Wine is usually regarded as an important component of the luxury market. Champagne embodies the good life and premium champagnes (Cristal, Dom Perignon etc.) are treated as bywords for luxury. So it is with the world’s great clarets. Even people who don’t drink much wine will recognise such names as Mouton Rothschild or Chateau Margaux and will know that they are treated as luxury products.
I try not to focus too much on the luxury aspect of wine because often, expensive wine just becomes an excuse for a lot of pretentious twaddle or even worse, needless snobbery. Sadly, as the world has become more and more brand conscious, great wines have become no more than mere brands. The people who order Cristal or Dom Perignon may appreciate the champagnes but it is just as likely that they are ordering them because of the image of the brand.
Because many rich people feel they should order expensive wine – in keeping with their status as wealthy folks – marketers have a lot of fun flogging overpriced bottles to people who can’t tell the difference. And a whole industry has grown up around the mystique of wine, operating consistently on the assumption that there is profit in confusing the credulous.
The problem however is a real one: wine is an acquired taste and you need to drink it fairly regularly (or, at least, quite often) to understand its true depth. So, how can you make wine instantly accessible to those who have yet to develop a palate for it?
Over the last two decades, as America has emerged as the centre of the wine world, the Americans have taken a characteristically robust approach to the subject. When you appear for an exam in America, you get 50 out of 100 just for turning up. So, a score of say, 60 which might be respectable in India, is actually fairly unimpressive in US terms.
Americans have extended this principle to the marking of wine. A single wine writer Robert Parker now decides how much great wines will cost by giving them marks out of 100. If Parker gives a wine 95 out of 100 then the price will immediately shoot up. Close on Parker’s heels is The Wine Spectator, a journal for wine lovers that also marks wines out of 100.
In the process, the Americans have created a new definition of luxury when it comes to wine. Forget about the old French classifications or about Grand Cru Classe. A luxury wine in America is defined as one that gets top marks from Parker. And if say, Screaming Eagle, a parvenu California winery gets more marks than Mouton Rothschild, it is Screaming Eagle that will fetch top dollars and not Mouton.
As you might expect, the marking system has many critics – especially outside of the US. Taste is essentially subjective. We may all agree that a particular wine is excellent. But are we so precise that we can agree whether it deserves one mark more than another excellent wine?
Inevitably, a system of marks out of hundred leads to taste fascism. There is less room for us to make up our own minds and a system that is essentially arbitrary (who is Parker to decide, anyway?) is treated with the exactness of science. Besides, when the wine business hangs on the word of one man, wine-makers try and make wines to suit his taste. For instance, Parker likes the concentrated red wines of California and gives them high marks. So now, even the wine producers of Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley are abandoning their own traditions to make concentrated Parker-esque wine.
While I am an agnostic on Parker and the marking system, I do agree that we need some easy-to-understand way of judging wine. For over 30 years, Hugh Johnson, the British wine writer, has been producing a small pocket wine book that offers information on the world’s wines. Johnson does not give marks but he does use a star system. A wine with a single star is not rewarding. Two stars mean that the wine is adequate. Three stars suggest that it is very good. And a four star wine is among the world’s finest.
I prefer the Johnson system because it groups wines into broad categories. We can agree that Chateau Lafite and Screaming Eagle are both four star wines without having to agree on which wine is better and by how many points. So, when people ask me to recommend a wine reference book I always point them in Johnson’s direction.
But there are two other things we should keep in mind. The first is that there is more wine being made in the world today than at any point in history. So, wine is no luxury. At the bottom end of the market, wine can be cheap and plentiful. Johnson’s book expands in size every year to keep up with the new wines being produced.
The second thing worth remembering is that the general level of wine quality – at all prices – is higher than ever before. In the old days, a lot of crap got bottled. There were huge fluctuations in quality from year to year. Now, bad wine is the exception rather than the rule and, for the most part, all that stuff about vintage years matters less and less to the average drinker because quality is much more consistent than before.
At the top end of the market, the change is hard to miss. When I first started buying Johnson’s book, his section on Bordeaux listed less than ten four star wines and most of these were the great growths. By 1999, he had been forced to give 33 wines his four star rating because quality had gone up so much. This year’s edition gives 43 Bordeaux wines a four star rating. So, buying excellent Bordeaux is no longer a question of scrambling for the top growths.
Similarly, other countries have also upped their game. The Italian wine industry found global fame when it mimicked French wines to great effect but now, traditional Italian wines can be excellent. Australia makes some terrific wine and New Zealand has rewritten the rules for Sauvignon Blanc. South America has made good wine available at low rates and South Africa makes very drinkable wine.
The game changer, of course, is California which now makes some of the world’s finest wines. I was startled to discover that this year, Johnson has found more four star wines in California than in Bordeaux (49 versus 43!). In 1999 he gave four stars to just 13 California wines (versus 33 in Bordeaux). Even if you allow yourself the cynical thought that Johnson is bowing to the inevitable and recognising the power of the American market, there is no doubt that California now makes some of the finest wine on earth.
So, what lessons are there for the wine drinker who is willing to spend a little money? Well, first of all, don’t go by the books. Drink wine, develop your own taste and find your own favourites. Secondly, don’t worry too much about being ripped off. Most expensive wine these days is good. Yes, some of it is over-priced. And the differences in quality at the top are not as large as the price differences may suggest. So, it pays to find wines you like even among the big names.
And finally, forget about brands. The wine world is exploding. New wines are being created every day. Even as you are bragging about drinking Cristal, somebody else is drinking the far snobbier Salon. The days when Margaux was the name to drop are ending. Even as you brag about the great names, some better informed person is drinking Hosanna which is probably as good and is cheaper.
So forget about the names. And just enjoy the wine.