The shocking truth about wine
Let’s talk about wine, shall we? When you think of wine, what do you think of? What about wine culture? Flavour? Price?
Australian drinking culture is, in general, horrible. I don’t apply that comment only to high school students and undergraduates, either — more than anyone else, they at least have an excuse. A discussion of Australian drinking culture in general would take up significantly more space than can comfortably be read in a blog post, though it’s possible I may do a series later on — I haven’t decided yet — so here I’d like to explore some of how that culture leaks into attitudes about wine.
In Australia, wine is probably the most maligned of all drinks when it comes to charges of wank and snobbery for a number of reasons: It can be expensive; it has strong cultural ties to Europe — France in particular; and there is a popular stereotype of the ‘wine snob’, swirling, sipping and spitting, proudly proclaiming flavours of ‘oak’ and ‘cherry notes’. “It’s only grapes” is a charge frequently levelled at wine, mocking the people who claim to be able to taste anything strange or complex. Yeah…and Scotch is ‘only barley’.
First, lets talk flavour. The charge of “it’s only grapes” can be tossed immediately in the trash where it belongs — yes, it may only be grapes, but which grapes? Pinot noir? Zinfandel? Albarino? And not only that, but which clone? At this time there are over thirty different clones of the Chardonnay grape alone. Then one has to take geography into account — different soil will change the characteristics of the grape, as will climate and much more. The list goes on, and we haven’t even picked the grapes yet…
So what flavour will a wine have? The correct answer is, clearly, “Who the hell knows?” Wine is, without a doubt, the most versatile drink in the world with regards to flavour — I challenge anyone who doubts me to compare three wines picked at random, one red, one white and one sparkling, and tell me otherwise with a straight face. Even within a particular grape variety there is a so much variation of flavour that the often heard refrain, “Oh, I like Cab Sav/Pinot Noir/Chardonnay/etc.” is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.
Even given all that, some of the words people commonly associate with the flavour of a wine may seem like wank. The reality of the situation is, however, quite different: ‘Wine wank’ doesn’t start until people start taking the piss. To elaborate — wine tasting is an extremely subjective endeavour, and one where there are no ‘right answers’. What you taste in any particular wine is exactly that — what you taste — and while a group of people will agree broadly on what a particular wine tastes like there is no necessary need to do so anymore than one would do with food.* That is not to say that wine tasting is wish fulfillment, mind you — no matter how much you may want a wine to taste like strawberry if the flavour isn’t actually in the wine, you aren’t going to find it — but relax and thinkabout what you can actually taste and you may get a surprise. Some of my favourite real life descriptions of wine are ‘cedar box’, ‘dark berry jam’ and ‘meaty stew’.**
So, that’s flavour dealt with. What about price? Isn’t most wine just overpriced and overrated plonk? Why buy an $50 bottle of Chardonnay when you can pop down to Dan Murphy’s for a $10 bottle? Why drink Krug when Yellowglen is less than ten percent of the price?
The simple answer, of course, is that you just aren’t going to have the same experience with Yellowglen as you are with Krug. One is significantly better quality than the other, and as with everything else in life you have to pay more for that. Of course, that doesn’t mean that if you pay a lot of money you’re necessarily going to get something amazing — there are definitely overpriced and overrated wines out there, as well as a number of expensives wines that just aren’t ready for drinking yet. But that doesn’t mean that all expensive wines, or even the majority, are a ripoff — to make that inference would be akin to assuming that because some expensive restaurants are overrated and a ripoff that all expensive restaurants are like that. My only advice with regards to not being taken for a ride is to ask for advice and recommendations from people who have more experience with wine — don’t be afraid to ask questions, and remember that in the hospitality industry reputation is incredibly important. If a venue does start ripping people off, word spreads fast — so try to check out what the word on a place is before you visit, and when you do visit, trust in your waiter to lead you in the right direction. It is, after all, their job.
I could go on about this subject for a very long time, but I think that’s probably enough for one article — I’m liable to go off on rants and tangents if I continue down this particular path for much longer. With any luck I’ll have dispelled some myths and misconceptions you may have had about wine, and perhaps even given you a few ideas or some inspiration to go out and try something new with a different perspective. At worst, I’m about to receive a roasting…
* Cheese in the food world is a sort-of-kind-of reasonable analogue to wine — though significantly better accepted by the Australian public.
** Those three phrases being used to describe the same wine.