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What's the Most Important Thing to Happen to Wine in the Past Decade?

You might be surprised at what I think it is …
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 7, 2010 10:04am ET

It’s the end of a year and the end of a decade, which affords a nicely rounded-off number to look back on. When it comes to wine, a lot has happened in 10 years: the rise of regions like Argentina and South Africa, the rise and subsequent fall of the Australian powerhouse, an unmatched string of vintages in the Southern Rhône, the emergence of major wine-consuming markets in Eastern Europe and Asia, and the passing of the legendary Robert Mondavi. Yes, it’s been a busy 10 years.

For me though, one thing stands out as the single most important aspect of the past decade: the prominence of high-alcohol, fruit-forward, heavily oaked wines. I’m serious.

Now, those of you who follow along with me know that I look for quality first, while trying to remove style from the equation, so you probably can guess what I’m driving at here.

"Importance" is the issue, not personal preference. This isn’t about whether or not you like these kinds of wines. It’s about what these wines have done for the industry as a whole.

Superficially, the higher alcohol, riper fruit style helped bring in a rush of new consumers. New consumers promised more demand. More demand meant more supply. The wine industry was booming until the economic slowdown of the past 18 months.

But more than that, higher alcohol, riper fruit wines also made the wine industry smarter and better at all levels. Look at how the style has forced the bottom rung to evolve from Blue Nun to white Zin to Two Buck Chuck to Yellow Tail. Personally I wouldn’t want to drink any of them, but if I'm forced to choose among them, I’d happily take the current incarnation hands-down over the previous ones.

More important, the dominant wine style of the past decade has changed the way high-end wines are made too, in the winery and the vineyard. Winemakers and viticulturists who aimed for harvesting as late as possible for maximum fruit impact developed and pushed this style. Traveling consultants then brought this style with them as they worked in several wine regions simultaneously. When the wines were well-received by consumers and critics, some gave into the economic temptations of producing wines that they themselves might not personally like.

“The pressure from clients became strong, and several Old World winemakers were associating that style to personal success,” said Alberto Antonini, who has been making wine in Tuscany since the 1980s. “So as a result, a big part of the industry was driven toward that style."

With this style came the potential for a homogenizing affect on wine. Some worried that everything would soon be amped up with oak and powerful fruit. And frankly, it was easy to do.

“You just overexpose fruit all of a sudden [by removing leaves] after veraison to get the jammy flavors,” said Antonini, who was also among the first to dive into Argentina in the late 1990s.

All this was a good thing, because the pendulum of style swung all the way out, taking the consumer's eye with it. Meanwhile, Antonini and others were quietly taking an even closer look at soils and viticulture, aiming to maintain a unique and distinctive sense of place in their wines while still getting an expression of ripe fruit. Of course, there are obvious benefits to riper, richer fruit flavors in wine, but a sense of place and maintanence of diversity were seen by a few as the ultimate barometers of greatness. No one was espousing a return to unripe, vegetal flavored 11 percent alcohol reds. The result? A happy medium began to take hold. Eventually the high-alcohol, fruit-forward style begat a new school of winemaking—wines that offered a purer, cleaner expression of fruit, but without being simply bombastic.

Instead of leaf pulling for maximum sun exposure as Antonini notes above, he and others replaced the technique with lateral shoot thinning after fruit set but before veraison to give more light to the grapes from an earlier stage.

“This lets the fruit get used to more light so it has an earlier flavor development that allows you to pick ripe fruit at 14 percent alcohol but not overripe at 16,” Antonini said. "From there we can manage the cap of skins more gently to have softer extractions and rounder, gentler tannins.”

As viticulture and winemaking evolved and improved, pushed by those who were testing the limits of ripeness, the pendulum of consumer preference started its inevitable swing back. Waiting for them were the wines that combined the best of both sides of the wine equation: pure fruit and minerality, an awesome combination.

“One has to go in one direction in order to understand the other direction better,” said Hans Vinding-Diers, another winemaker with Old World roots who has started projects in the New World. “How ripe can grapes get? These days we are finding ourselves reaching for the ripest grapes possible but without crossing the marmalade or Amarone style, still trying to keep that minerality in the wine. The most challenging part is to make a perfectly ripe wine without being 15 [percent] alcohol.”

By going to one extreme and recruiting a whole new generation of drinkers, the wine industry has been forced to dust off the laissez-faire traditionalism that had long been an excuse for lazy, poor winemaking. The high-alcohol, fruit-forward wines have helped shine a new light on more traditional methods: There's nothing wrong with old oak as long as it's clean oak. Cool-climate wine regions that produce low-alcohol, unoaked wines, such as the Loire Valley and Germany, have new followers.

Conversely, the high-alcohol style taught the industry about balance and precision. There's nothing wrong with new oak as long as it's integrated into the wine.

Today, when teaching folks about wine, there’s more to the equation than just the old, rote formula of grape, region and vintage. Now, there’s a conversation of how wine is made and what a wine "says." No one talked like that over a decade ago.

Think about it. The high-alcohol, richly fruited and oaked wine style is the most important thing to happen to wine in the past decade. The winemakers behind the labels helped spur innovation that in turn led to more diversity. Without them, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Wine is, simply, a helluva lot more exciting now.

[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]

James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 7, 2010 4:38pm ET
Couldn't agree more. Excellent post. Your most important point is perhaps that the modern style -- embraced globally -- has given everyone a reason to rethink all wines and styles and that too moves us forward.
Jim Gallagher
Jim Gallagher —  January 7, 2010 5:19pm ET
I am uncomfortable with crediting "High alcohol, late harvest,.." as the most important development in the wine industry during the past decade. However, I very much like your description and sense that current vinification style is directed toward fruit specific character, integrated oak with moderate alcohol levels.
Richard Robertson
Charleston, SC —  January 7, 2010 7:25pm ET
Proverbial "Nail on the Head". Although some folks would say that the most important thing to happen to wine in the past decade is the acceptance of wine as the drink of choice for many more folks. This has been driven partly by the clinical studies showing the health impacts of wine (especially red wine). But new drinkers would not have continued drinking just for the perceived health benefits if the style had not changed. They liked what they found and continue to drink wine, driving consumption higher as they influenced friends and family to make the switch as well. This is a pro and con for folks that liked lower alcohol and more balanced wines of yesteryear but there is room for all styles and fortunately there are a multitude of choices thanks to new world production that didn't exist before. The winner here is the consumer due to the numerous choices and values that can be found.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  January 7, 2010 9:23pm ET
Although Australia was also strong in promoting big, jammy styled wines, it was ultimately California wines, and their place as representing the U.S. in its roll as a world leader which fueled the demand for the ultra-ripe style, if only among Americans themselves. Americans needed the instant gratification which that style provides and which Old World styles, often requiring years in the cellar or food, did not.

But why stop at the 10 year time frame? It seems to me 1997 is the defining vintage for California wine opulence. 1992, 1994, 1995 and 1996 showed many examples of boldly fruit forward wines. But as people who have enjoyed the in- your- face fruit styles have found in cellaring these wines, the fruit fades and what is left can pale when compared to the original.

The best wines can and should have the ability to transform into something deeper, more complex, more harmonious. There's simply no short-cut for this.

Tom
Craig Lewis
greenville, sc, usa —  January 8, 2010 7:06am ET
Thanks for your post. I really enjoyed reading this one.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  January 8, 2010 4:41pm ET
James...great post. Tom -- I have to disagree with you. A great wine is one that tastes, to your palate, exceptional, when you drink it (whether thats the day your bought it or after 100+ years). Is there something superior about a wine that tastes austere and unpleasent when young but then slowly matures into something beautiful versus a wine that tastes glorious in its youth but then fades with age?? Of course not! Know the style of wine you purchased and drink it when they are ready. My 2005 Bordeauxs will sit until 2014+; my 2005 California Cabs are on the on deck circle for drinking. i will enjoy them all and will not consider one to be better than the other
Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  January 8, 2010 6:21pm ET
Great entry! I find especially interesting your premise that this style has brought about greater diversity, not greater homogeneity. I recall when the movie "Mondo Vino" villainized Michel Rolland and Robert Parker for promoting this style of wine, which was going to take over the world, stamp out the little guys who were just trying to be true to their heritage, and leave us with nothing but soulless fruit bombs. I appreciate your take on this, and I really enjoyed the read. And may I add: I've tasted a number of wines to which you've given positive reviews, and I honestly do believe that you successfully evaluate quality, regardless of style. Congrats; it's easier said than done. Bravo!
Mace D Howell Iii
fremont,ca,usa —  January 9, 2010 8:10am ET
James,

I just wanted to add that the wines of Cayuse provide what I think are some of the finest examples of ripe, balanced wines with incredible minerality. The greatest thing is that he is from France. Also, I recently had a 2000 Cailloux Syrah and it was my wine of the year. This wine has maintained all of its fruit and has gained even more complexity without tasting like tar or tobacco. I was amazed because almost all older reds have this tar and tobacco thing that to me just simply tastes old. It is almost as if we as wine drinkers associate complexity where a wine has enough fruit to overcome these two flavors. For me Christophe Barone has achieved the ultimate in delivering an older wine that does not taste old.

Thanks,
Mace
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  January 9, 2010 9:36am ET
Mace: Sounds like you've found a wine that combines fruit and minerality...nice, huh?

Ultimately, the human element is part of terroir. 'Non-interventionist' and 'traditional' are nice buzz words, but ultimately a winemaker or vigneron has to decide how they want their vineyard to express itself. Finding ripeness with balance is the challenge, as Mr Vinding-Diers notes in my blog above - the best winemakers today are doing that...
Kctucker
Escondido, CA —  January 9, 2010 2:30pm ET
The real question will be the age-ability of wines that are north of 14% alcohol. If they can't age, will it end the cellaring of wine as we know it?
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  January 9, 2010 4:28pm ET
KC: Balance is the ultimate deciding factor - not the alcohol. There are plenty of %14+ wines that can age - some which even need to age - Châteauneuf-du-Pape being a prime example...

And this style of wine has brought consumers an entirely new category of wine as well - wines that are both drinkable when young and ageable...

Of course there are still plenty of old school wines that need time to round into form as well - from A. Clape Cornas to Ridge Montebello.

The range of choice is now wider than ever...
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 10, 2010 1:45am ET
If it weren't for those wines in the high ripeness, high alcohol, jammy category, I would not have spent 5 figures on wine annually, in recent years. Years, plural.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  January 10, 2010 1:06pm ET
Andrew,

A well balanced wine, whether young or old, has balancing structure. A "jammy" wine without balancing structure fades with time. There are examples of wine which can be quite big and showy in their youth, Harlan Estate and Shafer Hillside Select come to mind (as well as some more modern Old World wines), but nevertheless are capable of transforming into wines of greater finesse and harmony with age. The wine with balancing structure is always superior not because it ages longer, but because it continues to develop with age.

Tom
Mace D Howell Iii
fremont,ca,usa —  January 11, 2010 9:42am ET
James,

This is a bit off the subject, but I am curious if you or anybody else thinks that Harlan or Shafer Hillside Select drink well when young. This is in response to Vince's post. The Hillside Select for me can drink ok after a couple of years, but Harlan for me is undrinkable young. It is interesting because it is not this old guard that is creating change. Obviously, it was never the goal of either of these wineries for the wines to drink well early on. The most interesting question is whether they might be forced to change. I noticed Quilceda Creek has changed their tannin management. Amazingly, they actually boasted about this at one of the Wine Spectator Wine Experiences. This also leads to another question. Does this tannin management hurt a wine's ability to age.

Thanks,

Mace
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  January 11, 2010 10:01am ET
Mace: Good question...

I think the Harlan wines of the mid and late ‘90s did in fact drink well when young. Yes, they were big and powerful and they were ideally meant to age – but they were rounded and opulent too. Some have stood the test of time, others have proven to be off kilter in their balance...and that’s the key. (I have less experience with Shafer HS.)

I think the days of hard, angular tannins that “need time” are over. Bordeaux harvests later now than they did a generation ago and I don’t see them reverting to earlier pick dates ever again, even with global warming (because the grapes still need a minimum number of days to ripen and winemakers do not want to err on the side of under ripe). It will now come down to canopy management, yields, clonal selections and other viticultural techniques to achieve the balance and purity of fruit as Vinding-Diers and Antonini are quoted on above.

So, will these wines age – the new, rounded, more accessible-when-young wines? Yes, I believe they will. Just because tannins are riper and better integrated when young doesn’t meant the wine won’t age as well – it will just age on different track.

And as always, let’s not forget that the wines that last 20 years or more, and truly develop into something else, have always been in the distinct minority. Would you drink any ’61 Bordeaux or any ’78 Rhône? No – only a few have made it this far.

But how about ’00 Bordeaux or ’05 Rhône? I think the number of wines that will stand the test of time from the recent vintages will be far greater than those from the previous generation. Granted, there are more wineries today than there were back then, but as I noted above, modernization has improved wine as a whole. There’s now more great wine than ever before, in a whole range of styles...
Andrew Bernardo
Halifax, Nova Scotia —  January 11, 2010 3:37pm ET
James,

I don't know if the swing back of the 'pendulum of consumer preference' was inevitable. Quite frankly a lot of people outside North America never really shifted their tastes from the traditional styles to the fruit-forward, high alcohol styles.

I do, however, think the media, including the Spectator has done a lot to push back against the prevalence of the wines in question - by applauding riper fruit, but also advocating balance in the winemaking. I think that, more than anything, has pushed the pendulum to a more vertical position.

No question about its importance though. I think you make a great point.


-AB
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 12, 2010 1:38pm ET
Mace, having had all the Harlan and Shafer Hillside Select wines on release (and on many other occasions), they do drink exceptionally well, offering gorgeous fruit purity and supple tannins. They are indeed big wines, but beautifully balanced. They are designed for early drinking and made in a style that aims to avoid any greener, herbal elements often found in Cabernet. As for aging, I'd give the nod to Shafer; Harlan has been hit and miss. That's why I recommend shorter drinking windows. As for aging, a stable cellar temperature is essential to success.
Kevin Harvey
Santa Cruz, CA, USA —  January 12, 2010 6:43pm ET
While jammy, high-alcohol wines might be the story of the last decade, the counter-trend will be the story of the next. There is already considerable consumer backlash and boredom with monolithic super-ripe fruit-driven wines (witness the collapse of Australia). After tiring of this genre, people are looking for balance, grace and something that holds their interest. Unlike the trend of super-ripeness, the counter-trend is not lead by traditional media. Instead consumers are educating and organizing themselves on the internet. Together they are finding a new breed of balanced site-driven wines that excites them.

I think the super-ripe trend will leave many positive lasting contributions to the wine world, but the consumer is already moving on.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  January 12, 2010 6:53pm ET
Kevin: Not to go off on to far a tangent, but should the media 'lead' a trend? I thought the media's job was to report and educate (in our specific case, to report on the wine market and educate consumers about the vast selection of wines at their disposal). Shouldn't we simply be providing information to the consumer, so they can make better-informed buying decisions?

Critics who 'lead' in my opinion would be those who allow their personal preference for style to determine the likes and dislikes they then report on to consumers. And then that can get messy...
Kevin Harvey
Santa Cruz, CA, USA —  January 12, 2010 8:34pm ET
James,
I like your description of "the media's job". In particular I think the education of wine drinkers, so they can ultimately make their own decisions, is extraordinarily important.
That said, I think the scoring of wines puts reviewers in a market-leading role whether they desire it or not. The highest scores will sell wine as well as attract winemaking emulation. When awarding the highest scores, it seems impossible to set personal preference (or editorial imperative) aside, since the differential of scores at those levels is largely determined by emotion, personal preference and other subjective criteria. The editorial decision of which wine styles deserve these highest scores is a leading force on the world of wine.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  January 13, 2010 9:46am ET
Kevin:

This is an issue I’ve discussed before and one that always bears further discussion. I agree wine criticism is ultimately subjective, as we are human. But critics do need to subjugate their personal preference as best as possible while aiming for ‘quality’ first. If I didn’t do that, how could I write effectively about both Vieux Télégraphe and Domaine de la Janasse, Don Melchor and Clos Apalta, Guigal and Jamet, and so on?

I think clearly in some quarters wine criticism has become polemic, with certain styles being espoused as the ‘only’ style. But in my opinion the critic should be pointing people in the direction of quality, not trumpeting out in front of a particular style above all else...
Mace D Howell Iii
fremont,ca,usa —  January 15, 2010 5:30pm ET
James Laube,

Thanks for responding on the other James' post. I am curious what you think about the last three Harlan releases. Also, I would like to know what you think my palate is responding to when I drink these wines. My experience has been that the Harlan wines are so big I cannot taste many flavors, and it seems that it is the acidity that is almost hurting my mouth. I do love the flavors I can taste however. What do you think my palate is experiencing.

Thanks,

Mace
Robert Camuto
France —  January 23, 2010 9:54am ET
Hey James, A little belated. But I just wanted to pass on kudos for a very thoughtful piece with some good perspective.

I think much about wine taste is influenced by HOW people consume it and how often. Big wines are simply harder to drink and digest more of more often. Since I moved to France and began drinking wine nearly every day, I've found a gravitation to more balanced and lighter styles.

Cheers!
Robert
Gene Keenan
san francisco —  January 23, 2010 2:42pm ET
Are we talking all wine, the fine wine market or the average wine consumed by the average consumer? Has anyone actually done market research to determine that consumers are sick of high alcohol fruit forward wines? It could be a spurious connection at best between the collapse of the australian wine market and these two characteristics. Maybe it's consumers are not that fond of shiraz anymore, hasn't the US market for locally produced syrah also been soft? I would be wary of making assumptions until I saw more data points (if someone has them please post). I don't consider what I read on wine bulletin boards to be the pulse of the general wine consuming public but instead a narrow slice of the wine collector. Zinfandel appears to be doing fine and those wines tend to be very fruity and high alcohol.
Rick Kirgan
Mexico —  January 23, 2010 10:47pm ET
Interesting Blog! I am not sure that I agree that the trend has lead to better wines on the high end though. The dominant style of the last decade, in my humble opinion, has lead many great wine makers around the world to cater to a bigger, dumber, hit-me-over-the-head mentality at the expense of complexity and subtlety, while serving to push prices skyward on distinctive top shelf vinos.

I think that good wine making is all ABOUT personal preference which should never be compromised to cater to a trend. While I am grateful that I have wines like Yellow Tail for those times when I am low on cash, I am saddened that the wines from the world's greatest wine makers are more inaccessible to me than ever before.

Rick
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  January 27, 2010 7:31pm ET
Sorry for the delay, folks...

Gene: Do you think it's Syrah that's struggling in general, versus Australia in particular? Rhone exports here are as strong as ever (granted the south leads the way)...Syrahs from South Africa and Chile are well received, as well as those from Washington...the history of Cali Syrah has yet to be written in Paso Robles, Santa Barbara etc as the grape has been out-buzzed by Pinot Noir, but it's not dismissed out of hand...unlike Australia these days which is stone dead according to many retailers I talk too...that's got to be a rejection of style (or perceived style) on a broad consumer level, no?

you could argue that rejection is unfounded since there are many elegant styled, cool climate versions of Syrah from Australia that U.S consumers seem to have ignored or missed...but Australia is clearly hurting in this market, and the country is synonymous with the high-alc ripe style for many people...

Rick: I don't think the style has been dominant - instead, it's been the dominant discussion item...meanwhile there are still many, many producers who have not changed their style toward the riper, higher alcohol side of things...and during the same time, regions like the Loire, Germany and elsewhere continue to inch up in the consciousness of consumers...

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