Monday, November 20, 2017

Alcohol percentages of Wine Spectator's Top 10 wines of 2017

Congratulations to fire-struck Napa Valley, which got some good news this week with a big honor for this vineyard
Wine Spectator releases its annual Top 100 Wines this week. The list often signals something about the high-end wine market: Does the Spectator think its readers should drink more Syrah? (Yes, apparently.) Has Pinot Noir arrived with Spectator readers? (Definitely not.)

I wanted to see if the much-reported backlash against high-alcohol wines has hit the offices of the Spectator, which for years was a bastion of the same old names boosting fruit bombs. I don't want to overly pick on the Spectator: I find its ratings more restrained and useful than those of the Wine Advocate, which probably can't do a Top 10 because it would have to sort through all its 100-point scores and announce that some wines are less perfect than other perfect wines. I like that the Spectator does a Top 100. I just thought I'd see if there's a pattern.

There might be, but without comparing to previous year's Spectator lists, I can't be sure. First, here is the alcohol percentage data, which of course Spectator does not provide:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Duty-free bubbly turns amazing the second day! Also, shark dentistry

Artists' rendering. I don't take diving photos anymore
At home, I would never have noticed the astonishing second-day deliciousness of a mass-market sparkling wine. The wine was blah the first day so, spoiled as I am, I would have poured whatever was left down the drain.

But we were not at home. We were in Pelileu, an island in the south of Palau known to most as the site of a long and particularly bloody WWII battle, and to us as the base for some of the world's best scuba diving. There's not much on Pelileu other than rusted tanks and leftover armaments and palm trees and biting insects. But underwater, we saw a shark dentistry.

Above a certain knob of coral in the German Channel, small cleaner wrasse fish await clients, in this case gray reef sharks and white tip reef sharks. The fish eat the parasites off of larger fish in a mutually beneficial relationship. Cleaner wrasse are common but I've never seen anything like the shark dentistry before.

The sharks queued up, waiting for their turn, swimming in place as well as they could, because sharks cannot stop moving. When their turn commenced, they swam over the coral knob and opened wide, sometimes rearing up nearly vertical against the current. The small wrasse swam into their mouth, among their teeth, in their gills. The sharks tolerated this treatment much better than I do my own visits to my dentist. They must have liked it because some of them, when their turn was up, swam to the back of the queue to wait another turn. I've been diving more than 500 times all over the world, but I've never seen sharks wait in line before.

I digress. This post is really about amazing second-day wine.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Men and women don't actually have different taste in wine

Portra Images via Getty Images
Most people, including savvy wine industry folks, take it for granted that men and women have different taste in wine. Not just labels -- the wine itself.

A few of the stereotypes:

* Women like lighter, sweeter wines, especially white wines

* Men like bolder wines, especially red wines

* Women like pink wines (because as Drew Barrymore will tell you, girls like pink)

* Men like older wines and more prestigious wines.

I have read countless articles that accept these stereotypes as fact, and I know at least one writer/broadcaster who has made a good career out of stating these things as fact, even though she does not herself drink like the girly-girls she panders to.

Turns out, they don't either. In fact, according to a brilliant new study published in the Journal of Wine Economics, there is no difference in wine preferences between men and women.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Unicorn whiskies from New Zealand

At a time when rare spirits have a new cachet, San Francisco's Anchor Distilling has unearthed some of the rarest whiskies in the world.

The New Zealand Whiskey Collection consists of four very expensive whiskies from a distillery that has been defunct since 1994. Not only that, the Willowbank Distillery in Dunedin only operated for seven years, between 1987 and 1994. At the time, wine exports from New Zealand were still extremely rare -- imagine a world before Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc -- and the distillery owners couldn't get enough domestic interest to keep their business running.

Perhaps these whiskies were ordinary when they were made. Perhaps they offered New Zealanders no reason to pay a premium over good imported Scotch. Obviously a Dunedin product would have access to New Zealand's famously clean water for brewing. As for the quality of the local barley, I really can't say, but it's the water that matters most anyway. Maybe the original distillers were learning on the job and their work was underwhelming.

That was then. Now it's 2017, and these whiskies sat around for decades, quietly aging, in the defunct distillery. That's exciting.

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?