Why judging super-expensive wines is difficult


I always like Emile Peynaud’s quote about how expensive wines tasted blind frequently disappoint. Along similar lines, there’s the well known scientific experiment where subjects had their brains scanned while they were tasting the same wine, but being given different price information each time. They liked the wine more – and their brains responded differently – when they believed it to be expensive.

Judging wine blind is difficult. But judging wines sighted has its own problems. In particular, it’s really difficult to judge super-expensive wines sighted. The knowledge we have about their price gets in the way, and even changes out perception. We give the wine the benefit of the doubt, and can even see complexity, harmony and balance where there is none.

This is something that producers can take advantage of. They like to show their expensive wines at grand lunches in top restaurants, or at tutored one-on-ones with the winemaker. If I want to taste the top Champagnes, then I’ll likely have to do it at one of these occasions, and it certainly can skew things in favour of the wine. Penfolds are very clever in this regard: I think most of the times I have tasted current and older vintages of Grange have been in the presence of the talented, energetic Peter Gago, who acts as a winemaking ambassador for Penfolds’ Bin Series wines. They are also quite selective at showing off their new releases to on-message journalists in settings that they control. Like the top Champagne houses, Penfolds’ wines are now targeted clearly at the luxury goods marketplace. The first growth Bordeaux Chateaux won’t allow their wines to be tasted blind alongside all the others during the primeurs week: you have to go to them, if you are lucky enough to score an invite. No exceptions are made, even for publications whose normal behaviour is to taste blind.

Tasting old wines can also have a similar effect. It’s so hard to assess, objectively, great old vintages of top wines. In part, this has made things easier for fakers. Several high profile wine journalists – who regularly get invited to high ticket events where grand old wines are served – have fallen for fake wines. How is this possible? It is actually much easier to get it wrong when you assess super expensive bottles because you are psychologically primed to like the wine a great deal.

Holly's Garden Pinot Gris 2013, a Victorian gem


Neil Prentice’s Holly’s Garden wines are made from biodynamically tended vines grown in Whitlands, Victoria, at 750 m altitude. Normally, the prospect of drinking Australian Pinot Gris doesn’t thrill me, but this wine is different. Neil showed his commitment to it by planting 6 hectares, which along with 4 hectares of Pinot Noir constitutes his vine holdings here. It has energy, life and complexity, and I’m very impressed. Neil’s day job is farming Wagyu beef at his parents’ property in Gippsland, where he also has the Moondarra vineyard.

Holly’s Garden Pinot Gris 2013 Victoria, Australia
12.5% alcohol. Very distinctive honeyed, spicy, grapey nose with a bit of smokiness. The palate is textured and ripe yet fresh with ripe apples, citrus, some honey and some grapey richness. Lovely mineral notes and good complexity, in a dry style. Thought provoking and an amazing bargain. 92/100 (UK agent Indigo Wines; Noel Young stock this for £11.99)

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Cambridge Road Syrah from Martinborough, New Zealand

cambridge road syrah

From a small biodynamically managed vineyard in New Zealand’s Martinborough wine region, we have this, a supremely elegant and drinkable Syrah with the poise of a ripe Pinot Noir and more than a hint of the northern Rhone about it. It’s not cheap, but it’s quite brilliant.

Cambridge Road Syrah 2011 Martinborough, New Zealand
Ripe, smooth, complex nose of floral black cherries and pepper, with hints of tar and spice. The palate is fresh and lively with pure black cherry and plum fruit, nice freshness, good structure and some bright pepperiness. Just a hint of cloves, but this character isn’t too intense. Vivid and bright with depth. 94/100 (UK agent Les Caves de Pyrene)

A short selfie tasting video of this wine:

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Success is an enemy

Whether you are a winemaker, a winery, a wine brand or a wine writer, one of the biggest threats can be success itself. It’s made more dangerous by the fact that it would never be suspected of being a threat, because it is a goal.

You begin to believe your own hype. You get complacent. You lose the hunger that contributed to your success in the first place.

Your critics polarise. There are those who become sycophantic, saying great things about you whatever your performance. And there are those who will be critical whatever your performance. You listen to, and believe the former. A mistake.

Success means you can behave badly and get away with it. You don’t even realize this until your standards have dropped so far that even your most blinkered fans can no longer deny it, and the way back is then very hard indeed.

So while we strive for and welcome success, we should be wary of it. It is an enemy. Ignore it, and carry on as if it never happened.

Caves d'Auvergne Gamay 2012

caves d'auvergne gamay

This is a sensational wine for the price, if – like me – you have a fascination with lighter, more elegant red wines. I’ve written about its sibling Pinot Noir before, which is equally good, but in 2012 I love the Gamay from this winery, which has a bit more weight than most Beaujolais, while retaining drinkability.

Cave Saint-Vernay Gamay 2012 Cotes d’Auvergne, France
13.5% alcohol. Ripe, elegant, pure and with a lovely silky texture, this sappy Gamay has ripe red berry fruits and some cherry notes, with a herby spiciness under the fruit. So attractive and drinkable, this is a superb wine for the money. 90/100 (£7.95 The Wine Society)

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Why I love working in wine - some unrestrained positivity

photo (16)

I love working in wine. For lots of reasons. Here’s some unrestrained positivity about the wine community, and why it’s a good place to earn a living.

    I have such wonderful colleagues. So many positive interactions, such collegiate spirit!

    Wine is endlessly fascinating, and you can never grow tired of it, as long as you have an adventurous spirit and an open mind.

    Wine regions are usually beautiful, and it is a pleasure to visit them.

    The ideal climates for winegrowing are usually ideal for people, too. Unless you are trying to grow Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, where it can get a bit chilly at times.

    Wine contains alcohol and professional visits often involve eating and drinking, and consuming wine is a pleasurable experience, especially when this consumption occurs in good company.

    It’s hard to become really rich in wine. So the sort of people who are motivated by cash tend to avoid it. Which leaves the field clear for nice people who care more for other people and nice social interactions than they do for money. So the relative unattractiveness of wine for people looking to make $$$ has a filtering effect, which works in favour of wine.

    Wine is closely connected with culture, and with eating. There’s a cultural richness to the wine community that is very positive.

    Wine drunkenness seems to be different from other forms of drunkenness. It often leads to honest introspection. It rarely leads to malevolence. It is often quite friendly and inclusive. It seems to know its limits.

    I have made so many friends during the course of my work. There’s something very human about wine. Even people who are technically competing with me for work are nice to me, and I am nice back. There’s a sense that if one succeeds, we all succeed. Long may this continue.

Sager and Wilde and the London Wine Sessions, with some great wine

sager wilde

Such a great afternoon. I was speaking with Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene at the London Wine Sessions in Hackney. We arrived early so headed up the road to Sager & Wilde for a quick drink (Michael Sager Wilde is pictured above). I had a quick beer (Partizan Saison Lemongrass, which I will write up on beeranorak), and a glass of the Navazos Niepoort Palomino 2009.



Navazos Niepoort Palomino 2009 Jerez, Spain
Nutty and tangy with nice depth of flavour. Powerful nutty flavours with rich texture and some spice. Quite mineral, too, with a tangy edge. Quite distinctive and delicious. 93/100

Back at the sessions, Doug and I presented four brilliant wines from the Les Caves list, with a lot of discussion of interesting issues in the world of wine. Well, I thought they were interesting, at least. Here are my notes.

Thierry Germain Domaine des Roches Neuves 2013 Saumur Champigny, Loire, France
A classic Loire Cabernet Franc with lovely cherry and raspberry fruit with some green herby notes that are well integrated. Fresh and pure, and utterly drinkable. 90/100

Dard & Ribo Crozes Hermitage 2011 Northern Rhone, France
Meaty, ripe and sweet with bold black fruits and notes of olive and pepper, with some tapenade character. Ripe and rich but really pretty and fresh with lovely purity. This is such a fabulous expression of northern Rhone Syrah. 94/100

Claude Cortois Quartz Les Cailloux des Paradis 2012 Loire, France
Subtly nutty, slightly oxidative and with notes of lemons and apples. Linear, fresh and expressive with nice texture and a profound minerality. Really vital and alive: the sort of wine that repays attention. 93/100

Salvo Foti Vinujancu 2011 Etna Bianco, Sicily, Italy
From a vineyard at 1300 m. This is complex and lively with notes of nut, spice and lime oil. Lovely precision. So precise and fresh, this is quite brilliant. It’s a blend of Riesling, Carricante, Minella and Grecanico. 94/100

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Video: Arnaud Aucoeur Beaujolais Villages Vieilles Vignes 2012


Just loved this Beaujolais Villages. Here’s my tasting note, and a video of me tasting it. Cracking value.

Arnaud Aucoeur Beaujolais Villages Selection de Vieilles Vignes 2012 Beaujolais, France
12.5% alcohol. From 60 year old vines, this has a wonderfully complex, taut nose of minerals, cherries and plums with a hint of pepper. The supple palate has fine green herbal tones in the background together with cherry and raspberry fruit and a distinctive mineral presence. Real definition and poise. 92/100 (£10.50 Yapp)

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Vin de Constance, one of the world's great sweet wines

vin de constance

Yesterday I had the chance to taste, for I think the third time, the 2008 Vin de Constance. I didn’t spit my sample.

This is one of the world’s great sweet wines. It’s made by Klein Constantia, and it’s a wine that has been made to replicate, as closely as possible, the famous Constantia wines of old. You can read all about it here, in a report on a visit.

Interestingly, some of the inspiration for the current set of winemaking techniques came from Tokaji – most notably, the way that extended skin contact with the raisined berries is practised. The tannins are an important element of this wine style, and there’s lots of good stuff in the skins of the Constantia-style ‘aszu’ berries (picked separately, as in Tokaji) that needs a bit of maceration to bring it out.

I’d always thought that the Tokaji aszu berries are all botrytised, but on a recent visit to Tokaji I learned this isn’t always the case. Some of them are, some of them aren’t. And Vin de Constance is not a botrytis-style sweet wine, but rather a late-harvest wine.

Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2008 Constantia, South Africa
Wonderfully complex, spicy and marmaladey with sweet, pure apricot fruit. The palate is fresh and sweet with grapes and raisins as well as spiciness. Lovely intensity here, and a long, warm, spicy finish. Remarkable. 95/100

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Some great wines, tasted blind


So Stu, Joe, Will and I rocked over to Andrew’s pad in Fulham for an evening of wines tasted blind, together with some rather nice food. We’d initially agreed to keep it to one wine each, but we ended up with quite a bit more than this. It was a fun evening. Our blind tasting was terrible, of course. Here are my notes.

Champagne Henri Abele Rose NV France
Lovely, fresh, precise fizz with a hint of cherry and a bit of bite. Nice balance here with some toast and raspberry notes, too. 90/100

Lune d’Argent Clos des Lunes 2011 Bordeaux, France
Textured, fresh and bright with citrus and pear fruit. Lively with nice precision. Delicate and pure, with no obvious oak influence. 88/100

Hatzidakis Assyrtiko 2013 Santorini, Greece
Citrus and pear fruit with some pith and some nutty, waxy notes. A bit of warmth with tangerines and lemon curd notes. Very bright. 91/100

Puklavec Gomila Furmint 2012 Slovenia
Pithy and lively with citrus fruit and some nutty, herby, waxy characters under the fruit. Lovely precision and intensity. 89/100

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 Margaret River, Australia
Some evolution here, with complex notes of herbs and warm spiciness. Concentrated with good density and notes of blackberry, mint and spice. Beautifully elegant with great complexity and really nice balance. 95/100

Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Napa Valley, California
Focused, bright and pure with sweet cherries and berries. Lovely sweet fruit dominates, with purity and definition. Ripe style, and very accessible and easy. 90/100

Rockburn Pinot Noir 2011 Central Otago, New Zealand
Elegant supple cherry fruit. warm, spicy, sweet fruit with notes of spice and green herbs. Seductive and quite rich. 93/100

Grant Burge Mesach Shiraz 1995 Barossa, Australia
Ripe, rich and spicy with lovely blackcurrant fruit and some ginger and mint characters. Dense with a bit of grip and quite youthful. Good acidity. 91/100

La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 1998 Rioja, Spain
Meaty, spicy and complex with aromas of vanilla, herbs and spice. The palate has real complexity with cedar, herb, spice and coconut characters under the warm cherry fruit, together with hints of leather and spice. So integrated, stylish and complex, this is a lovely wine that needs a bit more time still. Fabulous. 96/100

Contino Reserva 1991 Rioja, Spain
Warm with notes of herbs, spice, minerals and cedar, as well as ripe raspberry and cherry fruit. There’s some earthiness, too. Complex and nicely evolved, this is delicious. 92/100

Giaconda Warner Vineyard Shiraz 2008 Beechworth, Australia
Ripe, sweet and rich with notes of black cherries, plums, olives and meat. Rich, smooth, bold and intense with lovely fruit. A rich wine with some real interest. 94/100