Fermented Grape

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Self serving wine critics, magazines and the gulf between everyday drinkers

I love wine and of course I read magazines like Wine Spectator and Decanter. But the more I taste wine, speak to winemakers and read these publications I realise the huge gulf between what regular "non-expert" wine drinkers want and what critics are recommending. 

Decanter is a good publication but many of its regionl or country specific articles recommending certain wines by Masters of Wine are seriously premium priced or not even readily available . Don't get me wrong I am happy to spend good money on fine wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Italy, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere. However, my recent wine tasting visits to Piedmont, Valpolicella, Thermenregion Austria and lately Baden in Germany makes me realise that many famous "brands" are seriously over priced. The worst culprits are California, Burgundy and Bordeaux as high value individuals bid the price of land and bottles up to crazy levels. With Asian buyers now heavily into wine auctions and even buying vineyards, its becoming tougher and tougher to buy "cult wines" for the man or woman in the street.

In the last couple of weeks I was fortunate to have a bottle of Ridge Monte Bello 2012 (£75 for 375ml half bottle - Hedonism Wines, London) from California's Santa Cruz Mountains and Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5° 2011 from Spain's Ribera Del Duero region. Even better to drink the Valbuena in Plaça Reial off the La Rambla in Barcelona thanks to a friendly waiter who opened it for me and sampled it (I bought at the local and excellent Torres wine store on Carrer Nou de la Rambla, 25. Price 99 euros). 

The Ridge 2012 was a 50th anniversary bottling and it has been described by the winemaker as a "super vintage". It was rich, velvety smooth with blackberry, cassis and blackcurrant. Nice balance of acidity, tannin and fruit (apparently the most acidic vintage since 1992).  Lovely long finish.

The Valbuena was a big rich red like the Ridge. Definitely more alcoholic 14.5% in the warm and dry 2011 Ribera Del Duero versus 13.5% for cooler climate Ridge. It certainly had plenty of black fruit on the nose and palate and was actually a little spicy like a shiraz. Nicely balanced soft tannins and a long complex finish.

But was Ridge worth the equivalent of £150 ($200) a bottle and Vega Sicilia 99 euors ($117)? They were both great wines and a real treat to have tried them, but I have drunk many wines at the $20-30 range which were just as pleasant, if less iconic than these two wineries. 

Many critics score wines with high tannin and acidity with top marks and they are great after years to soften these tannins in the cellar. Some wine critics like Robert Parker or their counterparts love the big, rich Cabernet Sauvignons of the USA. So winemakers try to produce wines that appeal to this group to achieve high scores and high sales. With so much competition, a low Decanter/Parker/Wine Spectator score can be a deadly blow for a winery.

Unfortunately most wine drinkers want to drink the wines we buy fairly quickly. 10 years in a cellar is really not practical, especially as many don't even have a suitable storage area and certainly not a cellar. Keeping wine under stairs or in the garage or god forbid in a kitchen means temperature fluctuations and the best wines whilst made to be stored will be ruined. There's no point laying down a top Margaux Grand Cru or Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru when the location is 20 degrees centigrade and in the sunshine half the day!

During a recent visit to Baden in Germany, I tasted very tannic wines which are basically undrinkable now. Yet they command high prices. I have noted that the premium wines I have sampled e.g. Ridge and Opus One have great complexity and a long finish but you pay heavily for the famous brand. Lots and lots of wine makers around the world are producing similarly complex wines for much less, especially in unfashionable regions. For example I tasted amazing Austrian Pinot Noir and St. Laurent for less than 20 euros a bottle!

Most wine drinkers spend $5-10 a bottle which is too low given excise duty and other taxes. But expecting punters to buy $30-50 bottles is a "bridge too far". I wish the critics and magazines realised that many wine drinkers have a moderate budget at best and want to drink wines in the near term so stop encouraging wine makers to focus on the cellaring market. Great for their profits when you give them 95 points, but us mortals want to avoid a mortgage to buy them!

See additional blog article:

More about Vega Sicilia and Valbuena 5°

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2011

Bodegas Vega Sicilia is a winery located in the Ribera del Duero Denominacion de Origen in Valladolid, Castilla y León in the North of Spain. It was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who planted various grapes from the Bordeaux wine region of France, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Vega Sicilia is particularly well known for its super premium Único wine.

The winery describes Valbuena as follows:  

"is the purest expression of the Tinto Fino (Tempranillo) in Vega Sicilia. Tinto Fino is clearly the predominant wine in the assemblage of the varieties that make up this magnificent wine. The other variety used is Merlot, which is added to a greater or lesser extent depending on the vintage.

The Valbuena Tempranillo is obtained from plots located on gentle concave slopes that descend from the wasteland. Those soils are made up of material that was eroded and accumulated as colluvial on the lower slopes, developing a high profile soil, with a specific important evolution with the formation of a deep calcic horizon.

Fermentation at a controlled temperature with native yeast in stainless steel tanks. Malolactic fermentation also takes place in stainless steel.

After fermentation, it is aged for five years, between wood and in the bottle, which is why it is called Valbuena 5º. French and American wood, new and used 225-litre barrels, 20,000 litre vats, a long and complex process for a great wine."

2011 was a very warm and ripe vintage in the Ribera Del Duero area, and the challenge for the winemaker was to keep the freshness of wine and avoid over ripeness and too much alcohol (it was still 14.5%).

More about Ridge and Monte Bello

Ridge Monte 2012.JPG

Ridge Vineyards is a California winery specialising in top of the range Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay wines and it produces wine at two winery locations in northern California. The original winery facilities are located at an elevation of 2,300 feet (700 m) on Monte Bello Ridge in unincorporated Santa Clara County in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, south of Los Altos, California and west of Cupertino, California. The other Ridge winery facilities are at Lytton Springs in the Dry Creek Valley AVA of Sonoma County. Ridge Vineyard's 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon achieved international fame for its fifth-place finish in the 1976 "Judgement of Paris" wine tasting.

In 1886, high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the initial plantings of the Monte Bello estate vineyard were set out, and winery construction begun. A first vintage from the young vines followed in 1892. During Prohibition (1920-1933), the vineyard was not fully maintained; some vines survived into the late 30’s, but by the 1940s they were effectively abandoned. Eight acres of cabernet sauvignon were replanted in 1949. These were the source of the first Ridge Monte Bello (1962). Since then, the historic vineyards on the ridge have gradually been replanted.

The 2012 Monte Bello has 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot. 2012 was a very dry year and a bit tricky for the wine maker which meant less Cabernet Sauvignon than normal in the blend. Tannins were easy to extract, less maturation and came out of fermenter in 5-6 days rather than usual 7-10 days. 16 months in 100% new oak barrels. 

New U.K. store focusing on English wines - Neighbourly Grape

With the decline of the British Pound against the Euro and other major currencies over the last year or so, U.K. wine drinkers have been seeking an alternative to their Claret and Super Tuscans.

A few years ago no one would have mentioned English wine in knowledgeable circles, but now things have changed. A combination of climate change and better wine making has meant that several English wine producers are making top quality white and sparkling wines. Decent reds are a little way off, but vineyard like Denbies in Surrey are planting Pinot Noir for the first time. 

taittinger kent vineyard

Earlier in 2017 one of France’s most prestigious champagne brands, Taittinger, announces a big investment in the limestone slopes of Kent. 

Taittinger has chosen a vineyard near the Kent village of Chilham as the site for its vines, with the first bottle due to be on sale in 2023.

The wine from Chilean will be called Domaine Evremond, named after Charles de Saint-Évremond, the French writer who helped introduce 17th century London to champagne.

There are now over 500 wine producers in the UK and they will plant a record 1 million vines in 2017/2018, allowing production  to increase by around 2 million bottles a year. 

Neighbourly grape logo
Neighbourly grape shop dorking

So it was with no real surprise that I came across Neighbourly Grape in St. Martins Walk in Dorking, Surrey. The shop and associated website specialises in English wine. Well worth a visit to meet the nice owners! 

Great wine tasting visit to SW Germany Baden area

Wine harvest Weingut Karl H. Johner GbR September 2017

See my latest tasting visit notes from a trip to SW Germany (Baden region north of Basle and South of Freiburg) during late September 2017 at the time of the grape harvest. Some interesting fermentation videos and photos to see.

Poor European grape harvest in 2017 means more expensive wines to come

Grapes Auvernier Switzerland September 2017

The spring frosts, hailstorms and the summer heat wave called "Lucifer" mean that Italian and French wine producers are facing one of the worst grape harvests for years in 2017. Yields may be well down, but winemakers are at least optimistic about quality because of the warm summer weather. Swiss and Hungarian winemakers have also been affected.

Italian wine body Assoenologi estimated that Italy would see one of its smallest wine harvests for 60 years in 2017, down by 25% on 2016 at 41.1 million hectolitres or 5.5 billion bottles. Tuscany, Sicily, Puglia, Umbria and Abbruzzo yields will be likely even lower at 30% versus last year but Piedmont, Veneto and Friuli will see their harvests a little better at 15% smaller than 2016.

Berries are smaller, with Italian winemakers confident that wines will be concentrated and balanced.

France is looking at the smallest grape harvest since 1945, with frost and hail the culprits. Bordeaux’s Right Bank, Burgundy, Loire and Alsace were hit hard this year by freak hail storms and severe frosts. Bad news after the havoc that frost caused in 2016 in some wine producing areas of France.

Large, rich Chateaus had the money to use frost avoidance measures such as helicopters to circulate the air over their vineyards. Smaller producers, were less fortunate. Frost hit Chablis and parts of the  the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy, and hailstorms ravaged parts of Fleurie and other areas of Beaujolais.

Grape production this year may be down by fall by 17 percent to between 37 million hectolitres (4.9 billion bottles) and 38.2 million hectolitres, versus 45.5 million in 2016, according to France's ministry of agriculture. But at least the Champagne harvest is expected to rise by 8 percent and in Burgundy and Beaujolais, a good flowering period means production will rise by 14 percent versus a small 2016 crop.

Bordeaux 2017 production has been hit particularly hard as the spring frosts are said to have caused a 50% fall in production versus 2016, with the Right Bank even worse. But a warm late spring and summer meant reasonable flowering and good ripening as 2017 progressed. In Alsace, frost means 30% lower production than in 2016, with early budding grape, Gewurztraminer,  the most impacted.

In the Loire, frost has cut production by 10% to 40% in some places. But, overall, the region’s growers are set to pick 15 days earlier than average and production will rise by 7 percent versus 2016, which was also hit by frost.

A very Hot early summer weather means that the growing season across France was running around 10 and 20 days ahead of normal, which helped ripening of the  grapes not destroyed by the frosts, hail or extreme heat.

Lower production across Europe in 2017, means that the vintage will be more expensive when it is released to consumers.

Major new well designed study confirms health benefits of wine consumption on risk of death and heart disease

couple with wine hi res.jpeg

After the controversy caused by the news analysis by Stockwell in 2016 "Do "Moderate" Drinkers Have Reduced Mortality Risk? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality" it was inevitable that more research in this subject would be started.

The systematic review and meta-regression analysis of studies investigating alcohol use and mortality risk after controlling for quality-related study characteristics was conducted in a population of 3,998,626 individuals, among whom 367,103 deaths were recorded. A total of 87 studies were examined and the paper concluded that when his team corrected for abstainer "biases" and certain other study-design issues, moderate drinkers no longer showed a longevity advantage.

Stockwell's paper concluded that "Estimates of mortality risk from alcohol are significantly altered by study design and characteristics. Meta-analyses adjusting for these factors find that low-volume alcohol consumption has no net mortality benefit compared with lifetime abstention or occasional drinking. These findings have implications for public policy, the formulation of low-risk drinking guidelines, and future research on alcohol and health.

A blog by The Stats Guy relating to the subsequent change to the U.K.'s alcohol drinking limits is enlightening and gives an indication that Stockwell and others like the Sheffield group may have been overzealous on their interpretations of data. 

Di Castelnuovo paper December 2006 and the J-shaped curve

Stockwell's view was contrary to the previous large meta-analysis by Di Castelnuovo et al in 2006 "Alcohol dosing and total mortality in men and women: an updated meta-analysis of 34 prospective studies". Di Castelnuovo used a meta analysis technique where the results of 34 studies were collated and reviewed and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The study looked at the link between the amount of alcohol drunk and death rates in men & women in clinical trials conducted before the end of 2005 with over 1 million subjects. 

A J-shaped relationship between alcohol and total mortality was confirmed in both men and women. Consumption of alcohol, up to 4 drinks per day in men and 2 drinks per day in women, was inversely associated with total mortality or the chance of dying, maximum protection being 18% in women and 17% in men. Higher consumption of alcohol was detrimental. The results were consistent with studies by other research including Sir Richard Doll's 1994 study "Mortality in relation to consumption of alcohol: 13 years' observations on male British doctors". 

The Journal of the American College of Cardiology paper August 2017

Now a brand new study published aimed to tackle the controverisal issue of wine and health yet again. In mid-August 2017, a new and large study was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, "Relationship of Alcohol Consumption to All-Cause, Cardiovascular, and Cancer-Related Mortality in U.S. Adults" by Bo Xi, Sreenivas P. et al.

The study in 333,247 people found that light-to-moderate drinkers (less than 14 drinks in men and 7 drinks in women) did have a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Individuals were followed between 1997 and 2009 and around 34,000 died sometime during this period. Throughout the length of the study, 34,754 participants died from all-causes. Of these, 8,947 deaths were cardiovascular disease-specific (6,944 heart disease-related and 2,003 cerebrovascular-related deaths) and 8,427 mortalities were cancer-specific.

The results of the study showed that men and women who were moderate drinkers had a 13 percent and 25 percent decreased risk of all-cause mortality, and 21 and 34 percent decreased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality, respectively.

Men who are heavy drinkers have a 25 percent increased risk of mortality due to all-causes and a 67 percent increase in mortality from cancer; however, these results were not significant in women. There were similar findings for light drinking for both men and women.

This is the key point. Bo Xi and his team were careful to address the supposed flaws in previous studies on alcohol and health. So the non-drinker group only included lifetime nondrinkers, so "sick quitters",  former heavy drinkers and those who gave up alcohol because they got sick were excluded.

The paper also controls for smoking, Body Mass Index (BMI) and physical activity, Some academics still believe that total lifetime abstainers are rare and could share other, unforeseen traits that impact their health, whereas moderate drinkers might have an overall healthier lifestyle. Causation is almost impossible to identify and this will always be a flaw.

But this new observational study tries its hardest to be large, well designed and lasted for 12 years.

National Institute of Health study results due 2023

A new study costing $100 million by the U.S. based National Institutes of Health will aim to finally answer the question whether daily alcohol drinking can help lower your risk for heart attacks, strokes and death.

8,000 volunteers will be recruited that fit very specific criteria from 16 areas around the world. Half will randomly be selected to have one drink per day, while the other half will have to abstain from drinking during the course of the study. These two groups will be followed for six years (poor abstainers!). The clinical trial will be run by notable researchers from around the world in Boston, Baltimore, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Barcelona to cover all regions of the world.