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Wine: the Reader's Digest 'abridged' version
Wine is a complex subject, and everyone seems keen to make it more accessible. But when it comes to wine, suggests Jamie Goode, complexity is your friend.

The Reader's Digest, the well known UK mass market publisher, used to participate in the rather odd practice of producing 'abridged' versions of classic novels. The idea was that the original works were far too long and complex for most readers, so if you didn't fancy wading through 1000 pages plus of War and Peace, you could do it in 150. I don't know if these remarkable publications are still around, and since I've never read one I don't know just how they managed to do this, but it does seem to be a deeply flawed concept. English literature is complex; certainly, people need to be guided into it and helped through it -- but to actually go in and tamper with the classic works to make them more accessible is surely a misguided approach.

Why is it that people try to do the same with wine? It's true that wine is an intimidatingly complex subject: there are literally hundreds of wine producing regions split across dozens of wine producing countries, in which wine is being made by tens (or even hundreds?) of thousands of producers. Add to this the multitude of different grape varieties and the fact that things change round each vintage, and it's easy to see that the average consumer, faced by shelves full of hundreds of different bottles on their Saturday shop in Tescos, needs a bit of help.

More than just the grape variety
The varietal approach, where wines are marketed on the basis of the grape variety they are made from, is one method of simplifying wine. This has been tremendously successful in California (where it started) and Australia, and represents an easier entry point into wine than the French appellation system, where the wines are most often named after the patch of land they come from, rather than the grapes that made them. Instead of learning about many dozens of different regions in each country, you need just to learn the names of half a dozen key grape varieties of each colour. But while the rise of varietalism has been key in the popularisation of wine over the last decades, it glosses over a lot of the complexity that makes wine fun. Indeed, the shortcomings and superficiality of focusing on just the grape varieties are illustrated by the move in both Australia and the USA to some sort of regional classification and labelling -- a nascent appellation system.

Spot the difference
Blind tasting has never been easy. But there's no doubting that it's getting ever trickier, as many wines are converging on what is often called an 'international style'. Some wines are proud about their origins; others try to hide them behind a gloss of new oak, high extraction and winemaking trickery. This is all part of the drive to make wines more accessible, and is exemplified by the 'flying winemaker' approach. Take a co-op in Southern or Eastern Europe specializing in undistinguished and sometimes faulty plonk, fly in a winemaker (usually from Australia) at harvest time, and with their snazzy wine making methods and bag of tricks, they will produce a clean, modern-tasting but ultimately soulless wine at a bargain price. Progress? I'm not sure. In the drive to make wine more accessible to people, all the regional bumps and creases -- the idiosyncrasies and local character that give wines soul and personality -- are being ironed out. This is a worrying prospect.

Teacher, leave us kids alone
Part of the blame here must be laid firmly at the door of the legion of publications that aim to educate us about wine. It should be possible to educate without denying the inherent complexity. But rather than welcome this complexity as a friend, wine educators commonly try to deny its existence, endlessly distilling things down to simplistic and ultimately superficial clichés and formulas. The need for wine writers and critics is very real, but they frequently overstate their knowledge, and by using scoring systems they allude to an illusory level of objectivity and accuracy that simply don’t exist with wine. There’s something fundamentally deceptive about a score out of 100, with all its implied precision. It ignores much of the variation between wines and between individual tasters that is all part of the rich complexity of this most fascinating of hobbies. Of course, scores and ratings would be tremendously useful to aid consumers in their purchasing, if it were possible to rate wines like this in any sensible manner. And it is the maintenance of this pretence in the eyes of ‘empowered’ consumers, who want an authoritative guide to the best buys, that has led to the success of critics prepared to rate in this way. But buying wine isn't like buying vacuum cleaners, fridges, motorbikes or computers. Thank goodness! When it comes to wine, complexity is your friend. Embrace it, and cherish the diversity that exists. We may not have it for much longer...

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