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Wine trends and buzzwords

By Nick Alabaster 

It isn’t just the Internet that moves apace nowadays: almost nothing stops for long, including the wine world. What follows below is a personal list of buzz-words, some of which won’t be found in yesterday's wine glossaries, and some of which don’t yet have agreed definitions. Anyway, for perusal and discussion, here goes:

Many of the best vineyards are situated in fairly marginal climates, and harvest can be particularly tricky if it coincides with the onset of the Autumn rains. In Bordeaux, the arrival of the September rain is awaited with bated breath as it can has such a devastating impact on the overall quality of the harvest. Downpours threaten to spoil much of the much of the crop, as they did in the otherwise potentially good years of 1991-94. Each year, increasing numbers of properties have been taking drastic action to protect their vulnerable grapes from the rains so close to picking. Chateau Petrus have covered their vines in protective sheeting and there have been stories of top châteaux using helicopters to hover over vineyards and dry out rain-sodden grapes. Science has done its utmost to reverse the misfortunes of nature and devices now exist to specifically extract water from the grape juice before fermentation. Winemakers have known that running some of the ‘free run’ juice of from the rest of the pulp can help increase concentration, but now they have machines to effect this reduction in water. You might think only the big industrially run operations would consider such a drastic tactic to improve their wines -- well, does Château Latour come to mind when you think of industrial giants? Has anyone noticed a change in style at Latour since the early 1990s – perhaps any of you Latour regulars could let me know! Hopefully, this technique is only used to help winemakers sleep at night rather than dramatically changing a company's style, but maybe that’s being naive.

Cult wines
This definition reminds me a bit of ‘chaos theory’ in that the definition seems to use a sensible tag but on closer inspection the differences between the word and meaning are all but close. The only sure links I can find between the wines spoken of as ‘cult’ are their high price, their recent introduction and extreme scarcity. Le Pin, La Dôme, Valandraud; all superstar properties of relatively recent beginnings yet attain staggering prices on the auction market. That in turn has led to increases in cellar door prices and completely opposes a more traditional history/quality/value philosophy. Some might consider Penfolds Grange a cult wine given its recent price escalations, but I think the recent price rises have come only after a long history of the company producing world class, ageworthy wines. If anything it was not only well deserved but a long time coming ! On my definition it is not a cult wine, but a respected classic with a good track record, and the high price simply reflects that.

A common use for the term ‘cult wine’ is in describing Californian ‘super cabs’; the Screaming Eagles, Harlan Estates and Bryant Families of this world. These are probably the archetypal cult wines. Prices are staggering, yet they have barely a decade of bottled wine behind them.

Much like the internet stock market world, a few insider ‘tip offs’ is all you get before new cult wines on the scene attain stratospheric prices and near unobtainability -- more often than not blessed with a high points score from Parker.

Extraction monsters
This is an age which seems to extol the philosophy of ‘more is better’. This has led to wines which display more of everything in order to stand out from the crowd. More ripeness and therefore more alcohol and body. More oak and therefore more showy. And, added to that, wines that push extraction to the limit. Not so long ago a wine such as Penfolds Grange stood out as being a rare example of huge extraction. Today this wine is beginning to look elegant in comparison to the extreme examples of extraction now produced. Even Bordeaux has a category of wines which now are considered atypical for the region. L’Angelus and some of the new cult wines spring to mind. In Australia there are a host of wines, such as ‘The Malcolm’ – black as treacle and with 16.5% alcohol. These wines are the talking points of the bulletin boards with as many staunch advocates as critics, and many see this extreme nature of wine making a natural extension to the Parkerized wine phenomenon.

Fruit bombs
'Fruit bomb' is another popular style of modern wine which simply emphasizes fruit above all else. These wines are often dramatic, fresh and jammy, loaded with fruit and often without the traditional structure to permit long-term ageing. While some might argue they can last well, the emphasis is usually on their drink now appeal. Bottle-age development away from the up-front fruit isn’t necessarily what the winemaker or most drinkers would have in mind. Australia also led the way in this style of wine but the emphasis on fruit has often come about by successful winemaking techniques, some modern in origin, as well as the World’s tastes taking the New World style to heart. Even Old World regions are now paying more attention to maximizing fruit in an effort to remain popular with current wine drinking trend; however, this in itself doesn’t imply a fruit bomb style which takes fruit to its boisterous extreme.

The world's single most influential wine critic is now without doubt Robert J. Parker Jnr. Once a lawyer, he is now pivotal in today's wine markets. His is the single most important element in the popularity of the 100 point system for rating wine (although in fact only 51 points are used in the rating, 50 being the minimum mark). Wines in the good to very good range find themselves awarded between 80 and 89 points, those in the outstanding range 90-94 and those in the extraordinary range 95-100. An oft quoted-phrase of the wine merchants of today is that ‘if Parker gives a wine 90 or more, we have trouble getting the wine; if he gives it less than 90, we have trouble selling it’. It’s true that a wine’s price can escalate wildly on being blessed with the top accolade of 100 points. A recent example is Quinta do Noval port 1997. Upon its 100 point award by Parker, you can forget about buying a bottle for the £30 it once was !

So what does this effect have on the wine world? As well as pricing we have the now often used ‘parkerization’ term applied. It started because wines that got high Parker points got high prices. Wine producers like getting high prices for their wines as a rule and some of these makers actively seek high Parker scores by making wines in his favourite styles. Forget lean and mean with old world style and low alcohol -- this man likes his wines thick, rich, ripe and flattered with oak. In some instances this leads to ‘buyer’ or ‘Parker barrels’. This is a cynical way of providing a wine critic or buyer with a barrel sample that may achieve all the Parker objectives but will not provide anything like what will be found in a typical bottle on release. It’s been mentioned that barrels like this exist all over France. It makes Parker's job harder in the end and leads to disappointed Parker followers (nick-named ‘Parker sheep’) and ultimately all consumers everywhere.

However, the main use of the word ‘Parkerization’ is for wines that have seemingly been made and bottled with Parker points in mind. In the New World this might have led the way to the ‘extraction monsters’ mentioned previously, but in the Old World this might be a more subtle shift to new oak, slightly later (and therefore riper) picking and pushing the fruit extraction a bit further. I’ve seen subtle changes in some wines but whether this is a direct result of Parker or just a winemaker moving with the times is not my call. Overall the Parker followers are happy; more wines made in the style they admire. However, opponents decry their homogeneous nature, lack of distinctive ‘terroir’ and loss of traditional style. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Well, no one person really. If McDonalds can dominate the food world with a simple, bland formula, should we be blaming McDonalds or ourselves as a whole ?

Show wines/barrels
Competitions and pampering to the critics is more prevalent today that it’s ever been; but rather than a winery adopting a complete change of style for all wines for popularity's sake, some will seek to make one special ‘super cuvée’ -- more cynically known as a ‘show wine’. They pick off some off their best fruit and produce a top wine designed to heighten their winery's acclaim, win awards and garner higher prices. Some produce this top wine because of a desire to show what they are capable off. Most are produced simply to bring attention to the rest of the range which provides the backbone for a winery's commercial success. However, while some genuinely great wine is produced through strict selection, some of these wines are simply following the road towards more of everything in an attempt to get high points and win trophies. Add more oak, extract to the limit and try and knock all the other wines at a competition for six. These wines are flashy, gregarious and certainly impress with a single mouthful. But often you’ll find they are just too much to manage after a single glass because they lack the elegance and balance required to make sustained drinking with or without food a pleasure.

This technique has also taken a devious turn for the worst. Perhaps little more deceptive than producing a buyer barrel, some wines are entered legitimately into competitions as nothing more than single barrel experiments. It has been cited that if these wines wine awards, the wine produced under the winning label may bear little resemblance to the wine that won the award. Talk now is that some awards given to such barrel experiments end up on completely different bottled wine. Something is amiss there and just diminishes any respect I have left for some of these trophy competitions.

A little used but quite well known term with no formal definition that I've come across. In fact while I reserve it for use in a wine that shows subtle volatile acid characteristics whereby I'm suggesting the nose isn't all that it should be (when a nose lacks a certain generosity and is missing the complete aroma spectrum expected through its presence), others prefer to use it when these acids highlight a particular aspect or 'tone' of the nose and do not necessarily imply a detraction. Either way we have a wine which has to a certain degree had its aromas altered by the presence of acids, especially volatile ones. When these volatile acids become strong, notes of boot polish and/or nail-varnish remover (acetone) make the nose unpleasant as the bacterial cause of VA takes off again with aeration.

Oak-aged or oak-matured
A wine says 'oak-aged' on the label, and you are picturing the maturing wine lying tenderly for the perfect amount of time in bright new barrels underground? Forget it. Instead, think huge industrial-sized vats with bags of oak-chips hanging over the side like dirty washing! At best think huge fermenting vats with oak planks attached to the sides for a subtler influence. Some wine-makers use oak as nothing more than a flavour enhancer, but all respect that oak plays a larger part in a wines development than just the addition of oak flavour. So why does it get used this way ? Well, in all cases it's applied as a cost-saving exercise (and some go as far as pumping small amounts of oxygen through the stainless steel vats to replace the gentle oxidation the oak barrels would naturally allow) but more often than not applied to cheap, diluted wine that needs a flavour enhancer in the form of oak -- think the mono-sodium glutamate of wine! (OK, maybe it won't give you blood-pressure problems or heart palpations, but it ain't going to turn a cheap and nasty wine in to a great one !). I can guarantee you that more careful winemaking using less industrialised techniques can make a better wine than these, with no oak influence whatsoever; please search these alternatives out and help the wine world free itself from total oak slavery! While no-one's going to argue that there's plenty to be gained from the marriage of oak and wine, let's not have the oak come above the grape when it comes to winemaking importance.

A natural follow on. It started harmlessly enough. In fact, the early results of bigger spending power, sourcing grapes over a large area for reliable and even interesting blending, and an efficient marketing and distribution channel, combined to form a quality product for the masses with reliability and value. But to me it has been going off the rails recently. The lack of distinction at the lower end of New World wine is particularly disappointing. It didn't use to be that way. It all appears to be done now on a mass, soulless scale in huge million litre fermenting vats; add sugar, a bland but reliable yeast strand, drop some oak planks or chips in, top up with acid and tannin additives in exact quantities determined by your chemistry set, and turn on the tap and pour (oh yes, mustn't forget, did grapes get a mention somewhere?). There's a valid metaphor with the bag-in-a-box 'British' wine concoction - you pay for re-fermented grape pulp, sugar and alcohol - and that's what you get, never mind that it says 'wine' on the box. Once again why does the big 'M' come to mind when I think about this topic? I hope in future when we purchase our wine we're not going to be asked 'Do you want fries with that?'

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