Archives for the month of: March, 2012

Oh but there does seem to be a bit of ranting out there at the moment. Before I join in I have 3 quick questions on art, literature and fashion that I’d like you to have a look at:

1. You have a space on your wall you’d like to fill, would you rather

a. buy a poster for your wall now?

b. save for a few months for an original print or painting that you fell for or one by an artist you happen to rate?

c. save for a one-off by a grand master? (good luck with that)

2. You’re on holiday relaxing by the pool or on the beach or inside by the fire, would you rather

Beach Ball, Donegal

a. flick through a gossip magazine?

b. read a John Grisham or similar?

c. devote yourself to something you read a great review about and have been waiting until you had the time to do so?

3. You’re getting married, would you rather

a. wear something you picked up in Penney’s?

b. save to buy something off the rail in a department store or independent shop?

c. save up and go to a tailor/dress-maker?

There is obviously no wrong answer here, and I’d probably answer a, b and c to all three questions depending the mood I’m in when asked. [Small pause] Well, maybe not to that last one unless I were a serial bride, but if the wedding funds were such that it meant party or dress, I’d go for a frock from Penneys and a good knees up over a great dress and no guests any time.

I hope you get the point though. There is a great deal of snobbery out there when it comes to my line of work, wine. But no more than you can get from art critics or film buffs, book reviewers or fashion critics. Sometimes an airport novel is just what you need, it’ll do exactly what it says on the tin, and the same applies to a good old rom-com DVD.  I think that maybe the wine trade itself has a lot to answer for, reviewers have used overly flowery language or deliberately talk in exclusive jargon and it can be hard to explain the price differences between vintages or even decipher some labels. Wine snobs are a nightmare, I know.

photo: Robert Hunter

If you think of literature; say you read a novel by a certain author that completely knocks your socks off, be it a love story or thriller, then you are far more likely to pick up the author’s next offering, or try something he or she wrote previously. You are not going to assume that you will now love all thrillers or that all love stories are going to rock your boat. Something like ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ or ‘Dr Zhivago’ is hardly the same as a Mills & Boon (for the record I happen to quite like a Mills & Boon once in a while but I would never rate one in my all-time great reads). Or take music, you are hardly likely to go into a shop, or go to iTunes and get yourself any old tune categorised as ‘Rock’ just because you’re a big fan of The Rolling Stones. When it comes to film, would you like to see only main-stream, box office successes available? Or would you like to support the independent, sometime kookie, often amazing work the small, lesser known directors and producers come up with? [That reads a bit odd to me, I don’t mean that tall producers can’t be lesser known or come out with amazing films…. That’s probably not helped either.] It’s the same with wine, the grape is perhaps one of the least important pieces of information on the label – just because you like a wine made from the Merlot grape variety by producer X does not mean you now like all wines made from Merlot. Nor that if you like one Côtes du Rhône you’ll like all Côtes du Rhône (or the inverse). A pair of jeans from Penney’s is not the same beast as a pair of jeans from Levis but both are a pair of jeans. You don’t say ‘I don’t like cotton’ because you had a bad changing room experience with a t-shirt in Gap (I blame the mirror). Importantly this is not to say that all designer wines are expensive, neither am I saying all mass produced ones are bad.

photo: Robert Hunter

By the very nature of production, something that is mass produced is never going to be as interesting as its counterpart. How can it be? It can be good, it can be reliable, it can be safe, but hardly interesting. A fast food meal will taste the same no matter where in the world you are when you eat it (and yes, this can be a good thing). With wine you need to follow the artist, or talk to someone trustworthy who knows their stuff – your independent retailer for example. He or she will want your business, will want you to come back, to be satisfied with what you got the last time. He or she will probably have tasted the majority if not all the wines in the shop. This is not something you will get from your supermarket, especially not your discount supermarket.

When I read magazine wine reviews I get increasingly frustrated. For the most part the fashion pages are full of clothes I would have to really save up for – that said, I like what I read, even if I don’t like it, if you know what I mean. The beauty pages are inevitably about creams, potions and make up that I would be hard pushed to find on the shelves of say Aldi or Lidl (I am an avid reader of the beauty pages, needing more help than previously, I’m not sure why my mother keeps staring back at me out of my mirror). I don’t remember the last time I saw a review of a made-for-TV film, or something from my trusty Mills & Boon. The restaurant pages are not about the latest offerings from the Tesco or Dunnes Cafés. So why is it that I seem to be seeing a lot of bland supermarket wines there, and ones that are being sold almost below cost being touted as ‘good’? Why can’t wine prices mirror those of the fashion and beauty pages? As suppliers we often hear ‘only put forward wines that are widely available’ the implication here being wines available in supermarkets and off licence chains. Isn’t this the equivalent of asking restaurant reviewers to stick to places that have a branch in every major town in the country, or fashion reviewers to only look at high street offerings? For film critics to only write up films on general release and art critics to review nothing but mass produced posters? Where’s the room for the small guy? The artist starting out? The first time novelist? How will anything become better know unless people read about it somewhere first?

If you want alcohol and you don’t want to pay over a certain amount per glass then why not buy something a little more interesting than a mass produced supermarket wine? Why not try an Irish made beer, stout or cider – there are loads of really amazing ones out there at the moment. Or what about making cocktails? There’s more value, fun and flavour to be had with these than the majority of cheap supermarket wines. Please, please whatever you do, do not judge all Chablis or Châteauneufs, Chardonnays or Merlots against what you may pick up off the supermarket shelf. But if you do want a good bottle of wine, why not trade up by a just couple of euro, and talk to your local independent.


Calories on menus and ingredients on wine labels. Where are we going with all this? Fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat, excess sugar that does that. If you look at something that’s fat-reduced or fat-free beside its wholesome counterpart you’ll notice on the nutritional breakdown that there’s usually more sugar of one kind or another in the reduced fat product to make up for the lack of flavour, not to mention a whole load more chemically sounding ingredients. I think the untouched version is probably much better for you. And research is now showing that the body treats different forms of calories in different ways, and that it’s not as simple as ‘calories in – calories out’ so this no doubt means 500 calories of chips or chocolate is a completely different beast from 500 calories of say avocado, or apple (sadly).

What about wine then? Do we need to label all the ingredients? Or just the added ingredients? Or the contents? What’s the difference?

When it comes to the ingredients, obviously there are grapes for a start. Yeast can be added but there are also wines that are produced using the naturally found yeasts in the atmosphere. And we can have inoculated yeasts – laboratory developed, these have been demonised recently in no small thanks to the ‘Natural Wine’ movement but is there really anything wrong with them? Should we stop pasteurising milk? Can we not have the choice of both pasteurised and unpasteurised, inoculated and non-inoculated without one being considered superior to the other – non-inoculated yeasts, considered more ‘natural’ can bring problems of their own; problems which can be vastly more complicated and damaging to wine, e.g. ‘stuck ferments’ – when fermentation doesn’t finish (some yeasts can’t ferment past a certain alcohol level and this is unfortunately something you cannot predict but only find out once it’s too late.)

Much has been discussed recently about putting ‘contains sulphites’ on a wine label. We need to put ‘contains sulphites’ on the wine label as some people, for example some asthmatics are allergic to sulphites. But also people think it’s important to have this on the label because they consider sulphites to be bad. What about ‘contains sugar’?  There are 2 primary sugars in wine: glucose and fructose, and around 2 – 4g of non-fermentable residual sugars are left in an average litre of dry wine. Perhaps we should add ‘contains tartaric acid/malic or lactic acid/citric acid’ all of which are bad for your teeth. But let’s go back to sulphites (and please note, in wine we are not talking about the element sulphur, as wrongly quoted by many, rather we are talking about sulphites , specifically sulphur dioxide, SO2). On a label it might say ‘contains sulphites’ but it’s important to note that sulphites are naturally produced in small quantities as a by-product of the fermentation process, so all wine contains sulphites.

However many producers, good and bad, also like to add sulphites in the form of SO2 etc. Why? Because of, among other things, its anti-bacterial, anti-fungal,  and anti-oxidative properties, and it is important to note that SO2 is in fact… wait for it… natural! Is it any worse than adding ascorbic acid, in the form of say lemon juice, to stop an apple browning? (And doesn’t ascorbic acid sound more ‘chemically’ than vitamin C or lemon juice? A lot’s in the name) Labels can be very misleading. Take ‘homemade’, let’s just say my children would not wear anything made in this home, I can hardly sew on a name-tag let alone knit a jumper, they’d far rather shop-bought, factory-made clothing and rightly so in this case. What about ‘organic’, what does really that mean? Does ‘organic’ = good, or imply a better product than a non-organic one? I’d argue that ‘organic’ is a philosophy more than a measure of standards. As we have said before, more emphasis should be placed on the artist, the person making the wine than just the techniques used. If something is organic, biodynamic or ‘natural’ as well as being made by a person who knows what they’re doing then so much the better. But please don’t get me wrong, I am not against organic and biodynamic products, quite the opposite. I just don’t believe that putting so on the label automatically means the product will be good.

Dig in! (photo: Domaine de l’Oratoire St Martin)

There is a big difference between ‘contains sulphites’ and ‘sulphites added’ but neither is bad. The perception is that sulphites cause headaches and allergic reactions; however this is now being challenged. Firstly, and I may be stating the bleeding obvious here, it is important to look at the quantity of wine drunk before a headache comes on as this is more often than not THE major factor. New studies are also pointing towards biogenic amines being the culprits when it comes to headaches. And what are these? Well they are naturally occurring, produced by bacteria, chiefly pediococcus, and they cause feelings of nausea and headaches, and, funnily enough, it’s sulphites that are used to prevent these appearing in wine. Biogenic amines are generally created when wine is left unprotected by SO2. (To protect against oxidation you can use a carbon dioxide or nitrogen layer – these two inert gases are sometimes used to sit as a layer on top of the wine to protect it). So once the wine has finished fermenting if left unprotected you can have the creation of these biogenic amines with beautiful sounding names such as: Histamine – involved in allergic reations; Tyramine – linked to migraines; Putrecine and the even more delightful sounding Cadavarine – Google both of those, they’re only gorgeous. So if you’re complaining of a headache it could be that the wine you drank was too natural!

There is a misperception out there that ‘natural’ is better and when it comes to wine this also seems to be the case. But be warned, there is no official rule book for making ‘natural’ wine. ‘Natural’ wine makers are generally organic in their viticulture and don’t like to add sulphites nor use inoculated yeasts. The motives behind the ‘Natural’ wine movement are to be admired, but it has an aggressive campaign behind it, often taking the moral high ground. In fact many of the original members behind the movement have formed a splinter group. They are unhappy with the number of wine-makers who have jumped on the band-wagon and now ‘Natural Wine’ is not considered extreme enough, so make way for the ‘Vin Vivant’ producers – ‘Living Wine’ is the new black.

added on 16 October 2012:

great piece by Tyler Colman, also known as Dr Vino, wine writer and teacher, to quote one paragraph:

So if you’ve ever wondered why dried fruits that have higher levels of sulfur than wine contain no government warning, now you know why. First, they’re regulated by different agencies (TTB vs FDA). Second, there’s no anti-dried fruit lobby.