Wine Editor Mary Dowey on Preserving Integrity

Fake wine news is on the rise! MARY DOWEY on why wine critics must preserve integrity …

The Trump effect has apparently dribbled over into wine. Eric Asimov, wine critic of the New York Times, wrote recently about how his favourite drink has become an easy target for American populists to hiss at. Wine experts are seen as pompous, misleading and irrelevant because (so the argument runs) most people prefer to drink cheap plonk.

Of course it’s different on this side of the Atlantic, you suppose? Maybe not entirely. I’ve been writing about wine long enough to see major shifts – some encouraging, some perplexing – in the way it is perceived, publicised and purchased.

Twenty years ago, hundreds of wine appreciation courses were run all over Ireland every winter. These days the number is infinitely smaller. Today’s wine consumers are far more confident, retailers say. I see this as a positive development, because wine, with its fancy language and its arcane rituals, has intimidated too many people for too long.

But flip that shiny Irish coin over and you may glimpse developments close to those that are causing Eric Asimov unease. Fuelled by the internet and social media, the democratisation of taste has turned anybody who can click a phone camera button into a travel, fashion or food writer. Or a wine commentator. What harm in that? Not much, provided some level of expertise is still valued. Wine is a complex subject: regions, grape varieties, vintages, methods, producers’ reputations, nuances of flavour. Dumb it down too radically and half the fascination is lost. A wine critic’s role is to taste, explain and highlight the best bottles among the 35 billion produced each year.

Tasting is crucial: only by sampling wine after wine – several thousand a year for most critics – is it possible to distinguish the magnificent from the middling and the mediocre. Not a bad job, people say, chuckle, chuckle. No indeed (if you don’t mind blackening your teeth), but it’s one that’s poorly understood.

No serious critic will pronounce on a wine without having tasted it and made an honest, independent assessment. Oh, but influencers will – and in wine, as in so many other spheres, their influence is expanding. That gushing comment on a blog or on Twitter … was it posted by a proficient and unbiased taster? Or was an influencer paid to come up with a positive “opinion”? Content providers feeding hungry digital platforms may also blur the line between editorial and advertising until it looks hangover-fuzzy. Fake wine news is on the rise.

Which means that critics (real ones) need to shout louder to be heard above the clamour of commercially driven drivel. Experience, research, measured judgment … these things matter. Without them there isn’t a hope of identifying true bargains or genuinely exciting bottles.

Three wines to try

STEFANO AMERIGHI CORTONA SYRAH JULIE & GIULIA 2015. Update on Tuscany: the Cortona region is now making Syrahs swish enough to worry producers in the Northern Rhône. Like this elegant biodynamic number. Alcohol: 13%. From Mitchell & Son, IFSC, Glasthule, Avoca & www.mitchellandson.com; Sheridans Cheesemongers shops; www.siyps.com, €24-€25.

KAIKEN TERROIR SERIES MALBEC, MENDOZA 2017. Voted Wine of the Year in the Irish Wine Show awards 2018-9 run by the National Off-Licence Association, this silky Malbec has enough poise and verve to make others look clunky. Alcohol: 14%. From NOffLA off-licences nationwide, usually €17.99.

VERY RARE PALO CORTADO NV. Supermarket gems are thin on the ground but here’s a stylish exception. Made by top bodega Emilio Lustau, this rich, nutty, warming, bone-dry sherry is just what January needs. Enjoy it with mature cheese, ham or beef. Alcohol 19%. From Marks & Spencer, 37.5cl, €12.

@MaryDowey

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