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!

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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.