Like many wine lovers—most, even—I have pastime interests that have nothing to do with wine. For example, in recent years I've been enthralled by jazz. I came to it relatively late in life, even though growing up in New York had offered me all sorts of opportunities to see and hear many of the now-immortal jazz greats. But I didn't. I missed them altogether.
I mention this only because one of the jazz world's nagging preoccupations is the contention that jazz is "finished," that the form is exhausted.
Some jazz lovers, if that indeed is what they are, assert that everything jazz has to say has already been said.
I'm nowhere near knowledgeable enough to say it ain't so. But I'm powerfully persuaded by the famous pianist Bill Evans who pointed out that "Jazz is not a what, it’s a how. If it were a what, it would be static, never growing."
In this seasonal moment of giving, all of this is by way of introduction to a celebration of wine's greatest gift to us: Nobody, but nobody, says today that fine wine is "finished."
This is worth noting if only because it underscores what really is the greatest gift we receive every time we open a bottle that goes beyond the bulk. Never has fine wine been more diverse, more exciting, more various, than today. Far from finished, the fine-wine form is more explosive in both its possibilities and expressions than ever before.
I know that, as with jazz itself, I don't always get all of today's wine jazz, if you will. Recently a wine merchant friend opened a bottle and said, "Try this." It was a white wine which, from its darkish hue, clearly had skin contact—quite a lot of it. I tasted the wine and my reaction was: "Why?"
The wine was made entirely from Gros Manseng, which is a pleasant, rather innocuous-tasting white grape grown in southwest France. Although not oxidized like a Sherry, the wine was clearly oxidative in style.
A lot had been done to this wine. But to what higher purpose I couldn't divine. Why would someone do this to a nice, innocent Gros Manseng? My merchant friend, by the way, absolutely loved the wine. (Lest you think I feel no attraction to any skin-contact white wines, I hasten to note that I very much enjoyed a really beautiful 2015 Alvarinho Contacto from the Portuguese producer Anselmo Mendes.)
Now, I recognize that the problem may well be me. As with jazz, few of us get it all. I rather doubt that I'll ever fully appreciate certain wines that others swoon over, such as overripe-tasting Cabernets or some of the wackier "natural" wines that even fans of the category acknowledge as having a less-than-inviting, "dragon's breath" smell. (When I taste such wines I always hear the Eurythmics singing, "Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree? … Everybody's looking for something.")
But such wines are outliers. The great majority of the world's fine wines are today well-made in what pretty much everyone would agree is a conventional style. They are clean, impressively pure and—here's the thing—increasingly varied.
Now, I can hear you already: What about that ocean of insipid commercial Chardonnays? What about all those cookie-cutter Cabernets and mundane Merlots? Yes, well what about them? Wine is a business, and you show me any sizable business that isn't disproportionately plumped with repetitive, unoriginal, uninspired products.
The thing is that, today more than ever, if you care to walk on the wild side, you only have to go over a block or so to get there.
Unlike, say, bookstores, Internet commerce does not appear to have suffocated either the existence or the ambition of small, local wine shops. (Apparently, even independent bookstores are seeing a bit of a comeback.)
From what I can see, Internet wine commerce seems to be actually helping at least some small, local wine shops—especially those that either specialize in certain sorts of wines (such as Italian or Spanish) or have access to small lots of locally produced wines that have a following (Oregon Pinot Noirs, for example).
The key point, the only one that really matters, is this: Would you say, à la jazz, that the fine-wine form is finished? That everything in wine has all been said?
Myself, I would say that it's quite the opposite. We're now seeing more wines, more interesting wines, from more (often very small) producers and more places than ever before. And yes, from more grape varieties and blends than most of us knew existed.
Think of all that we're seeing from, say, southern Italy alone. Where once the likes of Sicily's Nerello Mascalese was beyond obscure, today it's the new darling. The white Pecorino grape, for its part, was considered very nearly extinct until the 1980s. Italy is famously chockablock with "unknown" grape varieties. (I cannot recommend too highly Ian d'Agata's Native Wine Grapes of Italy, a 640-page book of extraordinarily readable prose that is surely the last word on this vast subject.)
When I think about all of the wines I've bought or tasted in depth in the past year—Canary Island wines from grapes I've never previously experienced, such as Negramoll, Vijariego, Marmajuelo, Tintilla and Forastera Blanca; various and extraordinary Chenin Blancs or Chenin Blanc blends from South Africa; various Valle d'Aosta varieties, such as Vuillermin, Fumin, Petit Rouge, Mayolet, Cornalin and Petite Arvine—I find myself amazed.
No, you're not going to stumble across such wines at the local supermarket. But what product of any real particularity or agriculturally confined production is mass-marketed? Fine wine is no different. Any expectation that it should be so is unreasonable. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe neglected an essential word in his famous dictum: Less is more effort.
That said, it's still impressive what is today easily available. Sure, the shelves still groan with the obvious choices. But hey, they do sell, so why not stock them? Yet we also see more Italian wines than I ever imagined possible on a supermarket shelf. Ditto for New Zealand and Spain.
The greatest gift with fine wine is that, unlike with jazz, you really can't say that it's all been said, all been done, all been tasted, that all has already been achieved. That the fine-wine form is now exhausted. Anybody who submits this is, like, way wrong. Quite a wonderful gift, don't you think?