Wine Science (aka ‘Frankenwine’)

Fake goods are a problem for many products, ranging from knockoffs of the latest popular toys to rare one-off items that belong in a museum.

Wine is an easy target for several reasons, and one serious decade-old scandal is still affecting the rare bottles market to this day.  The limited production each year creates a natural scarcity which further erodes every time a bottle is opened.  Throw in a fantastic vintage, where all of the elements in the vineyard and winery come together in perfection, and the increased desirability means the problem gets heightened even further. 

Mouton

Secondly, for French wine in particular, they follow a classification ladder, a pecking order of sorts.  This runs from your basic table wine through to Premier and Grand Cru level.  In Bordeaux things are taken even higher with their top 5 league table; The First Growths.  Including such wine legends as Mouton Rothschild and Lafite, getting one of these in a great vintage means prices reach a whole new level.  It’s asking for trouble.

If the intention of a fake is to deceive, that is clearly a malicious and criminal act.  But what if the faker is absolutely honest with you from the off that what you’re buying isn’t the real deal?

Scientist

Thanks to a group of US scientists working under the name Replica Wines, we’re about to find out.  Initially as part of a bet, they started stripping down the flavour and aroma compounds found in wine to their constituent parts, eventually devising a roadmap of some 600 components.

They then set about choosing a collection of well-known or cult wines in price ranges outside of day to day purchasing to unlock their individual scientific make-up.  Using their roadmap to deliver a taste profile for each one they now have something like 2,000 different wines available to replicate. 

Consumers are now effectively able to taste a Chateau Margaux at a fraction of the retail price.  Is this genius or is it a step too far?  It’s tricky to say.

Franken Soup

Would someone only willing to spend a token amount on a bottle of wine really care what a £450 Lafite costs?  And, even though these faked bottles are reported to have been already fooling the experts, could a wine aficionado ever really feel that they’ve tasted the proper stuff.  Although Replica claim a 95% match to the original there would surely still be a doubt.

As a wine writer I’ve often been frustratingly close to getting to try some of the top wines out there, but I don’t think I could trust something blended together like soup (the creations are amusingly referred to as ‘Frankenwines’).  No, I’d rather become familiar with a well-articulated tasting note and fill in the blanks mentally.

The wines have, however, been such a success in the US that they are making their way to the UK so, if it’s your thing, you will soon be able to try for yourself.  Branded under self-referential label names such as Knockoff and Pickpocket, these may well end up being the fakes that you don’t end up buying by accident.

Cheers!

This article was originally published in the September 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.
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1966: Introducing the Drink/Drive Limit

Roadside Test

Just like the placing of Bank Holidays or the fact that the clocks go backwards and forwards each year, there are things that we naturally adhere to by default and don’t really question when they were introduced.

One of these is the drink-drive limit, an obvious mandate to drivers to not be too inebriated prior to being in charge of a vehicle. Although it had been an offence to be ‘drunk-in-charge’ of a vehicle since the early 1900’s, it wasn’t until January 1966 that a formal intoxication limit was put in place.

Drunk Victorian

Following World War 2 the social scene of the 1960’s was booming. The increased availability of raw materials, disposable income and a general freedom of choice meant the number of cars on the road began to grow at a significant rate.

Originally proposed in June 1965, the new law stated that drivers exceeding 80mg (milligrams) of alcohol in 100cc (cubic centimetres) of blood were ‘over the limit’, and could be prosecuted for the first time. Such stipulations were in their infancy then but, compared to today’s standards, this was actually a very generous allowance.

Due to varying body weights and other lifestyle factors it’s impossible to state the exact point as to when you become ‘drunk’, but this original level was just over double of what we today call the drink-drive limit (35mg), and somewhere over 4 glasses of wine. That’s almost a bottle.

That said, the final 1966 law wasn’t half as concerning as some of the proposals made in the consideration process. One of the more outlandish suggestions allowed the equivalent of eight pints (or 12 single shots of spirits) be permissible!

Attitudes and habits changed almost immediately, causing the publicans of the time to march on Westminster in protest at the new restrictions, such was the immediate hit to their lunchtime trading. People who drove to and from work were now routinely foregoing their pub lunch tipple and the loss of business was being keenly felt.

To this day critics continue to challenge the government on what constitutes a ’safe’ level of drinking prior to driving, primarily as the word ‘safe’ is very open to interpretation. One side states that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ limit isn’t good enough, whilst the other suggests that there’s no ‘safe’ limit and that drinking should be avoided altogether before driving.

The number of cars on the road in the mid-sixties stood at around the 5 million mark, and unbelievably they were responsible for a percentage-busting 2,000 deaths a year. Projections put together at the time estimated that, if left unchecked, the number of road deaths per year could spiral to nearly 1 million by the 1980’s.

Clunk Click

The 1966 law change, which also saw the introduction of the dreaded breathalyser, was actually well ahead of its time, coming a full 17 years before the (arguably just as important) wearing of a seat belt became mandatory in 1983.

Since records began in 1979 drink related road deaths are down an amazing 85%, currently standing at an average of 282* deaths per year. Even though that’s 282 deaths too many, it’s clear to see how far we’ve come.

Cheers!

* Source: Drinkaware, statistics 2010-2015
This article was originally published in the August 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.

How The Other Half Live: The UK Government Wine Cellar

Gov Fund SignPhoto Credit: Jon Manel

A well-appointed off licence is a godsend to most of us and there’s no reason to assume that the Government feel any differently.

Just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, across Hyde Park, is Lancaster House; the home of the British Government’s wine store.  Established in 1908 with the express intent of enabling our ministers to lubricate their diplomatic machinations, over the years this 60 square foot private cellar evolved in to a store of very fine wine.  Naturally people began to wonder what indulgent vintages the elite were getting to imbibe, fully cementing a ‘them vs. us’ mentality.

A 2010 edict by the Secretary of State demanded that a full overhaul of the process be taken ensuring that these tax-payer funded purchases became fully self-funded.  In these times of austerity where “we’re all in it together” it was a welcome move.

The current Government now offers complete transparency as to how their wine cellar runs (Google ‘government hospitality’ to see the full report) and each year they produce a document giving a full run down of the operation.  Firmly ousting the notion of a fine wine gravy-train for the elected, it makes an interesting read.

Well and truly clearing their closet out, a mass sell-off of ‘significant’ bottles was held in 2012 raising the £44k that nearly fully covered the £49k cost of the stocks required for the following year.  These annual sales continue, the most recent of which ensured that officials would no longer be tucking in to such gems as Mouton Rothschild or Margaux 1990.

Gov UK CellarPhoto Credit: Jon Manel

The cellar and ongoing purchases are now guided by a team of Masters of Wine (MWs) to ensure that quality is maintained whilst adhering to the funds available.  The average purchase price of a bottle last year was £14.

Consumption year on year is down which also helps to stretch the budget.  In the fiscal year 2015/16 some 3,730 bottles were drunk vs. just 3,261 last year.  When you weigh up that these bottles will grace the table of more than 200 diplomatic events each year, this divvies up at around 16 bottles per engagement.  Some of us may have got through as many in the recent Bank Holiday weekend.

Bottles are graded either A, B or C dependent on what their intended use will be.  The top category, those listed as A1, are fit only for banquets attended by Kings and Queens.  The majority will be drinking grade C wines: Chilean Merlots and house clarets from merchant Berry Bros & Rudd for the reds and the Bacchus grape from English producer Chapel Down for the white.  Patriotically English wine now accounts for 49% of new wine purchases.

There’s still a handful of exciting bottles tucked away for special occasions and the total stock is estimated to be worth something like £804k, comprising some 33k bottles.  Whilst we can applaud the everyday activity we can only dream about the extremes.  How about the 1970 Petrus Bordeaux (£2k a bottle), 1962 Chateau Margaux (£450) or their last magnum of the 1964 Krug Champagne (£1,900) for lunch?

That’s still quite some collection.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.

Prosecco: Brand On The Run?

Prosecco popcorn

Whether it’s a drink that makes you thirst or curse, there’s no denying that the biggest sparkling wine success of the last ten years has been the surge in popularity for Prosecco.  Majestic recently stated that it was selling ten times more bottles than the well-established Champagne brands.

This wasn’t always the case though and as recently as ten years ago Spain must have felt fairly safe in the knowledge that they had the ‘sparkling-alternative-to-Champagne’ market sewn up with Cava.  Made in a similar style to Champagne, but without the prestige of Moét-level brand recognition, they were able to produce fairly similar results at significantly lower prices.

Whilst also a sparkling wine, outside of artisan producers emulating the Champagne style, Prosecco isn’t made in the same way.  The bubbles are added by a carbonation process similar to soft drinks, worlds away from the traditional labour intensive Champagne processes.  Instead of fermentation (sugars turning to alcohol) within the bottle itself, Prosecco is made in large tanks and siphoned off to each bottle individually.

Without time resting on its yeasty deposits, the creamy richness found in Champagne is lost, but gives Prosecco its youthful and vibrant quality, expressly intended for immediate drinking.  This unfussy immediacy, as well as the reduced pricing through simpler production, has proved incredibly popular with the ever cost-conscious buying public.

This is all good for the here-and-now but to ensure a successful future Prosecco needs to side-step the stigma of simply being a cheaper alternative.  Adopted by many a girls night out, will the effortless effervescence shortly become a victim of its own success?

For all its perceived snobbery, Champagne has actually done a massive amount to protect its brand and, outside of Champagne truffles and the Champagne named sub-regions of Cognac, you literally can’t label anything as ‘Champagne’ unless it comes from the region.

This makes perfect sense as, when you buy Champagne, you’re buying in to the limited prestige.  Prosecco brand preservation seems to have been somewhat side-lined and there is arguably little ongoing value with it being associated with such retail oddments as popcorn, teabags, crisps or nail varnish.  Innocently browsing in a bookshop this very week I spotted a Prosecco cookbook – 100 ways to cook with Prosecco.  This is a serious brand devaluation.

prosecco cookbook

Price-point is another major consideration.  Despite such obvious Brexit factors meaning that we import European goods at a higher price, and the fact that the more popular a brand is the more a producer will charge for it, late spring frosts and an inconsistent summer means that recent crops were severely curtailed or variably-ripened.

Global wine production in 2017 slumped to a 56 year low and there is simply less to go around.  Experts estimate that for affected regions, including Prosecco, prices could rise by as much as 30%.

There’s no denying that Prosecco is still very popular but when a brand scales up so quickly there is almost always a quick deflation to follow.  Can Prosecco sustain such price rises, lack of availability, and over-exposure through tacky 3rd party products?  Is Prosecco now a brand on the run?

Cheers!

This article was originally published in the May 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.

A World Of Variety

The old saying goes “never judge a book by its cover”, but in the case of ‘Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties’, the plain sleeve and scope couldn’t be much clearer.

1368 Varieties

Putting each and every known wine grape variety under the microscope and giving the appropriate cultural history and factual DNA make-up, this comprehensive pool of information is accessible to both the scholar and the interested novice.

The novice reader might, however, question where they’re going wrong.  Akin to a poorly titled mystery, the biggest surprise of the book has already been given away by the title highlighting that there are an amazing 1,368 different grape varieties out there to try.

A recent survey showed that of the varieties available, only the top 12 (so, less than 1%) were responsible for more than half of the worlds planted vines. That’s an extraordinary statistic; over half of the vine-planted world is given over to less than 1% of the available vine varieties.

Our hit-list contains such favourites as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and Syrah (aka Shiraz) for your reds and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Muscat Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris for your white.  Any one of these varieties is now in the official ‘comfort zone’.

Clearly there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with any one of the above varieties, which are well-known, successful, highly adaptable and able to give consistent high-yielding results.  The point is, there is much mileage beyond.

Readers may now be starting to wonder if they could have been more inventive the last time they reached for another bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, but the blame isn’t entirely on your shoulders.  People do indeed go with what they know more often than not, but this is something that supermarkets are well-oiled towards.  They don’t want to take too many chances when it comes to the profits.  Familiarity is safety.

Wine producing countries new to the game (so, any since the late 70’s/early 80’s) are also well aware of trends and plant their vineyards accordingly.  They only want to produce the well-recognised international varieties that will guarantee sales.

This commerce comes at the expense of tradition.  Grape varieties adapt to their surroundings and the unknown indigenous varieties that have thrived forever are the ones that truly speak of the history and diversity of the country.  Spanish producer Torres is one going to amazing lengths to bring back long-lost varieties from extinction.

On the flip-side, the consumer also needs to have a little more interest when it comes to seeking out what is beyond the obvious.  If you can get past the funny and sometimes vaguely un-pronounceable names, there are absolute treasures to be found.

ASDA Wine Atlas

A good range that celebrates this diversity is the Wine Atlas range from Asda.  Dressed up in gorgeous labels evocative of the heyday of early 20th century travel, this is your ideal chance to try the lesser spotted Feteasca Neagra, Negroamaro, Grillo or Bobal.

If you’re feeling really competitive you may like to apply to the Wine Century Club.  Try 100 or more varieties, Google the club, fill in the entry form, and a nifty certificate will be on its way to you letting you know how unique such a feat is.

100 Club

This article was originally published in the April 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.