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Comment: Is ‘fear of the unknown’ costing you money?

Rare doesn't always mean better, writes Hugh Johnson in his latest column for Decanter magazine's September 2018 issue.

It was far simpler when we all knew less.

Running through the ‘classic’ wine regions; explaining the different grapes used in Bordeaux and Burgundy, and their different aims; pointing out that there were alternatives – Loire, Rhône, Italy… but they weren’t the be-all and end-all. We were all beginners. Wine writers then had an easy job.

The question now is who are we writing for.

One reader is still vague about (even) Bordeaux and Burgundy, and is surprised to hear how they make Champagne; another tuts impatiently (get on with it, can’t you?) when you explain that Marsanne and Roussanne are white Rhône grapes, or that Tasmania is cooler than the rest of Australia. Mention Juhfark or Négrette? They’re so last year.

‘It was in the 1960s that grape varieties were first given credit for determining the flavours of wines.’

In my lifetime we have segued from the California labels that explained Cabernet and Chardonnay as the great grapes, respectively, of ‘France’s great Bordeaux and Burgundy wine regions’ to casual references to ‘malo’ and phenolics (or is that last year, too?).

It was in the 1960s that grape varieties were first given credit for determining the flavours of wines.

Before then it was regions, or properties.

I don’t believe even proprietors, and few in the wine trade, let alone its customers, had grasped the dominant part played by, say, the proportions of the Cabernets and Merlot in the styles of Pauillac, Margaux and St-Emilion.

Now the grapes are the message, the châteaux just the medium. Where a Merlot or a Syrah comes from is secondary – until (and this is the current mood) it is in the producer’s interest to make a point of it.

You can charge £10 for a Cab, but £50 for a Napa one, and a really fancy figure for one from a named vineyard.

The narrower the identity, the higher the supposed value; numbered bottles… It’s too easy, and it makes fools of us. Wines don’t have to be rare to be delicious. Or indeed precious.

And the place to look? Where others fear to tread. In obscure regions with grapes you’ve never heard of. Fear of the unknown is costing you good money.

The same principle applies to unfashionable vintages.

Good winemakers don’t bottle bad wines; just different ones in different years – different enough to have different roles at table.

‘Great’ vintages are rarely the friendliest to food. But less ripe and potent, leaner years from good vineyards, as with Juhfark or Négrette, are often ideal.

Hugh Johnson OBE writes a regular column for Decanter and is a world-renowned wine writer

You may also enjoy:

‘Every collector needs one’: Produttori del Barbaresco Ovello Riserva

Cool vs hot vintages in Bordeaux: A buying guide by Jane Anson


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