Comment - Wine - Don't Go Changin'...
This month, Chris Losh, has hit a wall. The wine industry isn't what it was for Chris. But, he's trying to look on the bright side: While there is limited scope for wine styles to 'do different', that's not to say that nothing can be done.
I say this with neither axe to grind, nor even any real sense of regret, but there is undoubtedly less of a buzz around the wine world now than there was 20 years ago.
That sugar rush of excitement was always a happy combination of two factors: ‘new’ countries popping out of the woodwork with incredible value wines, and wealthy markets of new consumers discovering wine for the first time.
Neither of these applies any more. And, if the wine world’s equivalent of the all-night 1990s rave is now a takeaway Chinese and a DVD on the sofa, well, that’s what happens when markets reach middle age.
Such developments as there are now are far smaller: ripples on a still pond, rather than rolling breakers crashing on the shore. The emergence of places like Slovenia or Turkey is interesting, but these countries are not going to have the game-changing impact that, say, Australia or Chile did. China has the volumes, but its burgeoning new vineyards are, I suspect, going to go entirely into the domestic market.
The nature of change, if you like, has itself changed. It’s micro now, not macro; less about new players bursting onto the scene, than about existing countries finessing what they have.
I’ve recently spent six days shadowing teams of sommeliers tasting line-ups of wine in Imbibe magazine’s Sommelier Wine Awards, and it’s interesting to see how these micro-changes are being received.
Sommeliers, in general, like typicity. They like their Sancerres chalky and their Aussie Shiraz big and chunky. Last year, for instance, there was much Gallic shrugging over the 2009 Chablis, which was atypically ripe and dismissed as ‘not tasting like the region’.
Interestingly, the same rules apply to the New World, too, where the shift away from 'Big Fruit' isn’t always being received with the warmth that you might expect. Stick a new, restrained Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (blind) into a line-up of Sancerres, and they might love it. Drop it in a flight of Kiwi Savs, and sommeliers are not always so positive.
Why? Typicity again. In the same way they don’t like ‘ripe’ Chablis, so they can be equally lukewarm about slimline wines from regions that have made their name producing something different.
"My customers know what they think Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc tastes like," said one sommelier. "If they order it off a list, that’s what they want – not something that tastes like Sancerre."
It’s hard not to feel sympathy with New World wine producers here. For years journalists (and the on-trade, in fact) have been banging on about the need for elegance, restraint and minerality. Now producers are starting to nail it, they’re being told that they’re not being true to their regional style. It’s hard to see how they could win.
On a positive note, it’s interesting that some of the most Europhilic tasters on the planet seem to have accepted that the New World does, in fact, have bona fide styles of its own now, and that they’re worth preserving just as much as their ‘classic’ European counterparts.
There is also, it’s true, a case for saying that the pendulum may have swung too far. I’ve tasted quite a few Aussie Chardonnays that are as hard and green as Chablis, with a hair-shirt rejection of the comforts of malo that would gladden the joyless heart of a puritan.
If the 1980s and 1990s were about disco wines, with sunshine, sweet cream and parasols, the teenies have gone all austere and classical. And though I think it’s only a matter of time before producers find a halfway house between the pina colada and the dry Martini, we’re not quite there yet.
It’s not just about stylistic shifts of established styles, though. A number of New World producers – particularly in Australia and New Zealand, who always seem to lead these radical trends – have spoken to me quite seriously recently about on-going plantings of ‘new’ non-French grape varieties: Gruner Veltliner, and assorted Spanish, Portuguese and Italian varietals.
My first reaction when told about these developments was to roll my eyes and think ‘gimmickry’. But, this reaction was wrong.
Planting of these varieties clearly isn’t being done for commercial reasons, since few consumers would have any idea what any of these grapes are. Nor, necessarily, is it proof that a country has got bored with its ‘classic’ styles, since there seems still to be a lot of fine tuning going on with established varieties. Rather, it’s evidence of that continual New World desire to experiment; to always be looking for the next Amazing Development.
I think it’s unlikely that any new styles will ever explode onto the scene like Marlborough Sauvignon did 30 years ago. And, I certainly can’t see supermarkets fighting for big volume shipments of Gruner, Barbera or Touriga Nacional in the future.
But, although these developments are not likely to stop anyone in their tracks or transform the wine world overnight, they’re still interesting in a quieter, more intellectual kind of way; the more thoughtful, considered developments of a mature global industry.
Not everything will work, and it might take producers 40 years fully to get the hang of what they’re starting now, but I, for one, take my hat off to them for trying.
Because without their willingness to experiment we would, metaphorically, be sitting on the sofa with our Chinese takeaway, watching nothing but repeats.
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