Tuesday, October 17, 2017

South African wineries juice up their Chenin Blanc into white blends

Andrea Mullineux
Chenin Blanc is having a moment with New York sommeliers. However, in countries where it never fell out of fashion -- South Africa, where it's the most-planted wine grape, and England, where they drink a lot of what South Africa grows -- people are a little bored with Chenin Blanc.

Even if you love Chenin Blanc, it's easy to see how that can happen. South Africa excels at making cheap, clean, easy to drink Chenin Blanc. No one disputes that high-end Chenin Blanc can be interesting, but for most people it's a wine you drink when you want something simple.

One thing that surprised me when I visited South Africa two years ago was how many producers are beefing up their Chenin with oak treatments, just to do something different. It's not the U.S., where a decision to order Chenin is a conscious and even trendy choice for its light body and food friendliness. Winemakers in South Africa want their Chenin Blanc to be challenging. They want complexity. They want body. Sometimes they want it to be something that by nature it's not.

I was offered the opportunity to taste some premium South African white blends. It's an obscure category -- in fact, it's about the most obscure category I can think of, as I didn't realize it existed before I got the email. Naturally I said "sure!"

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Trends in the wine world: a conversation with Wine & Spirits' Josh Greene

Josh Greene
Wine & Spirits magazine's Top 100 is a bit different from those of other publications. The magazine chooses wineries rather than individual wines (it does the latter also), thus rewarding excellence across a range rather than a single unicorn wine.

You might think that this philosophy would lead to stability in the list: a great winery this year is likely to be a great winery next year. In fact, turnover has increased in recent years and 31 wineries -- nearly one-third of the list -- are new in 2017.

I met Wine & Spirits publisher and editor Josh Greene to chat about the 2017 list and what kind of trends in the wine world it reflects. Full disclosure: I occasionally write for Wine & Spirits myself, but I have nothing to do with its Top 100 coverage.

Gray: Why 31 new wineries?

Greene: First of all, the market is expanding so much. There's a whole lot of wines we haven't seen before. There are also new projects that are beginning to hit their stride.

Gray: Doesn't it represent some difference in the outlook of the magazine?

Monday, October 2, 2017

Wine divide: ordinary people and enophiles are experiencing different products

Quick, don't think about it, just answer:

When you hear the word "Wine", what type of wine do you imagine?

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Wine Advocate sake story, one year later

Last September, I discovered that a single company was selling all 78 sakes rated 90 points or more by the Wine Advocate -- and only those 78 sakes, nothing else. Prices for those sakes, some of which were difficult to obtain elsewhere, were in some cases significantly higher than their original release prices from the breweries.

I discovered that this company, The Taste of Sake, had connections to RobertParker.co.jp, and to the former employer of Lisa Perrotti-Brown, the Wine Advocate's Editor-in-Chief. Here are the two original posts: the first one and the followup.

After my first post, Ms. Perrotti-Brown wrote, "We are investigating the facts behind these allegations ... What we need to establish is if that company had access to any of the sake notes or scores prior to publication, which is a situation we take the utmost measures to avoid. Even the suggestion that this could have happened is a matter we take very seriously."

A year has passed. I have been asked by many people if I have any more facts on the investigation. I do not. The Taste of Sake site was taken down and is not up today.

I wanted to know if The Wine Advocate has progressed with its own investigation, so last week I attempted to contact Ms. Perrotti-Brown. I do not have a direct email or phone number for her, so once again I tried to send an email through the company contact page. That email has received no response other than from a web administrator acknowledging receipt. Ms. Perrotti-Brown answered no questions about the story last year, and to my knowledge has answered no questions about it for any publication, ever.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Napa Cabernet, Yellow Tail and the anchoring effect

Why do many people believe a run-of-the-mill Napa Cabernet is a bargain at $35, while a single-vineyard Victoria Shiraz is expensive at the same price? The answer is a psychological phenomena known as the anchoring effect.

I'm reading the fascinating book "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, which explains, among other things, how our intuition affects our judgment in ways we don't consciously realize.

The anchoring effect is well-established through repeated studies around the world. You will protest that it does not affect you: so did many of the subjects to whom it was proven that it did affect them.

What it means is that if you are shown a number, even a completely random one, and then asked to estimate another number, you will be strongly affected by the number you were shown. 

Before I get to an obvious wine-price corollary, here's a fascinating study of German judges that demonstrates the idea. "German judges with an average of more than 15 years experience on the bench were asked to read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, and then asked to roll dice that were loaded so that every roll resulted in either 3 or 9," Kahneman writes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

China wine market update: Cheaper wines taking over

Thanks to consumption by young people -- including teenagers -- China's wine market is bouncing back from the 2013 government crackdown on conspicuous consumption by bureaucrats.

It has also changed immensely in a short time, mainly because of who is buying wine now: 45% of Chinese wine drinkers are under 30 years old. Sales of expensive wines continue to slide, while unlike in the U.S., the greatest sales growth is in the cheapest price ranges.

I learned this and more because I had the good fortune to attend a seminar put on for Wines of Argentina by two Chinese wine experts: Dorian Tang of the importer ASC Fine Wines, and Karla Wang of Lady Penguin, a successful social-media wine site, wine club and wine importer.

Karla Wang (left) and Dorian Tang

Here are a few key points from the presentation.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Tiki pioneer Trader Vic's still makes a fine Mai Tai

Your grandparents may have gone to Trader Vic's for a taste of Polynesia, but now that tiki bars are mildly trendy, Trader Vic's is down to two U.S. locations: one just east of San Francisco, and the other in Atlanta.

However, Trader Vic's is big in the Middle East. Of its 18 locations internationally, 11 are in the Middle East, including several in countries where drinking alcohol is, in theory, prohibited. You might think this is a hurdle for a restaurant chain that made its name with powerful rum-based cocktails, but in fact, that's the appeal.

Trader Vic's has 6 locations in hotels in the United Arab Emirates, where alcohol is allowed only in hotels. It also has restaurants in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, where drinking is limited in similar ways; locals can go get their buzz on, and then return to piety. There is a Trader Vic's in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but it serves only alcohol-free "mocktails."

"When we started the concept, in the (19)40s and '50s, you couldn't get to places like you can now,"  Trader Vic's director of beverages Nicholas Ascenzo told me. "People came to Trader Vic's for something exotic. Now you can fly to Polynesia. But in the Middle East, they don't go to Hawaii and the South Pacific, so we are still exotic."