Sunday 29 May 2011

First Growth Wines for Less than a Dollar?

Chateau Haut-Brion 1997: £0.25. Chateau Latour 2001: £1.23. No, it's not a dodgy sale by some back street peddler in China, but rather a new auction model by Unique Wine Auctions. Instead of the winner being the one who puts in the highest bid, it is the lowest unique bid that wins the auction. The site makes money by charging for each bid put in. Each bidder has an account with the company in which he buys credits which are used for bidding.

It's a bit like buying a lottery ticket, and I am sure that the owners of the business have worked their sums to see if it is a viable business. Certainly with the prices of fine wine being what they are, it is easy to see why this model would attract a lot of attention. The company even includes free delivery for UK based addresses. 

The site has been in operation since February 2011, and it seems to focus on high quality Bordeaux wines, understandably so since these are the wines that generate the most interest due to their rarity and price. To encourage people to make more bids, every time a bid is placed the system will send a response letting the bidder know if the bid is "unique but not the lowest", "not unique" or currently the "lowest unique bid". The wine currently on auction is a Chateau Gruaud Larose 2000, with a maximum bid of £9.00. That means that there are 900 unique bid prices.

I wonder how the system will handle an increasing number of members. More bids mean a decreasing likelihood of unique bids, which can be countered by either limiting the number of new members (which doesn't generate profits for the company) or by increasing the maximum bid price (which means that a bidder would have to put in more bids to try and find the "winning combination"). The worst scenario of course, would be that the company ends up broke and all the unused credits are lost. Then again, it wouldn't be a lottery without an element of risk.

The Joys of Bordeaux

When I first started drinking wine, it was mainly New World wines from Australia and New Zealand. They were approachable, didn't need extensive aging and had identifiable fruit character. And though I am still a big fan of Margaret River Chardonnays (uber rich wines which taste like buttered toast) and New Zealand Pinot Noirs (silky, seductive and yet with loads of fruit), I find myself increasingly drawn towards the holy grail of wine lovers, fine Bordeaux reds. 

I'm not talking about your average AOC Bordeaux, but rather the good stuff, those wines which have attained the exalted ranking of being a classified cru. Of these rankings, the 1855 Medoc classification has the most prestige, quite impressive for a system that is over a hundred and fifty years old! The rankings for the 1855 classification were drawn up based on the price of the wines at that time, and they still command a lofty premium over other Bordeaux wines. 

These classified wines require a great deal of patience (and preferably deep pockets). At a recent wine dinner, it was those wines that had been aged at least eight years that started to show some lovely character. Younger wines, though well made and delicious to drink, tended to taste almost uniform. The highlight was a Chateau Giscours 1990 from Margaux, which had exotic dried herbs and licorice notes. It took twenty years for this wine to reach its peak. In a world where instant gratification is all the buzz, we frequently consume wines before they have the chance to mature into something interesting.

The ability of wine to evolve as it ages is one of its most interesting properties. Milk goes sour, soft drinks lose their fizz and flavour, but wines, like people, age slowly, losing the fresh fruitiness of youth and developing subtle, complex flavours. An exploration of Bordeaux wines is all the more interesting because it tracks the evolution of these wines over the years. 

Thursday 12 May 2011

Nascetta, A Little Known Varietal, and Creative Labelling

No doubt about it, Italy is huge. With 20 administrative regions all making wine, a person could study Italian wine all his life and barely scratch the surface of all there is to know. Which is why I jumped at the chance to attend an Italian wine tasting last Wednesday at the World of Wines branch in Novena.

Among the usual suspects of Chianti and Amarone was a little known Piedmontese wine made from the indigeneous varietal Nascetta. So obscure that it is not even mentioned in The Oxford Companion to Wine, it is grown by only a handful of wineries. This particular wine was produced by Elvio Cogno, located in the Langhe area of Piedmont. Back in 1994, Elvio Cogno was the first winery to bottle this wine, and they had to label it as a vino da tavola (table wine) as it was not an approved varietal for quality wine. It was only in 2000 that Nascetta was elevated to DOC level, and even then it could only be used in the blend but not mentioned on the label. To get around this, winemaker Valter Fissore cleverly named the wine Anas-Cetta. Since brand names are permissible on wine labels whether or not they are registered, Valter was able to use varietal labelling by disguising it as a brand. Bravo! 

The wine has undergone six months aging in stainless steel tanks and a further six months in French oak. Common with most Italian whites, the nose is rather neutral, with notes of peach and apricot. It has a light body with higher than normal alcohol (for Italian whites) at 14%. The palate is slightly herbaceous, with flavours of fuzzy peach skin and stone fruit. A difficult wine to enjoy at first, as it lacks the punchy forward fruit that Riesling, or Chardonnay for example possess. As a wine lover though, I am always overjoyed to find something different.

A final note on the labelling regulations, as of 2010 the varietal is allowed to be mentioned on the label. Wineries such as Rivetto are experimenting with skin maceration to extract greater aromas from the grape. Watch closely, the future of Nascetta as a nobel grape unfolds now.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Regulations on Alcohol Advertising

The beer industry is really clever. Just look at their ads and see how they cater specifically to different groups. For example, wander into any open-air food court in Singapore and chances are good that the pillars will be plastered with advertisements featuring cheongsam clad pouty ladies. At night, groups of middle aged men will be seen converging at tables and flirting with the "Beer Aunties", cheerful, busty women who will regularly top up their drinks.

Wander into a sports pub and the image subtly changes. Football matches are heavily sponsored by beer companies. The players wear shirts emblazoned with beer logos. And what could be a better match for spicy chicken wings than a cool draught? Now the advertisements emphasise friendly competition and bonding, targeting the younger crowd that frequent these places.

I am reminded of the early days of smoking advertisements, where it was permissible to market cigarettes as making one "cool" (anyone remember the Marlborough Man?). Although the moderate consumption of alcohol does not pose a significant health risk, alcohol is still lumped into the "sin" category, attracting more regulation and taxes. My Diploma assignment this past week was to research alcohol advertisements, and there are suprisingly quite a few guidelines on what can and cannot be shown. For example, in the European Union, the following rules apply:
  • it cannot be aimed specifically at minors, or in particular depicting minors consuming these beverages.
  • it shall not link the consumption of alcohol to enhanced physical performance or driving.
  • it shall not create the impression that the consumption of alcohol contributes towards social or sexual success.
  • it shall not claim that alcohol has therapeutic qualities.
  • it shall not encourage immoderate consumption of alcohol.
  • it shall not place emphasis on high alcoholic content as being a positive quality of the beverages.

With the exception of the first rule, alcohol advertising does sometime walk a fine line. Tiger Beer caught some flak in 2008 for a UK ad featuring a ladyboy cabaret performer next to a bottle of Tiger Beer and the tagline "The Far East’s Most Desirable Export Since 1932". People linked the ad as saying that beer and sex were two of Asia's best exports, and the Advertising Standards Authority forced Tiger Beer to pull the ad.

Even worse is when someone else makes use of your brand to make an ad. The Guinness Good Times video created a buzz when it came out on Youtube, but it wasn't even an official ad. Diageo (the owner of Guinness) said that "Guinness is in no way associated with this video, and has approached YouTube to have it removed. We are proud of our brands, and our commitment to responsible marketing, and this is not how we want our brand portrayed."