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The difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply

cheap wine

Quality? Who cares about quality?

It’s not enough to advocate cheap wine; consumers need to know how to tell the difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply. The Wine Curmudgeon was reminded of this yet again when I struggled through the 2014 five-day, $3 wine challenge, where the producers cared more about price than they did about quality.

The knock against cheap wine used to be that it couldn’t be made well. That hasn’t been true for at least two decades, but the argument has remained the same. Much of the blame for this rests with producers, who have been content to use improvements in winemaking and grape growing to make palatable wine, but not much more.

Call it, as one retailer told me, the wine equivalent of fast food. It fills the hole, and that’s all the consumer thinks it’s supposed to do. Ironically, this means value isn’t as important as it should be. Two Jack in the Box tacos for 99 cents are both cheap and a value, but why would you eat them unless it’s 2 a.m. and you’ve been drinking all night?

Wine should be more than that. Otherwise, we might as well drink light beer — same buzz, fewer calories, and just as cheap. Hence, how to tell the difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply:

• Is the wine varietally correct? Does the cabernet sauvignon taste like cabernet sauvignon, the merlot like merlot, and so forth? Or have all the varietal differences been taken out, in favor of making a smooth wine?

• Is it interesting? Most boring cheap wine tastes the same. The reds have lots of sweet fruit, some fake oak, and a minimum of tannins and acidity — another way to get to smooth. Chardonnay made this way tastes of vanilla and apple sauce, riesling is sweet and nothing more, and pinot grigio has a dollop of sweet white fruit and a vaguely turpentine flavor. An interesting wine is the opposite: You’re eager for the second sip, and you taste things that you make you smile.

• Does the label seem like it got more attention from the producer than the wine? After you’ve tasted the wine, does the it taste as cute or clever or hip as the label implied it would taste? Or is it just ordinary grocery store merlot?

? Do you want to buy it again? Not, “I’ll buy it again because it’s cheap and tasted OK,” but “Wow, that was really good. I want to share this with all my friends.” This is not an easy concept for most wine drinkers, who are so happy to find a wine that doesn’t offend them that they convince themselves that the wine is better than it is.

• Did the winemaker make an effort, or just go through the motions? And no, you don’t have to be a wine geek to figure this out. Crappy writing is crappy writing, and you don’t need a PhD in English to see the difference. Shoddy clothing is shoddy clothing, and you don’t need Vera Wang to tell you why. All you need to do is to pay attention to what you’re drinking, something else we’re afraid to do because it’s wine, and we’ve been told we don’t know enough to have an opinion.

More about cheap wine:
Can cheap wine do this?
Cheap wine can be intimidating
When cheap wine tastes cheap

Image courtesy of The Wandering Palate, using a Creative Commons license

Redd’s Wicked Apple: “Let’s make fun of wine”

Redd's Wicked AppleFar be it for the Wine Curmudgeon to criticize a multi-national company and a marketing campaign devised by people who are brilliant enough to work for it, when I’m just a guy at a keyboard who writes about cheap wine. But a recent Redd’s Wicked Apple commercial reminded me how creatively bankrupt so much of post-modern media is: “Let’s sell our product by making fun of wine!”

Original, isn’t it? And the commercial, like most wine humor, isn’t funny. It also borders on homophobic, implying that wine drinkers are somehow not complete men, and it uses African-Americans as a foil to show how cool Redd’s Wicked is. This approach, if I’m not mistaken, went out with “Super Fly” and the original “Shaft.” Unless, of course, you’re selling malt liquor to black people, which is what Redd’s Wicked is doing.

Not surprisingly, Redd’s is a product of Big Beer, desperate to find a way to stay relevant in the 21st century as its audience goes elsewhere. It’s hard to believe that the company that gave us the classic “Tastes great, less filling” commercials is reduced to this.

Wine of the week: Milagro Vina Fuerte 2011

Vina fuerteAldi’s Vina Decana, one of the great cheap wines in the 20-plus years I’ve been doing this, has apparently gone, leaving us almost as quickly as it appeared on the grocer’s store shelves. This is not unusual in wine, though I’ve never quite grown used to it. Wine can’t be made like a car, with a new model every year; there are too many vagaries of production, the supply chain, and the three-tier system.

The Decana’s replacement as Aldi’s private label Spanish tempranillo appears to be the Vina Fuerte ($5, purchased, 13%), though it’s from a different part of Spain. The first thing to know about the Fuerte is that it’s a perfectly competent red wine, and maybe even a little more than that, and certainly a value for $5. The problem is that it’s not the Decana, and it suffers by comparison.

Of course, almost any wine — and especially at this price — would. The Fuerte doesn’t have the Decana’s Spanish-style flair, and it’s not the kind of wine that makes you go, “Wow,” after the first sip. Rather, it’s more international in style, softer and with more oak showing, and cherry fruit instead of the Decana’s sour cherry. One plus, though: It does have the hint of orange peel that’s supposed to be there. This is red meat wine, though gentle enough for roast and grilled chicken.

Will I buy this again? Of course. The Fuerte is much better made than most of the boring — and even awful wine — for sale at this price. But I’ll always think of the Decana when I drink it.

Winebits 355: Underage drinking, lawsuits, drunks

wine news underage drinking ? You can’t learn from me: A study reported at the Partnership for Drug Free Kids found parents can’t teach their children responsible drinking. The catch? One definition of teaching responsible drinking is parents buying the booze for a beer bash. Sigh. How about parents letting their children have wine with dinner, to show them it’s not something unusual or forbidden? The study’s approach, to demonize booze, reminds me of the way we tried to demonize sex for teenagers, substituting abstinence for education. Which didn’t work very well. As I wrote when I was writing that sort of thing: “Teach kids to make intelligent decisions, and they ?ll make intelligent decisions. Tell kids what not to do, and they ?ll do what they ?re not supposed to do every time. Isn ?t that one of the first rules of being a good parent?”

? Even more lawyers: One of the first things I wrote here discussed fake wine terms; that is, those that appear on the bottle to describe wine but have no legal meaning and are used to confuse consumers. Now, it looks like we’re going to see some definition, with lawsuits filed against spirits producers who used the terms handmade and local, both of which have no legal standing but are used all the time. Even though the Wine Curmudgeon is not a lawyer, he has some advice for the producers they should listen to: Settle. You know, as well as I do, what’s going on here. And you don’t want to put that in front of a jury,

? No more, please, I’m a drunk: This item probably deserved its own post, complete with interview, picture, and my incredibly erudite comments in praise of the writer. But given that I’ve already written something like this and I don’t want to bore you, this will have to suffice: Janet Street-Porter, writing in London’s Daily Mail, has had her fill of government agencies telling her she is an alcoholic. “Two glasses of wine a night doesn’t mean I’m a drunk.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Wine to drink when the power goes out, 2014 edition

three cheap wines

The Wine Curmudgeon has entirely too much experience cooking like this.

Who knew, after last December’s ice storm and four days without power, that the Wine Curmudgeon would get to do it again — and only nine months later? Ain’t electricity deregulation grand, TXU?

We lost power for 2 1/2 days at the beginning of October after 30 minutes of rain and high winds. The difference this time is that temperatures were in the 70s and 80s and not the 20s and 30s. Hence, when it was time to eat dinner, I felt like drinking wine (though I had to use ice cubes for the white instead of leaving it on the kitchen table to chill).

The wine, in fact, was one of the highlights of the blackout (along with the Dallas Public Library, where my branch — despite the outages and years of draconian budget cuts by the shysters who run the city — somehow had electricity and Internet service). Otherwise, the Wine Curmudgeon was even more cranky and irritable than normal; I’m tired of losing electricity the way the rest of the United States gets an annual vacation.

So what did I drink?

Rene Barbier Mediterranean White NV ($4, purchased, 11.5%): My favorite cheap white wine was a godsend. When the power went off on Thursday afternoon, I screwed open a bottle, dropped in some ice, and tried to convince myself the lights would be back on that evening. The Spanish Barbier is made with the same grapes as cava and has many of the same flavors, though more lemon than apple. Very dry, very crisp, and always a terrific value.

Cote Mas Blanc Mediterrannee 2012 ($10 for a 1-liter bottle, sample, 12.5%): This French white blend of grenache blanc, vermentino, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc was almost $10 Hall of Fame quality. It really doesn’t need the chardonnay, which I assume was added to make it softer and more appealing to the mythical U.S. consumer who is supposed to need those things. Having said that, the first two grapes give it freshness and white fruit, and that’s really all it needs. Especially tasty with takeout from Cowboy Chicken, where they did yeoman duty dealing with the outage.

Cote Mas Rouge Intense Mediterrannee 2012 ($10 for a 1-liter bottle, sample, 13.5%): This red, like the Cote Mas white, comes from Paul Mas, who knows a thing or two about quality cheap wine. Again, my only complaint is that there is merlot and syrah, neither of which does much except make the wine more chalky. Trust me — a red from southern France with grenache, carignan, and cinsault can be delicious without any help, as we have learned with this style of red blend in Texas. But the wine is still enjoyable, with lots of dark fruit and soft tannins.

Know what I was glad I didn’t have drink? The $3 wines I tasted at the end of September. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Two terrific wines from Nieto Senetiner, plus two others well worth drinking

nieto senetiner wine reviewsThe Wine Curmudgeon has long been in a quandary about Argentine wine. The best tend to be expensive, and there are other wines I’d rather spend the money on than its malbecs and red blends. The least expensive wines are too often corporately dull, and overpriced at that.

Which is why it was such a pleasure to taste the wines from Nieto Senetiner, a 126-year-old Argentine producer whose wines were none of those things. Santiago Mayorga, one of the company’s winemakers, knew exactly what I was talking about when I explained my dilemma to him; the company’s approach, he said, was to offer better quality than grocery store malbecs, but at a better price than the country’s high-end wines.

Much better prices, actually. These four wines are each worth buying, and the first two are exceptional values and highly recommended:

? Torrontes 2013 ($12, sample, 13.5%): A bone dry torrontes, which is as welcome as it is rare. Most versions of this white wine, the most popular in Argentina, are sweet to off dry, and too many are sickly sweet. There are delicious off-dry torrontes, but this one has even those beat. Look for an almost lemon tonic flavor with a hint of orange peel, and much more subtle than a sauvignon blanc. Pair this with grilled vegetables, Thanksgiving, even fried fish.

?Bonardo 2012 ($13, sample, 14%): Malbec gets most of the attention, but bonardo has long been an important red grape in Argentina. This wine shows why — juicy strawberry, but also spicy and almost minty. Spaghetti wine in the finest sense of the word, as well as anything with red meat and roast chicken.

? Malbec 2012 ($13, sample, 14%): I drink very little malbec; even well-made versions are usually too soft and fruity for me. This wine, somehow, is varietally correct, but plummier, darker, and deeper, and the well-constructed tannins add interest. There is more to this than just cola and blueberry aromas.

? Don Nicanor Estate Malbec 2011 ($20, sample, 14.5%): This red takes the previous malbec to the next level, with more berry flavor and some black pepper without the alcohol getting in the way. Much more complex than I thought a malbec at this price could be.

A tip o’ the WC fedora to Eli Cohn at Veritas in Dallas, who helped out with the tasting and told me how good the bonardo would be.

Great quotes in wine history: Prince Charles

WordPress, the blog’s platform, is blocking TubeChop videos, so you can’t watch this clip. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Prince Charles’ reaction after a snooty Winestream Media critic gives his favourite $10 wine a 78. Who says the Windsors don’t have a sense of humor?

A tip o’ the Wine Curmudgeon’s fedora to the Dedoimedo website; this post is based on his “My reaction to — ” series. The video is courtesy of digitalmediafan via YouTube.