'Affordable' wine isn't always fine

I just tasted a few wonderful wines brought to me by a few suppliers. I think it is fascinating that there is so much subjectivity when it comes to tasting wines. Flavors are perceived by different folks, differently. That being said, there are some fundamental rules associated with the evaluation of wine which should be observed.

Wine should taste like wine. I understand that this should make sense but there are many folks who try to make something out of wine which is not there or ignore obvious flaws in wine. Some wine tasters add adjectives or wax eloquently over wine when there simply is nothing there to allow for this.

There is very little objective tasting, that is, critical evaluation going on in the wine business today. There seems to be a real hunt for dollars more than a hunt for quality wine. I am seeing quite a few marginal wines hitting the shelves which, simply, should not be considered for the marketplace. There is a big push for "more affordable" wine because, I think, of the economic times we are living in today.

Here are some of the problems I am experiencing in the under-$10 mark:

  • Wood — I do not know why, but many of the releases in the under-$10 mark are showing signs of way too much oak. My thought is that the wine makers are using the less expensive wines to "season" the oak barrels, that is, to break the new oak in.
  • Wacky acids — There is quite a bit of acid adjustment going on in some of the less expensive wines, especially from the wines from the less desirable growing areas of California such as the central valley. These fruity, punchy, red wines are being adjusted with acid and the wines taste manufactured.

The tell-tale sign of many of these wines is a "pop tart" finish not unlike the little beasties one puts in the toaster with this sharp fruit taste in the finish. Acid adjusted wines are many times very disjointed and the wine feels "factory" or cheap the palate. In the hotter climates, we see acid-adjusted wines from time to time and I simply do not like them very much. They are, however, inexpensive.

  • Bottle variation — This is a weird problem with cheaper wines. Bottle variation means that there is an inconsistency within a batch of wine, or even within a case of 12 bottles. I tasted four very inexpensive red wines from Spain, all from the same vintage and all four of them were vastly different in taste. In fact, these $3.50 wholesale cost wines were tasted side by side and it was incredible how different the wines were from each other. Bottle variation can be very common in inexpensive wines.
  • Microbial problems — Some of the very inexpensive wines from South America and Europe are simply not watched close enough. Many of these wineries make so much wine so quickly that quality control is marginal. Quality is sacrificed for speed and quantity. I have tasted sulfur problems in these less expensive wines as I have never seen before. There are also other microbial problems which come from sloppy wine making.
  • Viticultural problems — The first wine evaluation I conduct at the wine appreciation class at Southern Oregon University consists of the "cheapest" bottles of wine found on the shelves today. These wines exhibit an overwhelming amount of flaws and are a good study for students wanting to know what can happen when things go terribly wrong.

Identifying problems at the beginning of the term is helpful as the students lock them in and if or when these problems crop up later in the evaluation part of the class, they are readily identified. Much of what we see in flawed wine comes from poor vineyard management, particularly with rot, at different levels, which can be identified in many low-priced wines. Unkempt vines, grapes picked too early or too late, especially after rains, can be culprits to any sound wine making.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.

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