20060116

A Consumer Guide: Once bitten by the Asian ladybug, but not shy

asian lady beetleYou win some, you lose some. I'm sure the winemaker has often thought these words. In the world of wine there is always a gamble. So much of viniculture depends on Mother Nature, unpredictable for the most part and not interested in the future cuvée we've all got in mind. But I would suggest that win some/lose some doesn't end with producers. I'm of course thinking of the wine consumer here. Why? Because I'm one (and apparently a selfish one at that). But also because of the following factors:

Exhibit A: Corks. Typically, cellar dwellers and wine collectors see natural cork, the most prevalent wine stopper around, as risky business because it is susceptible to a certain kind of mould. This can turn wine storage into a game of Russian roulette. When cork breaks down like this, the ageing wine takes on undesirable corkiness in taste and smell. In the case of old expensive bottles, it's like an aces-high poker hand has suddenly lost its nerve. Poof! A fine investment becomes money thrown away. Pity there's no agreement you signed with the cork farmer when you purchased the product. So you lose that one, and pray that the rest in the cellar won't be as unlucky.

Exhibit B: Mother Nature, back for more. Even when the vintner has decoded the climate and conditions to produce a successful vintage, Mother Nature can still come back to haunt you. That wine, finished though perhaps still waiting for its drinking peak, continues to play victim to acts of God like the flood that swamps your basement wine cellar or the heat wave that busts your air conditioner. A bottle that is cellared amid poor surroundings will not develop as it should. Havoc will reign. For instance, heat will age a wine in unnatural, unsubtle ways. Sometimes this can eventually spoil the contents of the bottle. But if you keep your head about you this one is very much yours to win.wine harvest scourge

Exhibit C: Your own mind. Doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo [Twilight Zone theme music] ... doo-doo-doo-doo. The Asian ladybug infestation of 2001 in Niagara should be grouped with the worries of the vintner: its taint forces wineries to pull affected wine from store shelves. But the fact is the taint situation is not very black and white -- the degree of contamination floats across a wide range of grey, so unfortunately, it's still very much out there to haunt you. How to deal with it? Clearly the onus has often been put on the consumer to seek out replacement for wine they deem damaged by the insect. The problem is that so many wine buyers, though certain that their wine does not taste right, are not confident enough to return wine to the point of purchase. At the end of many an evening, drinkers may have suffered through the green potato flavours of a tainted wine when they could've gotten their money's worth instead. Use your head.

So you win some, you lose some. On Saturday night, a winning night, we were treated to Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a 1991 and had a tragic past. By any guess, it could've rightly been ruined based on its storage history. But it was fantastic. The cork had not failed either. The world was a just place. We were treated. Tremendously fruity and rich aromas emanating from the decanter; the epitome of structure and balance as we sipped this 15-year-old wine from the glass.

However luck was a ladybug last night. The bottle was the Hillebrand Showcase Glenlake Vineyard 2001, a gift I had been looking forward to opening. Alas, it was from the year of the infestation, and being a Cab Franc varietal, even more fallible. tainted ontario wine 2001I detected the taint immediately but only arrived at the judgment that the wine was ruined a glass or two later. It's a fine line. Some have considered this release "marred", others have claimed it is a naturally occurring flavour compound. Tony Aspler went on record saying that if this bottle was from a botched batch then the signs would be irrefutable. He was satisfied. Konrad Ebjich was definitely not, giving it only one star out of five. It was toward Konrad I was leaning. This was drinkable but off-putting -- a resin of unsophisticated bitterness hinted at in each taste. Not satisfying, especially considering it's $40 a bottle. So I won't be shy about taking it back.

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