How to Read Wine Labels and Corks
May 14, 2010 | BY Nan Hie In
Olivier Barillion, chairman of wine distributor Morgan & Joubert, shares invaluable tips for buying wine wisely. Plus: why the artisanal French wines he’s bringing to Asia are worth exploring, including a winery beloved by a former American president
Whether at a speciality wine store or a grand tasting in a major festival, wine buyers are confronted with countless bottles. And such a plethora of choice is only going to rocket as the city's raging wine market continues to boom. With mounting pressure to evaluate your purchase growing as high as the risk in getting ripped off with an underwhelming bottle, we spoke to wine expert Olivier Barillion, chairman of wine distributor Morgan & Joubert, for some wine-buying advice.
From a family of winemakers, Barillion (pictured left) runs the company focused on bringing a niche yet quality range of wines from France available to Asia. Most of the winemakers he represents are boutique and family-run, artisanal than commercially done. At a tasting at Wun Sha Kitchen on Tai Hang Road, Barillion gives us an insightful tour of the company's vino collection, especially the Domaine Guizard from Languedoc in the south of France, a century-old winery once beloved by America's third president Thomas Jefferson, plus dozens of European royalty. He also uses these bottles to explain on how we can better read a wine label, even using the type of cork to help us judge whether the bottle at hand is a worthy purchase. Read more as Barillion reveals such great insight on various fronts.
AsiatatlerDining.com: As a wine expert, can you share some tips on buying wine, like how to suss out whether a bottle is genuinely good or a low quality disguised as high-level?
Olivier Barillion: I have two very unique tips. The first concerns the label, which is how customers can gather information about the bottle. With labelling [regulation] laws, there are mandatory information you find on the front or back label like the degree of alcohol, and country of origin, etc. Then there is the information about the producer of the wine and whether the wines are made and bottled in the estate alone, information that are very useful.
We only have boutique wines in our company that make something like 30,000 bottles, and they are usually produced in the estate. But when you are very high-volume winemaker producing millions of bottles, sometimes they get wine from many different places to make a big mix wine. Sometimes, they lose track of what's in the wine- they don't even know exactly what goes in where anymore, as it's becoming harder to track!
So look for this specific information of whether it is actually made and produced on the land/estate. In this case, for this bottle, it says here that it's made in Coteaux Du Languedoc gres de Montpellier. Mis En Bouteille a la propriete means it's bottled at the property, again a very good sign.
ATDining: And the other tip?
OB: Another unique tip is to examine the cork. The cork is the true spirit of the wine. But let me start with a general, very simple background about the variety of corks. There are three types: synthetic, agglomerate and the all-natural. Synthetic is plastic-made. Agglomerate is small pieces of natural cork with various bits of the wood that are all compressed and glued together to make a cork. Then there's the all-natural cork meaning it's 100 per cent from the cork tree.
ATDining: What's the difference between these corks, especially in closing wine?
OB: The capacity and nature to protect the wine vary amongst these corks. Our company doesn't supply wines with the synthetic corks but we do have some entry-level wines made with the agglomerate, like this bottle of Le Pas du Templier 2007. This wine is for customers who want to find a good wine to be drunk now but also on a budget.
Now the capacity to protect and preserve the wine is less strong in the agglomerate cork than the 100 percent natural. But this agglomerate of cork is good an entry-level wine that's for drinking within one or two years. If the bottle is kept for longer, say four or five years, the agglomerate cork gets weaker over longer periods of time and will not do a good job in preventing the wine from too much outside exposure.
However, the all-natural cork is much stronger and that's why it's used for high-level wines. Take this Domaine Guizard 2006 bottle, for example. The winemakers are aware of its premium quality- you can enjoy it today or later to keep for many years. When you face this kind of product, you need a stronger cork: the 100 percent natural. This cork lets a very small level of air in for a good level of evolution of the wine but not too much to affect its quality, and most importantly, the cork can also preserve the bottle for four, five, six years or much more.
ATDining: What is the price range for winemakers in using the agglomerate (pictured below, left) versus the all-natural (pictured below, right)?
OB: The prices between the two are significant. As an estimate, the all-natural corks can be over 200 percent or more expensive than the agglomerate corks, but that is a general figure. Prices of the all-natural can go much higher because in this variety there is also around four or five sub-categories, which also vary in price.
ATDining: So how can these corks help us evaluate wine?
OB: If someone presents you with a bottle priced at €200 and saying it's a really big and high-level wine but the cork is agglomerate, than you know there is something really wrong there.
I'm not saying only all-natural corks are best or that wines with agglomerate corks are bad. All I am saying is that different corks have a different capacity in protecting the wine. So you can use the cork as an indicator of whether it's matched appropriately with that type of wine.
ATDining: Tell us about the Domaine Guizard winery that was a favourite of America's third president Thomas Jefferson. How did you know these winemakers?
OB: Time is a true test of quality and one of our best examples of this is the Domaine Guizard, which has been making wine for 400 years now.
I know these winemakers mostly because of my brother who's a well-respected winemaker himself - his wines are the Domaine Saint Germain. He has a lot of respect in France and so he knows many winemakers like Domaine Guizard. We met the owner and later discovered how we can work together to bring make his wine better known outside of France. When you're always on the land working on the vines, you don't always have the time to go abroad and market these wineries. So we opened up to do this work for them. I focus on bringing it abroad, especially in Hong Kong and China, as we recognise these markets are growing and getting stronger.
ATDining: For those unfamiliar with Morgan & Joubert, what can they expect from the wines under your group?
OB: We're a people-driven than a business driven company. The wines we have are all boutique wineries, small productions making something like 30,000 bottles only. Families run them, so as families belong to the land, you get this strong feeling in the winemaking, a real passion.
We also know these winemakers, especially from my brother who's also a winemaker. When we met them, we discovered how we can try help each other to make these wine available in Asia so we teamed up with key people here who also want to give something different than what's already available. We also try to have a range that meets different needs for different people, from entry-level wines- light, easy drinking wines that bring pleasure but are affordable; to more complex wines that need more time to be understood but are still interesting and worth appreciating.
Domaine Guizard, Domaine Saint-Germain and more artisanal French wines are available from Morgan & Joubert. To order a bottle or check out the selection, call +852 3568-1284 or go to www.morgan-joubert.com.
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