Consumer Reports' December 2009 issue has an interesting article on choosing good, affordable wines for this economically challenged holiday season. The magazine found several examples, domestic and imported, of each of six major varietals -- cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling, etc. -- in the under $10 range. The wines were sampled in a blind tasting by "our experts," who sipped and judged each bottle without knowing either the winemaker or the exact price.
The resulting tasting notes, touching on the usual topics of fruit flavors, sweetness, acidity, and so on, help guide the reader to a cost-efficient and pleasing personal choice. What's most interesting about the project, however, is the fact that almost all the wines that end up identified are, of course, grocery store and liquor store stalwarts: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Fetzer, Frontera, Yellow Tail, Lindeman's, Dancing Bull. Given that the premise of the round up was "let's keep this under $10," the people in charge could scarcely not have arrived at this or a like collection. Which leads me to ask, in a nice way of course, what is the point of a "blind" tasting of these types of wines? At this price point, we are going to discover sound, decent product and that is all. But, to be fair, that is a great deal -- for we are therein going to find proof that those wine writers are right who say there has been no better time in history to be a wine drinker than now, when it's the ordinary wine that is very good. Far better than what our ancestors knew, who had to drink it even when it was vinegar, because few other liquids were safe.
However, some studies have shown that people who taste wines "blind" can still be swayed in their opinions on flavor if they are told that some of what they are swirling and sniffing is expensive. (Knowledge about high prices actually stimulated the area of the brain that governs the experience of pleasure.) So, I'd be very intrigued by a wine round up in which the experts, gathered before a collection of grocery store wines, were told -- maybe truthfully -- that two or three of the anonymous ones were in fact a Chateau Margaux, a Dr. Pauly riesling, or a Penfolds Grange (famed Australian shiraz -- feel free to spend $200 to $600 for a bottle). The challenge of being able to pick out which were really exalted would be irresistible, a princess-and-the-pea style proof of each Expert's experience and innate class. And what grocery store wine, if any, would get any prizes? Would any taster have the confidence to say, "I think they're all pretty much Gallo. And not bad at that." Or, "I think they're all '06 Burgundies -- maybe one is a Rhone vin de pays."
It's further interesting to see, in this tasting project, that the wines which did earn any unusual comments were a Chilean cabernet sauvignon from Frontera and two 2007 German rieslings. The cabernet was, at about $4, "the cheapest wine Consumer Reports had ever recommended," and the two rieslings both come from producers -- St. Urban's Hof and S. A. Prum -- which are at least grand enough to show up in my German Wine Guide (Armin Diel and Joel Payne, Abbeville Books, 1999.)
Does this matter? I took it as an omen of their stature, but perhaps I was premature. A digression: I found my German Wine Guide recently at my favorite used book warehouse. Is it all right to consult a ten-year-old book, on the assumption that it will contain some information that remains constant? My particular grocery store's riesling's producers, for example, Schlinkhaus and St. Christopher, do not seem to show up at all in the Guide. I presume it's because, whether now, ten years ago, or ten years from now, most of them hail, hailed, and will hail from huge wine making areas boasting those mass-production habits that preclude their ever being more than what Jancis Robinson frankly calls "Germany's shame" -- the QbA, sugar water riesling. A QbA wine, or a Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet, is simply a wine of a certain level of quality guaranteed to have come from one of thirteen (large) regions, anbaugebiete, in Germany. No further promises given, about grape blends, flavor, value, or anything else. I imagine that it's considering what rieslings can be which prompts Ms. Robinson to resort to the rather strong epithet "shame" for those that don't try hard enough.
Consumer Reports' two German rieslings were QbA wines anyway; hence the danger of my judgments being premature. Just because their producers show up in my ten year old Guide does not mean those two wines are, so to speak, the peas beneath the princess' mattress. Still, their being singled out, along with a Chilean cabernet, even in an under-$10 blind tasting would seem to offer a little more proof of what wine writers mean when they talk about whole categories of wines being unusually good values. German rieslings, especially once beyond QbA status, and Chilean wines in general always earn a mention among the experts. So do Rhone reds, and guess what? -- where I work we've got six on our shelves, whereas we carry no proper red Burgundies (two white) and only one Bordeaux. We can afford to get in a little Rhone by the case, and give it shelf space while waiting for one customer in a hundred to show an interest; probably no grocery store within miles can afford to carry the Burgundies that are produced in much smaller quantities to begin with, and then snapped up in wealthy areas far away before you can say "south side." For their part Fetzer, Yellow Tail, Gallo, and yes, QbA German wines are good values because the companies responsible make it their business to get large amounts of uniform quality product on the shelves at a good price.
The other kind of good value, in the sense of a more interesting, better made wine selling for less than it could be worth, has everything to do with reputation and the market's demand. Wine writers delight in these little anomalies, offering the same gladsome advice: sshhhh: snap up those wines before everybody else scanning the lower shelves figures out what they've been missing, and prices rise.
St. Urbans Hof
Frontera (Concha Y Toro)