What do I really think? Some unfiltered opinions on the world of wine

I am not short on opinions. However, as I get older, I have learned that some opinions are best kept unspoken. I am also a kind person at heart who doesn’t want to upset anyone unless it is strictly necessary. And I have learned that my own perspective is exactly that: things look a certain way from where I’m standing, and sometimes I’m wrong, and sometimes things look very different from another perspective.

This said, there’s a time for honesty. It’s far too easy as a wine writer to like everything, to be enthusiastic about whatever wine is sent to you, or to gush about which ever region you have just visited. Some wine writers make a career based on boundless, breathless enthusiasm for all wines. Producers and regional bodies love writers like this, but readers must be baffled by the energetic unselective hyping where everything is ‘great’, ‘fantastic’ or ‘stunning.’

So I thought it would be fun to be totally honest about how I see some aspects of the wine world. Here are my current peeves.

Rioja. It’s a disaster zone. Of course, there are some good wines (and I have championed these in the past). But the average quality level is terrible. The region has great vineyards, but most of these grapes end up in factory like wineries where they are industrially processed. Barrel cellars containing 10 000 barrels, which aren’t topped up or tasted, but instead routinely racked every six months. And so much American oak, and so much bad oak. Few wines survive this oxidative regime well. Yet the region is commercially successful. It’s mad.

Vying for Rioja for the worst average standard of winemaking, we have Chianti. I rarely find a Chianti that I can drink, yet, like Rioja, the best are sublime. The wines tend to be oxidative, are frequently dirty, and have an ungenerous, angular personality.

Chile. At last, Chile is beginning to get a bit interesting, with a few small-production wines that are showing personality and character, but for so long this has been one of the most boring of all wine countries. So many interesting terroirs, so few interesting wines. Commercially, the Chileans have been spot on, supplying tasty, inexpensive wines to export markets. But when they have tried to go high end, they’ve just made boring, sweetly fruited, slightly jammy wines. And so many Chilean reds have this Chilean flavour which makes them easy to spot in blind tastings, but which isn’t a positive thing at all.

Bordeaux. Bordeaux is the world’s leading fine wine region, and yet I find it hard to love at the moment. I love great old Bordeaux, but so much has changed of late (more selection, more concentration, later picking, more winemaking) that I’m not sure that we can guarantee that the current crop of top wines will all age gracefully for 20-50 years. Wouldn’t it be a disaster if suddenly people began to realise that all these investment grade wines actually tasted better after 5-10 years rather than 20? There’s such a lot of hype surrounding Bordeaux, and the en primeurs circus, and so many of the wines are being judged so early in their life. And I don’t understand the journalists who criticise and moan about the primeurs, but who then dutifully trek there every year and publish their scores. You can’t have it both ways.

Bloggers. I’m a wine blogger, but it distresses me to see how much of a soft ride most wine bloggers are giving the wines they are exposed to. Mediocre producers simply have to pour their wines for bloggers, or invite them on an outing or a trip, and suddenly they get undiscriminating, glowing coverage. And tweeting, instagramming or facebooking a picture of a wine bottle or a vineyard doesn’t really count as wine journalism. (I do that myself, of course, and I am a lover of social media, but you need to actually write something, do a podcast, or do a piece to camera as well.)

Australia makes some great wine, and I’m very excited by the good stuff (not the spoofy stuff, of course). But the standard of commercial Aussie wine is pretty bad these days. In the past, wine brands such as Lindemans and Penfolds used to make their cheap wines from proper vineyard areas. Now the cheap stuff all comes from hot, irrigated areas where wine grapes shouldn’t be grown. And I hate the way so many Aussie reds are stuffed with tartaric acid. It sticks out like a sore thumb.

The IMW. Is it an academic institution, or a private members club? It doesn’t seem able to decide. It has also frustrated a lot of talented wine people who have passed both theory and tasting papers, but then are required to do a dissertation. The standard of dissertations varies widely, and some people get messed around badly. Now the dissertation has become a ‘research paper’, but good research costs money to do, and is usually done with the support of an academic institution. It’s a bit of a mess.

That’s enough for now. Plenty more to come!

12 comments to What do I really think? Some unfiltered opinions on the world of wine

  • ed

    Refreshing candour.

  • russ sainty

    Yes what is that Chile taste? I can never quite pin it down. Some friend’s say it masks the variety even. We had the De Martino La Aguada Single Vineyard and they said it was all over it, where as I thought the grape was dominant.

  • Jamie, thanks for an insightful piece. I am amazed to see sometimes that wines I feel are flawed or badly made or are just bland and forgettable receive high scores from bloggers or in the slick wine magazines. It has been my experience over 30 years of writing about wine that producers actually prefer honesty and a frank evaluation than mindless praise. (Well, some don’t.) I look forward to your next installment.

  • Claude Vaillancourt

    Chilean flavour not positive? What is that? Strong cassis aroma? You know what. Cassis aroma is related to a group of molecules with a thiol group on it. So with aging and slow oxidation it goes away. Have you ever tried a good Maipo Cab with 15 -20 years of age?

    It is strange to declare a category of aromas as not positive when you are a lover of bretty wines and “natural” wines with all kind of weird aromas in it. I guess appreciation of aromas is a very personal thing. Chileans should start doing bretty and “natural” wines, maybe it would mask their “not positive” side…

  • All of this (and more) is why I left the UK wine world after 7 years solid labour. Still love wine though (and will persist ((P/T)) in that labour of love)..

  • Geoff Bolton

    For good wine blogs, check Talk the Cork on ricmmoris.wordpress.com Thoughtful, not to wordy and interesting wines.

  • Probably your boldest ever post? But why not, it’s your blog.

    Rioja, having worked there and living in Spain now, I’m not sure I totally agree. I know what you’re getting at and in many ways you’re right, but I think it really depends on how you define “average”. As a volumetric average, your may have a point though I would definitely not call this level “terrible”. Average Rioja Crianza for me is pleasant enough and you have to remember the wineries can get about 2.50€ for this.

    But at 60,000 hectares its a big region and there seems to be more and more interesting stuff being done and coming out of it all the time.

    Yes huge commercial success it perhaps doesn’t deserve, but I still enjoy normal Rioja wines and there is lots going on if you look around.

  • Paul Dove

    Disagree about Chianti, Jamie. The “ungenerous angularity” you complain about – what Victoria Moore calls “crenellations” – is what makes even inexpensive Chianti inimitably refreshing, bright, structured and lick-smacking. The rubbish Chiantis (and there are many) are usually when merlot, cabernet and even syrah have been blended in to dumb down and smooth away the angularity to keep the supermarkets happy.

  • Honesty is what it’s all about. If wine writers and bloggers don’t give their honest opinion about wine and wine regions, then their opinions are less meaningful (for example, what happened to 1-88 on the 100 point scale). I relate with those who are unwilling to give negative comments to a winery or region that has treated them well, however, since it seems distasteful to put down someone who has been so hospitable. I think it is valid to praise the winery or region and not praise the wine. The people may be incredible; that doesn’t mean their wine is.

  • Anna Howr

    I have happened upon your website in search of learning more about wine. I’ve always enjoyed wine but as I get older or mature, I’m more interested in the quality of wine as well as the taste. I know the wine market has exploded which in some ways in great in that more wine is available but then where anything is mass produced the quality is often compromised along the way. I also want to know what’s going into my body. I’ve just looked into finding wine merchants rather than the supermarket offering. Although I did watch a wine expert say that often the supermarket high end wines are good buys as there’s no marketing to pay so more value in the grapes being used. I’m keen to learn!

  • Julio Figueroa-Colon

    Rioja: would not agree with such a broad generalization; though not even close to being my favorite style of wine, my experience with a wide range of rioja is that even at the crianza level these wines are well made and enjoyable; even many of the ‘factory’ wines offer good quality for the price, and certainly many excellent wines remain – try muga, roda, artadi; agree with the comment on chianti – have long since switched to brunello and the piedmont
    Chile: always attractive prices but only just producing reds that come within the boundaries of my ‘green flavors’ tolerance – whites have always been good buys
    Bordeaux: have long since priced themselves out of my confort zone, but still enjoy when invited
    Bloggers: first incursion…too soon to tell
    Australia: would substitute your comments on rioja here…too many flabby, jammy wines makes exploring this unique region down right annoying
    IMV: nothing to say

  • Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine professional)


    [CAPITALIZATION within articles used for emphasis. — Bob]

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Op-Ed” Section
    (February 10, 2012, Page A19):

    “Syntax? Logic? Why?”

    Link: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-02-10/on-web-no-one-cares-if-you-write-like-a-dog-commentary-by-michael-kinsley.html

    By Michael Kinsley
    (former “Op-Ed” page editor of the Los Angeles Times)

    It’s been going on now for too long, right before our eyes. . . .

    . . . [Felix Salmon, the famous financial blogger for Reuters] blog item this week about the quality of writing on the Internet. . . . his basic point is that ON THE WEB, SHEER QUANTITY TRUMPS QUALITY. . . .

    . . . all aspects of good writing — ACCURACY, logic, spelling, graceful turns of phrase, wisdom and insight, puns (only good ones), punctuation, proper grammar and syntax (and what is the difference between those two again) — are all overrated.

    . . . Now one of our nation’s leading bloggers has confessed what we all suspected: that bad writing is inherent to the online world. . . .


    [CAPITALIZATION within articles used for emphasis. — Bob]

    Excerpt from BusinessWeek “Opinion” Section
    (December 1, 2008, Page 110):

    “10,000 Hours to Greatness”

    Link: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_48/b4110110545672.htm

    Book review by Catherine Arnst

    The Story of Success
    By Malcolm Gladwell
    (Little, Brown; 309 pp.; $27.99)

    . . .

    What does matter, he [Gladwell] says, is the 10,000-HOUR RULE. No one gets to the top unless he or she puts in 10,000 hours of practice in a field . . .

    Excerpt from Fortune Magazine “Leadership” Section
    (November 24, 2008, Page 160ff):

    “Secrets of Their Success”

    Link: http://money.cnn.com/2008/11/11/news/companies/secretsofsuccess_gladwell.fortune/index.htm

    Interview by Jennifer Reingold

    . . .

    F: What link does practice have to success?

    G: The 10,000-HOUR RULE says that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours, which is roughly ten years, if you think about four hours a day.

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (October 29, 2008, Page Unknown):

    “The Hard Work of Getting Ahead”

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122523991308478311.html?mod=relevancy%5D

    Book review by Philip Delves Broughton

    Talent Is Overrated
    By Geoff Colvin
    (Portfolio, 228 pages, $25.95)

    This is one of the grimmer messages of Geoff Colvin’s excellent “Talent Is Overrated.” Mr. Colvin, a writer at Fortune, seeks to explode the notion that the talent contest among human beings ends with their genetic inheritance. Instead, he argues, great performance comes down to one thing more than any other: DELIBERATE PRACTICE. . . . He means a disciplined focus on weakness and a relentless effort to improve. Such practice, when it is done right, is “highly demanding” and “isn’t much fun.” But it is necessary . . .

    . . .

    What is most useful about Mr. Colvin’s book is its candor about the limits of potential. It does not suggest that you can do anything if you try. It says that starting early is a huge advantage in life. Mr. Colvin believes in the 10-YEAR RULE, by which it takes 10 years of hard work to achieve excellence in almost any important field. . . .


    YOU EARN THEM . . .

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