One would think that it would be incredibly difficult to rate wine as if it was a refrigerator. There are objective measurements for refrigerators — how well does it maintain temperature? — and hardly any for wine.
Nevertheless, Consumer Reports, which has been rating products for some 80 years, does wine. I don't know that I agree with all of the choices in the December issue (a famous critter wine made it), but I can't argue with their methodology. This is about as objective as wine tasting gets.
"We're very specific about what we're looking for," says Maxine Siegel (no relation), who oversees the wine project for the magazine. "There are acceptable standards that we're looking for. And it does have to be a tasty wine."
A long time ago, before livestock wines and malbecs from Argentina, Americans drank cheap French wine. And one of the most important cheap French wines came from Mouton Cadet. Mouton was part of Le Famille Rothschild, which included Mouton Rothschild, a Bordeaux first growth that was (and still is) one of the great wines of the world. I'm not sure those of us who drank the Cadet understood what that meant, but the label was classy and we were drinking French wine — which was a big deal 30 years ago.
These days, Mouton is not what it used to be. It's still a major brand, but it's just another of many major brands. Much has changed since Mouton's heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the Australians, Chileans and Argentines have mostly replaced the French as the world's source of cheap wine.
In fact, I have been debating whether to review the Cadet for a couple of months, and have always passed. I didn't have the heart to buy the wine, taste it, and discover that another part of my past was gone. Still, when Mouton sent samples this fall, I decided to take a chance.
I'm glad I did. The Cadet ($10, sample) has changed significantly since the old days. It's more fruit forward, with a lemony-grapefruit flavor more reminiscent of Chilean sauvignon blanc than the typical slate and minerality of a white Bordeaux. This change is aimed at the modern American palate, and it pretty much works. I don't know that I like the new style better than the old, but the Cadet offers $10 worth of value. And that's the important thing.
Reviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month. This month, a special all red wines edition.
? Bonny Doon Contra 2009 ($14, sample): This Rhone blend is not exactly an upscale version of the old Big House Red, but it’s close enough. Lots of spice and fruit, though it does need food.
? William Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($23, sample): A surprisingly well done and balanced Napa cabernet that is more or less affordable. It’s a step up from more inexpensive cabernets like Avalon and 337, with more body and structure.
? 181 Merlot 2008 ($15, sample): A merlot from the same company that does the 337 cabernet sauvignon. Offers structure and substance for less than $25, which doesn’t happen often. On the other hand, the tasting notes compare Lodi, where the grapes are from, to merlot’s Garden of Eden in Pomerol, which is a bit much.
Regular visitors here will notice that there is no picture of Cristalino. Welcome to the wonderful world of American jurisprudence and the foolishness of the wine business.
In August, a federal district court in Minneapolis ruled that Cristalino, which is a much beloved $7 Spanish sparkling wine, infringed on the trademark of Cristal, a Champagne that costs about $200 a bottle and is favored by people who drive Escalades. Or, as the attorneys for Champagne Louis Roederer, the French luxury brand that owns Cristal, wrote: “The Defendants ? use of CRISTALINO on their sparkling wine product is an illegitimate brand extension that trades on the reputation and image of the famous mark, CRISTAL. Consumers likely believe that CRISTALINO sparkling wine is associated with, sponsored by, or is in some way connected with the maker of the prestige champagne CRISTAL.”
Sigh. And people wonder why the Wine Curmudgeon is so cranky. The Champagne business has been in tatters since the recession started, and Roederer decided to spend money on this lawsuit? The judge, in deciding the case, wrote that there was evidence that consumers could be confused, and if my reading of the law is correct, that was enough to decide in Roederer’s favor. It didn’t matter whether Cristal lost sales to Cristalino (which was unclear). Cristalino had to redesign and re-label its bottle, which is now white and includes a disclaimer that says it isn’t affiliated with Roederer or Cristal.
So this is what I’m going to do: Never drink a bottle of Cristal (which isn’t a problem, since I can’t afford it). Never, after this moment, write about or review a Roederer product, which include Roederer and Scharffenberger sparkling wines in California, a half a dozen or so French still wine brands, and the Portuguese Ramos Pinto label. And, of course, welcome Cristalino (purchased) into the 2011 $10 Hall of Fame, because it offers everything Cristal doesn’t — quality and value. And, yes, it would quite nice at Thanksgiving.
Why wine is about more than points, snobs and geeks:
I don't get to see my family more than a couple of times a year; call it one of the vagaries of post-modern life. So when I did get to Chicago earlier this month, my brother sent me an email: Check my cellar, and pick the wine to have with dinner — pot roast with gravy and roasted potatoes and onions. Jim is a wine aficionado of some repute, and among his favorites are the French Cote du Rhones. He considers the best Rhone wines to be tremendous values given the silly prices that high end Bordeaux and Burgundy go for, and he is exactly right.
I picked two: an early '90s Guigal that was starting to show its age, but was still fine, and the Telegraphe ($50, purchased). The Telegraphe is an example of classic Rhone winemaking from the region of Ch teauneuf-du-Pape, and the wine has been a standard for decades. This vintage was no exception. It had everything it was supposed to have — the lead pencil aroma, red fruit, lots of spice and some herbs, and all integrated in a marvelously complex way. The wine was still a bit young, but certainly ready to drink.
But that's not why I'm going to remember the wine, as good as it tasted. I'm going to remember it because Jim brought it and our family shared it. And when someone asks me about what I like about Rhone wines or the Telegraphe, I'll tell them about drinking it with my family. Which is a whole lot more important than the score it got.
Consistency is the difference between great cheap wine and ordinary cheap wine. Two Buck Chuck, for all of its acclaim, does not taste the same from year to year, and its quality goes up and down with regularity. Even better made wines, like Meridian, suffer from this problem. One vintage will be terrific and the next will be much less than that (which is why its chardonnay is dropping out of the $10 Hall of Fame next year).
Bogle's wines, on the other hand, do not have this problem. I have been writing about cheap wine for almost 20 years, and for almost 20 years I have always depended on Bogle. It has never let me down. The petite sirah ($10, purchased) is the winery's showpiece, an outstanding example of the producer's quality and consistency. It is always clean and always varietally correct, which means it's not the same thing as a syrah and is not made to taste like one. This is saying something given the current trend toward blending varietal wines to make them sweeter and fruitier in a misguided attempt to appease the American palate.
Look for berry fruit, a touch of oak, and tannins at the end that give the wine some welcome oomph. This is a burly red meat wine — pot roast and gravy, stews that have been cooking all day, and the like. Highly recommended, and the kind of $10 wine to drink to celebrate the blog's third birthday. It's the kind of cheap wine that makes writing about cheap wine a pleasure.
I can hear the complaining now: "Not another rose, Wine Curmudgeon. Aren't you tired of them yet?"
Not at all. I've never understood the reluctance for rose among so many wine drinkers (and sparkling wine too, for that matter). It's cheap and it's food friendly. And, best of all, it's cheap. Some of the hesitation, certainly, comes from the wine drinker's reluctance to be caught drinking pink wine, since they are terrified this will bring stares and giggles from the wine snobs. Fortunately, I don't care about stuff like that. And, with Thanksgiving a couple of weeks away, roses like the Maremma are the kinds of wine that more people should consider.
So what about the Maremma ($11, purchased)? It's Italian, a blend of sangivoese and cabernet sauvignon from Tuscany. Look for pleasant tart cherry and cranberry fruit, but nothing too extreme, and a bit of a mineral finish. In this, it's a very old fashioned kind of rose — dry and unassuming. I tasted it, put the glass down, and wasn't sure if I liked it. But the next thing I knew, the bottle was mostly empty and I was thinking about how pleasant it had been. Drink this chilled, but pair it with food. Hamburgers would be good, and so would many chicken dishes.