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Down With McWines

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: February 3, 2000

Down With McWines
By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor

You don't need to be a soccer fan to realize that France missed an opportunity to score a big one against conformity this summer. Here was the world capital of gastronomy organizing one of the sporting extravaganzas of the century. So what did the host of the World Cup do? Did it promote its fabled wines and foods, their uniqueness or the terroir from which they spring?

Not exactly.

When McDonald's was made the World Cup's "Official Restaurant" in the homeland of Bresse chicken and foie gras, Alain Ducasse, Roquefort, Château d'Yquem and Montrachet, something seemed terribly wrong. The country's cuisiniers were furious that France threw in its lot with a fast-food enterprise that, as they pointed out, espouses conformity as its corporate goal in the area of taste.

Good point. But everything else seems to be Americanized these days, from movies to music to kids' toys, so why not food?

Ah, but wait a moment, you say. All is not lost. At least there is the wide, exciting, diverse world of wine. The reality is a bit different, however, in my experience of tasting more than 2,000 wines a year. And I can summarize the problem in one word: oak.

That's right. The French have oak on their brains. They have caught, metaphorically speaking, the American virus. It's the current fashion to emulate the California style of oaky wines.

So we get all these wines that taste more of wood than of their origin. We get wines that taste boringly similar. We get "international-style" (read Americanized) wines. We get McWines.

We get these wines from places I would expect them the least--from some of the great wineries of Burgundy, the Rhône and Bordeaux.

The signature flavors of these jet-set reds and whites are loads of mocha, ground coffee beans, burnt toast, dark chocolate, caramel, butterscotch and charred oak. These wines tire the palate. They make you long for good concentration of fruit and a taste of terroir, that quintessentially French notion that embraces the influences on a wine of a vineyard site's soil, microclimate and topography.

A few months ago, I and a dozen others participated in a blind tasting of Montrachet, the famous white Burgundy grand cru vineyard. We tasted every Montrachet made in 1995 (there are 18).The tasters included a few famous Burgundian winemakers, such as Marc and Michel Colin and the Ramonet brothers, and France's best-known wine critic, Michel Bettane. The organizer informed us that he had thrown in a couple of California ringers.

As we came to bottle No. 14, the French in the room had no doubts about what they had in their glass. They talked dismissively of this "obvious," "New Worldish," "overdone," "overoaked" wine. Naturally, they thought it could only be a California ringer, with all that caramel, butterscotch and butter character. Montrachet is famous for its ability to combine mineral intensity with spicy earthiness. But No. 14 tasted mostly of new oak.

You could have heard a pin drop when the wine was revealed. The wine was the 1995 Montrachet from the legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Call the paramedics, I thought, as jaws slackened all around me.

By the way, the oak affliction isn't just plaguing the French. If you want to diagnose the progress of the epidemic sweeping the globe, just uncork the latest wave of woody white and red vini da tavola coming out of northwestern Italy's Piedmont region these days. Those vini are often heavily oaked wines made from international varieties.

But the French are trendsetters, and when they turn to international-styled wines, the rest of the world listens. From South Africa to South America, the paradigm is no longer Bordeaux (or white Burgundy), it's California Cabernet (or California Chardonnay).

Plenty of great winemakers use oak to their advantage to draw out terroir. But many miss. That's where the danger lurks: Wines risk becoming McDonaldized.

I want diversity. If it's conformity I seek, I can always go around the corner for a Big Mac.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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