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Drinking Out Loud

Total Transformation

Wines today are almost unrecognizable from those of the 1970s. Is this for the better?

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 5, 2010

Because I have a new book out (Matt Kramer on Wine), in the course of promoting it I've had an unusually large number of chats and interviews with colleagues in the past few weeks. Consequently, I've discovered, like a patient in therapy, a recurring theme that I hadn't realized was preying upon my mind: how wine has utterly transformed.

My book notes that I've been a full-time wine writer for more than three decades. So, inevitably, I've been asked about how wine has changed. Of course I've been aware for a long time that wine has changed, as I'm sure you have too.

But until recently, I never fully scanned, like a radar sweep, the landscape of wine, taking in a broader picture of just how thoroughly wine has changed since, say, 1970.

You'd think that change has been a constant in wine over the centuries. To a degree that's true. In France, red wines became darker and richer-tasting in the 1700s due to the advent of what's called cuvaison, the prolonged mingling of pigment- and flavor-rich skins with the fermenting grape juice. (Previously, the red wines were what we'd today call rosés. They barely lasted from one vintage to the next.)

In the mid-1800s, yet more changes occurred. Red wines became increasingly powerful and tannic, requiring (and rewarding) longer aging in bottle. This is one reason why, by the way, the Baron Ricasoli, who owned the Brolio estate in Chianti Classico, advocated adding white grapes (Malvasia and, later, Trebbiano) to Chianti's traditional Sangiovese, the better to soften what he felt was a hard red wine that required long aging.

So, yes, there have always been gradual changes. But that gradualism accelerated to a whiplash intensity starting in the 1970s. The reason was the powerful thrust of technology (stainless steel tanks that allowed temperature-controlled fermentations; new presses; advanced filtration techniques) and scientific know-how. Winemakers were no longer just knowing craftsmen. They were enologists, with university degrees in wine science.

Thanks to this, what occurred starting in the 1970s was a swiftness and completeness of change never previously seen.

The key point, the startling fact, is this: Nearly all of the world's wines are significantly different—in some cases, unrecognizable—from what they were 30 years ago. When you think about it, you'll find that you can name but a mere handful of wines that have not so changed.

This first came home to me several years ago, in a thunderbolt fashion, during an extensive vertical tasting of Trimbach Rieslings (Clos Ste.-Hune and Cuvée Frédéric Émile) from 1971 to 2000. Apart from the sheer goodness of the wines, what really struck me was that, stylistically, the wines hadn't changed at all. It was a wine version of the famous Sherlock Holmes observation about the dog that didn't bark.

("Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident.")

It was then that it dawned on me that such a stylistic continuity is almost unknown today. You don't believe me? Think about it for a minute:

Red Bordeaux? Ask any Bordeaux lover with some history on his or her palate. You'd have to search hard to find any acclaimed red Bordeaux that today is stylistically similar to what that same château issued back in the 1970s.

Please note the emphasis on "stylistically." Substantively, one or another great red Bordeaux is arguably as profound today as ever. But the delivery of the message, if you will, has incontrovertibly changed. Today's acclaimed red Bordeaux are higher in alcohol, deeper in color, oakier, richer and fuller than what was being made back in the 1970s. Ditto for lesser red and white Bordeaux as well. You can like it or not. That's a separate issue.

Arguably, only Sauternes has not changed. But perhaps those who know these wines intimately will tell me differently.

Burgundy? Big changes. Exceedingly few red Burgundies today are stylistically anything like what they were in the 1970s or '80s. Back then, red Burgundies were overly light (the producers said "delicate") because of excessive yields. Things changed in the mid-1980s (richer, darker, oakier). By the 1990s, a new equilibrium appeared, with red Burgundies that were less intrusively oaky.

White Burgundies for their part became dramatically oakier in the past three decades, again especially starting in the mid-'80s and then, thankfully, diminishing in oakiness by the mid-'90s. But Chardonnay yields remain stubbornly high, with ever fewer white Burgundies offering the midpalate density that existed before many of us were even born.

Italy? Here, you can throw an arm around the entire country when it comes to the topic of transformation. Virtually every wine anywhere in Italy, from Sicily to the Alps, is today different from what it was in 1970. The transformation of Italian wines, red and white, is absolute. Everything you can imagine has contributed to this: stainless steel tanks, small new oak barrels, export market demands, the incorporation of "alien" grape varieties in once-traditional blends, the exclusion of white grapes in red wine blends, new clones, a celebration of old varieties, a change in the taste of the locals themselves, the rise of local and non-Italian press criticism, and yet more.

Spain? I'm tempted to say "See Italy." Here again, wine transformation has been sweeping and near-total. (There's the equivalent of a mop-up campaign going on to very nearly eradicate any old-fashioned winemaking still occurring in more "backward" Spanish wine zones.)

Germany? Yes, the classic great, "rich" German Rieslings are still being made, vintages permitting. But make no mistake: the supply is dwindling. Lighter, drier styles of wine are rapidly transforming German wines (and German wine drinkers). And red wine production is increasingly fashionable.

California? You can taste almost any wine you'd like from 1970 or even 1980 and, excepting a few traditionalist holdouts such as Mayacamas Vineyards or Stony Hill Vineyard, you won't be able to find practically any wines made in California today that resemble those once offered. The reasons are numerous: winery technology, fashion, new vineyard areas and, not least, the near-wholesale revision of vineyards (clones, spacing, rootstocks, trellising), from replanting in the mid-1990s after the phylloxera invasion.

You get the picture. Pick a place—Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Chile, Greece, Argentina, Hungary, South Africa, Portugal (except for Vintage Port), Canada—and if you were a wine-tasting time-traveler from 1970 fast-forwarded to today you literally wouldn't recognize the wines you thought you knew.

What does this mean for us today? The implications are numerous. One is that today's wine discussion is flavored by this transformative divide. Here's a question: If wines have changed so radically, can those of us who remember the older "wine life-forms" confidently predict the future of today's new "wine life-forms"? (Short answer: No.)

Is everything that we're tasting today truly superior than what previously existed? Here, we come to personal taste and, yes, the power of fashion. The past was far from intrinsically superior or preferable.

In one man's opinion, I'll say this much: I'll take a clean, well-made wine every time over a dirty, technically flawed wine. And I'll take today's much greater reverence for vineyard site expression over the past's less exigent, let's-blend-it-all-together-and-call-it-Pommard approach. And I'll shout huzzahs for today's widespread effort to elevate and showcase a district's indigenous grape varieties.

As for the downside, take your pick. Overly high yields, anyone? High-tech gizmos that serve only to create increasingly artificial-tasting wines? Commercial blends that pretend to be fine wine but are little more than focus-group wine concoctions?

You tell me: What is the good and the bad of the past and the present? Are our wines as irrevocably changed as I submit that they are? And are we better off for it?

Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  October 5, 2010 2:44pm ET
matt,

wine is a food product. as such, it comes in many differing iterations meant to satisfy many different consumer bases. your commercial blend focus-group wines are chain restaurants, ranging from mcdonald's to mccormick & schmick's. ridiculously expensive, hedonistic experiences exist in the wine world as they do in the fine dining world (screaming eagle = the french laundry). and just like wine, we're still using the same ingredients to make food as we always have, we're just finding new ways to make it appealing to consumers' current preferences. i'll bet the new york city fine dining landscape has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, just as the wines enjoyed in that region have changed. the pinot craze will end, the over-extracted, overripe alcohol bombs will fall out of favor, and then they'll come back again when people get sick of drinking light, insipid wines.

not that i think you're necessarily "lamenting" the changes, but there are many vocal critics and consumers who are unhappy with modern trends. and yet these people are still finding wine to drink. so as long as there are options for everybody's palate, who cares? vive la difference!!
Jeffrey D Travis
University Park, FL., USA —  October 5, 2010 5:19pm ET
Matt,
Seems to me one 800 # gorilla has slipped under the radar that you are using. Sometime in the early 80ties someone pointed out (the obvious) that good wine was not astringent, no matter the label or vineyard reputation. Let’s cut to the chase. Can anyone identify one influence, above all others, that changed the way consumers evaluate and convey wine preference, beginning about the timeframe you suggest? I can.

And yes, wines are irrevocably changed for the better.
William R Klapp Jr
Neive, Italy —  October 5, 2010 5:26pm ET
You know some stuff, Kramer! (Kudos on the new book, by the way. A real potboiler that I could not put down until I finished it. In a very different way and for very different reasons, it is a co-favorite of mine with Making Sense of Burgundy, but of course, neither of those is worth a damn next to A Passion for Piedmont!)

Here is what I think: you need to take really good care of yourself, dosing with obscure herbs or whatever to keep your mind sharp. The age of wine criticism (that is to say, hot-and-cold running arbitrary numbering and trite, purple-prose tasting notes that communicate little or nothing of value) is coming to an end, and we are witnessing the dawn of what I fervently hope will be the golden age of wine WRITING. If I am right, you are sitting in the catbird seat. You have been a wine writer for a good long time now, and one of the very best.
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
Wine World —  October 5, 2010 5:33pm ET
This is a very interesting topic. My handicap is: I'm not that an older wine drinker/lover I wish I could. My experience with wine go back to less than 15 years and over time. I can tell I better drinker today than I used to be 5 years ago. Some say old fashion wines are better. I can pick to examples: Cheval Blanc 1947! Some call it the best wine ever made. I've read on the conditions the wine came to life and the limitations there were after world war II. Question rises if under same conditions someone can replicate or create a wine of that stature today. I know it's a tricky question. Second Pick: Penfolds Grange. I've read, some so called "experts" doubt today's Grange will have the longevity of all classic granges from past. And so on. . .Bordeaux producers are saying today they are doing better wines (2005-2007-2009) than in 1982 and they base their judgement on the "scientific/technological" approach you mention above. Who's right or who's wrong?

Each period/stage/time has it's pros and cons and everytime there will be lovers and detractors. To me and being myself just a common drinker -but a lover nonetheless- my aim is to enjoy the better I can the wines I can afford. I can't imagine how '61 Chateau Latour or '45 Romanee Conti can taste or be compared against their counterparts from recent time (Simply put it: I can't afford them)
Evandro Pereira
Sao Paulo —  October 5, 2010 5:55pm ET
Matt, when it comes to Spain I would like to mention one great exception, one that seems to be misunderstood by most commentators: Tondonia, from Rioja...you can drink their red or whites from the 60s or 70s and they are exactly the same of what you get today. I love them.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  October 6, 2010 10:34am ET
Mr. Elerick: You write: “There are many vocal critics and consumers who are unhappy with modern trends. and yet these people are still finding wine to drink. So as long as there are options for everybody's palate, who cares? Vive la difference!”

I think that you are quite right. It’s amazing how we all find (if we care to, anyway) pleasure in the here-and-now world in which we live.

Your observation does underscore the highly significant—at least it seems so to me—fact that not only do wine styles change, but so do we wine tasters.

While I’m far from persuaded that everything made today is intrinsically superior to everything made 40 or 50 years ago, I rather doubt that our contemporary palates would be quite so receptive to the general stylistic run of wines made half a century ago.

Personally, I know that too many older Barolos, for example, are not as clean-tasting as I have come to prefer today. Of course, there were exceptions. The key point is that we, too, have changed. Wine-tasting is always a dance with three partners: the wine, its taster and the “time dimension” in which the wine was made and that when the taster comes to it.

This is why we see older movies or paintings with a different—and sometimes more appreciative—eye than the contemporaries of the artist. And sometime with a less understanding eye, too. That “third partner” of time is profoundly influential to understanding, appreciation and receptivity.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  October 6, 2010 10:39am ET
Mr. Travis: You write: “Can anyone identify one influence, above all others, that changed the way consumers evaluate and convey wine preference, beginning about the timeframe you suggest? I can.”

All right, I’ll bite!

So what is, in your opinion, the one influence, above all others, that changed everything?
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  October 6, 2010 10:45am ET
Mr. Klapp: Thank you so very much for your exceedingly kind words. I must say that I greatly enjoyed creating my latest book. And it got a very nice review in today's New York Times, too! As you can imagine, that's gratifying, as are your own (and others') very generous words as well.

Thanks again.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  October 6, 2010 10:53am ET
Mr. Pereira: You write: “I would like to mention one great exception, one that seems to be misunderstood by most commentators: Tondonia, from Rioja...you can drink their red or whites from the 60s or 70s and they are exactly the same of what you get today.”

It’s funny that you should propose the white Rioja fom the producer Tondonia, as I just had a bottle of the 2000 Tondonia the other night.

You’re absolutely correct: it is utterly the same as what Rioja used to create half a century or more ago. And, yes, it does take a difference mindset to wrap one’s palate around it. I found myself recalibrating rapidly, so distinctively different (dare I say old-fashioned?) is it. I enjoyed that 2000 Tondonia greatly, but its rich, slightly oxidative style seemed to call for companionable food to allow it to shine—or so it seemed to this 21st-century palate.

But it’s a perfect example! Thanks for mentioning it.
Jeffrey D Travis
University Park, FL., USA —  October 6, 2010 12:01pm ET
Matt,
I suggest the one influence above all others is the rating system and dialog expressed by Robert Parker beginning in the late 1970's.
William R Klapp Jr
Neive, Italy —  October 6, 2010 1:59pm ET
Matt, the only real gripe that I have ever had with you is not even your fault. Years ago, while you were staying with our common friends (or should I say, friends in common) the Giacosas in Alba, they arranged to have you autograph a copy of A Passion for Piedmont for my wife. You graciously did so. But she got the book in the divorce! But no matter. I still have about 50 copies of the book. I will catch up to you someday and get one of them autographed! By the way, I don't know if you follow other wine boards, but you have gotten serious airplay on them in the wake of this latest piece. Overwhelmingly favorable to you, but as these things go, spawning even more fruit bombers vs. anti-flavor elite warfare!
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  October 6, 2010 3:40pm ET
Matt,

I enjoyed my first Chateau Lafite over 30 years ago and can certainly appreciate what you are saying. But as far as the evolution of Old World wines in particular, I would suggest that much of the dramatic shift in style has occurred more recently, in the last 10 to 15 years. And some of this, I believe, is not simply the influence of the riper international "style", some is a simple function of the warmer weather much of Europe has experienced.

Case in point. In choosing a Chianti to go with my pasta with red sauce the other night, I went with Frescobaldi's Nippozano Riserva 2006 (J.S. scored this 91 points), as I knew this vintage made full-bodied, showy wines and seemed to recall JS scoring it well. I was hoping for the best of both worlds; full body, yet with some finesse and the wonderful trademark Chianti acidity which allows fruit flavors to assert themselves when matched with a lively tomato sauce. The wine was indeed full-bodied and flavorful, but was also rather awkward. Perhaps it was in a bit of a dumb phase. Or maybe it hadn't been handled with the best of care and was slightly madeirized.

But the biggest shock of all? It did nothing for the red sauce. And the red sauce did nothing for the wine. I may as well have ordered a California Cabernet.

Has it really come to this? One cannot rely on Chianti to go with red sauce?

Tom
Reggie Mcconnell
Indiana —  October 6, 2010 5:20pm ET
Dear Mr. Kramer:
Thanks for another thought provoking article. What I find most curious about today’s Cabs., Zins and Bordeaux wines is the higher alcohol content. And so far no one has been able to give me a satisfactory answer as to why this is. Perhaps you can help in that regard. When I started drinking wine in the early 1970s, a typical Bordeaux was about 11-11.5% alcohol; California Cabs. were in the 12-12.5% range and Zins about the same. But many of today’s Zins approach alcohol levels close to that of Port! And it’s not unusual to see Cabs. in the 14.5-15% range. Even Bordeaux is over 13% these days. Why the push for higher and higher alcohol levels?

Moreover, the vast majority of winemakers appear to be striving for a more fruit-forward style, as opposed to the austere approach of yesteryear. The result being a winemaking approach yielding giant fruit bombs with too much alcohol (read: hot), and one-dimensional wines that lack the complexity and elegance of wines made 30-40 years ago.
Leo Mccloskey
Sonoma, CA —  October 6, 2010 7:04pm ET
I appreciate the journalism—writing that sheds light where marketing shadows exist—in the wine industry. New World wines are huge by European standards. American big wine became a second benchmark by which consumers judge wines.

Competition is the cause. Australia and California winemakers were asked to produce the same 100-point scores as Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon based wines. Educators, researchers and vendors began to sell products that change small into big wines in an effort to go around fine wine processing. But the users do not want to report the change.

Globalization—intellectual property moving across national boundaries—includes the 100-point score. Unregulated wine companies are changing wines at blending times. Adjuncts, additives, concentrators, fining agents, and mixing colorants are aded to increase the score.

There is a meta-problem, winemakers are loosing their way and ways.

As far as I know, no important California winemaker will talk about it. The only way forward is regulation of the California wine label. This will protect wine-farms from globalization.

Free market economies are against such regulations. What to do .... ...?
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  October 7, 2010 3:47am ET
Well, this is not really a change in wine so much - but rather in the marketing of the product. I never saw so many "cute" and "diverse" labels previous to 2000 as there are now.
John Hazard
New York, NY —  October 7, 2010 11:07am ET
great subject and great comments by all. growers have told me that climate change has caused some of the change in wine style (bigger fruit, more alcohol), but wine raters, especially r. parker, have such a following that producers feel obligated to produce wines that match the profile the raters like. interestingly, some producers are reverting to "biodynamic" growing techniques, which will hopefully allow regions to retain their individuality. this is all to the good, because diversity is much more interesting than the "global" style that has taken over the industry lately.
John W Laird
New York, New York USA —  October 7, 2010 6:20pm ET
The gentleman from Indiana, Reggie McConnell, says it all: the changes that have been brought to wine and its consumption patterns by the steady increased alcohol content have truly metamorphosed this delicious business. Kinda too bad...
Neil Monaghan
NY —  October 12, 2010 8:50pm ET
Matt great to hear about the book, I will need to pick up a copy. You are one of the very few wine writers left worth reading. I think its an interesting point but I really believe it is the advancement of communication. Would anyone argue the 1855 classification was a defining moment and changed buyer & seller perception? How about the 1976 Judgment in Paris? That news event also changed the consumer world. Now with the internet and the rise of global taste makers such as JL, JS & RP producers and consumers are under constant review of their likes and dislikes. Read some of the above JL rated this X so it must be good or JS rated Y and must be good, either way it would be worth a try.

It is their palates we want to emulate for better or worse, and so the producers want to mimic as they know it will sell. In a way it is easier for them. I know there are mavericks who buck this trend, but they are the minority.

The next change in wine will come with the rise of the next generation of taste makers or the retirement of the current batch. I don't know if this is a golden age of reviewers and their influence will wane, halting a "next generation" as information is made evermore available by "regular Joe" reviews.
I have been drinking wines for 20 yrs, and my understanding and taste is driven by WS and its like, this is not bad it is a fact. Who doesn't read the top 100 to see what/if we tried any and if we agree?
John Lahart
New York NY —  October 11, 2012 9:10am ET
At one time the "traditional" wine of Italy (ok Rome really) was a high alcohol, sweet elixir. The wines for which "claret" was coined were closer to today's rose's than any red wine.
(the "Oxford" is a great source).

One could say that that many Burgundies were "traditionally" pumped up with wine from Algeria and other points South.

Today, contrary to what Mr McCloskey asserts above, globalization means more diversity in more wine shops around the world. A greater range of wine styles and flavor profiles than ever before.

The whole "big" thing is a great myth, a pice of conventional wisdom that just doesn't fly. California wine makers have freedom to make wines they envision and consumers are the better for it. We are seeing heretofore obscure grapes like Trusseau and Ribolla Gialla being grown and wines made in all sorts of styles. There's no more "typical" this or that.

There is such a range of styles in , say, pinot noir being made these days--no surprise given the range of terroirs in California alone--I don't know what a "typical Cali Pinot" is.

"Label laws? Regulations"-- Europe is rife with them, yet McCloskey claims there's some sort of stylistic globalization in play. (unless I have misread his comments). Those laws are often implemented based on criteria other than the quality of the wines. They are often changed for less than noble reasons. Wine makers will continue to ignore them.

Globalization means that European wine consumers will have greater access to a greater range of wines--how many "New World" wines are on the shelves of local shops in Spain or Italy?

These are great times to be a grape grower, wine maker and certainly a wine lover!!!!!

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