.
14. What is organic wine?
It’s wine made according to the principles of organic farming, without agrochemicals. In practical terms, it’s one of two things: either a wine producer just tells you they’re organic, or the wine has been certified as organic. I admire people tremendously who go through the certification process because it’s a pain and it’s expensive. Organic winemaking can be very rewarding. You actually save money in the long term by not buying agrochemicals, plus you’re helping the planet, whose soil we have really messed up. There has been a gradual increase in the number of people growing vines organically, including more and more Bordeaux producers, for example. But they’ve recently had their worst outbreak of downy mildew ever, which is very difficult to treat organically, so there are people wondering if they can afford to carry on being organic.
15. What is biodynamic wine?
It sounds ridiculous, very beard and sandals. In addition to the principles of organic farming, you are meant to apply ‘preparations’ to the vines – tiny amounts of things like chamomile and valerian that have been stirred in a particular direction. If you fully follow biodynamic principles, you’re burying these preparations in cow horns. Everything is done according to phases of the moon. The thing is … although science can’t explain it, it just does seem to produce better wine. I wouldn’t claim to be able to taste the difference between an organically grown wine and a conventionally grown one, but I often think I can taste extra ‘life’ in biodynamic wine. Biodynamic growing means the grower has to be much more intimately involved with each vine, and that may be what explains it.
16. What’s a good basic wine glass?
Ikea DYRGRIP Red Wine Glass £2.50 Ikea
17. What is natural wine?
There is no formal definition, although the French have been trying to initiate one. The theory is that a natural wine is made simply from grapes, and you don’t make any additions. The major sticking point is sulphites, or sulphur dioxide – which has terrible connotations, but which has been used for centuries by conventional winemakers to keep everything healthy and fresh. If you go the whole hog with natural wines and don’t add any SO2, it’s quite easy to end up with a faulty wine that either oxidises or starts re-fermenting.
18. What is low-intervention wine?
A term used by people who are put off by the excessively hipster image of natural wine.
19. Are the above descriptions stable?
With organic and biodynamic wine, the definitions may evolve but the concepts are stable. Natural and low intervention don’t have formal definitions so they’re not really stable.
20. Why does some natural sparkling wine taste more like cider?
Many wine producers add lactic acid bacteria to provoke malolactic conversion. This is where the harsh malic acid in a wine, which is quite apple-like, is converted into softer lactic acid. But a natural winemaker would not want to add the lactic acid bacteria, so the wine may well be higher in malic acid than a conventional sparkling wine. Also, cider is quite astringent. Maybe natural winemakers are leaving the wine in contact with the grape skins longer, in more of an orange style. That would give it that same astringency.
21. On what grounds are people snobbish about natural wine?
In the early days, there were lots of faulty wines, and that got natural wine a bad rap. But the proportion of natural wine that is flawed has been diminishing all the time. It’s worth pointing out that quite a lot of the most famous wines in the world would almost qualify to be natural. They might have a little bit of SO2 added, but then so do quite a lot of natural wines. In my naive ideal world, natural wines will get better and better technically, and the conventional producers will continue to use fewer and fewer additives, so in 20 years’ time we won’t have the term natural wine anymore because all wine will be natural (see Naturally divisive). But I’m probably being too idealistic about that.
22. Is 'oaked' a description of flavour or method?
It’s a method. The wine has been exposed to oak, whether it’s barrel, oak chips or oak staves. Whereas ‘oaky’ would be a flavour.
23. What about 'lemony'?
It’s a flavour. It describes a wine that reminds the taster of lemons.
24. Why do people say that a €10 wine is better value than a €5 bottle?
Now that the duty has gone up on wine, only a very small fraction of a €6.00 bottle of wine will have gone to pay for the wine and the farming. The more you pay, the higher the proportion of what you’ve paid goes on the wine.
25. What’s the nicest low-alcohol white wine you’ve tried recently?
You can get a really fabulous 7 or 8% white wine from the Mosel Valley in Germany. The problem with low-alcohol wines generally is that they will usually be sweet, because not all the sugar has been fermented out. But if you go to the Mosel, the acid there is so high it counterbalances the sweetness. Another whole category is Moscato d’Asti, which is only about 5% and halfway between grape juice and wine. People are very snooty about it, but it was a favourite of Michael Broadbent, the late modern pioneer of wine auctions in London. Whenever he entertained, he’d always serve it at the end of the meal, before the port!
26. What’s the nicest low-alcohol red wine you’ve tried recently?
This is pretty impossible under 10%.
27. How long should you keep a bottle of wine once you’ve opened it?
There are certain wines that are more fragile than others. Pinot Noir is the most fragile wine I know and doesn’t last more than a couple of days, whereas I’ve come back from travelling for a month and helped myself to an open bottle of German white wine in the fridge and it’s been fine. The thing is to keep an open bottle as cool as possible. Even red, put it in the fridge. (You can always take it out before serving and let it warm up.) The lower temperatures will slow down reactions, and that will keep it from ageing. It also slightly depends on the level of wine in the bottle, because it’s oxygen that’s the enemy. If you’ve only got a quarter of a bottle left it won’t last as long as a wine with three-quarters left. It’s quite useful to have a spare half bottle at home that you can decant into. If you were to decant half a bottle of wine into a 37.5-cl bottle, it would probably last weeks.
28. What can you do to be a climate-conscious drinker?
Glass bottles are by far the biggest contributors to wine’s carbon footprint. Don’t be snobbish about the alternatives. Give cans, bags in boxes and recycled PET plastic bottles a go.
29. Is it OK to add ice cubes to wine?
Absolutely. Especially as wine is getting stronger and stronger.
30. Is it OK to add sparkling water to wine?
If you want to, why not?
31. Is it OK to not really care about wine?
32. Which of your books would you recommend for beginners?
The 24-Hour Wine Expert. This came out of our younger daughter, when she was 24, thinking she wanted to write a little guide to wine for her friends. Then she got a job and abandoned it, but I’m a ‘waste not, want not’ type, so I continued with what she was planning to do.
33. If you’re hosting a dinner party, do you open the wine that guests bring?
If someone turns up with a white, or a fizz, that is already chilled, they’re sending you a very strong message that they want you to open the wine. If it’s not chilled, then I think you’re perfectly at liberty not to open it if you don’t want to. Red wine etiquette is more tricky. I think if it looks special, then probably it’s polite to say, ‘Oh, would you like me to open it?’ But if it looks as though they stopped off at the local wine shop, it’s probably all right not to. My perspective on this is probably slightly skewed because, as a general rule, people only bring wine to me that they think is really odd, or a very, very special treat.
34. If you’re going to a dinner party, do you ask what they’re cooking first?
It’s a bit pretentious. I wouldn’t.
35. What is a noble grape?
I have a feeling I might be at least partly to blame for the popularity of this expression. But it’s not a very helpful description and it’s not one I’d use today. Way back in 1986, I wrote what I think was the first book in English about grape varieties, Vines, Grapes and Wines. I divided the world’s grapes into three sorts and I called one of them ‘noble grapes’. It referred to things like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which were then the most highly regarded. But an awful lot of grape varieties have really positive attributes. Nowadays people speak more about ‘international varieties’ to refer to the most well-travelled and common grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah/Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, those kinds of things.
36. Do noble grapes get noble rot?
The two are unrelated. Noble rot is a mould, and you only get it on very ripe, pale-skinned grapes. If you got it on dark coloured grapes, it would affect the colour and turn the grape grey and nasty. Noble rot is great if you’re making sweet wine designed to age. It’s difficult to get but is encouraged by humid mornings and sunny afternoons.
37. What’s a tight wine?
It’s a youthful wine that hasn’t started to unfold. If it is red, that might mean it still has a lot of tannin. If it’s white, the acid might dominate. If you feel that underneath there is quite a lot of interesting stuff waiting to develop, you might describe it as tight.
38. What’s an awkward wine?
I don’t use this term, but what I understand from it is a wine where all the elements aren’t in harmony. You could, for example, have a sort of sweet and sour wine where the sweetness and the sourness seemed in opposition rather than counterbalancing each other. With a tight wine you’re confident it will develop into something better, whereas with an awkward one you’re not sure, perhaps.
39. If tannins are so important to wine, why is ‘tannic’ sometimes used as a criticism?
You’d usually be saying a wine was too tannic for its own good. You need tannins to keep a red wine going while all its different phenolic flavour compounds knit together. An awful lot of young reds are quite tannic but that’s not a worry as long as there’s enough fruit and other stuff to sustain it while the tannin subsides. But you might taste a wine and feel that there are not enough flavour compounds and that the tannin will still be there when the fruit is starting to decline.
40. Why are vintage years announced in port but not in wine?
In wine, every year is a vintage year. Grapes are harvested in autumn and any wine resulting from those grapes will have a vintage. The difference with port is there’s a specific sort of port, called vintage port, which is not made every year. It’s made in very limited quantities and aged in bottles rather than barrels, and it takes forever to mature. The port shippers only decide that a year is good enough to produce a vintage port every three or four years, and they call that ‘declaring a vintage’.
41. Why is non-vintage a good thing for champagne?
The tradition is that blending between different years allows the champagne producers a certain regularity of style and provides insurance against vintage variation. It also results in a more interesting wine, with any luck, because it’s not all very young wine in your blend. However, that was in the old days when the big champagne houses ruled. Now there’s a big movement in favour of so-called ‘grower champagnes’, or ‘single estate champagnes’, where one farmer will make a champagne just from their own grapes. Some of them make nothing but vintage-dated champagne, sometimes quite recent vintages. It’s a whole new way of looking at champagne, making it more like a wine.
42. Why is crémant so overlooked?
Over the decades, we’ve all been taught to revere champagne. Crémant, which is a much more recent creation, is French sparkling wine made in exactly the same way as champagne, but from outside the Champagne region and not necessarily from the Champagne grapes Chardonnay and Pinot. Interestingly, it’s the one category in Bordeaux that’s actually growing. It’s generally much better value than champagne, whose prices have soared. Go for it.
43. What is the champagne method?
It’s actually called ‘the traditional method’ – champagne’s lawyers wouldn’t even let people call it the champagne method. The crucial thing with the traditional method is that the second fermentation, which is what gives sparkling wine its bubbles, always happens in individual bottles. The second fermentation produces dead yeast cells, or ‘lees’, and it’s the contact between the lees and the wine that adds interest. The longer you leave it, the more interesting it gets. One alternative is to do the second fermentation in a great big tank, which is much more industrial. That’s how most Prosecco is made. Then there’s the injection method, where carbon dioxide is pumped into a tank, just like it would be for a cola for instance, which is a non-starter when it comes to quality.
44. Have you ever enjoyed a sparkling red?
Yes. Australians are very proud of their sparkling Shiraz, which they drink on Christmas Day. It’s light years away from champagne, but it’s got a style of its own.
45. Why do so many French wines not disclose the grape type on the label?
This is because they revere terroir. The rule is ‘place above grape’. But since the shift towards varietal labelling, French producers have started to reconsider. Nowadays you’ll find an awful lot of bordeaux with varietal labelling. Only the cheapest ones would have it on the front label, but a lot of smart producers will put it on the back – ‘This is made from Merlot and Cabernet’, or whatever. Quite a few of them spell out the proportions as well.
46. What is an appellation ?
An appellation is a protected designation related to a specific geographical area. It exists not just in France but in much of the wine world. To qualify for many European appellations you have to submit it to a tasting panel made up of the great and the good of that particular appellation. They tend to be older and much less open to anything experimental. So lots of newer, younger producers sell wine outside the appellation system calling them simply Vin de France, for example.
47. Would you agree that French wine tastes ‘French’?
I know exactly what this question is getting at. I would say, in a very general way, that non-European wine tends to be all up front with quite a showy aroma and quite a lot of body, and then sometimes it tails off towards the end. Whereas, again very generally speaking, a French wine will probably be drier and less obvious, more reticent – it almost builds towards the end. French wine also tends to be slower-maturing.
48. Why do white wines get darker as they age?
Because oxygen acts on the phenolic compounds – the flavour compounds, the pigments, tannins and things that are still left in white wines – and turns them darker.
49. Why do red wines get paler?
Because as red wines age, the phenolic compounds knit together to make more complex compounds, and they become too heavy to stay in suspension and drop out as sediment. So the wine will get paler.
50. What can you deduce from the fact there’s sediment in the bottom of your glass?
I like to see a wine with sediment. It shows that it wasn’t heavily filtered before it was put in the bottle and that it’s had interesting things going on in it.
51. Why are you not supposed to swirl white wine as much as red?
I’ve never heard that. I swirl like mad whatever the colour.
52. How is something like white Malbec made?
You run the juice out of the fermentation vat very early, so that it has hardly any colour at all. And then if it’s still got a bit of colour, you can run some fining material through it that will pull out any remaining colour.
53. Can you make any red wine grape into a white wine by doing that?
Yes. But it may not have much interesting flavour. There are a lot of people who, in my lifetime, have got very excited about making a white version of a red-wine grape, but it never has as much character as the red version. This is because the wine doesn’t have as much flavour leached into it as it would if it was in contact with the dark skins for longer.
54. Why do people bother?
55. When will wines stop getting stronger?
Wines are getting stronger because the climate has been getting warmer and so grapes are ripening with higher sugar levels. It’s fermented sugar that creates the alcohol. In theory, if the planet keeps getting warmer, wines will carry on getting stronger. However, there are two downward pressures on that. One is that you need a strong yeast to ferment sugar-rich musts. I’ve only ever come across yeast that works up to about 16% alcohol by volume. I’ve never encountered wine that is naturally more than that. I also wonder if people will be increasingly tempted to dilute stronger musts. One of the producers I admire most, Ridge Vineyards in California, has been a leader in ingredient labelling, and some years they’ve put ‘water’ on the list because they reckon their wines are too strong.
56. What is the minimum number of wine glass types a wine enthusiast should have at home?
Only one. I’ve never seen the logic of putting white wine in a smaller glass than red and I’ve been unconvinced by the need for a different glass for each sort of wine. The glass should taper towards the top so you can swirl it without losing liquid and to capture the aroma. It should have a stem so you don’t affect the wine’s temperature. It should be transparent so you can enjoy the colour. It should ideally be as thin as possible, especially at the rim, so that you feel close to the wine when you’re tasting it.
57. Are you for or against the recent trend for stemless glasses?
They’re good if you have toddlers at home, or for picnics. But I’m fond of my stems. With a stemless glass, if it’s a white wine and it’s very hot you’re going to warm it up quickly through contact with the glass. Also, your fingers are usually not pristine, so you smear the glass.
58. Since the screwcap revolution, is there any wine that benefits from a cork?
We’re still quite early on in our knowledge of the effects of prolonged ageing under screwcaps compared with cork. There are one or two papers suggesting that there is some property of cork – beyond the letting in of a small amount of oxygen, which you can do with a screw cap – that actually has a positive effect on wine. Of course there’s also the whole sustainability argument. The cork producers have not been slow to trumpet the virtues of keeping cork forests alive. I’m still quite agnostic on this whole thing.
59. Is there a ceiling to how good box wine can be?
I’m delighted that more and more people are putting good wine into a box, but I don’t think there’s much virtue in putting great wine in a box. Even the most pro-box people will admit it really only lasts for a year or two max, so you wouldn’t use it for a wine designed for long ageing.
60. Is there any benefit to buying wine from an independent wine merchant?
When people say to me ‘I like wine, but I want to learn more’, I always say they should get to know their local wine merchant or wine shop. It’s like a bookshop. You tell them what you’ve enjoyed in the past, and it’s in their interest as well as yours for them to make good recommendations.
61. Do independent wine merchants charge a premium?
Supermarkets are great for inexpensive wine because they buy in huge volumes and get quantity discounts. But once you start comparing prices above about £15 a bottle, there’s not much difference. In fact, sometimes supermarkets can be more expensive because they can’t play the volume card and a lot of producers don’t want to see their wines in supermarkets.
62. What is hyperdecanting ?
I am very grateful to whoever asked this question as I had never come across this term. Apparently, it’s putting wine in a blender.
63. Does it work ?
It fills me with horror. You’re putting it in contact with these different materials – the blade, the plastic – and I’m not sure that’s wonderful. If you need to aerate wine to speed up the ageing process and soften those tannins, just swirl it around like mad or pour the bottle into a wide decanter like my young-wine decanter (shown below) and slosh the decanter around. I think it was only ever proposed for pretty cheap wines.
64. Which wine has been advantaged by tourism?
Portuguese wine, definitely. Probably Greek too, although it’s a bit of a struggle to find bottles of really good wine in good condition in Greece. In terms of regions, Tuscany and Provence.
65. Which wine has been disadvantaged by a lack of tourism?
Eastern Europe in general. I’m thinking particularly of Moldova, which has fantastic vineyards and some very respectable wines, but it’s not exactly the most popular holiday destination. There is Ukrainian wine as well, which must be suffering terribly.
66. Which wine is so underrated as to be a relative bargain?
Sherry is the most obvious one by a mile. The supermarkets sell inexpensive, really good sherries. That is the one wine I would buy in a supermarket.
67. Which wine is so overrated as to be bad value?
This newish red bordeaux called Liber Pater, which costs more than a thousand pounds a bottle. The owner made a big thing of growing obscure, no longer grown Bordeaux grapes. But sometimes there’s a reason certain grape varieties are no longer grown. I feel sorry for the producer because I think he suffered from the fires last year, but I’m afraid I’m a sceptic.
68. Which of your books would you recommend for people who know a bit about wine?
The World Atlas of Wine. Wine is geography in a bottle. You can understand so much more about what’s in your glass if you can see where it comes from.
69. What’s one more thing you can do to be a climate-conscious drinker?
Actively boycott heavy bottles. And, if you have a chance, explain to your merchant and ideally the producer the reason why you’re boycotting them.
70. Is wine inherently elitist ?
When I started out writing about wine in 1975, wine was necessarily elitist because you couldn’t get it that easily and it was relatively expensive. During my career I’ve seen the democratisation of wine. A crucial moment for me was watching an episode of a soap opera in the 1980s where someone just poured themselves a glass of wine without any comment. That showed me that wine had been integrated into British life. When it comes to wine professionals, there is definitely a fear that new entrants to the wine world will never be able to afford to drink the most revered wines, not because the quality has soared but because there are billionaires in the world who’ve ‘got to’ have them. The differential in price between the best and worst wines has widened enormously, at the same time as the variation in quality has narrowed. But the range of wines available today is so much wider and more interesting than it used to be that I don’t think you have to have tasted a Bordeaux first growth to be a wine expert.
71. Is the wine world deliberately elitist?
Not the wine people I know, but I have come across one or two wine bores. The worst prelude to a conversation is, ‘In my cellar I’ve got …’. Wine is not for boasting about. Really, wine is not that fascinating a subject to discuss. It’s something to taste and savour, but certainly not a subject of general interest.
72. What opinion are you surprised to still come across in expert circles?
That all natural wine is flawed rubbish.
73. What did you last change your mind on?
I used to dismiss the idea that there was a difference between wines made by women and wines made by men. But a very talented South African winemaker called Samantha O’Keefe convinced me that women winemakers were much more attuned to listening to what the wine wants, rather than imposing a style or their personality on the wine. I think it’s a fair comment.
74. If it weren’t for prejudice, what wine would we all be drinking more of?
Sweet wine can be so delicious, but it comes at the end of a meal and people have usually drunk enough by then. And German wine, probably, although that’s more down to ignorance.
75. What aspect of the Master of Wine exams did you find most challenging?
Viticulture. I’m not a gardener.
76. Is it a myth that Masters of Wine can’t tell a red from a white when tasting blind?
The fact behind this legend is that somebody did an experiment, although not with Masters of Wine, which showed that people couldn’t tell the difference between a red and a white if you chose wines with a similar ‘weight’ and you served them at the same temperature. A red burgundy and a white burgundy probably don’t taste all that different, for example. The relevant grape varieties are related, and the terroir has a strong stamp on them, which is the same, regardless of colour. My older daughter, who is a very good taster, claims that she doesn’t like red wine. I recently blindfolded her and made her do a red versus white tasting. I chose something fairly close to red and white burgundy – a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay. But she got it right.
77. Is there a point in training yourself to recognise wine faults that don’t bother you?
Only if you’re a wine professional. This is particularly true of Brettanomyces, ‘Brett’, which gives a wine a horsey, animal stink. Australian wine professionals are taught to absolutely despise it, but many older British wine drinkers really love it. There’s no point making yourself dislike it as a consumer. But if you’re selling wine or buying wine, you need to be able to detect it. Even if you have a low sensitivity to it, some of your customers may not.
78. What temperature is your wine room?
79. How do you keep it that way?
We live on the top floor so it’s impossible to have a cellar. Instead, we have a WineMaster conditioning unit, which keeps the wine room at a constant temperature. You have to keep changing the filter, but we’ve had it for six years and it’s been very satisfactory so far.
80. What’s the best way to store wine if you don’t have a cellar?
Probably a wine fridge, although they do take up a lot of room and you can’t get that many bottles in. If you’re struggling for space, fuller-bodied wines will be the least sensitive to storage temperature. Port, for example.
81. What can be done to improve transparency in the logistics industry?
This probably doesn’t matter too much if you live in a very cold country, but for wine being shipped to much of Asia, for example, it’s a very pertinent question, as imported wine is potentially sitting on the docks for so long. If there’s enough slack in the price, you should pay for temperature-controlled containers called reefers. Some companies have sensors inside the container that will provide a graph of what happens to the temperature during shipment. In my view, far too much fine wine is air-freighted to Asia. This may be less risky, in terms of temperatures in transit, but it’s not doing anything for the planet.
82. What do you drink when you don’t want to think about it?
Anything. Until the evening I’m in tasting mode, and I’m looking for the faults as much as the qualities in a wine. Then, when the workday is over, I love drinking wine.
83. How much of the best wine is now being drunk in Asia?
A lot of fine wine made its way to China at a certain point. Certainly, the Bordeaux wine producers and wine trade thought they had a glorious future there. But imports have been plummeting. It might just be that they’re drinking through the stock they sat on during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I think the figures for both production and consumption of wine in China that we were initially given were pretty wildly inflated. Japan has been reasonably steady as a market, but it’s not massive.
84. Is the Asian market changing wine retail?
The fact that Hong Kong reduced duty on wine to zero in 2008 changed the shape of the international wine trade for quite a while. A lot of fine wine did go to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong into China. But that’s slowed recently. No one should think that the whole structure of the world of wine is changing because of Asian influence.
85. Which year is best to drink now for Bordeaux?
Probably 2001, and the best 2002s. Neither of which is overpriced.
86. Which year is best to drink now for Burgundy?
87. As Burgundy warms, will the flavour of top Burgundy change?
It already has. The alcohol levels have been increasing dramatically and there are some wines that taste as though there’s some unfermented sugar left in them.
88. Which producers or subregions of Burgundy do you feel offer the best value for money?
The grands crus, the most revered vineyards of Burgundy, were always those that could reliably ripen the grapes, whereas now you actually want a site that isn’t too warm. Something like Le Chambertin can now be a bit too much, whereas an outlying cooler area such as the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, the hills behind the Côte d’Or, have a much longer ripening period and yet in warmer years manage to fully ripen the grapes, which in the old days they didn’t. For whites, Saint-Aubin used to be thought of as a kind of marginal ripening area whereas now, most years, it gets the balance right of having nice refreshing acidity plus ripe grapes. Even Saint-Romain can produce some pretty nice wines nowadays, whereas previously there would be years when the grapes there didn’t ripen at all. There’s a definite changing of the guard.
89. When will the Burgundy bubble burst?
The Burgundy bubble has burst. From about June, people were refusing to pay such crazy prices for the supposed top wines – not just the more recent warmer vintages, but back vintages as well. Auction prices have slumped. Thank goodness that madness seems to be over. Or perhaps it’s just that all the billionaires have got enough Burgundy in their cellars now.
90. How will appellation rules change in response to climate change?
There are already some concessions. For example, Bordeaux is allowing experimentation with grape varieties that are specifically designed for hotter climates, although they’re not allowing it yet for the smarter appellations. (There are over 50 appellations in Bordeaux.) In Rioja, too, they’ve widened the scope of grape varieties allowed. Growers have also been petitioning to be allowed to irrigate, as in Pomerol last year, although it took so long for permission to be granted that it only came through when it was too late. The climate is changing much faster than you can change appellation rules.
91. Will the appellation system lose its power?
I think it already has. The market has recognised that appellation wines aren’t necessarily superior, and you can now find a Vin de France selling for far more than a similar appellation contrôlée wine.
92. Should we stop planting new vineyards if we need to irrigate them to survive?
You’ve got to question why you would be planting a new area that needs irrigation, given the current state of the planet. Wine production can also use a heck of a lot of water, particularly in wineries where there’s a lot of hosing down of stuff. There needs to be far more vigorous action on water recycling and on what happens to wastewater.
93. Are hybrids the future?
Definitely. There’s been quite a growth in the development of hybrids that are crosses between Vitis vinifera, the traditional European vine species that is used to produce 95% of all wine in the world, and members of other species. In particular, hybrids have been developed that don’t need agrochemicals and are resistant to certain diseases, or have been bred to be drought resistant, so you wouldn’t need to irrigate them. When I was in New Zealand in February, Jim White at Cloudy Bay was saying he’s identified several Sauvignon Blanc-based disease-resistant hybrids that could deliver the same sort of flavours as Sauvignon Blanc but need far fewer inputs. The stumbling block is you’ve got to get consumers used to the new names, or alternatively change the rules so that a hybrid that’s quite close to Sauvignon Blanc could be called Sauvignon Blanc.
94. Do you think that Provençal rosé will eventually go out of fashion?
For every action, there’s a reaction. There was a great wave of Provençal rosé notable for its paleness, but now some wine professionals are getting very excited about dark, clarete-coloured rosé from other regions. There’s a move towards a bit of bottle age and oak maturation. You only need to look at what happened to the colour of rosé champagne. That went very pale, but it’s been getting darker and darker.
95. How do you produce a high-quality dry Riesling at 8% ABV?
It wouldn’t be a dry wine, it would just taste like one because of its high acid level.
96. How will winemakers respond to new duty rates that favour lower-alcohol wines?
I suppose if you’re a winemaker supplying a supermarket, you’ll probably have a supermarket buyer breathing down your neck, encouraging you to pick earlier to produce wine that can be sold under a lower threshold of ABV to avoid duty rises. I’m sure supermarkets will sell new sorts of products and market them as responding to the (very valid) consumer demand for lower-alcohol products – mixtures of wine and fruit juice or non-alcoholic fizz, for instance. I’m sure there will also be some manipulation of ‘tolerances’, which is the variance that’s allowed from the ABV on the label. In the EU, a wine labelled 13.5% could actually be less than 13% or more than 14%.
97. Should natural wine production be legislated?
The ethos of natural wine production is rather anarchic and that’s part of the appeal.
98. Do you think the production of industrial wine will ever decline?
I think it is declining. The most exciting thing that’s happened in my career is that much better quality wines are being made, and fewer inputs and additives are being used.
99. Which of your books would you recommend for experts?
The all-encompassing Oxford Companion to Wine, which has just been released in its fifth edition.
100. What’s one final thing you can do to be a climate-conscious drinker?
Talking on a grand scale, these decisions get very complicated. I suppose one should recommend that you drink local and therefore cut down on transport costs, but it can be more planet-friendly and cheaper to ship in bulk by sea. (We don’t need to be as suspicious of shipping wine in bulk as we used to be, because the technology has improved so much.) There are similar issues related to where bottling should take place – whether it’s better for the environment to do it in a homespun way, or on an industrial scale. I suppose I would just say, be much more conscious of all these aspects. These are minutely detailed issues.
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