They say a day is a long time in politics, but in the world of wine, going back 10 years could easily be the equivalent. There have been so many changes in the world of food and wine that it is interesting to sometimes take a step back and reflect on developments that have taken place.
A wine club I am member of, last week organised a very intriguing tasting. It was one which was not only philosophically challenging but also aimed at eliminating any possible misconceptions or preconceptions that one could have.
13 years ago, before I was even a member of this wine club or had even moved to Brussels, the club would once a year organise a supermarket wine tasting and recommend wines that could be cellared.
Before you jump to any conclusions about the club, it should be said that the tastings organised by this club are exceptional and have taken us on some great journeys around the world of wine. But in the past, in a bid to attract new members, and at a time when wine was maybe not as ubiquitous as it is today, it used to organise a tasting of supermarket wines. The aim was to organise tastings that could attract new members with whom the club could share knowledge and the pleasure of tasting the recommended wines at a special price. Those same members would come to other more serious tastings and get more recommendations. And in many ways this was how the club was built and how knowledge was shared.
It is maybe hard to believe this given the developments that have taken place in the retail aspect of wine. But there is still a sense among non-wine connoisseurs that wine is not approachable and difficult to understand.
So when the invitation landed in my inbox to try 10 to 20 year old wines which at the time cost the equivalent of between €5 and €8 I was extremely sceptical but at the same time intrigued.
What was particularly intriguing was the fact that the wines would be tasted blind and while we knew what wines would be served, the organiser reserved the right (and used it) to put pirate wines which would make the tasting even harder.
The first question that needed to be asked was whether a Gallo Zinfandel that was bought for less than €5 euros could be drinkable and had not turned to vinegar. I was less sceptical about a 13 year old €5 dry Riesling from Germany. But what about the 1998 Rosemount Shiraz or the 20-year-old Greek wine Boutari so-called Grande Reserve which was bought for €8.
The organiser of the tasting, our former chairman, prepared himself for nasty comments. In the invitation, he said he was ready for all the naughty comments about silly old men finding pleasure in making themselves ridiculous by organizing supermarket tastings every year in October and recommending “cheap” wines. “We will endure all these nasty comments and all those wolfish grins which will be thrown at us with the appropriate serenity and the decent sense of stoicism appertaining to people who know what they’re doing.”
All the wines that we were to taste had been stored in the cellar of our former chairman
As anyone who has tasted wines blindly knows, every prejudice goes away when you are confronted with a wine with only you and your senses to guide you. You need to look at the glass, visualise the wine, smell it and see whether it is agreeable or not and then taste. Once you’ve gone through that process, you need to first decide whether you like the wine or not and then to try and guess what it can be. You could maybe start with the grape variety or else the region but it is not that easy.
It gets even more complicated if you know that there are pirate wines because you risk making a big fool of yourself. We have all heard stories of events whereby consumers have opted for a considerably cheaper wine as their favourite wine of the tasting even if one would have expected a much better wine to be preferable. We also know from psychological tests that price and reputation have a great impact on your enjoyment of a wine.
So how did the tasting go? Was it worth cellaring these cheap wines bought from Belgian supermarkets over 15 years ago even before the Euro existed?
We started with a stretching exercise for the taste buds. Three white wines were served in a row. They were all Riesling wines from Weingut Göttelmann, the oldest coming from the 2002 vintage. While the latter had a ‘petrol’ nose typical of the grape variety, the others showed the incredible versatility of this grape as well as how it is likely to develop in future.
The lesson when it came to the white wines was that if you find a good quality Riesling at a good price, don’t be afraid to cellar it because you will get years of enjoyment as the wine evolves in the bottle.
We then moved on to the red and here the going got tougher. There were two wines which in my view stole the show. These were the 1996 Boutari Grand Reserve Xionmavrou and a pirate wine, the Pedroncelli Mother Clone 1995 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. Both these wines were superb.
Other surprises of the day were the 1997 Santa Rita Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1999 Carmenere El Nino. The 2002 Vina San Pedro Castillo de Molina Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1997 Elsa’s Vineyard Malbec Barbera from Domaine Valentin Bianchi were also interesting.
Some of the other wines we tasted were in my view way past their best and one or two were completely off and had that typical ‘barn’ smell. Some gave graphic descriptions of male or even female horses. Alas, my sense of smell is not so refined.
If there was one lesson to take away, it is that we should sometimes take the time to enjoy wine without prejudice based on price, name or label.