The Closet Case
By James Laube, senior editor
Need a breezy, summertime perspective on wine? Think of it in terms of fashion. Imagine your clothes closet or dresser drawers in lieu of your wine cellar.
First, examine your clothes closet. You may own designer suits, snazzy ties and spiffy shoes, but what do you actually find yourself wearing? Jeans and sports shirts, with cross-training shoes? Your most expensive threads probably aren't the ones you wear most often. Most of what's hanging there might rarely if ever get used. Two years ago, at a spring sale, I bought a pair of stark white shorts. I can't imagine ever wearing them, yet there they sit, folded neatly in one of my dresser drawers. My blue chinos, though, have stayed in style.
Lots of wine cellars are assembled using the same mentality. We buy styles of wine that are in fashion, but not always the wines we might best use. Overspending on wine is usually driven by a desire for status symbols. That leads to cellars full of wines that are opened for special occasions, but not as part of daily life. While there are blue-chip wine classics that seemingly always remain in style, most wines' flirtation with fame is ever so fleeting.
Winemaking styles revolve around fashionable trends. Perhaps the most fascinating example of wine styles coming and going was the sudden demise of red Zinfandel in the 1980s and its phoenixlike rebirth in the 1990s.
Take the "new French oak" craze that swept through many wine regions in the 1980s and 1990s. There was a time when oak barrels weren't much of a factor in the aging of most wines. As best I can tell, the French have been using the most oak the longest and most effectively, and for the most part, everyone else has copied their regimen. Nothing wrong with that. As they say, imitation is a great form of flattery.
Five years ago, I predicted that this fascination with new oak would eventually reach a smoky, toasty, roasted marshmallow climax and then retreat. It hasn't hurt my forecast that some new French oak barrels cost $750 apiece, but my point was that winemakers who truly wanted to make individualistic and distinctive wines, expressing a grape variety and a piece of earth, wouldn't want oak as the dominant flavor. We still taste many wines with prominent vanilla bean, campfire and roasted nut flavors. But some of the trendsetters are backing away from too much new oak. They want the purity of their vineyard-driven fruit flavors to shine through, so that there's no mistaking the import of terroir.
The use of oak was never really about just new vs. old or French vs. American. It's always been about the right amount of oak for the right wine in the right year. The same is true for issues such as natural vs. laboratory yeasts. Or filtration vs. not filtering. Some years, natural yeast fermentations work perfectly. Other times, they don't. Some wines can go unfiltered; for others, it's far too risky.
A wine's longevity used to be a fashion statement. Wines that didn't age for decades (or centuries, if they're Château d'Yquem) were frowned upon. Now age-worthiness is less of a concern. As winemakers experimented with different winemaking techniques, they created new styles. They found they could make precocious, supple, fruity wines that didn't need time in the bottle to round out rough edges. Consumers seeking more immediate gratification discovered how delicious a plump, juicy wine could taste just months after harvest. Who needs a cellar when wines are front-loaded with ripe fruit, polished tannins and exotic oak flavors right on release?
Wineries used to age their wines, particularly hearty reds, for a full two years in bottle before releasing them. They knew that was the ideal time for the wine to show its fullest potential. Nowadays, wines are sold almost as soon as they're bottled. This fashion trend is known as cash flow. Making money defies fashion trends. It's always in.
I expect that wine longevity will become an issue again, soon. With so many people paying exorbitant prices, do you think they'll be anything but disappointed if their wines don't live a long, productive life? How would you feel if you finally pulled that expensive suit out of your closet for a special occasion and found that it had fallen apart?
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 James Laube. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)