It is a truism bordering on cliché to observe that wine the world over is better than it’s ever been. Greater variety coupled with improved quality has made the early twenty-first century a true golden age for wine lovers. Compared to the global scene 50 years ago, when select French wines remained unrivaled as both examples and definitions of excellence, the changes have been revolutionary. Many factors account for them. Some involve production, new approaches to grape growing and winemaking. But others involve consumption. New audiences have embraced wine in new ways. In turn, those audiences have been influenced by new tastes, many of which came to widespread attention because of the success of specific wines.
Those specific wines were not necessarily the best ones. Their significance came less from inherent quality and more from the effect they had on consumer perceptions and attitudes. In short, they made wine in general more inclusive than ever before. Here are ten of them (listed alphabetically), ten wines that over the last half century changed the world:
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand): Virtually all of the world’s wine is made with varieties of one species of grapes--vinifera, native to Europe and southwest Asia. These days, many wines made elsewhere consistently rival European originals in popularity and quality. Only two types, however, frequently outperform those originals--Malbec from Mendoza in Argentina, and Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand. Of these, the second is clearly the more important.
Why? Because by the twentieth century Malbec had become a minor grape in its native France, growing in volume only in the fairly obscure Cahors appellation, while Sauvignon Blanc was a major player in Bordeaux as well as the Loire Valley. And why Cloudy Bay? Because it inaugurated the vivid, fresh citrus character that distinguishes Kiwi Sauvignons. The winery was only founded in 1985, but since then the wine has become an icon.
Clos de la Coulée de Serrant Savennières (Loire Valley, France): This is a wine that I venture to guess few readers of this site have ever tasted. It’s 100% Chenin Blanc, is very dry, and is made in relatively small volume. It has had much less of an influence on consumer tastes or attitudes than the superb value Chenins from South Africa that are beginning to crowd shelves in American wine shops. So why is it on this list? Because the man responsible for it, Nicolas Joly, has been for many years one of the world’s leading advocates of biodynamic grape growing and natural winemaking. And whether for good or ill, natural wine is something that more and more consumers want.
Clos de la Coulée de Serrant has been made biodynamically ever since 1981. Back then, most people considered Joly a crackpot. But he persisted, and his ideas gained currency with the passing years. Many of today’s wine shibboleths--for example, the claim that wine is made in the vineyard, or that terroir defines quality, originated with him. True to his convictions, he disdains the term “winemaker” or even the French “vigneron.” Instead, he calls himself “nature’s assistant.”
Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon (Maule Valley, Chile): The emergence of world-class red wines from South America, specifically Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, has been one of the most exciting developments of the past 50 years. Particularly when made with the so-called Bordeaux grape varieties, South American reds now clearly rank with the best from California and Europe in terms of sheer quality.
The one problem is that an awful lot of these wines, particularly the Argentineans, are fashioned in an international style, meaning that they lack a distinctive sense of place or taste of terroir. This wine, perhaps because it comes from a Chilean company (Concha y Toro) without foreign investment or partnership, is a glorious exception. It exhibits all the complexity that characterizes the finest European and American Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines, but it also tastes distinctly Chilean--meaning that its complexity has a notable savory, herbal component. It is very much its own self.
Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, Oregon): Pinot Noir used to be thought of as the “heartbreak grape” (as the writer Marq de Villiers once put it). Over 90% of the wine made with it outside of its historic home of Burgundy tasted awful, and even there many of the wines were thin and sour. Today, winemakers just about everywhere are growing it, and more and more examples taste rich and ripe. Consumers now clamor for it.
Where have the wines been most successful? Not in California, where with rare exceptions they tend to taste sugary, and so lack the ethereal combination of power and elegance that characterizes the finest red Burgundies. The South Island of New Zealand has performed much better, as has the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The Burgundians themselves have recognized Oregon’s potential with this grape, and a platoon of French winemakers have set up shop there. But the first, way back in 1988, was Robert Drouhin and his daughter Veronique. Their now estate-grown wine continues to rank among the state’s, and the world’s, best.
Glen Ellen Chardonnay (California): A colorful character named Bruno Benzinger created the Glen Ellen winery in 1980 in order to finance a more ambitious boutique wine operation under his own name. His idea was to sell inexpensive wine under the same guise as costly wine--with the name of the dominant grape varietal on the label. Sales were astronomical, going from 7,000 cases in 1982 to over 2.5 million six years later. Benzinger’s was an idea whose time obviously had come.
Glen Ellen, particularly its Chardonnay, pioneered what came to be called the “fighting varietal” category of wine, paving the way for more recent renditions such as Two Buck Chuck or Yellow Tail. These all are wines identified by grape rather than concoction (for example, American Chablis, or Bob’s White, two popular quaffs in the 1970s). They cost $3 to $5 back then, $7 to $9 today, and hoards of drinkers buy them. They have helped democratize wine as a whole.
Château Lafite-Rothschild (Bordeaux, France): There obviously is nothing new about this wine, the hallowed first among the first growths of Bordeaux. What is very new, however, is who now buys and drinks it. No wine better exemplifies today’s globalization of wine consumption and connoisseurship, for it has become the wine of envy, desire, and conspicuous consumption throughout Asia, a part of the world that heretofore cared barely at all about wine of any sort.
From Hong Kong to Singapore, Tokyo to Shanghai, Lafite is the wine that a great many people dream of tasting and owning. The Asian market has become awash in counterfeit bottles, and prices for the real thing have skyrocketed so that, no matter where one lives, it has become unaffordable for all but the mega-rich. The Rothschilds, like the owners of the other first growths, bemoan the fact that their traditional buyers no longer can afford their wine, but that does not stop them from chortling on their way to the bank.
Tinto Pesquera (Ribera del Duero, Spain): Spanish wine has exploded in popularity. What used to be the almost exclusive province of young penny-pinchers has become chic. Whites are gaining a following, but the reds are most in vogue--particularly the reds from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Of these, Rioja is the larger region, its wines the more recognizable. But production in Rioja remains divided between traditionalists, modernist, and even post-modernists, making it nearly impossible to define what does and does not constitute quality there. The picture appears clearer in Ribera.
For nearly a century, one wine, Vega Sicilia, defined quality in Ribera, standing head and shoulders above all others. Rare and expensive, it was almost mythical. Then, in the early 1980s, a young Alejandro Fernández debuted Tinto Pesquera. Affordable and, as important, available, it proved that with an investment of care as well as cash, new great wine could be made there. Since then, many others have followed suit. None, though, have surpassed Pesquera for its sublime marriage of richness and restraint.
Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio (Trentino/ Alto-Adige, Italy): It wasn’t only Americans who fell in love with Italian Pinot Grigio back in the 1990s. People all over the place did so. (I remember visiting the German Rhineland back then and watching in amazement as customer after customer in local restaurants ordered Pinot Grigio rather than Riesling, no matter that the latter was grown and made right down the road.) Why people embraced Pinot Grigio remains baffling. Most examples then, like most examples now, taste boring. They are slightly citrusy, quite acidic, and usually pretty watery. No matter, people loved, and love, them.
And at least in the United States, Santa Margherita’s is the Pinot Grigio that people love the most. Moreover, its success in the marketplace has led many consumers to try other Italian whites--a broad category that was largely ignored until recently. Without Pinot Grigio’s popularity, would different whites from Alto Adige, Campania, Friuli, or Sicily be as esteemed as they are today? I doubt it.
Tignanello (Tuscany, Italy): The advent of Super-Tuscans in the 1980s changed the face of Italian wine--and not only in Tuscany. These wines, led by the pioneering Sassicaia, proved that Italy’s reds could hold their own with the finest in the world, which back then meant with great Bordeaux. They were for the most part made on a French model, meaning with French grapes, French barrels, and often with French consulting winemakers.
Piero Antinori’s Tignanello was the great exception. It was made primarily with the native grape of Chianti, Sangiovese, but it was no Chianti. For it included some non-traditional grape varieties (like Cabernet Sauvignon), aged slowly in barriques, and was one of the first wines made in Chianti not to include any white grapes. It changed the face of Tuscan red wine and inspired winemakers elsewhere in Italy. They could stay true to tradition while at the same time being willing to innovate.
Whispering Angel Rosé (Côtes de Provence, France): Who knows if the current love of rosés is a passing fancy, or if it’s here to stay? I know avid wine lovers who hate the stuff; I also know equally passionate enthusiasts who adore it. All one can say for certain is that dry rosés have become extremely popular these days. Local stores can’t seem to keep them in stock.
Provence remains the standard-bearer for this sort of pink wine, and at least in the United States, Whispering Angel from the Château d’Esclans defines for many consumers what can be so enticing about Provencal wines. It tastes fresh and crisp but also rich and satisfying, with vivid red berry flavors. And in the summer of 2018, it has become, as Food and Wine’s Ray Isle puts it, “the Cool thing you have to drink.”