Never a better time for good value wine

THE fallout from yesterday’s General Election is of course dealt with elsewhere in this paper. But while this page is a politics-free zone, there might be a bit of an overlap between the big economic picture over there, and the antics we get up to with corkscrew and glass over here.

To sum it up in a single line: times are going to get even tougher for a while — but the good news is there’s a great deal you can do about it.

In a few ways, the wines we choose are akin to politicians we elect. No, they’re not all the same. We get more out of them by adopting a politely assertive and sceptical mien. And it’s good to remember they’re there to serve us, and not the other way round.

And so it’s time to call to order the first session of that I call An Bord Sip — by means of a tongue-in-cheek tribute to An Bord Snip. The only item on the agenda is drinking better, and better value, wine. And the headliner of the first session is one particular wine which illustrates how, if we’re not careful, we can end up paying for a wine’s reputation rather than how much we actually enjoy it.

Cloudy judgement

IT never ceases to amaze me how, at the mere mention of certain iconic wines, many wine fans find their judgement goes out the window.

We seem to love wine to have some oul’ story attached to it. And the higher the price, the more impressed we tend to be. At the risk of appearing to be a gender traitor, I think we men are particularly susceptible to this vinous trainspotting.

Among the most common examples of such iconic wines are certain chateaux in Bordeaux or negotiants from Burgundy. But one particularly good example is Cloudy Bay — a highly sought-after sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

In fairness, the wine did first win attention and its storied reputation due to an unprecedented achievement of its winemakers a few decades ago. In the mid-1980s, an Australian wine entrepreneur made the quite mad decision to make a big sauvignon blanc-based wine in New Zealand. David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle in Western Australia had came across an experimental sauv blanc from New Zealand — at that time an overlooked backwater with zero export potential.

He was smitten by Marlborough sauvignon blancs so he bought up some grapes, rented space in a winery and had a winemaker put on a batch. Named for its location, Cloudy Bay, the thing was an overnight sensation in 1986, winning major awards in London and Paris. This was an unprecedented achievement for a ‘new world’ wine.

But that’s precisely the point. Cloudy Bay is no longer unprecedented, and there are many good, fine and excellent wines from New Zealand and other parts of the new world.

In my view, Cloudy Bay is very, very good. But that doesn’t mean it’s worth the price it commands — around the €30 mark.

It’s just one example of overwrought reputation — because price and quality of wines are not as closely associated as we may think.

How do I know this? Well firstly just by observing my own reactions at wine tastings and routinely finding cheap-as-chips bottles can often outdo their premium counterparts. Secondly, I do observe the reactions of other people — informally at wine tastings and even dinner parties and so on — to wines. Again as a matter of routine, the wine with the big reputation is left to languish on the sideboard as the guests fall upon and demolish a far cheaper bottle. (Although crucially, this is more likely to happen when they’re unaware of that price differential.)

Thirdly, a multitude of scientific and statistical studies provide evidence for the notion that we tend to be biased in favour of more expensive wines. (There are details and links about these on my blog.)

The latest bit of evidence of our clouded judgement comes from Fiona Beckett in the Guardian. Challenged somewhat to comprehend the remarkable new trend in lower-priced wines from New Zealand, she slipped two of the lowest-priced kiwi sauvignon blancs she could find into an informal blind tasting among a few friends. Also in the line-up was the iconic and very expensive Cloudy Bay. No doubt you’ll be unsurprised by now to learn that (1) two of the four friends singled out the cheapest wine of the lot as their favourite (as it happens, it’s one I’ve highlighted here in the past and is featured below again). And (2) none of the tasters singled out the Cloudy Bay. What does that tell you?

I’ve never bought a bottle of the stuff, don’t want to, never expect to, and will enjoy great jollification without ever doing so. Look lads — there are fantastic wines out there that don’t charge a premium for reputation. Let’s make a virtue of snouting those out, shall we?

* Which brings us to today’s selections, two fab bargains reduced at SuperValu, and that budget kiwi sauvignon blanc.

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