Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Yesterday, I felt like a glass of red wine, so I popped around to my local Tescos and picked up a bottle of Penfolds Rawson's Retreat Cabernet Sauvignon 2001. Penfolds introduced the Rawson's Retreat label as a new low end red wine in the mid 1990s, due to the fact that their previous low end red, Koonunga Hill, had become too expensive. At that time, the Rawson's Retreat came in two varieties only, a red and a while. The red varied in its composition from year to year. In some years it was a Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz, and in other years it was a Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz-Ruby Cabernet. My experience in the past was that it was decent in years when there was no Ruby Cabernet in it but a little rough in years when there was. In any event, shortly after that I ceased being a grad student and became a stockbroker, and moved on the more expensive wine, but in my more recent reduced circumstances I have been drinking cheaper wine again. (This is kind of fun, anyway. The trick is to know enough about wine that you can spend three or four pounds on a bottle and still get something good). In any event, I noticed that the Rawson's Retreat in Tescos was a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, which either meant that they had changed the grape content of that wine dramatically, or they have broadened their range. So I bought a bottle, took it home, and discovered that it was pretty good for the price (It cost five pounds). It's a wine intended for immediate dtrinking, and it has a nice, ripe blackcurrenty flavour to it. Little in the way of obvious tannins, and now bitterness to the aftertaste at all.

A quick check to the Penfolds website indicates that there are now three Rawson's retreat reds: a varietal merlot, the Cabernet, and the old Cabernet Shiraz. Plus there is a Bordeaux blend Koonunga Hill and a new range of mid-level wines called "Thomas Hyland". This actually isn't surprising. Penfolds is owned by Southcorp, a large conglomerate that owns about 25% of the Australian wine industry, which has been accumulated over time by acquiring a large number of smaller wineries. A couple of years ago, Southcorp announced that it was cutting back the number of labels under which it made wine, and concentrating on a few key brands. (Penfolds is their most famous brand, but they also own Lindemans, Wynns, and Rosemount, among others). Clearly we are starting to see the fruits of this, if you will excuse the expression. Clearly grapes from throughout the Southcorp empire are being used to produce much larger amounts of mass wine under the Penfolds brand. As long as the wine is good and doesn't damage the quality of the wine, this is a good move. Southcorp has dramatically increased the amount of wine it sells in the United States in the last couple of years, so it probably needs the extra volume.

The other interesting thing about this wine was the absence of a cork and the presence of a screwtop. This is part of an ongoing saga. Winemakers and consumers complain that with conventional cork, around 5% of all bottles of wine are spoiled by faulty corks, and some winemakers have been attempting to seal their bottles another way. There are two main approaches: one is a synthetic plug the same shape as a cork that can be placed in the top of the bottle in the same way as a cork and removed with a corkscrew, so preserving the ritual of opening a bottle of wine. The other is the screwtop. Both of these approaches have been growing in usage, particularly for ready to drink wines. (Nobody is quite sure what this kind of sealing will do to wines meant for lengthy cellaring, so these almost invariably still use corks). In turns of sealing the bottle best, a screw top probably does a better job than a cork, but there is a bit of a problem with perception. Screw tops are associated with really cheap wine. The Australian wine industry has been trying to shift this perception, but there is still a way to go. Still, a large number of Australian and New Zealand Reslings are being released with screw tops, and it is a trend we shall see more of. (A month or two back, I read about a Riesling producer that was using screw tops on its worst and very best wines, but not on the middle wines. The theory was that people who would buy the most expensive wine would know all about cork taint and the move to screw tops and wouldn't mind a bottle with a screwtop, but the people likely to buy the mid priced wine might not know, so therefore they were still being sold wine with a cork. I cannot remember which producer this one was, however).

Just as an aside, if you are given a bottle of wine in a restaurant that tastes of cork taint, it is acceptable to return the wine. This is one reason why you are given a chance to taste the wine immediately after it is opened, and also why in some restaurants the customer is actually handed the cork immediately after the bottle is opened. The customer can then smell the cork, and if it smells funny, this is the first sign that the wine might be oxidised. (The other reason for this practice is that the customer can look at the winemaker's name on the cork, to check that the bottle hasn't previously been opened and some lesser wine substituted). Still, not all restaurants properly understand the ritual. Geoff Merrill, a fine Australian winemaker (and also a man likely to win any competition held to determine which Australian filmmaker most looks like Merv Hughes) tells a story about once sending a wine back in a restaurant and telling the waiter that the wine is "corked", only to have the manager come over to his table to explain that "All our wines are corked, sir". (This was presumably before the days of screwtops).

And by the way, my Tescos supermarket in a not very upmarket part of South London had an excellent range of Penfolds wine: even a few bottles of the 1996 Grange (the best wine made in Australia) for 106 pounds per bottle. That's right. In supermarkets in Sydney you cannot buy wine. In London it is possible to quickly pop down to the supermarket to get a bottle of Grange.

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