Sunday, 20 October 2013

Wine connoisseurs or wine snobs?

Looking over Saturday's Financial Times, with its manifold sections, I came across a four-page wine pull-out. The next day, I spot a 200-złoty bottle of wine for sale at Lidl. That's £40, €45, $65 - a not-inconsiderable sum for London, let alone Jeziorki. How a 200zł bottle differs from one just along the rack and up a bit for 13zł (£2.60) bottle of Western Cape Pinotage which I'm sipping right now, puzzles me.

I consult Wikipedia's page about wine tasting descriptors. The kind of vocabulary used by Jancis Robinson in her FT articles, describing posh Premier Crus costing several hundreds of euros. A world shrouded in its own self-serving mystique, with mega-rich people spending at wine auctions the kind of money that would buy a family house in much of the world. Like fine art, investing in wine has become an alternative to the stock exchange; if supply is limited and demand is constrained only by the wallets and egos of buyers, prices should continue to be buoyant.

But will drinking a fine wine, of the right vintage, from the right vineyard, deliver an experience that is tens, or hundreds, or thousands of times more fabulous than drinking something more modest?

Worth 16 zlotys (£3.20)? Chateau Gros Chene, a Bordeaux from Auchan, as recommended by reader Wilkbury.

Three times (and only three times) in my life did I experience something sublime and transcendental while sipping a wine. The first was at a friend's wedding when a bottle of Hungarian Tokaj, a present given at his father's christening, was cracked open. It was over 50 years old. The second, vintage Bordeaux left to a friend by her late father, struck me as exceptional. The third was a bottle of Chilean Casillero del Diabolo Pinot Noir knocked back with fellow-blogger Toyah in Warsaw a few years ago. (I've bought two more bottles of this Pinot Noir since, but neither had the same memorable magnificence - different vintages.)

Otherwise, wines are either foul (mercifully rare nowadays), drinkable, decent, or OH, YES! On a scale of one to four, which allows no middling grade, the Western Cape Pinotage (drunk right now in the company of wholemeal chleb drwalski bread with Gran Padano cheese and olives stuffed with almonds), ranks a three. A four would be a wine that delivers a greater gradation (complexity or depth) of flavours. So why pay 15 times more for a wine which may deliver a four?

There are two approaches. One is to submerge oneself into the mystique of wine connoisseurship. Read, taste, learn - about grape varietals, terroirs, regions, vintages, methods. The other - to consider the science.

The ability to describe sensations is an extremely important talent. It serves one well, when having to describe, for example, to a doctor, how something feels. Those who can't do it well are at a disadvantage when it comes to being treated. We describe by analogy, by metaphor, by reaching for common shared experiences. When it comes to wine tasting, we compare the aroma, the complex spectrum of flavours and other sensations that flood our senses using terms that will resonate with the reader or listener. So 'smoky', 'herbal', 'acidic' or 'yeasty' we can imagine. But what does 'big', 'modern', 'elegant', or 'round' suggest? These are bullshit phrases. "I wasn't lying... only bullshitting." We move into the realms of the bla-bla-bla.

One famous experiment was conducted in 2008 on students from Caltech. With their head wired to sensors scanning brainwaves (fMRI) to show how much pleasure they were experiencing, they were given various wines to sample, and told how much the bottle cost. Drinking wine from a bottle they were told cost $90 (300zł) was indeed scientifically proven to give more pleasure than drinking wine from a $10 (32zł) bottle. Except... it was the same wine.

More proof is here, that top-notch wine critics can be fooled when they have no cues to go on other than their experience and expertise. Do spend 10 minutes watching this video (below) - a group of experts blind-test 11 wines costing between €14.90 and €1,531 (!!!) a bottle. The cheapest wine came second out of the 11 tasted, the most expensive came 8th, six places below a bottle that cost more than 100 times less. However, credit is due to the wine-tasters - several of them managed to identify the estate the wine came from on the basis of taste and bouquet alone.

And indeed, if you want to have a laugh at the expense of those who overdo the terminology when describing wines, take a look at this paper by Richard E. Quandt of Princeton's economics department.

An increasing body of science is suggesting that wine connoisseurship is little more than snobbery, based on knowing a bit of jargon and geography, but not really linking price to experience. The current snobbery targeting those (who like me) adore the taste of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs from the Marlborough region, by using terms like 'perfumed' or 'fragrant'... There was, I recall, a similar snobby backlash in England against Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio varietals and those who professed to like them.

Once upon a time, the rule was simple. The more expensive the wine, the greater the chance of experiencing something wonderful. Nowadays, with the New World producers focused on consistency at a lower price point, you can be pretty sure that a bottle of Jacobs Creek or Sutter Home will not disappoint. But the supermarkets, with their mega purchasing power, are bringing quality wines down to an even lower price. The South African Pinotage from Lidl is an excellent example (although my father prefers Lidl's South African Cabernet Sauvignon).

So, then. There comes a point where all those extra euros fail to buy any extra pleasure from the drinking. This is my rule of 'the shoulder'; the graph plotting quality against price. It is as true of cameras as it is of wines. You need to consider where that optimal point is. A €1 (4zł) bottle of wine will be rubbish. At €3 (13zł), you will be able to find wines that are acceptable. At €5-€15 (21-65zł), you'll find the optimal price-quality balance. At higher prices, any extra spent will buy only marginal - indeed debatable) improvements in quality.

Foodies - even those who can enthuse about seasonal asparagus, fleur de sel, artichoke hearts, salt-marsh lamb, fillet steak grilled medium-rare, baked beetroot with goats cheese, avocado wrapped in Breton ham, the merits and demerits of unstoned black olives - can feel daunted by the world of wine connoisseurship. Here, the distinctions far more subtle than those between a Bleu d'Auvergne and a Bleu de Bresse - and how does one describe them without using adjectives like cogent, rotund, bloated, flinty or munificent?

Once again, we come to the life in balance. Not to obsess about minute differences between wines, but to sample, enjoy - and remember not to be over-charged for the privilege.

This is not to rein in my enthusiasm for discovering new wines, new tastes, new experiences, new sensations, new pleasures. It's just that my expectations for finding something outstanding will not be limited by knowing its price.

This time last year:
Poland's golden autumn

This time two years ago:
Visceral and permanent - a short story

This time three years ago:
Crushed Velvet Dusk in my City of Dreams II


Bob said...

Good post as always.

I have developed a fool proof method no matter what the price:

"The best wine is the wine you like"

Also, we have been going to wine tasting events around Warsaw from time to time - care to join us in the future?

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Bob

"The best wine is the wine you like" - a good motto, which leads me to heap yet more praise on Lidl's 13-zloty Western Cape Pinotage (which I finished this evening). For the money - you can't beat it - and it's thoroughly consistent.

Drop me a line when you're next tasting!

Sigismundo said...

Just polished off a bottle of Lidl Chilean Cab Sauvignon @ 11,99 zł. Truly excellent with a few soft cheeses. But I've had duff bottles of the same wine in the past.

Which leads me on to your belief that Jacobs Creek and Sutter Home always produce quality you can trust. Not true! Exhibit 1 - a certain Chrimbo party that we both attended not all that long ago, where the only red wine available was from one of said manufacturers, and it was quite foul, sour, and on the verge of being undrinkable. The problem is these wines are so popular they have to source them from a large number of vineyards, and the quality, inevitably, is uneven.

In my experience a few things have to be in place to create a sublime wine drinking experience (and it doesn't matter past a certain point how expensive the bottle). (1) You have to be thirsty; (2) You have to be hungry; (3) The ambient temperature of the air has to be right - more so than the temperature of the wine, though that's important too; (4) The wine has to suit the accompanying food; (5) The wine has to be from a good batch.

My own favourite wine experience of all time was sipping ice-cold Chilean Santa Carolina Una Estrella Chardonnay (about $10 a bottle) with fresh seafood soup on a hot evening in a very humble little diner. Even though I was jet-lagged, with company that was in poor humour, and we were the only customers in the joint, all five boxes on the above list were well and truly ticked.

Bob said...

Michael - will keep you informed about tastings.

Ewa bought a Rioja called Cantos de Valpiedra (40pln) at a Centrum Wina event last week. She loves it. It is on the high side of what we usually purchase.

Our best wine experience can be described but I was foolish not to record the wine - Ewa and I both lament that. We used to frequent a bistro called Deconte Restorante on Kurrentgasse in Vienna which was just behind our flat basically on Judenplatz. They had an Italian red that was just like drinking butter. Never had anything like it before of since. Expensive for sure.

Wilkbury said...

I think you should try this:
(Auchan 16 zl).

Michael Dembinski said...


Thanks for the link - I got some! It's OK, but a bit thin compared to Lidl's lusty Western Cape Pinotage, which costs 3zł less. One more sip... yes, it makes an effort - but doesn't quite make the grade. Two out of four :)