The Required Rigor
By Matt Kramer
I don't get it," said a baffled friend of mine. "What don't you get?" I replied, in my best "the doctor is in" tones. "I don't understand," he said, "how, every year, some new wine or producer pops up and is proclaimed the latest and greatest. I mean, I understand it when it's, say, California or Australia. They've got a lot of new vineyards. But I don't understand how it's possible in really old places, like Europe."
"I can tell you in one word," I replied. He groaned. Whenever I say that I can answer something in just one word, he knows there's a helluva lot more words than one coming. Consider yourself warned.
"All right, give it to me," he said.
"Rigor," I replied.
"Of course not."
Everyone who talks with winemakers and walks through vineyards meets an underachiever. And then another. And another. In fact, the longer you do this and the more you learn, the more underachievers you see. It's like hunting morel mushrooms. At first you don't see any, because you don't know where and how to look. Then you figure it out, and suddenly they're all over the place.
Sad to say, the wine world is chockablock with underachievers. How do you know that they're not performing? Actually, it's pretty easy. Most wines have direct competitors. In a place like Burgundy, for example, nearly all the vineyards have multiple owners. You don't have to taste many bottles of, say, Meursault Charmes to know that one grower is delivering impressive goods while another is coming up empty.
Broader-scale spots, such as whole districts, offer similar opportunities for comparison shopping. Taste a few Cabernets from Napa Valley's Oakville or Rutherford zones and you'll soon see that some producers offer striking wines while others -- at the same high prices, of course -- are trading on name and fame and not much else.
"Hah!" said my friend, a good American capitalist. "The market will catch them out."
"Not so fast," I countered. "When it comes to famous districts, demand outstrips supply. There's always somebody who will buy a crummy wine as long as it's got a prestigious label. We wine critics are supposed to be cops on the quality beat, but -- this will shock you, I know -- folks are not hanging on our every word."
So how do new stars get born in old places? As I mentioned, it really comes down to rigor. In traditional regions like Burgundy, Chianti, Alsace, Piedmont or the Loire, the father passes the estate to his son (or occasionally his daughter). The kid has more ambition. Or a better education. Or just more courage.
One year you visit the winery, and all is mediocrity. You have no interest in returning. Then you hear that things are changing at Winery X. You ought to check it out, you're told. You're skeptical, but your source is reliable, so you go.
You taste the wine and...wow! It's a whole new game. What did they do? Usually, they took expensive, bet-the-farm risks -- literally. They bought new equipment: presses, barrels, temperature-control devices. They tended their vineyards with greater care, almost invariably lowering the excessive yields that created their old faint-tasting, dilute wines.
Above all, they looked at their own previous efforts with a cold, unsparing eye (and palate). We can do better, they said to themselves. They tasted their competition -- not with distrust or disdain, but as a lodestar toward top quality.
What's amazing is how fast an estate can go from banal to boggling. Ironically, it's the old European places that have the advantage. After all, they're already working a proven mine, as it were.
Look at the meteoric improvement of Burgundy's Bouchard Père & Fils, a shipper that long owned a vast collection of top vineyards, yet for too long made mediocre wines. When the ownership changed, quality soared.
Chianti abounds in estates shaking off musty old ways. Ditto for Spain and the Loire. The list is almost endless.
I don't think an issue of Wine Spectator goes by where you can't find a "new" star. Sometimes they really are brand-new names from New World locations. But more often, they're old names with new pride -- and rigor.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)