This year marks my 25th of writing professionally about wine--the quality of specific bottles in columns and reviews, as well as wine’s historical place and cultural role in articles and books. Plenty of people have been doing this for just as long, but the dawn of the New Year strikes me as a propitious time for me to look back and assess how things have changed. For better or worse, how does today’s world of wine compare to that of 1993? Here, in no particular order, are what seem to me the five most important developments.
New/ Old Wines Coming From New/ Old Places:
This is undoubtedly the most positive single development of the past 25 years. Back then, with only rare exceptions, most Italian white wine was boring, no one knew much of anything about Spanish wine from Bierzo, Galicia, or Toro, and wines from the eastern United States were a joke. So too, no one took Greek wines seriously, apartheid was just ending in South Africa, and Malbec from Argentina had not yet appeared on consumers’ wine radars.
Today, the world of wine is much richer and much more diverse. High quality wines are coming from more places than ever before. They sometimes are made with grape varieties that have proven track records elsewhere, and at other times with indigenous varieties that grow only is specialized locales. In terms of sheer enjoyment, the difference is negligible. Whether it’s Cabernet Franc from Virginia, Verdejo from Rueda, Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, or Lagrein from Alto Adige, these new wines from places that heretofore were known simply as sources of cheap jug wines (if known at all) are exciting wine lovers near and far.
The New World Wins:
As late as the 1990s, most ambitious winemakers in the US, Australia, Chile and Argentina, the dominant “New World” wine-producing countries at the time, modeled their efforts on European, specifically French, wines. If you grew Chardonnay, you wanted to make a wine that tasted like white Burgundy. The same with Cabernet or Merlot and red Bordeaux, and Pinot Noir and red Burgundy. Even the nascent “Rhône Ranger” movement, as its name suggests, aped French originals.
Today few winemakers talk about emulating anything other than their neighbors (if those neighbors get high scores for their wines). In one sense, this is a good thing. New World wines are more true to themselves than they used to be. But in another sense, it’s disappointing. We used to know what Cabernet or Chardonnay or Pinot Noir should taste like. We don’t anymore. And the fault is not confined to the New World. The French models themselves have changed, becoming richer, riper, and more alcoholic, and abandoning finesse and grace for sheer power.
Who’s responsible? Certain influential writers bear some accountability, but the biggest culprit has been the American dollar. As Americans’ interest in fine wine has expanded, so too have their spending habits, with the result that the US is today the most lucrative wine market in the world. If you own a Bordeaux chateau and want to make a splash with your wine, you need to play to that market. That’s exactly what, for example, Gérard Perse, the supermarket magnate who owns Chateau Pavie in Saint-Emillion, has done. His wine costs a small fortune and gets rave reviews from American critics. In short, the New versus Old World battle is over, and the winner is as clear as California sunshine.
The Discovery of “Terroir”:
Virtually no one talked about “terroir” back in the early 1990s. Now it sometimes seems that no one talks about anything else. This is in large measure a welcome reaction against the dominance of certain New World wine styles all across the globe, but it clearly has gone too far. When a well-respected writer such as Eric Asimov in The New York Times suggests that what distinguishes good from great wine is the presence (or absence) of a taste of place, it’s time to say, “stop.”
No one can or should deny that place is an important contributor to wine quality. But it is just one among many. The others include how the vines are trained, pruned, and grown, when the grapes are harvested, what the winemaker does (and doesn’t) do with them, how or if the wine is aged before being bottled and sent out into the market, and more.
A great wine tastes distinctive, meaning that it does not taste like other wines. “Terroir” is one element in distinctiveness, but it is only that--one factor, not the factor. So why have so many people fallen in love with it? Because they mythologize it, and talk naively about how wine used to be. The picture of the humble grape grower tending his vines lovingly and making a wine that tastes like no other is pretty to be sure, but it’s also utter hogwash. The truth is that until the middle of the twentieth century most wine tasted pretty bad. It was vinegary and spoiled quickly. I share with Asimov and others the wish that more reasonably priced wines would taste more distinctive. Advocating “terroir”-driven wines, however, is a false because simplistic solution to a very complex situation.
As wine has become more popular, its production and distribution have become more lucrative, with the result that corporate entities now control an ever-increasing share of the market. Now big isn’t necessarily bad. Jackson Family Estates, for example, is a big company producing many different wines under many different labels. And for the most part, those wines taste better than they did when under small family ownership.
But big is, well, big. For many centuries, small, local, often family-run operations dominated the wine-market. That’s no longer true. The jury remains out as to whether results will be good or bad (or mixed), but the change is surely significant.
Equally significant, at least in the United States, has been the corporate consolidation of wine distribution. Americans still live in the shadow of Prohibition, with each state free to regulate sales as it wishes. And except for states that ban alcohol unless they sell it themselves, sales are conducted through a three-tier system, with the least important tier, wholesale distributors, holding the most power.
Over the past twenty-five years a great many small wholesalers have been purchased by large corporations, with the result that a handful of mega-companies now control the wine business. Why does this matter to you, the individual consumer? There are two reasons. First, the big corporation has neither the need nor desire to handle small production specialized wines, no matter that these are the wines you may want to buy. Second, the big companies hire skilled lobbyists to advocate for them with state legislators. And the one thing all wholesalers oppose is direct shipping, an open market in which a consumer in one state can buy wine from a winery or retailer in a different one.
This may well be the most important development of all, but its effects are just now beginning to be felt on a wide scale. In another twenty-five years, the map of global wine production may change radically.
Prolonged high temperatures clearly effect grape and hence wine quality negatively. They can inhibit the development of compounds that provide color and aromas. They also can lead to excessive sugars, the loss of acid, and extremely early ripening. The result tends to be one-dimensional wines that require manipulation in the winery to taste decent.
Of course climate change does not just mean warming. It also entails extreme variability—unexpected rains, sudden frosts, and the like. Winemakers everywhere, but especially in the northern hemisphere, are already complaining.
We probably won’t see significant viticulture in Norway or North Dakota anytime soon. But for how long can Napa or the Medoc continue to produce high quality wines if the climate there continues to change, and change rapidly? No one knows the answer, but even raising the question is plenty scary.