In each issue of Halliday Wine Companion magazine, tasting team member Campbell Mattinson answers your burning wine questions. This week, we look back at a few of the great ones over time.
On sparkling choices
Q: I’d like to know more about what NV and vintage mean on a sparkling wine label. Is there a minimum amount of reserve stock that must be included in a non-vintage wine? Must vintage wines be aged for a defined period of time before release? We seem to pay more for vintage wines than non-vintage wines from the same range or winemaker, but shouldn’t it actually be more expensive for a winemaker to blend wines from multiple vintages? – Jennie Kane
A: There are different rules for different countries, but the essentials remain basically the same. Vintage sparkling wine must come from a single vintage (and especially in the case of French Champagne, from a good/special vintage). It’s an expression of that single season and in that sense, each vintage sparkling wine is unique. Whenever you combine ‘unique’ and ‘prestige’ it usually comes with a higher price tag. Non-vintage sparkling wines are blended from a range of vintages, usually to a house style. Consistent quality is the mantra rather than unique quality. Non-vintage sparkling wine isn’t just from the best or most special years; it includes the lesser years as well, though the blending process helps smooth out and/or maintain the quality. Again, in French Champagne terms, vintage must be aged on lees for a minimum of three years and is often aged for longer prior to release. Non-vintage Champagne has a much reduced time (prior to release) requirement. The processes involved with both vintage and non-vintage sparkling have their advantages and disadvantages, but vintage sparkling wine is more expensive to produce and makes quality harder to achieve – hence, when they get it right, it’s understandably more expensive.
On cork versus screwcap
Q: I’ve seen a huge shift from cork to screwcap over the past decade in Australia, which I applaud. Yet some big-name wines, such as Yalumba The Signature and Penfolds Grange, still use cork. As a consumer, why would I want to take the risk of buying something now and putting it away for 20 years, only to find it could be corked down the track? This is a significant factor that influences what I purchase these days. Are these wine companies still too beholden to French tradition despite their better judgement? – Brett Marks
A: It’s a question many wine drinkers ask, particularly in Australia. The examples above give a pretty clear prod towards the answer: the companies involved simply believe the people buying these wines are traditional buyers who would prefer these traditional reds to be sealed with a traditional cork. In Australia, there is a great deal of pressure on all wine companies to bottle their wines with a screwcap seal; in international markets the demand is still far less clear-cut. Indeed, most international markets prefer cork seals on their ultra-premium wines. ‘Market forces’ is the main reason why the above wines, and many more like them, are still sealed with a cork.
On decoding tasting notes
Q: Reading wine critiques is one of the joys of discovering the world of wine, yet deciphering wine terms can be tricky. The concept of ‘body’ or ‘length’ make sense to me; you can visualise what they may mean when tasting a wine. But a couple of recent terms I’ve seen have me stumped. Wines have been called ‘well structured’ and ‘focused’. Could you please explain what these mean? – Adam Newman
A: Name a term, any term, and there will be examples where it’s been used well or abused. The main – but by no means only – structural elements are tannin and acid, so any wine with minimal tannin and minimal acid would feel loose and free flowing, which may indeed be the very effect the winemaker was intending. Lots of tannin and lots of acid don’t automatically make for a well-structured wine; it’s all about the overall balance of the wine’s various components and the interplay between them. ‘Focused’ is often a related (or indeed substitute) term. Some wines – usually low in acid and/or tannin – just feel fruity and loose. These wines would be the opposite of focused.
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Next article: Campbell shares 11 must-try reds.