Vine stars... personal taste is the ultimate factor
Wine expert Kevin O'Callaghan on how to find a new favourite
What makes a star wine? Is it the eyebrow-raising wine label plucked from obscurity from that little known region or that grape variety only you can pronounce?
Maybe it's the dusty bottle of 1979 Beaujolais Nouveau that Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses would order? Or that bottle with the large dent at the bottom that so obviously means a quality wine - right? Well, let's just presume that none of the above automatically denotes quality - and in the case of the dusty Beaujolais, absolutely not. A star wine is simply a wine which gets committed to memory for all the right reasons - and they're not the kind of reasons Del Boy thinks are important.
A star wine could be something you experienced with friends or family. Perhaps it's a bottle shared on a special evening with a loved one. Maybe it's the bottle that, you feel, tastes like it cost a good €10 more than you paid for it. Whatever the reason, at the end of the day, there's only one true judge and that is you; the person actually drinking the wine.
As wine buyer for SuperValu, I know that personal taste is the ultimate factor in deciding what makes a star wine for the individual. However, for those who want to expand their repertoire of wines and seek out those gems, below I share my tips on what I look for when selecting a star wine for you, the true judge.
Tasting wine involves seeking out each taste characteristic to understand the wine completely as you experience it in your mouth. A wine has many contributing components, from fruit flavours and mouth-watering acidity, to the texture-building tannins in red wines and, of course, the alcohol level. The wine maker will strive to bring all of these elements together in harmony to deliver a balanced wine. Just like listening to a symphony's individual instruments coming together to make music, I taste for the harmony of the individual wine notes.
Wines with weak acidity will feel flat in the mouth, lacking that distinctive zest of whites. If the alcohol is too high, it will overrun the fruit, masking its flavours. Balance should be found in any wine, be it a €10 or €50 bottle.
2 Varietal or regional excellence
When I'm tasting wines of a single grape - known as a varietal - or a wine from a region famous for a certain style, it is important that these wines, tasted blind, display exactly the characteristics expected of them. In cases when expectations are exceeded, then my choice is all the easier - especially if the price is right!
3 Quality to price ratio
This is not something that you will see often in wine reviews, but the ratio of quality to price forms a very important part of the overall selection process.
Some people have a habit of saying that a wine was excellent when they've paid a lot for it. Others are disappointed to discover that what looked like great-priced wine was barely worth opening.
Yet, we should note the important difference between price and value: some of the very best value wines are not the cheapest on display.
I find great satisfaction in discovering and enjoying a new wine that I would have happily paid a little more.
This is one of the simplest guides to a star wine - the taste you feel you could have paid a little more for.
The new names to know
Over the last year I find myself increasingly commenting on how Irish consumers are expanding their repertoire of wine to include little-known brands and lesser-known grapes. At SuperValu we have become more adventurous, too. Big brands will always be relevant and will always have their place - they always deliver. The problem with being reliable, though, is that wineries looking to target global markets will aim for safe ground and will do so via the biggest-selling grapes by volume: white wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay and red wines from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. There's nothing wrong with that, but if you want to expand your knowledge, then have some fun with other varieties. Start by looking at the grape on the label or by looking at alternative countries.
Lesser-known grapes deliver brilliant value. So what are the grapes or wines that are making waves? Albariño, Carignan, Carménère, Mourvèdre, Negroamaro, Nero d'Avola, Picpoul, Viognier… the list goes on. Most, if not all, are unfamiliar names yet they all sell well. Many have been drunk for years, hidden behind what is deemed to be the more important call-out: the appellation or demarcation for the wine region. For example, Mourvèdre is one of the main grapes of the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape and if you have ever drunk an Italian Gavi, then you've also been drinking the grape Cortese. Who knew? This is why lesser-known grapes deliver such brilliant value, as they haven't reached the global heights of other wines.
In the right hands, these grapes have the diversity and ability to produce brilliant wines. This means more adventurous wine drinkers can find some real gems, at a price that appeals, in wines that will surprise.
Isn't that the fun of buying wine? So look to expand your horizons - I promise your enjoyment of wine will improve tenfold. You're bound to come across a few that won't agree with you, as do I, but don't let that stop you.
KEVIN'S STAR WINES
Here are some of my favourite value busters, with one criteria in mind: I want quality wines that challenge and surprise me, and that deliver more than what I paid for.
1 Abellio Albariño, €13.99. A trending white from Spain.
2 Nugan Estate Dreamers Chardonnay, €12.99. An Aussie wine-maker's delight.
3 Arbos Sangiovese, €12.99. An Italian supremo.
4 Cantina Tombacco Aglianico, €12.99. Big, bold and unknown.
5 Hommage du Rhone Vinsobre, €15.99. A classic French, without the price tag.