Something in the human condition, I believe, prefers a certain clarity. Whose side are you on? Where do you stand? What are your beliefs?
Now, we all know that life never is quite black and white, the binary system of computers and our own left-brain/right-brain setup notwithstanding. And surely in matters of wine, an embrace of a broad spectrum of pleasures is the wisest course.
That acknowledged, I would be less than honest were I not to say that I personally find the "I love all kinds of wines and I drink everything" school to be, well, wishy-washy.
In the spirit of making a stand, I've started to identify markers of what I like to call The Great Divide.
Obviously, no one—including, I have to admit, myself—is quite so definitive in their palate and aesthetic preferences. Still, there's at least a kernel of reality to what follows in this column. Most of the wine lovers I know do seem to land on one side or the other of The Great Divide in their preferences.
So here's the question: Where do you stand? For that matter, do you agree that it's either enjoyable or perhaps even essential to take a stand? Consider these possibilities:
Power or Finesse? For this observer, the divide between power and finesse is one of the major wine markers of our time. Now, it's possible for wine to have both power and finesse. Indeed, that's what makes some of the world's greatest wines, such as the grands crus of Burgundy or many of most acclaimed Cabernets, so extraordinary. It's a rare conciliation of attributes.
Most wines however, the great majority, tend to fall into one camp or the other. And it seems to me that most wine tasters do too. When you choose your wines, do you gravitate toward the emphatically flavorful? Or do you seek the more insinuating? How you answer says, I think, a lot about aesthetic preferences and very often informs which regions and grape varieties that you will seek out.
Old School or New Wave? The idea of "old school" and "new wave" is admittedly ambiguous. Most of us, somehow, do have a sense of what's being referred to, even if it's not terribly exact. Besides, the two categories tend to evolve. What's "new wave" today becomes "old school" tomorrow.
Nevertheless, I do sense that some tasters have what might be called an "appetite for modernity." They like the new and different; they prefer the eye-opening. We saw this, for example, in the 1980s and 1990s in Barolo with the dramatic divide between tannic, long-maturing Nebbiolos and the "new wave" of Barolo producers using short fermentation times, small new oak barrels and other techniques to create soft, supple and earlier-maturing wines.
We are seeing even more radical wine interpretations with the so-called "orange wines," which are white wines that acquire a hue from the long skin-contact time during fermentation, resulting in a dramatically different flavor and color than we're used to with modern white wines. Actually, it's an ancient winemaking technique. But skin contact for white wines has been so long out of use that it is now, ironically, "new wave."
Are you sympathetic to "new wave"? Or does it consistently strike you as gimmicky?
Apparent Oak or Stealth Oak? The issue of oak is utterly modern. Prior to the 1970s, you would have been hard-pressed to find a wine anywhere in the world that could be described as "oaky." That changed with modern California winemaking, which embraced the use of small new oak barrels on a scale never before seen.
Because so many of the California wineries were new, so too were their barrels. These new barrels imparted a pronounced oakiness, the signature scent of which is vanilla. Vanilla is catnip for humans. America's new wine drinkers loved it. So too did many other new-to-fine-wine drinkers in Italy, Spain, France and Australia, as producers in those countries followed the California lead.
Of course, the trend evolved. Winemakers found their own palates evolving. And they also found themselves in possession of multiple years' worth of small oak barrels, allowing them to more precisely calibrate the ratio of flavor-free older barrels to more flavorful (and very expensive) new barrels.
Today, the greater population of wine lovers seems to be divided between those who seek and enjoy a certain level of frank and apparent oakiness and those for whom apparent oakiness is, by definition, too much.
The dividing line is clear: If you can smell and taste the oak, is it too much?
Corks or Screw Caps? Here again, we have a truly modern wine divide. Increasingly, wine drinkers identify themselves as those for whom screw caps (or some other non-cork closure) are the ideal and those for whom cork remains irreplaceable.
What's interesting about this particular divide is how vehement the supporters of each side have become. Advocates of screw caps grow more vocally impatient with every cork-tainted wine they open. Cork lovers, for their part, find screw cap advocates soulless, lacking in what they believe is an essential traditionalism as well as a belief that the preservation of ancient cork forests is vital.
This divide is somewhat geographical: Australians and New Zealanders are now overwhelmingly in favor of screw caps. Americans, for their part, appear to be accepting, if not necessarily embracing, screw caps steadily, if slowly. Europeans still seem to prefer traditional cork.
Some of that European preference is codified into law. In Italy, for example, higher-level wine classifications, such as DOCG, expressly forbid the use of a non-cork closure. When the great Soave producer Pieropan concluded that screw caps better preserved the purity and flavor delineation of its wine, they were forced to downgrade the designation of their wine from Soave Classico to mere "Soave," which is less prestigious. The law requires a cork closure for the former, but allows a non-cork closure for the latter.
What we think about screw caps reveals, I submit, something about each of us as a wine drinker.
Soil Is Major or Minor? This division may not seem, on the surface, all that controversial. After all, few wine drinkers would deny that soil plays some kind of a role in the flavor and quality of wine. The question is, to what degree? There lies the divide, one that is widening noticeably.
Today, many wine drinkers and wine producers are openly skeptical about the informing influence of soil on the flavor and character of wine, preferring instead to emphasize the effects of microclimates and winemaking techniques.
Perhaps in response to this, a growing cohort of "soil seekers" is becoming increasingly vocal in insisting that soil plays a far greater role in wine quality and, especially, character, than many advocates of "wine rationalism" are willing to accept. Not surprisingly, some of the greatest advocates of the "soil school" are admirers or practitioners of biodynamics.
Some New World winegrowers, as they acquire more information over a longer span of vintages—and continually subdivide their wine districts into ever smaller ones—are beginning to reconsider the effects of soil. Where once the more measurable qualities and effects of climate were considered supreme, now the more ambiguous element of the effects of soil is ascendant—at least for some producers. Others are openly skeptical, uncomfortable with the lack of scientific veracity in predictive results.
For their part, wine drinkers are dividing into two camps: those for whom soil is a major consideration in their appreciation of certain wines and those for whom soil is, at best, a minor matter.
Where do you stand? Does knowledge of a certain soil type influence your appreciation? Are you now more convinced than ever that, assuming an appropriate climate for the grape variety in question, the soil is what really makes the difference?
The Great Divide exists. Where do you stand?
David Rossi — Napa, CA, USA — August 2, 2011 2:10pm ET
Don Fuller — US — August 2, 2011 2:57pm ET
Peter Vangsness — Springfield, MA — August 2, 2011 3:10pm ET
David Strada — San Francisco, CA — August 2, 2011 3:17pm ET
Don Ciaramella — New York — August 2, 2011 4:21pm ET
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — August 2, 2011 4:50pm ET
David Peters — Mission Viejo, CA — August 2, 2011 4:54pm ET
Douglas Levin — Tempe, AZ — August 2, 2011 5:33pm ET
Brett R Turner — Hawthorn Woods, IL — August 2, 2011 5:55pm ET
Giancarlo Ortega — Washington DC — August 2, 2011 6:20pm ET
David Rapoport — CA — August 2, 2011 6:25pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — August 2, 2011 7:17pm ET
John Wilen — Texas — August 2, 2011 7:57pm ET
Adam Wallstein — Spokane, WA — August 2, 2011 8:45pm ET
Staffan Bjorlin — Los Angeles, CA — August 2, 2011 9:22pm ET
Jeremy Matouk — Port of Spain, Trinidad — August 2, 2011 10:22pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — August 2, 2011 10:55pm ET
David Tietz — Columbus, OH — August 2, 2011 11:48pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 3, 2011 2:17am ET
Kenneth A Galloway — Paris, France — August 3, 2011 9:24am ET
Clinton W Mitchell — Naperville, IL — August 3, 2011 10:42am ET
JOHN J KANE — Dallas, TX — August 3, 2011 11:51am ET
Steve Gale — Portland, Oregon — August 3, 2011 12:35pm ET
Craig Peer — Cameron Park, CA — August 3, 2011 12:37pm ET
Ivan Campos — Ottawa, Canada — August 3, 2011 1:47pm ET
Richard Lee — Napa — August 3, 2011 7:12pm ET
Flavio Henrique Silva — São Carlos, SP, Brasil — August 3, 2011 9:01pm ET
Ken Heinemann — Chicago, IL — August 5, 2011 6:44am ET
Richard Kim — Anaheim Hills, CA — August 16, 2011 12:50am ET
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