Novelty at the expense of quality?

Star wine writer Jancis Robinson’s latest FT column is worth a read. You can find it here.

She is focusing on the quest for novelty in the wine world, and whether it comes at the expense of quality. The article was prompted by the recent rant by Robert Parker, which Jancis quotes:

What we also have from this group of absolutists is a near-complete rejection of some of the finest grapes and the wines they produce. Instead they espouse, with enormous gusto and noise, grapes and wines that are virtually unknown. That’s their number one criteria – not how good it is, but how obscure it is… they would have you believe some godforsaken grapes that, in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc, have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest (such as Trousseau, Savagnin, Grand Noir, Negrette, Lignan Blanc, Peloursin, Auban, Calet, Fongoneu [sic] and Blaufrankisch) can produce wines (in truth, rarely palatable unless lost in a larger blend) that consumers should be beating a path to buy and drink.

To me, the FT piece seems a slightly odd article in which Jancis sort of agrees with Parker’s main thesis, but doesn’t really. After all, she’s a champion of unusual varieties. Also, she seems more than a little concerned with correcting his spelling. This aside, let’s examine the question at hand.

Both Jancis and Bob have a problem with the sorts of wine lists now commonly found in high-end restaurants in the UK and the USA, and in particular with the way sommeliers seem to be drawn to non-mainstream wines. I quote Jancis:

Diners on both sides of the Atlantic may search for classic Bordeaux or full-blooded California Chardonnay in vain. They are more likely to be presented with offerings from the furthest byways of Europe or perhaps one from the latest convert to “natural wine” operating out of an alpine cowshed.

The specific wines she cites among those that may be overlooked in favour of more obscure offerings are (for Chardonnay) DRC Montrachet, (for Merlot) Petrus, and (for Cabernet Sauvignon) Sassacaia, Ornellaia and San Leonardo. She also suggests inexpensive Bordeaux and Australian Chardonnay as mainstream offerings that are passed over in favour of unusual wines, along with Californian Zinfandel.

So are sommeliers losing sight of quality in their quest for novelty? I don’t think so. Parker is wrong to argue that lesser known regions and obscure varieties aren’t worth attention, because if they were of merit they would have been celebrated in the past. There are many great terroirs and worthy grape varieties that until recently were overlooked or considered second rate for reasons other than wine quality.

I am one of those who has been guilty of championing novel or obscure wines. But I don’t think I – or the sommeliers under attack here – are seduced by novelty at the expense of quality. When I write up alternative wine regions or varieties, it is because I’m enthusiastic about them. If I plug a wine, it’s because I think it is really good, whether it is made from Pinot Noir or Prokupac. Of course, not everything that is novel or unusual is interesting or great. But some of them are. And the good news is that I can usually afford to buy them.

What do you want when you go to a restaurant? Some people want familiarity. They want cooking that they are comfortable with. No nasty surprises. That’s fine. It’s not my thing, but I won’t criticise anyone who decides this is for them. Some wine lists are like this, replete with the classics; the usual suspects. You know what you are going to get and you can order with confidence.

But most of the time I like to go to a restaurant where I am going to be surprised. Where the food is creative, taking me out of my comfort zone and delivering a fresh experience. I want to encounter a wine list that does the same: where I find new delights as well as a few old friends. Where a sommelier has made the list their own and can guide you to try something different. If we want our chefs to be creative and innovative in their cooking, can’t we allow sommeliers to do the same in their wine sourcing?

The exciting thing about the world of wine at the moment is that there has been an explosion of new, high quality wines from previously obscure regions, many of which are made using indigenous varieties. The world of wine has been turned on its head. The fine wine scene is in a state of flux. With all this change, you can respond two ways. You can decide that this is where the excitement is, and immerse yourself in the midst of this dynamic movement. Or you can retreat to the safe and familiar.

One of the great things about the new-wave obscurist wines is that normal people who enjoy wine can afford them when they are eating out. With restaurant mark-ups, and the recent rapid price rises for the established fine wines, the classics are affordable only to the wealthy. If you are shopping in the £30-£50 bracket on a wine list, decent Bordeaux and Burgundy is pretty much out of the question. That’s a shame, but there are just so many great wines out there that are interesting and food friendly, if you are prepared to leave familiar ground and explore more adventurous wine lists.

And what of the likes of Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon? The Supertuscans that Jancis cites are just blah, and they are expensive. Merlot is rarely interesting. And I don’t subscribe to the notion that there’s lots of really compelling, inexpensive Bordeaux out there. Zinfandel? It mostly sucks. The adventurous new generation of sommeliers, with their lists full of unfamiliar names, have got it right, I am afraid.

16 comments to Novelty at the expense of quality?

  • The missing piece from Bob’s rant, Jancis’s article is: which wines are best suited to the food in the individual restaurants? If less common varieties give a great match for the same or less money then they are the future. I love Cabernet and Chardonnay but they aren’t always the right answer.

  • Alex Lake

    Of course having a cellar of obscure wines means the owner can’t fire the Somm….

    But, as always, it’s horses for courses (quite literally). It’s great to have a choice, especially when the classics can be so pricey (although the classics of the new whacky wines aren’t cheap either).

  • Dan McGrew

    “The specific wines she cites among those that may be overlooked in favour of more obscure offerings are (for Chardonnay) DRC Montrachet, (for Merlot) Petrus, and (for Cabernet Sauvignon) Sassacaia, Ornellaia and San Leonardo.”

    It appears to me that perhaps Mr. Parker and Ms. Robinson failed to notice that there was somewhat of a downturn in the economy in the last few years. I don’t think DRC Montrachet and Petrus are overlooked, I just think they are over priced for 99% of us. They must eat regularly in restaurants that have become a very aspecial occasion for me.

  • Alan

    I think you should taste some Zinfandels from Bedrock, Carlisle, Scherrer, etc. These Zinfandels don’t “mostly suck”. Sorry, but you are out of touch with what is going on with Zinfandel in California.

  • Doug

    His royal Bobness is gibbering again and even Jancis appears to be caricaturing the wine styles in question. For obscure grapes surely read traditional and regional and autochthonous (a great word meaning native to the soil), or should every region in every country be colonised with the same dreary quartet of varieties. The repuation of certain regions and cetain wines is everything to do with modern hype and money: the wines of Cahors were famous before those of Bordeaux, whilst those of Jura have an amazing historical pedigree. I have to sympathise with Parker – it must be terrifying for him to encounter those wicked vin jaunes and evilly-bad Blaufrankischs, but I am sure any sommelier worth Bob’s salt can unearth a comforting bottle of 100% new-oak-toasty, micro-bullaged Saint-Emilion to sooth the savage critic.

    The pricing of the de luxe brands is pretentious to an offensive degree; why should a restaurant tie up hundreds and thousands of pounds in wines that can only be afforded by a select few. Surely, wine lists should have choice at all levels, and the majority of wines should be gastronomic and affordable to the majority of customers.

    And finally the wine is the wine, not the brand or the grape variety. It doesn’t matter what the grape is as long as the wine is delicious (and preferably) articulate and expressive. And decent value. The reason why classic Bordeaux and full-blooded Californian Chardonnay is disappearing from wine lists is because the wines are often indigestibly oaky, sometimes homogenous and made to a formula. They smack of the corporate wine world. Sommeliers, understandably, increasingly want to sell the wines that they want to drink as opposed to the wines that expense accounts can afford to buy.

    In Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis Pierre Brasseur observes: “Novelty? It’s as old as the world itself.” The novelties in this case are the nouveau riche toys that Parker seems to want to promote at the expensive of interesting, unusual, often traditional grapes and styles that have a singular identity and afford the customer greater choice. And that choice is a rather wonderful thing.

  • Alex Lake

    BTW, forgot to say that the decent £15-£20 Bordeaux (which should be on a list at £30-£50) are most definitely available, but they’re generally in a style that just complements food, rather than saying “look at me!”. It seems, though, that most (but not all) wine lists are either lazy compilations from agents OR imaginative, elcectic (some might say egotistic) mixes. In neither of these options does the humble but decent Bordeaux earn a place.

  • Ed W

    I would never eat anywhere that omits having Yellowtail on the wine list

  • Ed

    Agree that most Zin is dreadful and many Super Tuscans a yawn … but Sassacaia can be very exciting.

  • Genius Doug. Genius writing.

  • fatFred

    ‘The adventurous new generation of sommeliers, with their lists full of unfamiliar names, have got it right, I am afraid.’
    What are you afraid of Jamie? You are part of a new generation of wine writers shouting loud and shouting proud ‘THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES’ and we are with you! Well at least i am ))

  • keith prothero

    I have my own solution,which is to never eat in any restaurant that will not allow me to take my own wine.Have no problem paying a suitable corkage charge,depending on quality and location of restaurant,and I do not understand why more restaurants in the UK,do not relax their no corkage rule.
    Having said that,I think there is a load of bunkum written about so called “natural” wine.
    Truly natural wine is just about undrinkable as far as I am concerned,unless it is very young indeed and has impeccable provenance.
    No doubt I have gone off the subject but nothing like a good bit of thread drift :)

  • Tim Carlisle

    The good somms make sure all are catered for. But at Doug points out – the price of top French wines means they are unattainable. The key to success is to find the producer that makes something great from great terroir and great grapes when all around are making rubbish – and that Mr Parker (may I call you Bob?) is why nobody had heard of the wines from that region, because almost everyone is making pants wine – but this one person – they go against the grain, they make something ephemeral, truly terrific, and you know what – we’re going to stand up and shout about it – because if not us, then who, if not now, then when?

    Somms get it right – and you know what – I wish I could encourage my team to sell more weird stuff too. The world is richer with it – just because Wine Advocate can’t cover all that too doesn’t make it rubbish…

  • Doug has summed it up brilliantly. All I would add is 1) there is only good wine and less good wine irrespective of grapes, origin and winery practices and 2) one persons obscure is another’s mainstream.

  • Anthony

    The irony of the Parker rant is that he himself is responsible for this obsession with novelty, which is really just a backlash against the formulaic wines he proliferated.

    The homogenisation of wine the world over in search of scores means that sommeliers at the coal face must look further afield to find unique and interesting wines. That they forget the basic tenets of quality from time to time is only to be expected when they are so sick of over-ripe wines with lots of new oak that they instinctively seek out their exact opposite.

    It will correct itself eventually, though with a warming climate, the results will be hard to predict.

  • I am not a fan of the bordolese blends we see here in Lazio and I am so happy that do to popular demand, “obscure” wine grapes are making a come back. So many grape growers I know were smart enough to recognize that wine can be more about fashion than reality and they just kept growing their Cesanese and Malvasia Puttinata despite the fad for Merlot and Chardonnay over the past 30 years. Meanwhile the wineries that sold out to fad as scrambling to plant the natives varieties that actually do well in this soil. Wine also has context. The other day i was tasting a wine with my students that was not exactly pleasant but then paired with the local cuisine it was perfect. I think I’ll trust history, local customs and evolution rather than fashion. Also who cares if the wine was made in an alpine shed? Some of the best wine experiences I have had have been in sheds and the worst have been in multi-million dollar cellars that are so sterile that you’d never know wine was made there if not for the steel tanks. I don’t really understand why the big names in wine seem so against those of us that like small producers or “natural” wines. I like that when I go to a random town I can knock on a wine maker’s door and have to be invited into his/her home to taste the wine rather than a tasting room designed by a famous architect. Are they against the so-called obscure because these smaller wineries can’t afford to send these people free samples and the small wineries are gaining in popularity? Boh?

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

*