Stockwell paper attempts to cast doubt on benefits of moderate alcohol drinking

Tim Stockwell, University of Victoria, BC

Tim Stockwell, University of Victoria, BC

Stockwell and his team in Canada has published a new study in the March 2016 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, "Do "Moderate" Drinkers Have Reduced Mortality Risk? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality."

The new study was a 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.

Tim Stockwell, Ph.D., the lead researcher on the analysis and director of the University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research in British Columbia, Canada said that "Most often, studies have compared moderate drinkers (people who have up to two drinks per day) with "current" abstainers. The problem is that this abstainer group can include people in poor health who've cut out alcohol. A fundamental question is, who are these moderate drinkers being compared against?"

The paper concluded that when his team corrected for those abstainer "biases" and certain other study-design issues, moderate drinkers no longer showed a longevity advantage. Further, only 13 of the 87 studies avoided biasing the abstainer comparison group--and these showed no health benefits. It stated 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."

Stockwell's dismissive attitude to many previous studies citing these study biases and poor design is not universally accepted. Some academics saying that his team's negative opinion of clinical studies with a positive association of moderate drinking with alcohol is an over zealous attempt to portray a prohibitionist stance to alcohol. Given that Stockwell is based at the University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research in British Columbia, the title of the department may give underlying motivations away when it comes to funding and the desired outcome to be sceptical of any positive benefits of alcohol or wine.   

How you will die.....

There is a great blog post "How You Will Die" by  NATHAN YAU

Type in your sex and age, it throws us the likelihood of you dying from a variety of causes e.g. cancer, circulatory problems and so on. Yau used the Underlying Cause of Death database maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It provides data for the number of people who died in the United States between 1999 and 2014. The records are based on death certificates, which require an entry for a single cause of death. 

The CDC classifies the causes into 113 subcategories, which fit under the umbrella of 20 categories of disease and external causes. More specifically, the CDC uses the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), which is published by the World Health Organization.

So as a 47 year old male mine looks like:

So at age 70, I have a 64% chance of still being alive, and if I am dead the cause is most likely to be Infection, Cancer, Circulatory, Endocrine or External causes. Interesting.

Dame Sally Davies Chief Medical Officer UK adds to alcohol and health controversy - but temperance and prohibition aren't fun!

Dame Sally Davies, the UK's Chief Medical Officer, appeared in front of a Commons committee this week to defend the new alcohol guidelines.

She added to the controversy about the guidelines which were published in January 2016 saying "I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues and do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think - do I want the glass of wine or do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer? I take a decision each time I have a glass."

The official government advice on alcohol now says there is no safe level of drinking and is advocating 14 units of alcohol for both men and women in the UK, with the male limit down from the previous guidance of 21 units.

Despite evidence of the positive effect of moderate amounts of alcohol on health, the report behind the new guidelines, the so called J-curve, she said "they looked at that out of context with other issues and from the picture they concluded one unit a day, half a standard glass of wine, the estimated a very small overall benefit and a larger overall benefit for women.", "I don't know many men that drink half a glass of wine every day and what we did in discussion with the guideline group was look not only at those curves but we looked at short term harms.", "We have to balance what we've been discussing... half a glass of wine a day with the short term effects and the long term effects.", "Between all of us we came to the conclusion that for women drinking up to five units in a week aged over 55 there is some cardio protective effect.By the time they drink over five units and get to 14 units, the recommended upper level, they have lost that cardio protective effect."

Dame Sally also said: "Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone, but if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low."

Sir David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, said: 'These guidelines define 'low-risk' drinking as giving you less than a 1 per cent chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition. So should we feel ok about risks of this level? An hour of TV watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your long-term health. In contrast, an average driver faces much less than this lifetime risk from a car accident. It all seems to come down to what pleasure you get from moderate drinking."

Sir David Spiegelhalter

This is the point, moderate "healthy drinking" has been dismissed as Davies falsel claims that the benefits have now been dismissed apart from at very low intake levels yet this is not the consensus of the majority of scientific literature. There is some but not conclusive evidence of an increased risk for certain cancers, particularly breast cancer but what Davies fails to mention that the risk of others cancers is reduced by alcohol consumption. 

David Spiegelhalter and others are correct that the chances of dying from a few glasses of wine a day are moderate compared with driving a car, smoking, doing no exercise or eating badly. At the end of the day life is about risk and if you took every risk into account you wouldn't leave the house and live a normal life. Since you'd be so miserable anyway, you'd probably die early anyway. Long live the "antidote's to civilsation"! Davies may want to be a tee totaler or near enough but many others have a richer, more enjoyable life savouring a delicious Burgundy, Australian Shiraz and so on.

Addition of resveratrol to wine investigated as an alternative to sulfur with promising results

In a paper published in 2015 "Enrichment of Resveratrol in Wine through a New Vinification Procedure" by Raul Francisco Pastor et al they say

"Traditional vinification is a common procedure which limits the contact with oxygen by the early addition of sulfur dioxide (sulfite, SO2). Nevertheless, whilst SO2 is commonly used as an antimicrobial agent and preservative in foods and wine, it has also been listed as an important risk factor for the initiation and progression of liver diseases due to oxidative damage. Sulfite in wine and foods has been described as triggering asthma attacks. The prevalence of sulfite sensitivity in the asthmatic population as a whole would be around 3.9%, with steroid-dependent asthmatic patients being most at risk. "

"Recently, interest has been focused on some natural components of wine, such as phenolic compounds, as an alternative to inhibit bacterial growth. Among wine phenolics, flavonols and stilbenes have shown the greatest inhibitory effects on the growth of lactic acid bacteria strains isolated from wine. The authors hypothesized therefore that resveratrol could substitute sulfite as a preservative in wine. The introduction of stilbenes as a part of a whole vinification process has never been evaluated. This fact would also permit to increase the concentration of resveratrol, a polyphenol with bioactive properties in wines. The aim of the pilot work was to investigate the viability of the substitution of sulfite by resveratrol in the vinification process and its effect on the basic chemical, physical, and sensorial indices of Cabernet Sauvignon red wines"

They concluded "Substitution of sulfite (7 g/100kg) by resveratrol at concentrations of 150 mg/L and 300 mg/L in the vinification process do not change the basic physical and chemical properties of wine, as well as its sensorial profile, but provides wine with a high intensity colour. As a consequence of the process an enrichment of resveratrol in wine occurs at quantities which have been proven to have benefits for health when moderate wine consumption. Further studies on the wine characteristics, other than the conventional ones, and of the health benefits of these wines are warranted. To the best of the authors’ knowledge this is the first time that this type of wine making."

 

The controversy of Dr. Dipak Das and resveratrol research manipulation

Doctor Dipak K. Das continues to be a controversial figure in alcohol and wine health research. His work and the allegations against him have added fuel to the fire when trying to resolve the question of whether resveratrol is truly beneficial to human health and how important it is compared to alcohol when reducing cardiovascular events.

In 2012, after a three year investigation by the University of Connecticut, the one time director of its Cardiovascular Research Centre was accused of falsifying and fabricated data at least 145 times, in some cases digitally manipulating images using PhotoShop.  

The investigation examined more than seven years of activity in Das’s lab, and centred on Western blot results that had been manipulated and used in published papers.  The western blot (sometimes called the protein immunoblot) is a widely used analytical technique used to detect specific proteins in a sample of tissue homogenate or extract.The investigation into Das was started after an anonymous allegation of research irregularities in 2008.The University subsequently dismissed Das. 

Das who died shortly after the accusations were published in September 2013 was best known for his work on resveratrol, a compound present in grapes and wine and the subject of continued speculation as to its benefits in cardiovascular health.

In a 60,000 pages long report the University alleged that

  • Das was “intimately involved in the generation of figures that were determined to have been manipulated (either by fabrication or falsification).”
  • Others in his laboratory may have also been involved in wrongdoing. DeFrancesco, the spokesman, said an investigation into who else might have been involved is continuing.
  • The data manipulation, investigators concluded, was “intentional” and “designed to deceive.”

Das responded to the allegations in a letter of July 2010 blaming racial discrimination saying "Thus, careful analysis of the entire issue leads to the conclusion that it is an entirely racial issue – war against Indian community and unfortunately I am also an Indian. I have been working in the Health Center since 1983 [almost 28 years] under three different administrations and all adorned me. Why? Because they honored the equal opportunity employer policy. In fact, former Dean Dr. Peter Deckers was my good friend and under his term, we flourished. The problem started from the DAY NEW ADMINISTRATION took over from Peter Deckers. I became the Devil for the Health Center, and so did all the Indians working with me. " 

Das also posted a video defending himself on YouTube:

Whether Das was truly the victim of racial discrimination or a disgruntled ex-colleague or was really fiddling data for personal financial gain, the evidence behind resveratrol and its benefit in human health are suggestive of being positive.

Fine wine price indices 2011-2015

Here's how the fine wine prices finished 2015 and how they did over the last 5 years according to Liv-ex:

In 2015, the top performing fine wines for price rises were Bordeaux and wines from Australia and the United States. Rhône Valley wines from France showed a 3% drop in price on average last year.

Over the period from 2011-2015, the top performing regions were Burgundy with a 32% rise in price, Italy 15% and Rest of the World (predominantly USA) 35%. The top 50 Bordeaux wines were the worst performer with a drop of 18% over the last 5 years.

A wine Bucket List by FermentedGrape.com

Given a sudden windfall of plenty of cash these are some of the wines I would love to have a chance to try before my time comes to an end. The following wines are some of the most expensive wines in the world and some of the most sought after by wealthy wine connoisseurs. 

Bordeaux, France

Château Cheval Blanc 1er Grand Cru classé A, Saint-Emilion

Château Cheval Blanc  is located in the commune of Saint-Emilion, but borders on Pomerol in Bordeaux and has 39 hectares of land divided into 45 plots. The estate has the same configuration as in 1871, and the current area corresponds over 90% to that in 1911. Archives show that vines have been grown at Cheval Blanc at least as far back as the 15th century and the estate has only really changed hands once in over 150 years.

Cheval Blanc was able to realise its greatest dream in the 1880s, when it began to be considered on a par with the first growths of the Médoc by the wine trade and connoisseurs. By the late 19th century, Cheval Blanc was in the same price bracket as Margaux, Latour, Lafite, and Haut-Brion in Paris and London auction houses. 

What makes Cheval Blanc so unusual is three main soil types – fine textured with clay, more coarsely textured with gravel, and large gravel with sand . The estate is planted to 49% Cabernet Franc, 47% Merlot, and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes grown on clay soil are powerful with velvety tannin, while the ones from gravel soil are more aromatic and elegant. A blend of both results in a wine that is both powerful and elegant with expressive aromatics as well as the complexity of the greatest wines. The average age of the vines is 42 years, but the oldest plots go back to 1920.

Cheval Blanc obtained the highest possible distinction in the first classification of Saint-Emilion wines in 1954: Premier Grand Cru Classé "A". This top rank was confirmed in every following classification in each subsequent decade. Cheval Blanc became a member of the exclusive "Club of 9" comprising the first growths of Bordeaux.

Château Pétrus, Pomerol

Chateau Petrus, Pomerol, Bordeaux

Pétrus, one of the world`s rarest and most expensive wines was virtually unheard of 30 years ago and it was only when the Moueix family bought a half share in the property in 1962 that the estate's wine became known for their world class standard. Pétrus is planted with 95% Merlot and is now under the direction of Christian Moueix and oenologist, Jean Claude Berrouet.

The 11.4 hectare vineyard is located on a plateau on the highest part of Pomerol in the far east of the appellation. The topsoil and the subsoil at Pétrus is almost all clay (in neigbouring properties the soil is a mixture of gravel-sand or clay-sand) and Merlot grows well in this soil. 

The vines are unusually old and are only replanted after they reach 70 years of age. The grapes are hand harvested only in the afternoon, when the morning dew has evaporated, so as not to risk even the slightest dilution of quality. The grapes are fermented in cement vats and the wine is aged in 100% new oak barrels for 22-28 months. It is bottled unfiltered and around 4,000 cases are made a year.

Château Le Pin (Le Pin), Pomerol

Le Pin is located on the Right Bank of France’s Gironde estuary in the commune of Pomerol in the hamlet of Catusseau and it produces one of the  most sought after and expensive wines in the world. Jacques Thienpont bought just 1.6 hectares of land for one million French francs in 1979 and they named their wine Le Pin after a single pine tree that shaded the property. They subsequently bought small adjacent plots of land which eventually doubled the size of Le Pin to 3 hectares. The vineyard is 92% planted to Merlot (with the remainder Cabernet Franc) and is south facing on a well-drained slope of gravel and sand. It is very low yielding (between 30 to 35 hl/hc), with hand harvesting and fermentation in stainless steel before being matured in new oak barriques for between 14 and 18 months. The estate produces just 600 to 700 cases each year. 

Château Lafite-Rothschild, Pauillac

Château Lafite Rothschild is owned by Baron Eric de Rothschild and it is one of the largest and most renowned wine estates in the Médoc. 

The vineyards are at at the northern edge of the Pauillac appellation, just below the boundary with St. Estephe. The Rothschilds  bought the property in 1866, but this is a different part of the family from that which purchased Château Mouton-Rothschild. 

The vineyards are mainly planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (71%) with the rest Merlot (25%) Cabernet Franc (3%) and Petit Verdot (1%). Grapes are hand-harvested, and vinified parcel by parcel. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel vats, after which the wine is run off into barrels, 100% new for Lafite itself, a mixture of new and one-year-old barrels for the second wine. 

The Grand Vin volume varies greatly according to the vintage, but is frequently less than half the total crop, and is usually no more than 20,000 cases. Since 1994 the estate has been under the control of Charles Chevallier bringing much needed consistency in quality from vintage to vintage.

Château Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac

Château Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac

Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild bought Château Brane-Mouton at auction in 1853 and the estate in Pauillac still bears his name. In 1924 Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Baron Nathaniel’s great-grandson took over the running of the estate and shortly after insists that all the wine should be bottled at the château. 

After a long fight by Baron Philippe, Château Mouton Rothschild achieves the status of Premier Cru Classé (Classified First Growth) in 1973 of which it had been unfairly deprived in the 1855 classification, following a decree signed by Jacques Chirac, then Minister of Agriculture.

Château Latour, Pauillac

The history of Château Latour dates back at least to the 14th century, even though the vineyards for which it is now known  were not fully established until the 17th century.  

The 78 hectare estate is located at the southern edge of Pauillac, bordering the St. Julien vineyards of Ch. Léoville Las Case. Cabernet Sauvignon accoubts for 80% of the vineyards, with Merlot (18%) and Cabernet Franc/Petit Verdot the remaining 2%. 

It produces 3 wines: the Grand Vin, which always comes from the vines immediately surrounding the château, known as L’Enclos; Les Forts de Latour, the second wine, created in 1966, and Pauillac de Latour, usually the product of young vines. The second wine, Les Forts de Latour, always comes from a distinct location, rather than simply being the vats rejected as not quite worthy of inclusion in Latour itself, so it has its own distinct identity.

The winemakers only select the healthiest fruit, total de-stemming, and separate tanks for each parcel of vines. A three-week long maceration is followed by malolactic fermentation in vats before the chosen wine is run off into barrels, 100% new, for ageing. The wine destined to become Les Forts de Latour is aged in 50% new oak and 50% one-year-old barrels.

Château Margaux 1er Cru Classé, Margaux

In its current form Château Margaux  was built in the early 19th Century. In the 19th and early 20th century changing ownership for the estate meant that the quality of some vintages was far from perfect, but in 1977 it was bought by André Mentzenopoulos, Greek by birth but who had lived in France since 1958 and the fortunes of Margaux changed dramatically.  André died in 1980 but his daughter, Corinne took over with winemaker Paul Pontallier to oversee the production.

The estate has 82 hectares of vineyards, with 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and the remainder Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Unusually in Margaux, the estate produces the white wine, Pavillon Blanc, from 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Fermentation takes place in oak vats, and ageing for Château Margaux is in 100% new barrels for 22 months.  

 Château Haut-Brion, 1er Cru Classé, Pessac

Of the five Bordeuax first growths, Château Haut-Brion is the only estate in the Pessac-Léognan AOC. The estate dates back to April 1525 when Jean de Pontac married Jeanne de Bellon, the daughter of the mayor of Libourne and seigneur of Hault-Brion, who brought to him in her dowry the land and the construction of the château itself was begun in 1549.

In the classifications of 1855 ahead of the International Exhibition in Paris, Château Haut-Brion was classified Premier Grand Cru, as the only estate from Graves among the three established First Growths of the Médoc. The prices of Haut-Brion in the 19th century were consistently higher than those of any other Bordeaux wine

In addition to the grand vin, Haut-Brion produces a red second wine. Formerly named Château Bahans Haut-Brion, beginning with the 2007 vintage, it was renamed Le Clarence de Haut Brion. The vineyard also produces a dry white wine named Château Haut-Brion Blanc, with a limited release of the second dry white wine, Les Plantiers du Haut-Brion, renamed La Clarté de Haut-Brion for the 2008 vintage. Since 2003, Domaine Clarence Dillon's daughter company, Clarence Dillon Wines, has also released the Bordeaux brand wine named Clarendelle.

The estate has 48 ha planted to red grapes with 45% Merlot, 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9.7% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot, and 2.9 ha (7.1 acres) to white grape varieties with 53% Sémillon and 47% Sauvignon blanc.

Harvesting takes place by hand and each parcel is worked by the same team of workers to increase the teams' familiarity with the individual vines. The harvest of the white grapes takes place very early due to the proximity to the city of Bordeaux which results in a warmer microclimate and thus earlier ripening. The white grapes are picked as late as possible, sorted and then pneumatically pressed in whole bunches. There is no skin contact and fermentation takes place in oak barrels with indigenous yeast After sorting in the field, the red grapes are destemmed, crushed and moved to a special double-tank with fermentation taking place in the top and malolactic fermentation in the bottom, using gravity to move the wine. Previously ageing took place in 100% new oak casks lasting 18 months. This has been reduced to 35% new casks and wine destined for the second wine Le Clarence is aged in 25% new oak. The white wine is aged in 40-45% new oak for 10–12 months

Burgundy, France

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC)

Domaine de la Romanée Conti, DRC or just the Domaine is owned by the de Villaine and Leroy families. The De Villaine's are related to Jacques-Marie Duvault Blochet who bought the vineyard of La Romanée Conti in 1869. The Leroy Family  acquired the shares of the relatives of Duvault-Blochet in 1942. 

DRC has 25 hectares of Grand Cru vineyards and is the largest owner of each of them, including the 1.8 ha monopole La Romanée Conti, La Tâche and holdings in the grand crus of Romanée St Vivant, Grands-Echezeaux and Echezeaux as well  as close to half of the Richebourg AOC.

The domaine uses whole clusters, with no destemming and the vineyards produce very low yields. Ancestor Jacques-Marie Duvault Blochet was an advocate of harvesting late in order to ensure optimum ripeness, a philosophy to which his descendants adhere today.

Italy

Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia

In the 1920's the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta dreamt of creating a top class Bordeaux style red wine, “…the origins of my experiment date back to the years between 1921 and 1925 when, as a student in Pisa and often a guest of the Salviati Dukes in Migliarino, I drank a wine produced from one of their vineyards…which had the same unmistakable “bouquet” as an aged Bordeaux….”

In the 1940s, having settled with his wife Clarice on the Tenuta San Guido on the Tyrrhenian coast, he experimented with several French grape varieties (whose cuttings he had recovered from the estate of the Dukes Salviati in Migliarino) and concluded that the Cabernet had "the bouquet I was looking for."

Using Cabernet Sauvignon in Tuscan and Piedmont was unusual as the  traditional grapes of the region were Sangiovese and Nebbiolo but the gravely vineyard sites in Tuscany impart the same characteristics on Sassicaia as Graves in Bordeaux.

The Marchese's first vintages were not warmly received and from 1948 to 1967, Sassicaia remained a strictly private affair, only to be consumed at Tenuta San Guido. Each year, a few cases were stored to age in the Castiglioncello di Bolgheri cellar and the Marchese soon realised that by ageing the wine it improved considerably. It was not until 1968 that Sassicaia was first commercially released.

Spain

Vega Sicilia Unico

Vega Sicilia,  located to the east of the town of Valladolid in Ribera del Duero, is Spain's  most prestigious wine estate. It was founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who arrived from Bordeaux with cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec and planted them together with Tinto Fino.

Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves left no known written records on why he chose Vega Sicilia as his winery's name but it is thought that the word Vega refers to the green vegetation that grows along the riverbank of the Duero river and Sicilia refers to Saint Cecilia, the patron saints of musicians, after whom several villages in Castile and León are named. 

It was not until the early 20th century that the winery  built its international reputation under the ownership of Antonio Herrero. The Alvarez family acquired ownership in 1982 and still run the estate.

Vega Sicilia produces three different wines: the signature Unico ("unique") is the flagship. The grapes used in Unico are from some of the oldest vines in the Ribera del Duero, with mostly Tinto Fino and Tempranillo. The wine is aged 10 years before release. The Reserva Especial is bottled each year as a blend of three earlier vintages with only around 100 cases made each year. For example the 2015 release uses the 1994, 1996 and 2000 vintages. Valbuena 5° is made from younger vines, and in years when Unico is not produced grapes normally destined for Unico will go into Valbuena. It is only released after 5 years ageing and is made mostly of Tempranillo, with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Australia

Penfolds Grange, South Australia

Penfolds Grange had it first vintage in 1951 by  winemaker Max Schubert but the first commercial release came a year late in 1952. Until the 1989 vintage it was labelled Penfolds Grange Hermitage. The name "Hermitage" was removed with the 1990 vintage, following objections by the European Union authorities to the use of a French place-name.

The wine is usually a multi-district blend using grapes grown in South Australia including  the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and Magill Estate. It is primarily Shiraz with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon (usually less than 8%).

Grange was first made on an experimental basis by Max Schubert, while he was employed by Penfolds Wines. Having toured Europe in 1950, Schubert implemented wine-making techniques observed in Bordeaux upon his return Negative reviews by wine critics and poor commercial prospects for the wine led Penfolds management in 1957 to forbid Schubert from producing Penfolds Grange, but Schubert persisted in secret through 1959. As the wines aged their true value came to be appreciated, and in 1960 the management instructed Schubert to restart production, oblivious to the fact that Schubert had never stopped production and had not missed a vintage.

The 1955 vintage was submitted to competitions beginning in 1962, and over the years has won more than 50 gold medals. The vintage of 1971 won first prize in Shiraz at the Wine Olympics in Paris. The 1990 vintage was named 'Wine of the Year' by the Wine Spectator magazine in 1995, which later rated the 1998 vintage 99 points out of a possible 100.

USA

Screaming Eagle, Oakville, Napa Valley, California

 

Screaming Eagle, founded in 1992 and owned by Jean Philips,  is one of the original Californian "cult wines" with only 400-750 cases made each year. Phillips originally bought the 57 acre Oakville vineyard in 1986 which was planted to a mix of varieties, most of which Phillips sold to various Napa wineries except the 1 acre plot of around 80 vines of Cabernet Sauvignon. She took her home-made Cabernet Sauvignon based wine made in a plastic trash can to Robert Mondavi. They told her bottle it and the rest is history.

She hired Richard Peterson as a consultant, and subsequently met Peterson's daughter, Heidi Peterson Barrett, who became Screaming Eagle's first winemaker. The entire vineyard was replanted in 1995 to three varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Cabernet Franc. The 1992 vintage, released in 1995, through a combination of very low production numbers and highly positive reviews (wine critic Robert Parker awarded the wine 99 points) resulted in Screaming Eagle becoming one of the most celebrated and expensive wines in the Napa Valley.

On March 17, 2006 the estate was sold to Stanley Kroenke and Charles Banks, after Phillips received an offer she couldn't refuse. In April 2009, Charles Banks left Screaming Eagle leaving Stan Kroenke as the sole owner.

Screaming Eagle's 100% Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard near Oakville is ideally situated. The soil is virtually a rock pile on a gentle, west-facing slope east of the Napa River. Drainage and exposure are excellent. The vineyard is at a point in the Napa valley where the weather is hot enough during the day to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon perfectly, but the grapes are cooled by the northerly afternoon breezes from the San Pablo Bay.

Opus One, St. Helena, Napa Valley, California

Château Mouton Rothschild winemaker Lucien Sionneau and Robert Mondavi’s son Timothy made the partnership’s first vintage at the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1979. The following year the partners officially announced their joint venture. In 1981 a single case of the joint venture wine sold for $24,000 at the first Napa Valley Wine Auction – the highest price ever paid for a California wine. The partners agreed to choose a name of Latin origin for the joint venture, allowing for easy recognition in both English and French. Baron Philippe announced his choice, “Opus,” a musical expression denoting the first masterwork of a composer. Two days later he proposed an additional word: “Opus One”. 

The 1979 and 1980 vintages were simultaneously unveiled in 1984 as Opus One’s first release. Constellation Brands purchased Robert Mondavi Corp. and assumed 50% ownership of Opus One in 2005. The current 2012 vintage is composed of Cabernet Sauvignon 79%, Cabernet Franc 7%, Petit Verdot 6%, Merlot 6%, and Malbec

SOMM: Into the Bottle wine documentary set for February 2016 release

Following Jason Wise's excellent 2013 documentary film SOMM, the follow up SOMM: Into the Bottle is due to be released in US cinemas from February 2nd 2016. The original SOMM followed four sommeliers attempt to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier exam, a test with one of the lowest pass rates in the world

The film goes into how grapes are grown, how wine is produced and the cellaring process. By opening some of the world’s most rare bottles of wine, the viewer will understand how a wine ages, what happens in a cellar and exactly what oak in wine means. The film takes a look at how history has impacted wine, from the Romans, to Prohibition, to the World Wars and even current events such as the Napa Earthquake. Through the eyes of the world’s greatest Somms and Winemakers, we discover that far more than just grapes go into the bottle. 
 
Director Jason Wise says of the new film “SOMM was a great introduction into the world of Sommeliers but I still wanted to delve deeper into the profession and the wine industry as a whole, one of the most complex and oldest businesses in the world. You will want a glass in your hand to watch this film.”

Do expensive wines really taste better?

I was watching a video this week on YouTube called "Expensive wine is for suckers" and it raised a few very good points. 

  • For amateur wine drinkers who aren't connoisseur's of wine it probably makes little sense for them to spend large sums of money on expensive wines. Conversely if you're into wine, you are much more likely to notice the finesse and complexity of an expensive wine versus an on-promotion supermarket wine.
  • Professional wine experts who judge wines aren't consistent with their ratings
  • Wine consumers are disproportionately influenced by price and country of origin when its comes to perceived quality, the actual taste is much less important - so expensive wines taste better as long as you know they're expensive! How a wine is branded is very important.

So before many wine drinkers rush out to buy that bottle of Château Le Pin for $3000 a bottle they should consider that the same wine would probably taste a lot worse in their minds if they had only paid $20! The same rule applies if you bought a barrel of mid range Bordeaux wine and bottled it with labels of Château Petrus. 

If you're really not into your wines, paying large sums for complex, quality wines is not a good idea. This is why bog standard end gondala supermarket wines from the likes of Gallo, Wolf Blass and Yellow Tail are so popular.For mass wine drinkers they want big, fruity wines with plenty of alcohol and certainly no heavy tannins or acidity which would be tempered by cellaring. 

The evidence that expensive wines taste better

Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2008, Pages 1–9 Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? Evidence from a Large Sample of Blind Tastings* Robin Goldsteina , Johan Almenbergb, Anna Dreberc , John W. Emersond, Alexis Herschkowitscha , and Jacob Katza

The authors state that 

"Individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In a sample of more than 6,000 blind tastings, we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. For individuals with wine training, however, we find indications of a non-negative relationship between price and enjoyment. Our results are robust to the inclusion of individual fixed effects, and are not driven by outliers: when omitting the top and bottom deciles of the price distribution, our qualitative results are strengthened, and the statistical significance is improved further. These findings suggest that non-expert wine consumers should not anticipate greater enjoyment of the intrinsic qualities of a wine simply because it is expensive or is appreciated by experts. "

What are the implications for most wine drinkers:

  • When drinkers are unaware of the price and hence the perceived quality they enjoy expensive (more complex) wine slightly less
  • For wine drinkers with training the higher the price of wine the higher the enjoyment
  • non-expert wine drinkers should not anticipate greater enjoyment of a wine because it is expensive or is appreciated by experts. 

The evidence that wine experts are inconsistent in their ranking in wine competitions

Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 4, Issue 1, Spring 2009, Pages 1–9 An Analysis of the Concordance Among 13 U.S. Wine Competitions* Robert T. Hodgsona

The authors state:

"An analysis of over 4000 wines entered in 13 U.S. wine competitions shows little concordance among the venues in awarding Gold medals. Of the 2,440 wines entered in more than three competitions, 47 percent received Gold medals, but 84 percent of these same wines also received no award in another competition. Thus, many wines that are viewed as extraordinarily good at some competitions are viewed as below average at others. An analysis of the number of Gold medals received in multiple competitions indicates that the probability of winning a Gold medal at one competition is stochastically independent of the probability of receiving a Gold at another competition, indicating that winning a Gold medal is greatly influenced by chance alone. "

"To lift their brand above the competition, wineries spent more than $1 million in entry fees in 2003 at just 13 of these venues. The benefit of this expense is the belief by wineries that entry fees offer a valid return on investment: Gold medals sell wine."

"An examination of the results of 13 U.S. wine competitions shows that (1) there is almost no consensus among the 13 wine competitions regarding wine quality, (2) for wines receiving a Gold medal in one or more competitions, it is very likely that the same wine received no award at another, (3) the likelihood of receiving a Gold medal can be statistically explained by chance alone."

Hodgson shows that Gold medals awarded at wine competitions are in line with the distribution predicted by pure chance

The evidence that consumers rate wine / food based on price & country more than taste

3rd International Wine Business & Marketing Research Conference, Montpellier, 6-7-8 July 2006 Refereed paper 1 The role of intrinsic (sensory) cues and the extrinsic cues of country of origin and price on food product evaluation Roberta Veale Pascale Quester Amal Karunaratna School of Commerce The University of Adelaide Adelaide, South Australia

The authors state:

"Consumers use both intrinsic and extrinsic cues when forming opinions regarding product quality. Research has shown that consumers are often unable to assess these cues accurately and may ignore product attributes that significantly influence product quality in favor of others that contribute little. Country-of-origin and price have been found to be examples of extrinsic cues repeatedly used by consumer to form product quality opinions, both before and after purchase.

Furthermore, objective and subjective consumer knowledge and self-confidence have been shown to moderate consumer reliance on both extrinsic and intrinsic cues, although these variables have not been examined in terms of their potential moderating effects on product quality evaluations. The results of exploratory qualitative research and a pilot scale conjoint analysis suggest that country of origin and price influence quality expectations in the case of chardonnay and cheese. In the case of cheese, the intrinsic cue (fat content) also contributed significantly to quality expectations, with the lowest fat level deemed the most desirable. This is despite the fact that increasing levels of fat in cheese results in creamier texture and better flavor compared to the low fat products. Measures of objective knowledge were also found to be much lower than expected for consumers of these commonly purchased products, suggesting respondents’ inability to accurately assess intrinsic cues. The study points to a number of future research directions.  "

"Consumers tend to believe there is a ‘natural’ ordering of products according to a price scale where higher quality products are more expensive and products of lesser quality are cheaper (Bredahl, 2003; Dickson & Sawyer, 1990; Glitsch, 2000; Jover et al., 2004; Kardes et al., 2004; Monroe, 1976). This price / quality relationship, described in the literature as the ‘price-reliance schema’, reflects consumers’ strongly held view that ‘you get what you pay for’ (M. Lee & Lou, 1996: p24). Indeed, this belief can sometimes be strong enough to overcome experienced product quality (Jover et al., 2004; Pechmann & Ratneshwar, 1992). For example Pechmann and Ratneshwar (1992) found, in their study involving consumer assessment of orange juice quality, that respondents would favour a lower quality juice if the price were relatively high, over a juice of lower quality if the price were correspondingly low, provided they did not have the opportunity to assess all juice samples simultaneously. Therefore, consideration of price leads consumers to accept conditional ‘trade offs’ when making a buying decision. If consumers believe that price and quality are tied then paying a lower price means accepting lower quality. Conversely, to gain better quality a monetary sacrifice must be made, perhaps beyond what is desirable to the payer. Finding a satisfactory balance in outcomes represents an important challenge for many consumers and means that price plays an important and unique role in the buying decision (Kardes et al., 2004; Rao & Olson, 1990). Consumers rely even more heavily on price when they possess limited knowledge of product category offerings. Further, consumers find it particularly difficult to assess quality if intrinsic cues are complex, leading them to sometimes be intimidated by price as found by (Jover et al., 2004) in their study measuring the impact of extrinsic variables on expectations and evaluation of wine quality. Thus as with CI, consumers with sound levels of objective knowledge will generally use price as an indicator of quality only when this is legitimate (e.g. there is a strong relationship between price and intrinsic product quality), and/or when other intrinsic product."

2015 vintage in Australia and New Zealand looks good but with lower quantities

Australia and New Zealand wine makers are happy people with the weather largely staying good during the 2015 growing season and harvest. There were a few challenges as ever, including bush fires in Australia's Adelaide Hills, a key area for cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production.

2015 New Zealand grape growing season

Grape growers and winemakers across New Zealand were pleased with the quality and flavours. There was a very good summer which provided excellent conditions for ripening grapes across the country so quality of the harvest was strong.

However yields were down with the vintage size of 326,000 tonnes - down 27% on the record 2014 vintage. Despite the excellent summer, the cool spring weather and the driest weather since the 1930's contributed to the marked reduction in the New Zealand grape crop. Picking of grapes generally started earlier and finished earlier than most years with Pinot Noir picking largely finished by April. For major players like Cloudy Bay, it was one of their earliest ever.

In Marlborough, dry weather, spring frosts and cool temperatures during flowering meant that Sauvignon Blanc production was well down versus 2014. The region received the lowest amount of rainfall over a seven-month period since records began which meant smaller fully ripe berries with the potential for concentrated flavours which bodes well for most of the region's wines when they are released.

Hawke's Bay had a good year too in 2015 following the excellent previous vintages but with a longer harvest than usual.

In Central Otago, a warm start to the season came abruptly to an end with a very cold November with some snow on mountains. but then was followed by a warmer period over the next 3 months. Conditions as ever were challenging for winemakers with rain in February causing the potential for some rot and despite the rain some vines were showing signs of lack of water later in the season.The harvest was completed in around mid April and took two weeks less than the usual six weeks. Unlike Marlborough, yields were down in Central Otago but not as much. Overall the 2015 Pinot Noir from the region is expected to be excellent as the grapes were ripe with early signs that the wines were exhibiting good aromatics.

2015 Australia grape growing season

The Australian 2015 vintage is looking very good with the main producing areas having a very good or excellent years but with grape yields mostly down in common with New Zealand. 

The Barossa and Yarra Valley had good quality grape crops but rain storms in the Hunter Valley with some hail meant that 2015 was challenging. particularly during the harvest. 

Margaret River had an excellent year but some storms during the spring time reduced yields whilst Clare Valley had an unpredictable harvest with a very early ripening of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in particular but like the West of Australia, yields were lower than usual in South Australia generally. Red and white grapes were being harvested at the same time in South Australia which is very unusual as a result of a warm spring. The Adelaide Hills was hit by some bush fires which damaged some crops and tainted some grapes.

Important Austalian Pinot Noir producing areas like the Mornington Peninsula were reported as producing excellent grapes given no heat stress and cooler year generally with a slower, longer ripening period.

Bordeaux 2015 vintage still looks very promising after rain in mid-month

Bordeaux had wet weather with heavy but localised showers in the middle of the month followed by good weather last week and plenty of dry, sunny weather forecast in the remaining days of September. 

Localised was the key word, with vastly different rain in different parts of the Bordeaux region, but fortunately no hail.

Bordeaux weather forecast commencing September 26th 2015:

Picking has been happening in Bordeaux from around September 21st with early ripening vineyards e.g. Pomerol largely complete with very good grape quality. Lafite-Rothschild completed its Merlot harvest on September 23rd. Later ripening and hence picking regions like Saint-Émilion and Margaux should benefit from the recent good weather and benign forecast. Cabernet Sauvignon is being picked and should be complete on Bordeaux's left bank in coming days and certainly by the first week of October.

Many are saying that 2015 will be a good vintage but maybe not a great one like 2005, 2009 or 2010 with high yields due to the summer sun. So far the omens for nice wines look good with good quality grapes with thick skins and excellent ripeness with no rot or hail damage this year.

Burgundy is also looking good so 2015 looks very good so for French and most European wine this vintage is looking promising. 

Fine wine prices still subdued in 2015 but a few signs of life

Prices for the top 100 fine wines seem to have bottomed with some signs of life but way off 2011. Perhaps 2015 prices are the new norm and make the prices of the prime Bordeaux and Burgundy reds at a more reasonable level compared with the Chinese gifting and hospitality bubble of years gone by?

Jancis Robinson on wine experts versus amateurs

 

Nice article by Jancis at the FT.

Jancis Robinson on wine experts versus amateurs

In the age of the smartphone the role of the critic has never been more complex, writes the FT’s wine columnist

https://next.ft.com/9de45762-5230-11e5-b029-b9d50a74fd14#axzz3l9Dl70pS

SEPTEMBER 4, 2015 

by: JANCIS ROBINSON

Only once in my life did I ever think I knew everything there was to be known about wine. It was in 1978, after finishing two years’ worth of courses run by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. By dint of luck, and a dose of grammar school diligence, I was the top student of my year, and reckoned that with a WSET diploma under my belt, I was now a fully fledged wine expert.

The succeeding years have taught me just how much there still is to learn. But, as someone celebrating her 40th year writing about wine, I have to concede I am considered by many as a wine expert. However, I am keenly aware of the sands that have been shifting under the notion of expertise in this era of instant communication and (often anti-) social media.

In the last decade or two of the 20th century, when it took more than a nanosecond to communicate, the most successful wine writers around the globe were considered near-oracular. This was most obviously the case for America’s Robert M Parker Jr, who from 1977 promulgated a system of scoring wines out of 100 that made “understanding” wine or, at least, working out which he judged the best, delightfully easy, whatever your native language. The points system also made it possible for those selling wine to let a third party — often, but not always, Parker — do much of the work of selling (and selection) for them, and in the Parker era, shops, catalogues and websites featured not prose, nor enthusiastic verbal recommendations, but numbers, almost all of them between 89 and 101. Parker could certainly make or break wines and wineries with the same power as exercised by the most highly regarded theatre or restaurant critics.

Parker was not alone in enjoying the status of someone handing down incontrovertible judgments on tablets of stone. Most wine-consuming countries had their wine authorities, such as James Halliday in Australia, Michel Bettane and Jacques Dupont in France, and annual guides such as Gault Millau in Germany and the Platter Guide in South Africa. They were followed fairly slavishly by both consumers and wine professionals.

Back in those days, wine used to be one of those subjects about which ordinary people in anglophone countries would hesitate to express an opinion. It used to be left to us experts to tell ordinary tasters what to think and how to describe those thoughts. But now wine has definitively lost its elitist veneer.

Wine drinkers can compare multiple evaluations — not just at home but in the wine shop and restaurant

In the 21st century, the internet and now, particularly, the smartphone have changed everything. Wine drinkers can compare multiple evaluations concurrently — not just at home but in the wine shop and restaurant. Label-scanning apps such as Vivino and Delectable are designed to present as much information as possible on individual wines, often including ratings, as soon as you point your mobile phone at them. Winesearcher.com has been providing invaluable price comparisons and stockist information for individual wines and retailers around the world since 1999 and it has now added average quality ratings and diversified with its own label-scanning app. Another app, with the slightly painfully punning name Raisinable, compares the value offered by specific wines on the lists of restaurants in London and New York.

CellarTracker.com, set up in 2003 by an ex-Microsoft wine geek, has played a big part intransferring power from experts to the wine-drinking populace: it now hosts, and presents for free, almost 5m tasting notes with scores from more than 100,000 wine amateurs. (Since last year it, too, has had its own label-scanning app in conjunction with Vivino.) Cellartracker has, admittedly, also factored in the wine reviews and scores of various specialist wine writers’ websites, including my own, but it is arguably the sheer weight of consumer as opposed to expert opinion that makes CellarTracker so popular.

One retailer, Naked Wines, differentiated itself early on in its short history by encouraging customers to review wines and communicate directly online with the winemakers supplying the website. Its business, built on crowdfunding, has been so successful that the company was judged Online Business of the Year in 2011 when it was just three years old, and the model has since been rolled out throughout the US and Australia. Professional wine commentators are redundant in Naked Wine’s marketplace.

My point is that I have gone from being a unique provider of information to having to fight for attention. Since word of mouth is the most powerful sales tool in the world, its power amplified exponentially by social media, what is the role of those of us who make our living giving out expert advice in this new, democratic, much more populated landscape of opinion?

I am feeling particularly sensitive because the fourth edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine is about to be published. Together with assistant editor Julia Harding, I have spent two intensive years, helped by almost 200 contributors around the globe, updating the old entries and adding 300 new ones so that the whole thing now totals about a million carefully chosen words arranged in 4,000 alphabetically-listed entries. When the first and second editions came out in 1994 and 1999, much of the information in the Companion was unique. But nowadays, anyone with internet access can look up the book’s subject headings on Wikipedia — and, admittedly, often find the Companion entries cited at the bottom of the page.

I have read arts critics fulminating against the proliferation of “amateur” reviews and arguing that these cannot possibly carry the weight of those freighted by decades of experience and deeply relevant education. But it’s not an argument I can use when I have spent my entire working life trying to arm consumers with as much information as possible so that they can make up their own minds about individual wines.

Unlike Robert Parker, I have never believed that there is only one “correct” objective judgment to be made about each wine. Quite apart from the huge variation that there can be between bottles of the same wine, some of it due to storage conditions, I have always argued that wine tasting is so dependent on individual sensory equipment, not to mention partialities and sensitivities, that it is bound to be subjective — no matter how reliably we professionals may be able to judge its dimensions such as sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol level and be able to discern technical faults.

Even here, individuals vary enormously in their sensitivity to the different compounds responsible for them. Some wine professionals, for example, are unable to pick out which wines are corked, or spoilt by cork taint, because they are insensitive to trichloroanisole, or TCA, the compound responsible. Similarly, we all vary in the number of taste buds we are able to deploy in the tasting process. As long ago as 1994, the experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk coined the inflammatory term “supertaster” for those who have more taste buds than most and tend to be particularly sensitive to bitterness.

The wine market today is more crowded than ever. As wine production has transformed itself from peasant activity to plutocrat’s bucolic folly, and as drinking wine has become a social signifier on every continent (most recently — and most spectacularly — Asia), consumers are presented with a baffling array of choices. And, as producers strive to make better and better wine every year just to stay in the game, so they have to shout louder and louder to get attention.

This may partly explain why some days no fewer than six or seven boxes of unsolicited samples arrive on my doorstep — more than ever before — in the hope that I will publish a tasting note on them. But could it also have something to do with the fact that, even in this era of the citizen critic, my 40 years of visiting vineyards, listening to winemakers, watching trends emerge, making comparisons and seeing wines evolve from barrel to decades in bottle might just be regarded as worth something?

It may be difficult to believe but tasting wine is hard work: it is completely different from the relaxation and joy that I associate with drinking wine. Tasting requires complete concentration and a mind that is every bit as open as the mouth, and all-important nose, to new flavours, styles and developments. Prejudice engendered by certain producers, grapes or appellations can be a terrible thing, which is why I prefer to taste blind (ignorant of the exact identity of each wine) as often as possible.

Tasting is physically tiring, particularly if, like me, you wish to provide drinkers with information on as many wines and tasting notes as possible. Thus I often find myself tasting up to 100 wines a day. While this puts me straight into the sights of those who have been warning recently in the UK about the perils of toping in middle age, I should stress that when we are tasting wine, we professionals see alcohol as the enemy. Rather than seeking any hint of inebriation, we want our senses to remain as sharp as possible and so try to spit out every drop of wine tasted. (Contrary to popular opinion, there is no tasting equipment in the throat; and several of the world’s most respected wine tasters, such as Katsuyuki Tanaka, are teetotal.)

I have gone from being a unique provider of information to having to fight for attention

Occasionally, when I mention my decades of experience, friends remark somewhat accusatorily, “Isn’t your sense of taste meant to decline with age?” Though I have no way of directly comparing the performance of my olfactory bulb today with 40 years ago, I do know that my ability to concentrate is infinitely greater than it was when I was young. I used to be genial and chatty at wine tastings. Today, blinkered and working feverishly, I look only at my glass, laptop and spittoon. (The fun bit of wine happens in the evening.)

But tasting fairly, acutely and accurately is only half of what is required. Just as difficult, possibly more so, is finding the right words to describe the wine. I like to major on the dimensions of the wine: how tough/tart/powerful/sweet/ready is it? And I describe only the most obvious flavours in it because I’m always writing with the consumer in mind and I know how variable everyone’s tasting equipment is. But, just as wine critics have been accused of score inflation (it used to be that 85 was regarded as a good score; nowadays a wine has to be above 90 to sell easily), there seems to have been inflation in the number of flavours cited in tasting notes. This is particularly true of wine reviews generated in the US, where 10 different flavours, some of them questionable to say the least (grilled watermelon, anyone?), identified in a single liquid is commonplace nowadays.

Back in 1989, the Australian taste scientist David Laing, from the University of New South Wales, conducted an experiment in which he demonstrated that humans have great difficulty in identifying more than four different flavours in a single liquid. And when in 1996 he tried a similar experiment on experts who smell and taste for a living, they were better than amateur tasters at identifying mixtures of two and three components but did no better when it came to four.

If some of my colleagues really can identify grilled watermelon, star anise, black raspberry, fennel seed, oolong tea, gardenia, sandalwood, mandarin orange, rose petal and fresh thyme in a single wine, as one resourceful recent reviewer managed, I take my hat off to them. But I get the impression that, in this crowded arena of opinion, where we are all trying to make ourselves heard (or at least read), an increasing number of wine reviews are written for producers and retailers to quote rather than with the prime purpose of helping the consumer make decisions about what to buy. Quite apart from the variation in our individual perceptions, who really gets up in the morning and tells themselves that they simply must find a wine that tastes of fennel seed, grilled watermelon and gardenia?

I would honestly be delighted if every wine drinker felt confident enough to make their own choices dependent on their own individual responses to wines previously tasted. But I do recognise that, for many people, it will always be simpler to be told what to like. As long as I am valued by wine consumers and producers, I will embrace the new landscape, knowing that nowadays it is all too easy for readers and tasters to criticise the critics in online comments that will be read by as many people as the original judgment.

With a growing army of opinionated young wine drinkers — whether consumers or professionals pouring their latest finds by the glass in a bar in Shoreditch or showing fellow enthusiasts round an urban winery in Brooklyn — I know that, like any other wine expert, I can stay in the game only by working hard and accurately enough to earn my readers’ trust.

The fourth edition of ‘The Oxford Companion to Wine’ (£40, OUP) edited by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding is published on September 17

After some poor years in Bordeaux and Burgundy could 2015 be the turning point?

After the 2009 and 2010 vintages amazed in both Burgundy and Bordeaux the following years were a bit lacklustre. 

But 2015 looks promising, after a heat wave right across Central Europe. As someone who lives in Central Switzerland, I can testify that my local vines have had plenty of sun and humidity to ripen. 35 degree heat on many days so perhaps too much! A recent visit to Bordeaux and the Loire Valley gave me a hint of things to come.

Its not over until the fat lady sings when you're making wine and September and the harvest is key to the quality of the vintage with picking normally in mid-end September. But its been a promising start in both Burgundy and Bordeaux with rain in August across France, after a dry and calm year. There has been little or no hail or thunderstorms in the wine regions with yields looking very high with no rot or other fungal problems. Just like in 2009 and 2010, things are looking mighty promising. Areas like Margaux have been particularly lacking in rain in the spring and summer months. However with the exception of Margaux, August was wetter than normal with heavy down pours in the latter part of the month (in the Loire at this time it rained for 36 hours in the town of Chinon which I was visiting).

Conditions were perfect for flowering in May and Bordeaux red varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are ripening well with good bunch size and structure. September had a good start with nice sunshine and this is key to ripening and concentration of flavours of the top class wines and especially the cheaper village wines which are grown on less sun exposed locations in the valleys or not on south or west facing slopes.

So September looks to be key and temperatures look to have dropped a bit in the last few days and sun/showers but plenty of the important sunshine. Things look promising for French, Italian and Swiss vintages in 2015 assuming September isn't disastrous. No green grapes this time around unlike 2013 and in some places 2014!

I am sure the first, second and third growth's in Bordeaux and Grand Cru producers in Burgundy are licking their lips with anticipation and hoping for good things in the last part of September. Looks like more rain coming that's for sure and much more unsettled than earlier in the month. Picking looks to be a challenge in both Burgundy and Bordeaux with the wet weather.

See also the article in the Drinksbusiness.com, "Bordeaux on course to make legendary vintage", where it says that "Should dry, sunny conditions remain in Bordeaux, this year’s vintage could be an exceptional harvest – as good as the legendary 1982, according to Baron Philippe de Rothschild MD Philippe Dhalluin".

http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2015/09/bordeaux-on-course-to-make-legendary-vintage/

Weather forecast

w/c 8th September 2015

Bordeaux

Burgundy (Dijon)

w/c 15th September

Bordeaux

Burgundy (Dijon)

dijon weather forecast w/c 15th September 2015

Remember the vintage even in Burgundy!

After a recent trip to Beaune in Burgundy in June 2015 I picked up a bottle of Louis Jadot Corton-Pougets Grand Cru Domaine des Héritiers,  Aloxe-Corton 2004. See the review at http://fermented-grape.com/wines-i-am-drinking/2015/9/7/louis-jadot-corton-pougets-grand-cru-domaine-des-heritiers-2004-burgundy-france

For around £36 a bottle I was expecting great things considering it was from the commune of Aloxe-Corton in the Côte de Beaune, and  Les Pougets is a grand cru vineyard. 

But I had a nagging feeling that I might be over paying and so it was and I should have remembered that even a good producer can produce bad wine in poor vintages even in Burgundy, Bordeaux or other illustrious parts of the world.

2004 was a tough year for wine producers in Burgundy with outbreaks of oidium (which attacks the grape and is powdery mildew fungus that devastated the vineyards of Europe in the mid-nineteenth century) as well as a hail.

It was also cold, wet and grey during the growing season which followed a cool winter, spring being a long time arriving. The weather continued unsettled in April and May, with delayed flowering.After this wet and cool summer, September produced the first settled period of sunny weather in 2004.  Reds were generally poor with some exhibiting too much acidity but the best examples did show elegance and purity if handled carefully by their producers.

I opened the bottle with anticipation but was left disappointed. No elegance, no earthy notes just green and too much acid. After ploughing through a couple of glasses I left the rest until the next night but no better. Shame. 

The lesson, choose your Burgundy wine carefully even if it from a Grand Cru vineyard!

p.s. 

See my notes from my Burgundy wine buying trip at http://fermented-grape.com/tasting-wine/2015/6/27/wine-tasting-and-buying-trip-to-burgundy-june-2015.html

Some great points about exaggerated claims in wine marketing courtesy of Simon Taylor at Stone, Vine & Sun

I so agree with Simon Taylor at Winchester's Stone, Vine & Sun shop and online store on the ridiculous claims that big box wine sellers like Laithwaites are making about "boutique" wineries and "cutting out the middleman". At the end of the day, a retailer like Laithwaites would struggle to deal with a true Boutique winery because of the volume......it is a mass market wine brand selling mass market brands! (Simon, great choice of wines by the way! - The Aquitania Sol de Sol Chardonnay from Chile is on my hit list) http://www.stonevine.co.uk/

 

Laithwaite’s – Boutique Wines at everyday prices ?

Simon Taylor - Stone, Vine & Sun 

It’s a quiet Saturday in August, the sun is shining, few will come to the shop, so there’s time for a meditative review of one of the UK’s largest wine businesses, Laithwaites (and for those who don’t know already, Laithwaite’s also owns Avery’s and runs just about every wine club you might have heard of, e.g. Sunday Times, British Airways, National Trust, etc. etc.). Laithwaite’s tale of growth - from Tony Laithwaite bringing back a van load of wine from France in 1969 to a huge wine business operating in several countries today - is amazing.  One should be proud of this great British success story….

….BUT (there’s often a large BUT in an SVS blog) this blog was prompted solely by the appearance through my letter box at home of their latest offer trumpeting “Boutique Wines at everyday prices” (and everything in quotation marks below comes from this brochure or their website). I was piqued. Leaving aside the actual desirability of “boutique” wines – as so many tend to be over-made, over-priced wines owing more to the pretensions of some rich owner than the land on which the vines are grown - this is an absurd claim.   “Boutique” has no legal status in the world of wine but it does imply small-scale and precious. In Australia the rules of the Association of Boutique Winemakers are clear: “A Boutique wine company is one which crushes and bottles 250 ton or less annually under its own label and is owned independently, i.e., not owned by a larger wine company”.  Well, as to the precious idea, ignoring the discount in the Laithwaite’s brochure, the average bottle price of the wines featured, is, in theory (for more of the “in theory” part, please see below) over £9.00 a bottle, not really boutique territory when it comes to wine.  

Anyway, investigation followed, and as I researched more, I got tetchier…

First, the selling pitch is based on claims that “boutique” wineries are “queuing” to work “so closely with wine drinkers”, with, wait for it, “no middlemen, no money wasted on expensive marketing”.  Umm, what exactly is Laithwaite’s but a middle man? And whilst it’s good news of course, that these humble peasants are spared all this marketing effort, it’s bit rich to imply this cost has vanished given that Laithwaite’s spends squillions every year on marketing in advertising and sponsorship!  Incidentally the idea that the Laithwaite’s customers are “helping…wineries to keep costs down by ordering together” is a shameless rip-off of the more innovative Naked Wines philosophy (and it does seem a bit unfair to steal Naked’s clothes!).

So who exactly are these “talented winemakers struggling along selling a few cases at a time to restaurants and private clients”, these guys who are making “handcrafted wines at remarkable prices”, pathetically grateful to Laithwaites for so graciously taking “the lot in one go”, thus enabling them to have “more time to make great wine”? The briefest perusal of the brochure comes up with these: Vina Tarapaca in Chile, part of the VSPT wine group, Chile’s second largest wine exporter; Franschhoek Cellars, a former co-operative and now part of DGB (which was Douglas Green Bellingham) in the Cape, producing a very unboutique 8,000 tons, equal to 560,000 cases a year; Martinez Bujanda in Rioja, with over 200 hectares of vineyards; Mcpherson wine with 225 hectares in Australia; and Luis Felipe Edwards, the largest family owned winery in Chile, who somehow make ends meet by picking every last grape on their 1850 hectares and exporting to 70 countries.  (Just to put this in perspective, many of the growers we buy from in France and Italy make wine from less than 10 hectares of vines, and Frank Balthazar in Cornas has just 2.25!). Doesn’t one’s heart bleed for these impoverished, time-poor souls, and applaud Laithwaite’s philanthropy in saving them. Laithwaite’s say they are selling wines “made in quantities too small for the supermarkets”, but when you claim to have 100,000 thirsty customers and a turnover of £300m it’s quite hard to supply them without going to the big boys of the wine world.

Next, the pricing: I examined one case of the twelve on offer in the brochure, no. 9, Pinot Grigio and Friends. This cases includes two bottles of each of four Pinot Grigios - from Romania, Hungary, Australia and Italy - plus a Chenin Blanc (from the Franschhoek Cellars mentioned above) and an Italian blend. The headline printed price is £105.49. (I accept the brochure is three weeks old, but when I totted up the bottle prices of the wines on their website in the case I came to £101.88). But the idea that these particular bottles are worth an average of £8.79 is ludicrous. C’mon guys…. eastern European Pinot Grigio, making up a third of the case, is just NOT boutique wine in either style or price!

Then there’s the exclusivity claim - your chance to taste “wines not otherwise seen in the UK!”.  Wow, lucky you. The reason these wines are not otherwise seen in the UK is that they are specially made, in some cases in Laithwaite’s own winemaking facilities in France and Australia, and labelled solely for Laithwaite’s (and their numerous affiliate clubs). This is very bad for two reasons: the obvious downside is that they can control pricing and make sure price comparison is impossible. (When you do find a wine on their website which is available elsewhere Laithwaite’s look expensive. For example Guigal’s white Cotes de Rhone is £13.99 on their site, but available from the Wine Society at £9.95 or widely available from independents at £11.95).  But, far more serious, if Laithwaite’s are controlling what goes in the bottle, you aren’t necessarily getting a wine with authenticity and local character (god forbid it should be unfiltered and have sediment in it, as that might lead to complaints and refunds): you will be getting a safe, boring bottle for MOR taste.

Then there are the names and brands. I am all for making wine names accessible and demystifying wine, but is it helpful to have Romanian wines branded Paris Street? Surely someone casually looking at the bottle might just think it was from France - or is that the idea, duh?  Or Spanish wines sold under Lime Leaf, Silver Route and Cherry Orchard?  When it comes to Italy the highly paid branding team at Laithwaite’s must have been giggling as they dreamed up catchy names. Basically they like to add an O to the end of english words - so Laithwaite’s purvey wines called Massivo, Il Bruto and Visionario.  Can anyone take this seriously? Somehow I just can’t see someone with boutique wine aspirations naming their wine Massivo.  Why stop there – may I propose Diluto for a light dry white, and Ruffo for a rustic red?  

Then there’s the hyperbole. Do their copywriters really believe that the 2013 Orange Grove Chardonnay from Spain at £5.99 is “world class Chardonnay”? Do they get out much?  Do they actually drink wine at all?

Then there are the introductory discounts - £50 in the case of the brochure I received.  This would enable me to buy a case of wine with free delivery at £4.39 a bottle, with two free glasses thrown in. It’s a great deal by any standards, but if I send that siren coupon in there are consequences. I will get another case 12 weeks later, if I forget to cancel, without that great discount; and I will be subject to warm-calling if I don’t order more, by a huge team of client advisers trained to push particular wines; and if I still don’t order my name will be transferred to another branch of their organisation who will also send me their lists. Finally, if you do give them the feedback they request, then, google-like, their algorithms will ensure you are pushed more and more of the same. Returning that coupon is like signing your palate away to the vinous devil.

Laithwaite’s is a great business, with thousands of happy customers. I have tasted lots of perfectly good (if often unexciting) wines from them, and they work with plenty of excellent partners – Luis Felipe Edwards in Chile being a good example. But if the gap between the claims made in the “Boutique wines at everyday prices” brochure and the reality of their business can’t be investigated under the Trade Descriptions Act, at least it can be challenged by someone who genuinely does work with small growers.  Just as they have cynically adapted their marketing spiel to make Laithwaite’s look more like Naked Wines, their fast growing challenger - “Together it’s easy” it says on the front of their brochure - so they shamelessly continue to pretend that they are supplying small production wines from artisanal growers. When we started SVS over a decade ago, one customer was kind enough to describe us as the “the new Adnam's”. I took that a compliment, given Simon Loftus’s great ability to seek out interesting wines. I am glad to say no-one has ever called us the new Laithwaite’s. But then I could just be jealous of that £300m turnover…