(Photo: with legendary Winemaker, Professor Denis Dubourdieu)
–By Ranjith Chandrasiri-
Not long ago, one of the first things they taught you at wine school was that, if you wanted to evaluate the quality of the wine in front of you, first of all you must check its provenance. In other words, before making a judgment on the condition of the wine, you needed to examine where it had come from. Wine was an intimidating, jargon-riddled subject studied by only a privileged few. Make no mistake; fermented grape juice has come a long way since then.
Until relatively recently, entry into “Club du Vin” required a geological qualification and the elite club was off limits for New World lads. To put it bluntly, wine was elitist, snobbish and over-complicated.
Today, that situation no longer exists. Who would have thought that we would see California wine being sold for hundreds of Dollars a bottle? Who would have expected tiny, obscure Pomerol properties would sell their wines for thousands of Dollars or we would see a $100+ California wine with a screw cap rather than a cork?
You can now ask for a glass of wine in a pub and be fairly sure it won’t require a soda-squirt life-saver. You can now pick up a decent bottle of wine from places like Chile and Argentina, which were unheard of in the past and people won’t laugh at you if you lay down a cellar of New World wines.
Today, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you earn or what you know; the door is now wide open for all and there is no dress code required. You can know zilch about wine, but still be able to choose a good bottle off the shelves of a supermarket. You can be earning an average salary, but be able to buy something that tastes good. You can be in the middle of nowhere, but still find a bottle of Chardonnay. The wine snobs haven’t all gone away, but the new democracy of the bottle shop has left them an increasingly irrelevant and powerless bunch.
I am excited about the wine world today. Thanks to new technology and better-managed vineyards, the overall standard of wine we drink today is much higher than the stuff drunk two decades ago.
I must admit, part of me is getting a bit disillusioned though. There is an increase in the number of very poor wines made and a depressing trend towards marketing-led wines. Producers seem to be spending more time in “brand-storming” meetings coming up with daft names and silly packaging than improving the quality of the products.
While on the subject of brands, too many once-reliable names have begun slipping off the “value-for-money” rails, pushing brand loyalty to its limits with over-priced, over-stretched wines. Too often it’s a case of “great packaging, shame about the contents”.
On the outside, you get the sexy, slim, tall bottle with a designer, minimalist label and on the inside, you find inky dark colour(in the red corner, that is), super-concentrated fruit, velvety soft tannins -too good to be real and, of course, the obligatory dose of sweet oak.
At the same time as they’ve been perfecting the international critic-pleasing styles of premium wine, producers particularly in the New World have cynically been creating new levels of premium-ness to satisfy their thirst for higher margins. I haven’t still been able to figure out the difference between a super-premium and an ultra-premium wine.
Increasingly, the portfolio of blue chip wines is becoming beyond the reach of most. Unless the First Growth producers release the wine version of those miniature selections, the taste of Mouton, Lafite, Latour and the like will remain a sensory experience reserved for the rich and the famous.
With the exciting notion of using wine as an investment medium, most of the fine wines languish in cellars around the world usually with little prospect of being opened. It is an interesting point to debate whether wine should be appreciated as a drink or as an investment asset.
Wine is one of the most fascinating, life-affirming, soul warming drinks in the world although it is not traditionally consumed in Sri Lanka. We still have a “complicated attitude” towards drinking wine. But it is worth noticing that drinking wine is fast becoming a new lifestyle trend as a healthy alternative to consumption of whisky and Arrack among young professionals to corporate world, women and more.
Finally, I share my frustration that Sri Lanka is becoming the dumping ground for cheap, poor quality wine for which we are obliged to pay ridiculously high prices much more than the rest of the world as a consequence of high taxes, complicated wine import policies and restrictions on alcoholic advertising which holds back the opportunity of enjoying a good glass of wine for many Sri Lankans.