It's hard to go wine shopping these days without numerous 'award winning' wines catching your eye from the shelves. Row after row of apparently fine wines, festooned with gold, silver or bronze stickers from some competition, or other.
'I don't know a huge amount about wine so I'll just rely on that gold sticker' - sound familiar?
Wine competitions have their place, but consumers need to interpret the results in a way that's useful.
Importantly you need to find a wine critic with a palate similar to your own. Each of us has personal preferences for what we eat, what we drink and what we put on our skin. If you loathe the aromas of lychee, rose and Turkish delight, you should stay away from Gewürztraminer, even if it wears a medal around its neck.
This is even more important when it comes to palate. Humans are genetically predisposed to be very sensitive tasters (often called Supertasters), normal tasters or non-tasters. For some, a wine might be crisp with lovely, firm tannins, yet for another, that same wine is so harsh it's hell-on-earth. Its imperative that you align yourself with a wine critic of similar taste (palate). I'm a cool climate white wine freak with a high sensitivity to bitterness so I'm more likely to recommend wines where the acidity is high and the tannins are low - Champagne or Riesling, for example. Other critics might have a sweeter tooth and recommend the ripest and most alcoholic of red wines, which taste 'flabby' to me.
Buy wines on recommendation, by all means, but endeavour to follow a critic who recommends more hits, than misses, for your palate.
This does not mean wine quality is solely personal preference, though style certainly is. Competitions and awards serve their purpose; to show you wines that are good, authentic and typical of their genre, regardless of the judges' personal taste. I have a distaste for Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc - well made or otherwise - but I still need to judge these wines and give them an honest rating.
My 'Clarkson Analogy' might help to understand wine competitions.
Jeremy Clarkson is something of a petrol head and likes fast, super-expensive sports cars - these are his personal preference. It's highly likely that these are the only cars he wants, or purchases. Nonetheless, as a motoring industry professional and columnist, he needs to judge and rate other types of car - ones that aren't really to his taste. JC has to test drive a Ford Ka, Toyota Corolla (or whatever) and weigh up the handling, comfort and safety level, performance, quality of finish etc, to give them a rating or award. And so it is with wine. Critics have to judge a wine and give it a rating so that the public can see it’s well made, authentic and balanced, even if not their style of choice.
Our job as wine professionals is to guide consumers in finding wine they might like at any given price point, and more importantly, to encourage them to take the leap from atop 'Mount Grigio'! There are so many grape varieties and wine styles out there its a great shame to stick with what you know every time you make a purchase.
'I know what I like' is something I hear frequently, and with respect, I'm not sure this is true. We all know what we like to a point, but to stick with what we like means we're choosing from a very small wine rack. Many consumers are still firmly in the I-don't-like-Riesling, or anything-but-Chardonnay brigade, which is such a shame for them. Presented with a stunning, prickly and aromatic belter from the Mosel, or an understated and classy Aussie Chardonnay from Mornington Peninsula, their surprise is evident.
So, we know what we like up til now, but that can change the moment we're presented with something 'better'. This ties in with another common question, 'What's wrong with the £5 wine that I like?' Well, if you like it, then of course there's nothing wrong with that at all, but if you do experience a higher quality wine, it will be hard to go back to the £5 wine and still get the same buzz.
Behold, my stereo analogy..
I turned 15 and spent my Burger King earnings on what was then called a 'Ghetto Blaster', surely a term on the wrong side of political correctness nowadays. Nonetheless, I loved that music maker so much and thought it had the ultimate sound, especially with those graphic equalisers! It probably cost me a fortnights worth of burger flipping.
Some years later, now with a proper job under my belt, the urge to buy a large Sony hi-fi system took hold and I spent a handsome 4-figure-sum on one. This thing shook the floorboards and had wonderful clarity of sound. I was ruined for 'Ghetto Blasters' now - that tinny little sound a fading embarrassment.
The same thing occurred another few years on - this time the urge to spend a lot of money on a quality amplifier and individual components. I was rewarded with the crispest and most authentic of sound reproduction. Never again could I truly enjoy the old Sony system.
And so it goes with wine: spend £5 and perhaps you'll enjoy it for awhile, until you taste a £9 bottle with more complexity, balance and structure. Taste an even better bottle, with wonderful purity of fruit, great harmony and a lingering finish (for a few more quid) and it's very hard to go back.
Just bear in mind that in a £5 bottle of wine, taxes, duty, profit, shipping etc take out a huge chunk, leaving you with, effectively, a wine that earned the winemaker 60-80 pence. Do you think she'll put much effort in for that meagre return? Will the fruit be ripe? Clean? Concentrated?
Spend £7 and the winemaker will earn closer to £2 - three times that earned from the £5 bottle. One would expect the winemaker to use better fruit in this wine, also, perhaps, some new oak and some barrel ageing etc. After the £25 (ish) per bottle price bracket this isn't so much the case - wines may be priced on reputation, supply and demand, collectibility etc.
Price isn't everything, and enjoyment of wine is hugely affected by environmental factors, glass shape, company, weather, lighting, food etc, but it's fair enough to assume that if you spend a little more you might get a step up from your 'ghetto blaster' wine, though there might be no going back...