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The New “International” Wine Style

Careful tasters and readers may have noticed recently that the style of many wines has been changing. Whether it’s the new versions of Barolo, Chianti, Rioja, Shiraz, Cabernet, or even Bordeaux, there is a discernible trend toward uniformity that upsets traditionalists, but that is otherwise overlooked. The following is an interesting article on the subject and a response to that article. There is merit to both sides of the argument. As usual, I have taken minor editing liberties and have added a few opinions [in brackets].

The International Style - by Mark Arvanigian
One thing we frequent tasters all know, yet discuss all too little, is the highly subjective nature of wine enjoyment. Each of us appreciates different qualities, differently. That which is “good,” therefore, may not always be better to us all. Professional wine makers and enologists can find many types of “flaws” and are becoming increasingly adept at irradicating them. Flavor characteristics that I have enjoyed in premium wines, such as the mustiness wrought by Brettanomyces, have been minimized or eradicated in modern wines. Some would say, rightly, that this is as it should be: Brett is technically a flaw in wines.

But is it just me, or are premium wines from all quarters increasingly lacking in personality? I have recently tasted, from the current or very recent vintages, offerings from very reputable producers of high-end California red wines. My conclusion is that they all make the same wine. The essential components seem to be overtly ripe, rich fruit (cassis, cherry, plum) with varying degrees of depth, and almost nothing else. To add insult to injury, the fruit is often of the sort that tastes artificial, with an alcoholic or faintly chemical finish. To my palate and way of thinking, this sort of polished, one-dimensional product is very much the child of the so-called “international style” of wine making.

“So what?” you say. That trend, with its focus on clean flavors, fruit and polish has dramatically raised the quality of all varietal wine. Wine writers laud that the across-the-board increase in quality more than compensates for the boredom of a few erudite wine geeks.

Well, I’m not so sure, and I am not sure that the wine press has indeed been responsible for the very real rise in overall quality, particularly at the lower end. This should probably be attributed to the workings of the market, and to the introduction of new technology to the winery. The average wine drinker is not, after all, reading the Wine Advocate. Instead, they are buying grocery store wines, produced in vast quantities, for early consumption. These people are buying the latest technology in a bottle. Their lot has improved because of it.

For those of us who taste wine early and often, however, the wine press has had an appreciable effect; the principal disadvantage is tedium. The wines they advocate (and, I would argue, are making into a stylistic trend) can be full, rich, jammy, silky, whatever - but they will always lack interest to those who remember the way it used to be. Modern wine makers (especially in California and Australia, though, sadly, the trend is spreading) are churning out wines utterly lacking in personality, and which therefore fail to inspire much interest. They lack individuality, and leave a hollow feeling on the taster’s palate, in his mind, and, increasingly, in his wallet.

Those of a more egalitarian bent say that the needs of the many (quaffers) outweigh the pastime of the few (collectors). I respectfully disagree. If the wine novice thinks that he will, in the years to come, be able to broaden his wine experience easily by trading up in price, I am sorry to be the bearer of ill tidings. It is becoming increasingly difficult to gain a range of new flavors and textures not found in lower-end wines by simply spending more money. There are few California Cabernets in the $25 range offering flavor revelations not found in a good $15 version. Likewise, turning in your $25 Cab for a $40, reserve-level wine may leave you with a heightened sense of “no-big-deal.” Caveat emptor is the guiding principle in today’s wine shop, except among solid brands at low-risk prices. Ironically, it may be that the wine buyer is safest at the $10 level! [Arvanigian overstates his case here. Most $15 Cabs are seriously lacking, and there are many “big-deal” wines available, albeit at some big-deal prices.]

I am not exactly a Philistine in this brave new global world. Hungary, New Zealand and South Africa are and should be considered right alongside Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa by writer and consumer alike. By and large, this is a good thing. However, if these new regions produce wines without any connection to place, which lack any trace of local individuality, what is the use of introducing them at all, other than economic? By drinking commercially acceptable, commercial-tasting cabernet-merlot-chardonnay, wine drinkers will gain little insight into traditional styles. Once the wine-producing world has replanted the countryside, many traditional varietals may be lost. And replant they most certainly will, for vintners will realize that the kudos of the press - including the elusive score of ‘90’ or above - and the money it brings will come most easily that way. And so the cycle spins.

Does this mean that traditional wines fail to achieve high scores and status? Of course not, but many of the great producers of traditional-style wines that have been embraced by wine writers were stars long before the press came along. Thus, Heitz Vineyards can accept a few dis-appointing scores while producing wine like they always have: they were famous for making great Cabernet before Wine had a “Spectator” or an “Advocate.” Yet most vintners do not have that luxury. They know that the industry is incredibly competitive. The seal of approval from important sectors of the wine media is an important part of the marketing process.

I am not without regard for the press. Wine journalists are valuable sources of information. In particular, the coverage and reporting on the quality of particular vintages and overall trends in viticulture have served as the eyes and ears of many of us unable to keep close tabs on such things. Nonetheless, the press also is responsible for the “100 point scale,” which argues, curiously, that the qualities of a wine can be quantified numerically. As with every objectification of the subjective, someone’s preferences prevail, and become something of a standard. Generally speaking, that preference has been for wines that produce clean, rich fruit; rich mouth feel; and soft tannins. This has become the benchmark. The attraction of this approach is obvious: it favors the casual drinker, who makes up the great portion of the wine market, and who cares little for complexity or true character. This is aided by the simplicity of the quantification approach, i.e., for most casual wine drinkers, higher score = “better” wine. The Wine Spectator even calls their tasting section a “Buying Guide,” so as to erase any confusion over how the consumer should use their scores. Thus, wines with high scores ring up sales, and the wine world is led a merry chase, in search of a number.

And so we come to the crux of the matter: are wine makers producing a style of wine which meets the broad standards of excellence/acceptability set down by the industry’s chief marketing wing, the media? It seems that they are. Every retailer and wholesaler worth his salt understands that a ‘90’ in the Wine Spectator is one of the chief signs of a wine’s marketability. Of course this be overstated: image, price, track record, and value for money are factors, just as they have always been. Yet increasingly it is the press that is driving fine wine sales. Can this have any other effect than to modify wine making in favor of a preferred style? Vintners are increasingly corporate employees. They have generally succumbed to the lure of The Score, and because these scores can be most easily achieved by making a certain type of wine, with definable characteristics, many wines are made which resemble each other greatly.

Just look around at some of the wines you've tasted lately. Can you still find wonderful traditional-styled Chianti Classicos? Sure. More and more of them, however, are eschewing structure, distinctiveness, personality - and ageability - in favor of fruit-driven richness. Many of these wines are absolutely luscious. Fewer of them show an individuality of style, and fewer still make you think while you taste. These wines tend to resemble one another. Maybe this makes sense in a world of modern, clinical wine making. I really don’t know. But I do think that the truth of the existence of this general trend becomes clearer with each successive vintage, and in most of the world’s traditional wine making regions.

Obviously, the trend toward “blah” should concern the connoisseur of fine wine. However, it should also be of real interest to the casual consumer. Taken to its logical conclusion, this trend could be a tangible barrier to his search for high quality, reasonably priced wines that also display reasonable levels of character and individuality. In short, many who have begun drinking lower priced wines over the course of the so-called Wine Boom will eventually, we hope, want to trade up. What they likely find when they make their move will be wines far inferior in interest and character to those which seduced many of us some years ago. Some would say that this is already a real problem: price inflation in California wines has not led to the panoply of interesting wines that had been predicted, just more technically correct ones. The string of recent outstanding vintages cannot hide the fact that great California wines are still not as good as their French counterparts. What are being produced in voluminous quantities there are rich, fruit-driven, sometimes wonderfully tasty wines. Mostly in the “international style.”

Further Thoughts on the International Style
by Randal Caparoso (corporate wine buyer for Roy’s Restaurants
and wine columnist since 1981 for The Honolulu Advertiser.)

I found Mark’s article to be an extremely thought- provoking analysis of an increasingly difficult, almost tortuous, question for those of us on the sales end of the wine industry: that is, what exactly is good, or great, wine in this day and age?

Mark’s opening point is that fruitiness has become pervasive and has blurred regionality. The observation certainly can lead to the easy conclusion that wine making has become “internationalized.” The questions remain -- are wine making styles, in fact, becoming “international,” or is this just indicative of the fact that wine makers around the world are improving their wine making and growing techniques to the point where the more serious flaws peculiar to their respective regions are being eradicated? Mark, of course, answers these questions himself, noting that the wine press, in observing this evolution, have been lauding “the across-the-board increase in quality.” Alas, this makes for boredom among “wine geeks.”

So the second set of questions comes up: Is increased overall wine quality preferable to wines with distinctions which may also be considered flaws? [The two need not be mutually exclusive.] How important is it for wine producers to appease the “few erudite wine geeks,” as opposed to, or at the possible expense of, average consumers? And of course, the answers are rather self-evident: Certainly, it’s far better to have higher quality wine -- especially since it results in greater consumer enjoyment, leading to increased sales (more visibility and profitability for producers). Why else is wine made? As for wine geeks, it is far more harmful to the industry to have wines appeal solely to small segments of the wine drinking population. Are we not all in favor of increased consumption and greater profits? [Yes, but those of us who love wine are interested in more than just profit.]

Which returns us to our original question: What is good, or great, wine? Mark’s concern is obviously that cleaner, brighter, fresher fruit flavors in wine leads to loss of regional distinctions. This is a big negative if one’s measure of a good or great wine is its adherence to regional characteristics -- sense of terroir, if you will. By this way of thinking, diversity is defined primarily by regionality. But diversity is also due to the stylistic preferences of the vineyard manager and the wine maker.

Throughout the history of fine wine, there are numerous examples of quests by individuals, followed by family generations, who’s labors establish traditions that produce wine of such high quality and enduring appeal that their products eventually assume identities that go far beyond regional distinction and sense of terroir. Here are a ten obvious examples which have gained general acceptance among critics and consumers alike. From old to new:

1. Methode Champenoise -- an enduring style of wine in which craftsmanship blurs distinctions of both terroir and vintage.
2. Tokaji Aszu -- the use of puttonyos or tubs of botrytised grapes to concentrate otherwise ordinary dry table wine.
3. Italian Recioto and Passito -- deliberate raisining of grapes to enhance ordinary wine.
4. Eiswein -- the big “game"” among German growers to produce incredibly racy sweet wines that are less about terroir and more about maximum intensity.
5. Lambrusco -- production of very low alcohol, spritzy, often off-dry style of red wines for the quaffing enjoyment, first, of Italians, and later, wine drinkers around the world.
6. Chateau Mouton Rothschild -- one family’s movement towards singular varietal definition (Cabernet Sauvignon) in order to exude more power and distinction than neighboring crus that continue to follow traditional varietal blending regimes.
7. Chateau Petrus -- the same idea as Mouton, only with Merlot.
8. Penfolds Grange Hermitage -- definitely a glorious concept of producing the finest, most powerful red wine possible, no matter what the varietal makeup (usually mostly Shiraz), vineyard sourcing, fermentation and barrel regimes (anything goes, with the results that count!).
9. Bonny Doon Cigare de Volant -- another movable feast of flavors aimed solely toward emulation of red Rhone style wine, but not necessarily the techniques and varietals.
10. Chalk Hill Chardonnay -- a widely lauded “white Burgundy” style wine made from vineyards with no real limestone, in a far warmer climate, yet nevertheless was developed through adherence to techniques not generally accepted in its own region (i.e., 100% natural yeast barrel fermentation, 100% ML, zero filtration, 100% new oak, etc.).

Now I ask you: is not the world all the better for just these few examples of wine producers who, at some point in their lives, decided that they wished to make wine that expresses far more than terroir, and which go way beyond previously accepted practices?

I think that is why the question -- “how good are today’s wines?” -- is so perplexing to purists, or geeks or whatever you wish to call them. It is difficult for them because purists don’t like change or techniques that seem rather manipulative; yet deliberate change and decisive technique are what has always defined many of our greatest wines. Many of our great wines, of course, will continue to represent completely unique, almost accidental growing circumstances -- it is certainly very much a part of Petrus, of course, and Romanée-Conti, Montrachet, Roxburgh, Scharzhofberger, et al. But if anything, I would say that loss of some kind of previously recognized distinction is often a necessary, in fact good, consequence of overall improvement of even wines grown in our greatest vineyards! The fact is, during the past 5 to 10 years I have observed in my markets and other markets around the world that:

* Increased quality of both wines and distribution has resulted in a greater consumer interest in diverse styles and types of wine than ever before. Twenty years ago, few of us (and far fewer consumers) even knew of wines from Jurançon, Gigondas, Carmignano, Banyuls, Bourguiel and other small districts, or of wines made from Grüner Veltliner, Roussanne, Viognier, Spätburgunder, Lemberger, and other varietals. Yet many of these are now being sold quite successfully. Something not possible just a short time ago!

* Although there has been some attrition owing to the popularity of standard varietals, there simply has not been a total loss of interest in indigenous or “lesser” varietals on the part of growers and producers. If anything, the use of these varietals has expanded as consumers continue their recent pattern of increased variety and sophistication of tastes.

As to Mark’s final question -- will tomorrow’s sophisticates find superior, or inferior, wines at their disposal?-- I have this to say: quality may very well be synonymous with broader based appeal and technical correctness. But if the vast majority of consumers and even critics think this preferable, is this not better? It is certainly far more preferable to the many flawed and even undrinkable (bad at any price) wines which we had to deal with just 15, 20 years ago.

In fact, if what vintners are doing is improving the quality and expressiveness of their wines, are they not actually fulfilling the full potential of their vineyards, and thus offering more diverse product than ever before, while continuing to bring a greater part of the world of wines to each and every interested consumer? Let me put it this way: if you were present on the day that the Baronne Philippe Rothschild decided to produce a Mouton with virtually no Merlot or Cabernet Franc, and to go to strictly new oak barrel élevage, would you have protested and said, “No, no, you will lose your Pauillac identity!?” Very often, there is some bad involved with the good; but in most cases, the bad is of far less consequence.

International Style (by Jordan Mackay)

[You may already be satiated by the “International Style”, but this article has an interesting perspective on a topic that is vital to understanding the wine scene today.]

In the late 1970s, Angelo Gaja, Italian winemaker extraordinaire, became the first man to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, the classic grape of Bordeaux, in Italy’s Piedmont. In order to do so, he uprooted a perfectly good plot of Nebbiolo, the signature grape of that region. When his father saw what he was doing, the old man shook his head and muttered, “Darmagi.” Or “What a pity.” Gaja named the wine that resulted Darmagi, in his father’s honor.

This anecdote serves not merely as a new entry in the annals of churlish behavior, but more importantly, as a harbinger of global change. It may be only a few hundred miles between the towns of Bordeaux and Barbaresco, but Gaja was taking wine much further. Back then, tradition had it that Italian grapes grew in Italy, French grapes in France, and German grapes in Germany. Gaja was one of the first winemakers to decide he would grow what he wanted where he wanted, never mind tradition.

Innovation will always invite cries of “Darmagi,” but what does this disregard for borders mean for us today? The impact is unmistakable in two critical ways. The first is the rise of the large corporations I’ll call BIG WINE, the giant conglomerates that aim for worldwide expansion. The second is the explosive growth -- not simply in California and Australia, but in Italy, France, and all around the planet -- of a type of winemaking that favors a fruit-driven, well-oaked so-called New World style, rather than an Old World style that values subtlety and emphasizes terroir. These two trends are interrelated, but each has played its own part in changing the old rules of winemaking.

The rise of Big Wine has been nothing short of a revolution. The current era, indeed, may later be described as one in which Big Wine assumed control of the market. The giant conglomerates are taking over large wineries, which are in turn buying up smaller wineries. For example, last year Foster’s Brewing Company in Australia bought California’s Beringer winery, which had itself recently purchased smaller California properties Chateau St. Jean and Stags’ Leap Winery. A few months later, Beringer bought the 900-year-old Tuscan winery Castello di Gabbiano. More recently, the LVMH group, a French corporation that already owns kingpins Moet, Dom Perignon, and Krug champagnes as well as Hennessey and Hine cognacs, not to mention the world famous Sauternes Château d’Yquem, added a majority stake in California’s Newton winery and Australia’s Mountadam to its portfolio.

Mondavi is another big company intent on getting bigger. Instead of buying wineries in other countries, the California titan decided to trade on its own name and reputation to foster international alliances. In Italy, Mondavi partnered with the Frescobaldi family to produce Luce and Lucente, and in Chile with Eduardo Chadwick to produce Seña. Mondavi also spent a year trying to start a vineyard operation in the south of France, before abandoning the idea. (Mondavi has also sold Vichon, its Languedoc-based line of wines.) This kind of approach to globalization seems more in line with the McDonald’s philosophy -- create a worldwide brand name or a familiar face for wine drinkers in unfamiliar territory.

Further blurring the global picture are the “flying winemakers,” an evolving breed of oenologists who work not for a single winery, but as consultants to many, all over the world. The term was coined in the 1980s to describe a group of Australian winemakers whose innovative ideas were powering the burgeoning wine industry Down Under. Turning out intense and fleshy New World wines that they created using new vineyard techniques, they brought cutting-edge technology into the winery and notably promoted the use of the now-ubiquitous small oak barrel.

When these flying winemakers began traveling to spread their ideas, they discovered that they could make two vintages in one year -- one in the northern hemisphere in the fall and the other in the southern hemisphere in the spring -- thereby doubling their realm of influence.

The most famous flying winemaker of all is Michel Rolland, who hails from Bordeaux. Rolland consults to well over 100 wineries a year, from Bordeaux to California (he recently signed on with Mondavi) to Chile and even to India! Famous for crafting softer, mostly Merlot-based wines that are approachable even in their youth, Rolland and his prodigious influence lead one to wonder whether he is la poule or l’oeuf (the chicken or the egg).

Is Rolland solely responsible for an entirely different style of wines, or is he just one of several trendsetters. I tend to think the latter, for it’s not just flying winemakers who have been creators of the wine world’s Zeitgeist. There are also powerful importers such as Marc de Grazia, who encourages modern winemaking methods in Piedmont, and Robert Kacher, who has gone so far as to purchase oak barrels for his winemakers in the south of France. With so many missionaries preaching the same gospel, it’s no wonder a dominant wine style has emerged.

And Big Wine is showing -- through sales figures and ratings by an increasingly influential wine press -- that New World-style wines are what consumers want. After all, Big Wine’s greatest strength is that it can offer wine drinkers an enormous variety of bottles that are extremely consistent, case after case, year after year. Some of these wines are stunningly good.

These trends have undoubtedly led to an increase in the overall quality of wine. Today, for example, $10 buys a far better bottle than it did even a decade ago. For that we have Big Wine to thank. But while that may be great news for casual wine drinkers, what about connoisseurs? The ones who relish a hunt through musty old wine shops? The ones who see the whims of weather and climate as an essential component in the creation of any great wine?

Will our choice be reduced one day to Soylent red or Soylent white?

I think not. As Big Wine gets bigger, I’m convinced the demand for distinctive and esoteric wines will also increase. Artisan winemakers may be forced to seek vineyard land outside of the financially impenetrable Napa Valleys of the world, but their wines will continue to be sought after. The mercurial marketplace assures us that these boutique winemakers will keep the more obscure varieties in production and work to create idiosyncratic wines true to regional style.

This is, after all, what’s happening right now in places as diverse as New Zealand and Spain. With the advent of the garagistes, the small producers making tiny lots of wine in garages and tool sheds, it’s even been happening in the holy land: Bordeaux. These guerilla winemakers are turning up the heat on the classified growths by getting attention and garnering critical praise with small-production wines like Le Pin and Valandraud that most of us will never see. Darmagi itself, at $200 a bottle, is one such wine.

Is this a pity? I tend to think not. Elite wine has always been the province of the elite. As for the rest of us, thanks primarily to Big Wine, there’s never been more good wine that we can afford. We can still splurge when we get the urge.


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