Wineducation: Choosing Wine 2: Presentation Matters

Part 2; How wines are presented to us.

It never fails to amaze me how one person’s sublime wine is another person’s vulgar vinegar: Same liquid; different responses.

The same is true of the now legendary Judgement of Paris, organised by Steven Spurrier (right, of Decanter Magazine).

Esteemed panel members of the 1976 blind tasting between top US and French wines discovered that not only did their scores show little consensus and were the at odds with each other, but Spurrier believed, “The results of a blind tasting cannot be predicted and will not even be reproduced the next day by the same panel tasting the same wines.” American wines took both top honours. Ouch, for the French. C’est la vie, mes amis.

the judgement was revisited over the years

Interestingly, the result was mostly ignored in France, where it was deemed impossible. Over the years, under different Judging panels, through subsequent revisits to the original wines, the results were practically repeated time and again: although overall the US wines as a cohort generally got better and the French wines deteriorated; exactly opposite to what most had felt would happen, especially the French.

Plus ça change, plus C’est la meme chose.

In the end, it seemed no matter who was judging, successive panels considered the French wines to be increasingly inferior. It still isn’t generally discussed in France.

But haven’t they done a marvellous job at promoting French wines in China as the best in the world. Presentation, you see.

In another article coming soon we’ll look at just how French wine has managed to re-invent itself in the Far East as it’s traditional customers drifted away to the New World styles over the 80’s and 90’s.

So where does that leave us in finding a system for assessing, let alone choosing, wine?

information overload or nerdy heaven?

It’s with something bordering on relish that I stumbled upon an interesting article that rekindled for me the search for the Holy Grail, a logical global system for choosing wine. More on that later.

Actually, subconsciously, what I think I a looking to wield is a tool that will help other people choose their wine with confidence and get it right more often than not. If the experts can’t agree and conventional wisdom seems untrustworthy on the matter how do we traverse the minefield of an objective wine choice?

As part of the process of redesigning / building the navigation and organization of our new site, I got thinking about the classification of wines. With over 20 years experience to call on, it’s actually tricky to group, order and classify wines into one simple framework, other than ‘countries’.

Buying wine, is, for many, a similar feat each time they visit a shop. Faced down by a wall of choice, often with no clear taxonomy, many customers are left to their own devices. My worry is that all too easily shoppers feel unable to navigate their way and the default setting becomes play it safe.

Price, being the most tangible variable is the master co-ordinate which guides most customers. Then maybe a country or grape cross reference is applied. The New World discovered that marketing a wine with the grape named on the label sells wine; but shoppers still won’t know if the liquid inside the bottle is made in a style they actually like.

That takes a little practise, some simple knowledge and awareness and heaps of faith.

not a real wine label

As I select wines I note the weight of the bottle, quality of the label (its gracefulness), size of punt, back label information, the need or not to translate a foreign text and the closure system. It’s a bewildering series of data which must be extracted from every bottle while comparison shopping; and there’s no regional, let alone global, standard for comparison.

Today, wine labelling is so diverse between and within regions right across the globe, that it’s often easier to ignore the words completely; making decisions based on design characteristics alone. This surely plays into the hands of marketers. I often find myself doing it. Our eyes are key in purchasing.

A scene From the Movie 'Bottle Shock'

eyeing the nectar of the gods

It is actually the number one major reason that blind tastings exist. As humans, we find it almost impossible to extricate our emotions while aiming for objectivity.

Reviewers often score wines via a small number of criteria, which the shopper can’t access: appearance, aroma and taste.

At a ‘blind’ event wine is often decanted into standard vessels and covered (since we all search for the slightest hint, such as the bottle shape, etc). So earnest are our egos at helping us ‘get the facts right’ they look for any clue to add information to the picture our curious brains want us to build.

There is another complicating factor, as far as labelling goes, in Shanghai. Those useful snippets of rear label data are often just out of reach, having been superseded by a legally required Chinese-language label stuck right on top of the original. In many cases, wines specifically designated for the Chinese market have the Chinese label applied to the bottles in the source country prior to packing. Those are obviously of little help to non Chinese readers.

When one considers the numbers of wines to choose from, perhaps with no knowledgeable guide around to help, its easy to see how many can come to feel uncomfortable about the guesswork involved. Indeed, a conundrum, so marked, has developed, which fuels in many consumers, negatively charged notions about wine being either unknowable, somehow misleading, or at best, infuriatingly confusing.

Some say that ‘nothing worth knowing, is meant to be easy’ to know. I agree with the sentiment, but that’s no consolation to consumers who don’t wish, or aren’t able, to make an in-depth hobby of studying wines. There still needs to be some sort of generic guidance system. And there is. We’ll look into that next time.

The Wine Man

(Edited) June 2012

Next time: we will look at why this notion of things needing to be simple has evolved.

Here are some wines that successfully passed the presentation test (for me): They look good, they feel ‘weighty’, they beat the others at the same price level for effort of presentation and above all when I took the plunge and drank it, I was positively rewarded.

Salentein Portillo Malbec

Price: ¥100

Enrico Serafino Barbera D’Asti D.O.C.G.

Price: ¥160

Miguel Torres Chile Hemisferio Carmenere

Price: ¥104

Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection Chenin Blanc (Barrel Fermented

Price: ¥162

Sella&Mosca Tanca Farra D.O.C.  

Price: ¥215

Terredora Fiano Di Avellino White 

Price: ¥266

Enrico Serafino Barolo D.O.C.G.

Price: ¥355

And here are some that failed the presentation parade and still turned out to be worth the purchase. I don’t know who was luckiest, me or them…

Armand Dartois Cotes du Ventoux Rhone  

Price: ¥78

De Bortoli Sacred Hill Shiraz Cabernet  

Price: ¥95

Happy hunting.

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