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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009
Cleanskins – Not a New Phenomenon
© Red Bigot (Brian Handreck)
Cleanskins may not be a new phenomenon but they are definitely a cyclic one with an increased and increasing visibility at present. As the wine glut bites and “…the top 22 producers account for 89% of total sales, the remaining 1,776 producers compete for 11% of total sales of branded, bottled wine.”1 For many of these producers who make otherwise sound wines that aren’t quite good or different enough to attract rave reviews, the choice may be to sell some or all of their wine as cleanskins. As the possibility of not selling it at at is a very real threat, I think cleanskins would be a fairly easy choice if the opportunity arises.
Red/rosé wine stocks rose 2.3% in the year ending June 2003. It accounts for 65.4% of table wine inventories of 1.44 Billion Litres at that time.2
This article was partly prompted by some recent byplay of differing perspectives between Jeni Port (Melbourne Age) and some wine merchants including Bert Werden of Winestar. (See the Jeni Port article here and Bert’s here).
Jeni's article was about the current glut, particularly in red wine and the effect on the under segment $10 which represents approx 70% of the market. She included the following comment from Bert Werden "If we went out and said we had a Yarra Valley cabernet for $10, no one would touch it. People are spending money on name brands." Jeni then added her own opinion: " Try telling that to the rash of cleanskin wine shops popping up everywhere."
The message I get from Bert's response on Winestar ("The purpose of my comments is not to disparage cleanskins, well not entirely anyway." ) is that the market they are addressing is committed to reputable labelled wine and isn't really interested in cleanskins. Winestar will only offer occasional 'bin-end' type cleanskins where they can reveal the origin. As a member of the market segment targeted by Winestar I wondered whether that theory applies generally, especially as other online merchants who are targeting the same buyers are now offering carefully selected cleanskins.
A few more articles on this topic from various journalists over the past couple of years (links below) prompted this thought: “Here we have the wine journalist and merchant feelings but what about the “serious” wine-buyers perspective?” By “serious” I mean someone who frequents wine sites or tasting groups, regularly buys and enjoys “premium” labelled wine and probably cellars wine.
A quick Google search found about 10 online merchants specializing in cleanskins. During a recent trip to Melbourne I noticed that cleanskin retailers seem to be popping up like mushrooms in many suburbs. Many people are buying the wines offered by these specialists (and coming back for more), but how many of them are “serious” wine-buyers? I suspect not too many. That in itself, is not unexpected. “Serious” wine-buyers form a small percentage of wine-buyers and they normally don’t buy a lot of cheaper labelled wines either. But does that mean we should dismiss cleanskins altogether?
As someone who has been buying and drinking wine for a long time, my first experience with cleanskins (or something akin to cleanskins) was in the early 1960’s during a university holiday job at a licensed grocer. (I wasn’t even old enough to drink legally.) Regulars brought in their flagons to be filled with SA and Rutherglen fortifieds. I quickly learned that the “sweet sherry” and “white port” came out of the same Rutherglen-sourced barrel.
Many people who drank table wine in the 70’s and 80’s were probably involved in some way with another form of cleanskins: “home-bottling.” They religiously saved, carefully washed and sterilized bottles in preparation for the arrival of a 44-gallon drum of red from Tollana, Berri Estates or Huntington Estate etc. One particularly good barrel in 1971 or 72 (from Tollana) we liked to believe was blended by Wolf Blass before he became famous. One batch of Berri Shiraz from about 1975 was in fine form 5 years later. It is still in my memory as one of the best Riverland reds I've ever tried. I haven’t done any home bottling since the late 70’s. Does anyone do this anymore? I suspect not many when it’s so easy to pick up the wines cheaply that are professionally bottled. What's more you can usually try them first or buy them with a money-back guarantee. Huntington Estate moved to selling their HB (Home Bottling) series pre-bottled many years ago; these wines can be seriously good value if you like the HE style of reds.
Cleanskins are not just an Australian phenomenon. Whilst travelling in Italy in 1985 and visiting Andrea’s relatives, much of the wine on offer in homes was unlabelled, some of it “home-made”, but much of it sourced as cleanskins from local producers and most of the wines were very palatable.
So why do we (“serious” wine-buyers) buy cleanskins when there is a lot of good labelled red wine in the $10 - $15 price range? (Examples that spring to mind include Seppelt Premium Shiraz 2002 @ $12, Ingoldby 2002 Shiraz and Cabernets @ $11, Hardys Oomoo and Leasingham Bastion at around $10) The answer is we don’t do it a lot, but when we do it is because we see it as a good value buy, either after trying the wine or buying it from a retailer we know and trust (or who has a good returns policy).
We buy cleanskins because we are hoping to get a relative bargain that will fit a niche in the cheaper end of our drinking plans. We aren’t so snobbish or insecure that we dismiss cleanskins out of hand. We know that as with labelled wine, there is a wide variation in quality related to price (qpr). About 80-90% of what we try does not impress us enough to buy and this applies to cleanskins as well as labelled wine. We are aware of the risks and seek to minimize them by buying as carefully as we do with labelled wines.
We are not looking for “the bargain of the century”. That’s more likely to be found by getting in early on the mailing list for wines from new boutique producers before they become famous or attract Robert Parker’s attention. But we are after “bargains” and there are some to be found with cleanskins. As with buying labelled wines, we seldom make mistakes because of diligent research and careful buying. In some cases it is possible to identify the source of the wine and in a few cases the exact original label of the wine. In these cases the risk is generally lower.
The main difference in buying cleanskins is the inability to compare prices between merchants. The 2002 Barossa Shiraz @ $12.95 from merchant A is probably not the same wine as the $10.95 2002 Barossa Shiraz from merchant B. Each wine has to be assessed on its merits and in the context of knowing and trusting your own taste buds or the merchant or reviewer(s) comments.
I’ve bought cleanskins about six times in the past two years and have been happy with each of these purchases. Those I’ve bought un-tasted from GetWinesDirect (freight inclusive prices, money-back guarantee) include the unlabelled Normans Peacock Cabernet blend from 1998 for $20 and a 2002 Barossa Shiraz for $11.95. In two blind tastings of 2002 Shiraz, the cleanskin 2002 Barossa Shiraz was preferred to Rockbare, Mountadam, Mitchell Peppertree and Two Hands Angels Share.
Last year I bought some of a Warrabilla cleanskin 2002 Durif/shiraz @ $10 and took orders for 4 extra cases when my Monday tasting group loved it. More recently I’ve bought the “At Odds” Clare Shiraz 2001 from Boccaccio @ $6 (70,000+ bottles sold in 8 weeks, a fair proportion of that bought by "serious" wine buyers like me) and the 2000 McLarenVale Shiraz @ $12.50 from Auswine. In both these cases I was able to find out the maker of the wines (but I’m sworn to secrecy and can’t mention them here) and have been impressed with the qpr offered by these wines.
As a “serious” wine-buyer I appreciate the efforts of those merchants I trust in filtering out the rubbish (as they do with recommended labelled wine) and presenting genuinely good cleanskin wines at very reasonable prices. I will continue to selectively buy some offerings when I, or my friends, are in the market, for wines of those styles and price points.
Even if the smaller 2003 vintage lead to some reduction in inventory, the bumper 2004 vintage may increase stocks again. Reduced grape prices will cause pain for grape growers, but should ensure a steady supply of good keenly-priced labelled wines – and cleanskins.
Some online reading
1 p18 2004 The Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory
2 p10 2004 The Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory
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