THE ART OF WINE MEDIOCRITY? Greg Sherwood E-mail: Sherwood@cis.co.za
5th November 2000
Interesting things are certainly happening in major wines regions around the world. For instance, site selection is now undertaken by wineries with geological and scientific precision, vineyard management is more intricate and biologically researched than ever before, and cellar hygiene and cleanliness is taken for granted in all commercial ventures.Also, new wine making styles and techniques are being learnt and employed faster and more efficiently than ever before. Once regarded as 'specialist', processes such as cold maceration, full bunch fermentation, barrel fermentation, ageing on the lees, and the general handling of oak, new or otherwise, are now regarded as mainstream and a mere formality by most producers.
What this all means is that those weedy, oxidised or downright faulty bottles of plonk from Italy, Spain and Portugal are almost a thing of the past. A cause for celebration you might think? Well, yes and no. It is of course a matter of evolution. By solving one problem, another, more complex one is automatically created A wine world striving for mediocracy.
The Restaurant Risk
However, here is where the problem surfaces. Whether one orders a Spanish Crianza Rioja, an Italian Valpolicella, a Southern French Cabernet Sauvignon from the Languedoc, a Chilean Merlot, or an average bulk-produced South African or Australian Shiraz, Cabernet or blend, the wines all taste basically the same and impart the same degree of mouthfeel, structure and primary fruit characteristics.
The vintage, country of origin and varietal of these wines has become overshadowed by the clean, recipe winemaking of large commercial producers. Individuality is sacrificed for soft accessibility. The characteristics of individual grape varietals are brushed aside in the interest of riper, more one dimensional red or black berry fruit flavours. The consumer is effectively left with a clean, clinical product, or what you could call a dumb wine.
This trend is not only a growing annoyance to consumers, but also to the restaurant trade itself. All too often, managers are approached by wine reps with a bouquet of wines to taste and evaluate, only to discover that each subsequent wine offers nothing more exciting than the previous, and so it continues.
The short end of the story is that nobody likes whingers, and while this is all that the above discussion may sound like to some, there is actually a clear point to be made. Does the movement towards the cleaner, more clinical, fruit driven, recipe wine style need to be done at the expense of the innate characteristics of both the wine region of origin and the grape varietal(s) in question? I think not.
Lets Go Native
A larger and more intricate element of the equation might be for the producers to move forward more confidently with the notion of actively exploiting their native terroirs, native grape varietals and regional winemaking practices, to produce exciting character wines which reflect a definite regional bias without compromising quality.
This sentiment has been gathering momentum in several of the Southern Italian wine regions, including Apulia, Campania and Basilicata, all of whom were until fairly recently, regarded as nothing more than the reason for the EUs wine lake. Many producers have finally started to realise that commercial success does not necessarily mean doing what everybody else is doing. There can be some merit in home court advantage, especially when you have assets that others do not have.
Some of these new wave wine makers have taken steps in all the right directions: Cleaning up their wine making practices; throwing out their old barrels, replacing them with new French or American oak; selecting better vineyard sites and grubbing up the viticulturally inappropriate ones; and importantly, exploiting the native varietals like Negroamaro, Primitivo, Aglianico, Albana, Vermentino and Vernaccia, to mention but a few. Exciting times certainly lie ahead for those producers that dont lose the plot. The same can be said for many of the up and coming DOs in Spain, including Costers del Segre, Campo de Borja, Priorato, Somantano, and Tarragona. And so the list continues.
The Educated Consumer
It should be remembered that consumers are not the ignorant bunch they once used to be, when housewives typically bought a bottle of Muscadet or Sancerre to accompany fish dishes, a red burgundy for game dishes, a straw covered bottle of Chianti for pasta, and a light Claret for red meat. I mean, you dont honestly think the supermarket wine racks would look the way they do, with literally hundreds of different wines to choose from, if consumers were totally uninformed? Of course not. Tourists, and in particular, the English, may still prefer to eat more familiar meals when travelling in foreign climes, but experimenting with local wines has always been an exciting pastime. How else would we all know that Retsina tastes like battery acid matured in fresh, sappy pine casks, made from wood that would have been better used for making cheap furniture!?
A Factor Of Cost
Mediocrity has encouraged too many winemakers to produce wines that fit safely into the ranks of recipe wines. Wines that are lapped up by the large scientific purchasers of big supermarket groups. Wines made in this style and manner are of course a safe investment route because of the clinical nature of the wine making, but it is all done at the expense of producing anything vaguely exciting.
We need to encourage wine makers to be more adventurous, and to produce wines of greater character, for which we shouldnt have to pay more than we already do. Maybe then, one day, wine lovers will be able to walk into a high street wine merchant or supermarket and select one the hundreds of international wines and actually get something that is vaguely exciting, and that does not taste exactly the same as the previous um-teen different bottles purchased!