The Sour Grape

Making Sense #4: What to look for on the Bottle – Part 2

Making Sense (#4 What to look for on the Bottle - Part 2)(Or… “What should I be avoiding then?”)

Just as there are signs that I look for when browsing for a bottle (See Part 1) making me more likely to pick one in particular, there are others that put me off. These are some of the warning flags that automatically make me suspicious of a bottle:

Too much of a focus on information irrelevant to the wine: Be careful of bottles that go on and on about some obscure aspect of the vineyard or local history, then give you half a sentence that talks about the bottle in your hand. It’s not an immediate indication that something is off, but rather it’s giving you very little to work with… so unless there is something else to indicate the risk is worth it, I’d steer clear on the whole.

No description of the wine itself: Sometimes, label on the back or not… there’s simply no description of the wine at all. Again, this doesn’t automatically ring alarm bells but as you’ve no indication of what you’re getting, I’d move on to something that’s going to give me something to work with. The reality is that the vineyard could simply be leaning on a long and distinguished history of fine wine production; assuming customers will recognise their name and buy their wine off the promise of it. But unless there’s a good review or description being offered by the shop, it’s still a jump in the dark… they could just be lazy.

Overselling/Over-hyping for the price range: Most vineyards or distributers are going to do everything they can to entice you into buying their wine, so the more someone shouts about how great their wine is, the more suspicious I become. What we’re looking for is an honest description of what to expect with a wine, with as little dressing up as possible. One major tell tail sign is when a description promises all kinds of complexity and whole variety of flavours/scents… and the bottle is priced as Table wine. It could be accurate and if so you’re getting a bargain, but more often than not your being misled wholesale. I’d expect to find all those flavours/scents in a higher quality wine… but most of the time the cheaper a wine is made the more simplistic it tends to be.

Stereotypical tasting notes: Along side ‘over-hyping’ we’ve got the generic carbon copy wine descriptions that all but sound identical. The descriptions could be perfectly representative but if they sound like they’re describing practically any red wine, I’d be suspicious. I’m often surprised they haven’t gone all the way and boldly claimed, “This wine has tasting notes of grapes with overtones of fruit juice”.

Absence of vineyard information: It’s always a good sign when the bottle clearly indicates the vineyard the wine is from. If there isn’t any… chances are the wine has been cobbled together by a third or fourth party specialising in budget wines for foreign export. The involvement of other parties isn’t automatically a negative issue, as many smaller vineyards need help in getting their products to as wide a consumer base as possible. But where this is the case, they should be identifying the vineyard of origin and if they haven’t it’s probably better to assume worst than to gamble. If in doubt do a quick search online and see if what looks to be the vineyard name on the front of the bottle leads you to a website for the vineyard… a lot of wines with third party involvement re-brand/name their wines, so you’ll be lead to a distributers website or draw a blank completely. Better still, while you’re at it, look at a review or two if they’re to hand.

You may have noticed that I haven’t talked about vintage at all so far and it’s a difficult topic to pin down in any way that would be useful to you.

There are good years and bad years, yes… but a good year for one country (if not vineyard) can easily be a bad year for another. If you’ve got a favourite wine country or region, then its well worth looking up which years to go for and which ones to avoid, but otherwise I’d tend to ignore that way of thinking.

The price won’t change much between vintages either, unless you’re looking at Fine Wines, but knowing the general age of the wine can be very useful:

If you’re looking to by a heavy wine that’s higher in tannin, like a Bordeaux, and you want to be able to drink it now, then check the vintage… if the wine is only a year or two old, then it probably won’t be ready for you to drink… 4-5yrs plus and your ready to go on average for the cheaper ones. Knowing the year can be helpful, as some years will be made to be drunk earlier than others.

If you’re going for a lighter fruitier style of wine, then the younger it is the better… older vintages may well have lost most of the fruit you’re looking for.

If a wine has words on the label that usually indicate ageing, such as Reserva, but it’s only a year old… then they’ve probably used the term to get you to buy the wine… so avoid or at least expect a fruiter style of wine. In fact the only countries where the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva mean anything at all are Spain, Portugal and Italy; anywhere else in the world and these terms are meaningless.

One last note on vintage: if you do happen to know the bad years for the region you’re looking at, then wines are usually made in such as way as to be drunk sooner than normal. The general rule is that the longer ageing styles of wine are made in the best years, so if you’re looking to pick up a bottle to drink straight away, then you may well be better off going for a so called inferior vintage anyway… or paying a lot for a good vintage that’s ready to drink!

 So how does all this work in practice?

In Part 3 of this article I’ll be looking at a practical example to show how I’ve used the above to help me make a choice on a bottle.

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