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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
Nowhere is the problem more evident than in high street restaurants. Everybody has a favourite establishment -- the culinary equivalent of a local pub. Just as patrons like to try every new dish or special on offer, so too do they revere the challenge of tasting every wine on the menu in the hope of discovering a vinous gem, worthy of an instant VIP pass to Food & Wine heaven.

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
The quicker new wave Portuguese, Chilean, Argentinean, Bulgarian and even Hungarian wine makers and companies realise that the future long term success of their products in large, commercial markets lies in selling the consumer on the uniqueness and individuality of their products, the better off they and the end consumers will be. A real win-win situation ultimately.

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 EU’s 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 don’t lose the plot. The same can be said for many of the up and coming DO’s in Spain, including Costers del Segre, Campo de Borja, Priorato, Somantano, and Tarragona. And so the list continues.

The Educated Consumer
There’s also the other side of the coin. What seems to be emerging is a more intelligent, and discerning wine drinker that appreciates the different nuances of wines from different countries and regions. It’s sometimes true that wines retaining regional or ‘terroir’ characteristics need to be made more carefully and may therefore cost a little more. However, living in our current economic climate with the strong pound, we should be able to afford these sorts of wine here in the UK. For example, this is strongly evident with South African wines, where the consumer is empowered, due to favourable exchange rate against the SA Rand, to taste TOP South African wines for the price of very average French, Italian or Spanish ‘recipe’ wines.

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 don’t 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
Because wine lovers are spending more money than ever before on international wines, is it unreasonable to expect large commercial wineries and wine makers to try and produce wines of greater character, individuality, depth and complexity? To answer this question, one only has to open a newspaper on the financial indicators and convert anything from between 5 and 8 pounds into one of several currencies of major wine producing nations (barring California, USA), to get an idea of what quality level of wine we really should be drinking! Try it.

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 shouldn’t 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!

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