Saturday, April 28, 2012


I turned down a black tie event opportunity recently.
I have the black tie outfit, in fact I have two of them  and can still fit in them although I have to admit that when they were new the trousers were decidedly roomy. To be honest though nowadays I like to dress comfortably and wear my raggedy old T-shirts and shorts and to stay at home.
I have been to lots of fancy dos in the past. Some more fancy than others but the common thing between all is that after a few hours people get pissed and some behave disgracefully.

This can vary from the dapper gent at the urinal who lets off an almighty fart to the  prim and proper society lady who exposes a bit too much breast and makes suggestive conversation.

The problem with all of these dos is that wine generally flows freely with arrival Champagne and other wine followed by bottles on the table with endless replacement. If it is a large do, with the best will in the world there will be delays in the evening schedule and with food taking a while to arrive. If it is not a continuous buffet then guests have to wait until plates of food are brought to the table. There will be some small bread rolls available but these are not enough to sop up the alcohol. Often I have found that it is too easy to quaff a bit too much whether it is good wine or ordinary wine due to:

  • Music and or noise too high making conversation with a neighbour difficult
  • The neighbour is boring or difficult making one wish the music and or noise was louder
  • You are at the event under sufferance
  • You are enjoying yourself and talking too much
I've enjoyed the Annual wine awards dinners because I know a lot of people so that I don't feel like a spare prick at a wedding and also because the wine is always excellent. Some of the posher dos I 've been to though are a washout because of not knowing many people and the wines are crap. With fancy dos in big hotels and convention centres the organisers go to great lengths to get the best guest speakers, the most elaborate decorations and the best possible menu but opt for the budget or medium level wine on offer. This is because the hotel or convention centre will be still charging the normal 300% or more mark-up on the wine as they do in their restaurants and bars. This means that the $10 bottle of wine costs about $40 a bottle for the customer. Often, the venue has a special function brand on offer (read cheap plonk from a major wine company that has a different, unique label on it) that is described in glowing terms and a poorly informed event organiser will often opt for this.

The outcome is the same though with too much wine consumed too quickly without being drunk with food.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


It seems to me that the potential of the New Zealand wine industry is in chains (and going into the pockets of grocers).

New Zealand, to the wine word is pretty much unique.
Whilst there are a lot of grapes and wine styles that may never do well here (usually those requiring very hot and dry climates like Sherry, Port, Grenache etc), most of the classical 'first tier' styles either have already found a place or are showing promise from being produced here.

Sauvignon Blanc is the most planted, most sold, most consumed and most exported but it is at best only second tier.

Fist tier grapes and wine styles like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Syrah and the various Bordeaux varietals are proving them selves to the point where we are getting international recognition if not at this point actual sales.

The reason that a lot of these classical wine styles do well here is that they usually perform best in 'cool climates' Cool climate doesn't mean cold climate so don't expect a Scandinavian claret too soon. Cool climate wines require: lots of sunshine; dry growing conditions with access to lots of water at crucial times; warm temperatures during the day; cool temperatures at night; dry picking season.
New Zealand's best growing areas provide most or all of these conditions, especially Hawkes Bay, Marlborough, Central Otago and Waipara.

The reason that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc does so well and virtually cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world is the abundant sunshine, dry stony soils and cooling maritime winds that give fully ripe grapes and alcoholic wine but with a refreshingly green acidic base. Other countries either have to pick the grapes early to get the greenness and therefore don't get the ripeness and alcohol or they just don't ripen enough anyway.

Chardnnay, Syrah, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Pinot Noir, all, in their best defined growing areas can be superb and have the potential to be world beaters.

Good news?

Well it has been encouraging but there are two or three critical factors that jeopardise this.

First there is our predominance of Sauvignon Blanc. This has been great in putting us on the map regards wine supply and recognition but has attracted a lot of volume planting to the point where, in good years, supply can outstrip demand. This leads to discounting and bulk exports which have the effect of diluting Brand New Zealand.

Another problem is the strong New Zealand dollar which inhibits export growth. If our wines are not being exported, to compete in a small domestic market they have to be specialled. In the domestic New Zealand market the two supermarket chains have a very unhealthy market share so they play one wine producer off against another driving prices way down. When prices are down there is little incentive to invest in producing good wine with the commercial necessity to churn out cheap junk.

As Brand New Zealand gets diluted and we gain a reputation for producing ever more cheap Sauvignon Blanc it makes it harder for an international market to grow for our Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and the other varietals. Sure, there are many instances of New Zealand Pinot Noir, Syrah and even Bordeaux blends getting international recognition but these are generally isolated and as yet there is not a big demand for the offerings.
With limited outlets for these in the domestic market the potential, at this point of time, is being limited.
This is happening at a time when other big exporting countries are reinventing themselves. Countries like Spain, Italy, Chile, Argentina and even France are investing and improving their offerings on a scale that hasn't been seen before.

What shame.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


...... at our house. Which means that there is more Chardonnay for me as Her Indoors has gone back to drinking Pinot Gris. She had previously gotten over that incomprehensible fad see:


but has rediscovered it.
The reason may lie in the crappy and cheap Chardonnay I have been buying of late. I shop around on web-sites and at supermarket 'wine fairs' but it is becoming increasingly hard to find good quality wine at bargain prices.
The reason is because the legitimate overstocks of very good wine that had to be specialed have all gone. Sure, some occasionally turn up but no wine company in their right minds now overproduce top-end wines that have required higher inputs (low cropping, good oak, expensive winemaking etc). What has happened aslo is that they are producing wine under same or similar labels that pretend to be of the same quality that they were before but have been engineered downwards (no use of barrels, higher cropping, cheaper inputs). I won't name them but beware the bright orange label, the boutique 'family' names that have now been taken over by big corporates and the fancy names that don't seem to have proper adresses or websites.

While every now and again I get lucky with a genuine great wine that has been specialed off I now have to spend more to get the good stuff.
This is a double-edged sword of course because if I do continue to buy the good stuff Her Indoors might switch again!

That other cliche

Friday, April 13, 2012


The 2012 vintage so far is shaping up to be one of low volumes and low brix levels due to the cool Summer and Autumn in most areas.

Brix is a measure of sugar content in the grapes. Now I'm neither a winemaker nor a scientist but I do know that degrees of brix is the percentage of sugar that exists in the must (fermenting grape juice). Every degree of brix is roughly 1% of sugar or, for every 100 grams of grape juice there is 1 gram of sugar for every degree of brix. Got it? If the grape juice has a brix degree of 22 then approximately 22% must be sugar. When yeast works on the sugar .... (a favourite saying relating to lazy people is "he/she wouldn't work in a barrel full of yeast) ... the sugar is converted to ethyl alcohol and Carbon dioxide. About 55% is ethyl alcohol. A rough calculation to work out how alcoholic the wine is going to be is:

Brix x 55% = alcohol.

There are other variables like type of yeast, how much sugar there was to start with (too much limits the yeast activity at the high end etc) but this is a good simple guide.

What this means is that in cool growing areas or in a cool growing year like 2012, on average the grapes grown are very likely to have lower brix levels than in warmer areas or in a warm growing season.

What do the winemakers do if they don't want to have wines with lower alcohol?

Firstly, why do they want higher alcohol?
Body is the simplest answer. By this I don't mean that they want to get lots of this ...............

although alcohol is a great inhibition loosener and might mean some winemakers will get lucky, body is the 'weight' or 'mouth-feel' of a wine that gives it balance. If a wine is light on alcohol and not counterbalanced by sweetness then it can taste thin. The ideal alcohol level for most dry wines is between 12 and 14%. Higher and they can become unbalanced and taste 'hot' unless there is a great amount of fruit and tannin and good use of wood
High in alcohol and unbalanced

 lower and they can taste thin and weedy unless they are medium sweet or sweet.

What a winemaker does, if the brix levels are low and the resultant wine is likely to be 'thin' is to add sugar to the must to bring up the potential alcohol. This is called 'chaptalisation' and is allowed by winemaking law in most civilised countries. Some exceptions are Australia, Argentina, Italy, South Africa, USA (except Oregon) which is surprising given the power of the sugar lobby in a couple of these countries and given that 'pure-white' sugar is the best additive.

There is a downside. If there wasn't why grow grapes if you could just ferment some sugar. Chaptalised wines (and most countries limit the amount that can be added) tend to 'flatten' out the flavours. This is not surprising as there will be a lack of that natural grape -juice 'zing'. Imagine having a teaspoon of sugar and water vs a teaspoon of grape juice. The grape juice, even if the same sweetness as the sugar/water mixture will have other interesting flavours and acids. The vibe sorry zing.

So, to recap - if the harvest is a bit poor and the resultant wine is likely to be thin and medicinal - do a Mary Poppins and add a spoonful of sugar.

Who is likely to do best in the 2012 vintage?

Sunday, April 8, 2012


1998 (MCMXCVIII) was a common year that started on a Thursday. In the Gregorian calendar, it was the 1998th year of Anno Domini; the 998th year of the 2nd millennium; the 98th year of the 20th century; and the 9th of the 1990s. The year 1998 was designated: International Year of the Ocean by UNESCO.[1]

1998 was also a great year for wines from both Australia and New Zealand.

"Unquestionably a great vintage, the reputation of 1998 seems to be enhanced with the release of each major wine. It's early days and while standout Australian reds like Grange and Hill of Grace are still some time away from release, there's every indication that 1998 could well be rated as the best Australian red wine vintage of modern times, possibly even since 1962. It appears to have married the sheer concentration of another top warm-to-hot year in 1990 with the fineness and purity of fruit flavour of 1994. Essentially a vintage that constantly bordered on drought but just managed to receive sufficient rainfall to enable the vines to bring their fruit safely to near-perfect ripening, it was a season which began and finished early and whose wines show great potential for bottle development."

Perhaps the 1998 vintage is best summarised by a comment made by Joe Babich, Managing Director, "this is the best vintage I have ever seen in New Zealand, and I have been involved in well over 30 vintages". As winemaker, the 1998 vintage has been a dream come true. Fruit quality from all regions has been excellent and all varieties have been harvested at true (physiological) maturity. Indeed in the 15 vintages I have been involved in I cannot remember a time when almost universally harvest date was determined by flavour rather than having to take into account possible poor weather. If I had to pick one characteristic of the fruit this year it is the balance, that is, excellent sugar, acid, pH and flavour. To complete the dream the yields have been good so there will be good quantities of excellent wine available."
We had the 1998

Last night, after a great day at Ocean Beach we cooked a fillet of beef to have with white bean puree and a rocket, Parmesan and walnut salad. What better accompaniment than a good red?
I fossicked in the cellar and brought out a New Zealand red and an Aussi one. I wasn't really looking at the vintages (in the gloom) that closely and it was serendipitous that they were both 1998.

The wines were 'Tom' and Eileen Hardy. 

It proved to be a good comparison.
The Tom, had first, was astounding in its colour which at 14 years of age was expected to have dropped a bit. It hadn't and was rich and vibrant. The taste, at first with a bit of a green edge opened up in the glass to be warm and velvety with only a bit of orange peel character betraying its age. Great wine.

The Eileen Hardy Shiraz also showed a bit of green on opening but quickly filled out and was full, round and with a silky finish. The plum and berry fruit flavours were nicely integrated with olive and coffee notes. Delicious.

With a couple of games of snooker in good company it was the perfect end to a fine day.