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One of the certainties abut the festive season is that we Australians will consume more than our usual quantum of alcohol in the shape of beer, wine and spirits. Especially wine, and we can therefore expect the usual outpourings from the wine critics, self-appointed and otherwise, about what, and what not, to drink. Of all the many areas of criticism rampant in our society, that offered about wine is perhaps the most pretentious. By now we can all write parodies in the language of wine labels, few, perhaps with James Thurber’s level of wit: “it’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumptions…”
Last week’s Classifieds cartoon by Wajo captures the process epically. Although his archetype Jacko is quoting a review of whisky “rich dark fruits, dark cherry compote alongside sticky dates, followed by intense sweet antique oak”, he captures the essential fatuity of much contemporary wine description. For the majority of wine drinkers, the language of the label is something to be ignored: we are just interested in whether the wine tastes good or not, regardless of its price or reputation.
You may not be surprised to learn that there is a body, The Wine and Spirit Education Trust, which has established itself as the dominant technical body for evaluating wine quality. Their work results in descriptions like “this is a wine with medium-minus tannins, medium-plus acidity and notes of fresh red fruit”. This might well be an accurate technical assessment,
but it will do little to enthuse a prospective drinker. The actual language used on labels is more often poetic and richer in the kind of metaphor from which each reader can construct their own fantasy as to what a given wine might taste of.
There is another issue: something as riddled with speciousness as that of wine labels leaves itself open to fraud or forgery. The counterfeiting and relabelling of cheap wine so as to imply a more expensive brand is common. The pretentiousness of much writing about wine is easily emulated. Fraud in the selling of wine has seen much attention focused on label forgery and the investment wine market. Counterfeit labelling of rare, expensive, and cult wines, and unregulated wine investment shonks characterise this type of fraud. Wine Spectator noted that as much as 5% of the wine sold into secondary markets where it is purchased as an investment could be counterfeit.
At the height of the Australian chardonnay boom in the mid-60s, one writer measured the actual area under chardonnay grape cultivation, compared it to the amount of wine being sold, and came to the conclusion that whatever it was we were paying for and drinking, it might very well be something other than chardonnay. And consider this: In December 1985, at Christie’s of London, a single bottle of 1787 Château Lafitte Bordeaux, was auctioned for $156,000, setting a record for the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. This bottle was extremely rare. Especially well-preserved, the wine rested, supposedly untouched, for nearly two centuries before it had been discovered in a hidden cellar during excavations in Paris (along with many other bottles).
Not only was the 1787 Lafitte the oldest vintage red wine placed for auction, but the bottle also purported to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson and was engraved with the initials, ‘Th.J.’ Due to the rarity of the wine, its condition, and especially the association with a Founding Father of the United States, the anticipated price of the wine was catalogued as “inestimable” by Christie’s wine department. The auction exceeded all expectations, and the final bid surpassed the previous record for a single bottle of wine. But was it, could it possibly have been, drinkable?
Forensic science has a part to play in the detection of wine fraud. I came across a lovely book, Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud by Rebecca Gibb, a wine journalist and master of wine. The wine world shares similarities with the art world. It relies on the opinions of experts, whose belief in the authenticity of a Château Lafite (or a Rembrandt) can dramatically alter its value. But experts can be duped. Many wine connoisseurs have vouched for bottles which do not live up to the claims made on the label. General consumers do not question the labels on their wines. A study involving more than 6,000 blind tastings found that non-expert drinkers actually preferred cheaper wines. Another study found tasters perceived expensive wines to be higher quality only after the prices were revealed. As in many other areas, price bears little relation to value. For a long time now, I have looked for wines priced below $10 a bottle, and I am seldom disappointed. This little rule has stood me in good stead.
John Fleming II
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