2010: Our vine romance
New World winemakers brought about seismic shifts in the market, for the good of all. By Anthony Rose
Tuesday 20 October 2009
It's more than two decades since I had to write something "bold, new and imaginative about wine for everyday drinking" to secure a wine-writer prize. As there wasn't a great deal to talk about outside the narrow confines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Beaujolais (the three Bs, as my then editor put it), I decided instead to gaze into my crystal ball with a view to predicting how the wine world would be shaping up in the year 2010. It seemed at the time as distant a horizon as 1984 had been when I was at school; but, with only a few months till the witching hour, I'm amazed to see how much my crystal ball failed me all those years ago.
The required focus at the time on the three Bs, four if you include brands, rather gives the game away. Wine was talked about either in terms of its location or its brand name. Appellation was the holy grail of the French and their European acolytes, who had convinced us for centuries that the mystique of wine lay in the mysterious properties of the soil and that only God himself, perhaps with the aid of a good winemaker, could unravel such mysteries. The result was a confusing pyramid system of appellations and classifications and the brand strategies of breweries such as Allied and Whitbread, keen to use wine as a shop window to lure us into their off-licences.
What my crystal ball failed to see was the revolution going on right under its glass nose. The rumbling was coming from the likes of Oddbins, the quirky high-street wine merchant that was turning the wine world on its head with the acquisition of exciting "odd bins", small parcels of unusual and individual wines that were too small in volume for the supermarkets and off-licences. Augustus Barnett had done much the same before it merged with Victoria Wine, and Majestic was embarking on a similar adventure that it has managed to maintain, uninterrupted, for more than two decades now. The roar was that of a distant tidal wave of wines arriving from a place which, with few tried and tested locations of its own, had no truck with Europe's old-fangled ways. The bold claims coming out of California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and South America were based on a premise: "Thank you, we like your cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. We think we can grow it here and make it just as well but sell it back to you – with interest!"
California had started that particular ball rolling back in 1976 with its astonishing feat at the "Judgement of Paris" of beating the French at their own game by showing that its cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay could compete on a level playing field with Bordeaux and Burgundy. France meanwhile, blinded by arrogance and yet degrading the image of its once delicious Beaujolais, was doing itself few favours. Equally in Germany and Italy, the vapid likes of liebfraumilch and lambrusco spawned books called Life Beyond Liebfraumilch and Life Beyond Lambrusco. These were inspiring illuminations of artisan wines we knew little about, because for the most part the mass market-orientated supermarkets and high-street off-licences weren't interested.
What my crystal ball most myopically failed to notice was the New World and the realisation that wine was made from grapes. With the no-nonsense language and attitude of people who spoke the same language as us, and even played cricket against us, everything changed. Yes, the sun-filled flavours we were tasting for the first time were more generous, and wine became not just affordable but also accessible. The major contribution of the New World was a cultural shift and a change in the way we thought about and drank wine. "The politicians drink wine in restaurants at £100 a bottle," thundered an outraged Ted Knight on yet another anti-Thatcher rally. Wine-drinking had been an elitist affair, a pastime of the well-heeled and the pin-striped professional. We were envious of those who could afford it and afraid of its power to release inhibitions. We have the Aussies and the Kiwis to thank for pricking the bubble of pomp and circumstance and helping us unburden ourselves of guilt and envy. Wine had become a drink like any other, to be enjoyed as an affordable treat.
True, there has been a price to pay for the growth in alcohol consumption. But if the acceptable side of wine enjoyed by the majority has had its face scarred by the excesses of youth on a Saturday night in town centres throughout the land, then it's hardly the fault of the wine.
Back to the grape that also released us from the constraints of appellation of origin and the French-induced myth that all wine was a product of its terroir. Of course, the best wines do have a sense of the place they come from but, as often as not, appellation's covert purpose is a brand-building exercise for producers. The New World focus on grape variety helped us enormously in giving us the real context of a wine's flavour and style, because grapes taste as different from each other as varieties of apple or citrus fruit. A colourful palette of diverse grape varieties has given us a new language to help enrich our appreciation of wine's aromas, flavours and textures, and, of course, to choose the product in restaurants and on retailers' shelves.
As these newcomers grow a little older and more mature, the price we're now paying is that some of that exciting novelty is wearing a bit thin. On the plus side, the New World is changing to reflect the positives it's taken from Europe, and much the same is happening in reverse as the two worlds draw closer together. From their focus on grape variety and its use as a powerful marketing tool, Australia, New Zealand and California, Chile, Argentina and South Africa are all starting to discover their own best locations for planting the right varieties. Not on the Old World theory that the answer lies solely in the soil, but rather also taking into account climate, altitude, temperature and all the many factors that combine to create the mysterious X-factor of wine quality.
Napa Valley and cabernet sauvignon are now birds of a feather, for instance, and we're beginning to perceive that semillon in Australia does especially well in the Hunter Valley and Margaret River. Riesling's best locations are the Eden and Clare Valleys, and pinot noir may, in the long run, be superior in New Zealand's Central Otago than any region Australia can name.
Not surprisingly, these developments have led to bitter disputes over boundaries in some areas. Coonawarra in Australia is a prime example. Yet the New World has largely learnt lessons from the old's protectionist strategies: what to do, what not to do and, above all, to avoid red tape. At the same time, a mixture of these changes – of natural causes such as climate change and of self-inflicted wounds of poor pricing policies and brand strategies – have created a backlash of sorts, and a negative press, in particular for the areas riding highest in the charts: Australia of late, and to an extent, California.
Seizing its opportunity, the slumbering giant of Europe is at last waking up to the new opportunities presented by the maturing of the New World and the opportunities in its own backyard. The enlightened Danish EU commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, has waved a magic wand in successfully fighting the entrenched attitudes of Europe's farmers by cutting out the dead wood and liberalising antiquated rules and regulations. That producers can now use grape variety on the label of their wines and winemaking techniques previously vouchsafed to the New World, criticised from afar, of course, has been a substantial achievement.
Wine producers have shown you can teach an old dog new tricks. Realising that their salvation lies in their own native grape varieties, Europe's more enlightened growers have stopped the self-destructive process of uprooting vines just because they were considered to be uncommercial. The result has been a resurgence of the vast Mediterranean wine regions of Languedoc and Roussillon, Spain's La Mancha and Italy's Puglia and Sicily, and a revival of interest in the classic regions too. As individuals have sold up or left co-operatives to start their own enterprises, new wineries have sprouted up to focus on producing good value, quality wines of character and personality.
UK wine lovers are the beneficiaries of these seismic shifts. At the highest level of wine quality, the classic French regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire and the Rhône have moved with the times and adapted to varying vintage conditions to produce wines of exceptional quality. The same goes for Germany with its riesling revival, for Italy, with wonderfully modern Barolo and Chianti Classico. The Iberian peninsula and the regions of Ribera, Rioja, Priorat in Spain and Douro, Dão and Alentejo in Portugal are hotbeds of excitement, while previously peripheral wine countries such as Austria, Greece, Slovenia and Croatia are starting to make an impression. You might not know it from the growing distribution stranglehold of the supermarkets that these developments are happening, but there's no holding back the power of the internet, or the growth of the small independent wine merchants, all keen to bring their enthusiasm to the consumers, whose thirst for wines of value, excitement and quality is insatiable.
The A-Z of wine
Alcohol It is compulsory to put the alcohol content on the label.
Barrique Is an oak barrel usually of 225 litres, and normally French or American oak.
Corked Not bits of cork floating about, but a wine suffering from the cork taint 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA), a mould that can afflict cork in the manufacturing process and hence the wine.
DO Spain's answer to France's appellation d'origine contrôlée. Italy and Portugal have DOC.
Eiswein Wine made from grapes frozen on the vine, mainly from Austria, Germany and Canada.
Fortified Wine made with the addition of grape spirit, such as port, sherry and Madeira, but some French muscats too.
Grand cru French crème de la crème.
Halbtrocken Off-dry wine, usually German or Austrian riesling.
IGT Indicazione Geografica Tipica, Italy's answer to France's vins de pays.
Jerez The real name for sherry.
Kir White wine with cassis named after Canon Kir, a hero of the French resistance.
Lees The sediment on which some wines, notably Muscadet and white Burgundy, are left to maintain freshness and produce added flavour and complexity.
Minerality The character of a wine based on its location over and above grape variety or winemaking influence.
Noble rot Not the language of wine writing but botrytis cinerea, the beneficial mould that shrivels the grape and concentrates flavours in sweet wines.
Oaky Oak used in the fermentation process brings roundness and texture to a wine, and softens the tannins in reds during maturation, but excessive oak can mask the fruit with too much vanilla.
Primeur Meaning a young wine, usually applied to en primeur, or the practice of selling the wine (mostly Bordeaux) as futures while it's still in cask.
Quinta Portuguese estate.
Rancio The effect of weathering fortified wines to concentrate their flavours and bring out their richness and dried fruit characters.
Solera The trickle-down system of blending fortified wines by adding new wine to the top cask and removing the wine for bottling from the bottom cask.
Terroir French for the magic of location.
UV light As sunlight is an important element of photosynthesis, UV light is a factor in terroir.
Vintage Adopted to mean great, in fact a corruption of vendange, the harvest of a particular year.
Wine Only fermented fresh grapes qualify, along with varying minimum alcohol levels.
Xarel-lo White grape constituent of Spanish cava.
Yeasty Term used for wines, typically champagne, that rely on yeast in the winemaking process to bring character and flavour.
Zibibbo Sicilian name for the Muscat of Alexandria grape.
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