It’s the end of a year and the end of a decade, which affords a nicely rounded-off number to look back on. When it comes to wine, a lot has happened in 10 years: the rise of regions like Argentina and South Africa, the rise and subsequent fall of the Australian powerhouse, an unmatched string of vintages in the Southern Rhône, the emergence of major wine-consuming markets in Eastern Europe and Asia, and the passing of the legendary Robert Mondavi. Yes, it’s been a busy 10 years.
For me though, one thing stands out as the single most important aspect of the past decade: the prominence of high-alcohol, fruit-forward, heavily oaked wines. I’m serious.
Now, those of you who follow along with me know that I look for quality first, while trying to remove style from the equation, so you probably can guess what I’m driving at here.
"Importance" is the issue, not personal preference. This isn’t about whether or not you like these kinds of wines. It’s about what these wines have done for the industry as a whole.
Superficially, the higher alcohol, riper fruit style helped bring in a rush of new consumers. New consumers promised more demand. More demand meant more supply. The wine industry was booming until the economic slowdown of the past 18 months.
But more than that, higher alcohol, riper fruit wines also made the wine industry smarter and better at all levels. Look at how the style has forced the bottom rung to evolve from Blue Nun to white Zin to Two Buck Chuck to Yellow Tail. Personally I wouldn’t want to drink any of them, but if I'm forced to choose among them, I’d happily take the current incarnation hands-down over the previous ones.
More important, the dominant wine style of the past decade has changed the way high-end wines are made too, in the winery and the vineyard. Winemakers and viticulturists who aimed for harvesting as late as possible for maximum fruit impact developed and pushed this style. Traveling consultants then brought this style with them as they worked in several wine regions simultaneously. When the wines were well-received by consumers and critics, some gave into the economic temptations of producing wines that they themselves might not personally like.
“The pressure from clients became strong, and several Old World winemakers were associating that style to personal success,” said Alberto Antonini, who has been making wine in Tuscany since the 1980s. “So as a result, a big part of the industry was driven toward that style."
With this style came the potential for a homogenizing affect on wine. Some worried that everything would soon be amped up with oak and powerful fruit. And frankly, it was easy to do.
“You just overexpose fruit all of a sudden [by removing leaves] after veraison to get the jammy flavors,” said Antonini, who was also among the first to dive into Argentina in the late 1990s.
All this was a good thing, because the pendulum of style swung all the way out, taking the consumer's eye with it. Meanwhile, Antonini and others were quietly taking an even closer look at soils and viticulture, aiming to maintain a unique and distinctive sense of place in their wines while still getting an expression of ripe fruit. Of course, there are obvious benefits to riper, richer fruit flavors in wine, but a sense of place and maintanence of diversity were seen by a few as the ultimate barometers of greatness. No one was espousing a return to unripe, vegetal flavored 11 percent alcohol reds. The result? A happy medium began to take hold. Eventually the high-alcohol, fruit-forward style begat a new school of winemaking—wines that offered a purer, cleaner expression of fruit, but without being simply bombastic.
Instead of leaf pulling for maximum sun exposure as Antonini notes above, he and others replaced the technique with lateral shoot thinning after fruit set but before veraison to give more light to the grapes from an earlier stage.
“This lets the fruit get used to more light so it has an earlier flavor development that allows you to pick ripe fruit at 14 percent alcohol but not overripe at 16,” Antonini said. "From there we can manage the cap of skins more gently to have softer extractions and rounder, gentler tannins.”
As viticulture and winemaking evolved and improved, pushed by those who were testing the limits of ripeness, the pendulum of consumer preference started its inevitable swing back. Waiting for them were the wines that combined the best of both sides of the wine equation: pure fruit and minerality, an awesome combination.
“One has to go in one direction in order to understand the other direction better,” said Hans Vinding-Diers, another winemaker with Old World roots who has started projects in the New World. “How ripe can grapes get? These days we are finding ourselves reaching for the ripest grapes possible but without crossing the marmalade or Amarone style, still trying to keep that minerality in the wine. The most challenging part is to make a perfectly ripe wine without being 15 [percent] alcohol.”
By going to one extreme and recruiting a whole new generation of drinkers, the wine industry has been forced to dust off the laissez-faire traditionalism that had long been an excuse for lazy, poor winemaking. The high-alcohol, fruit-forward wines have helped shine a new light on more traditional methods: There's nothing wrong with old oak as long as it's clean oak. Cool-climate wine regions that produce low-alcohol, unoaked wines, such as the Loire Valley and Germany, have new followers.
Conversely, the high-alcohol style taught the industry about balance and precision. There's nothing wrong with new oak as long as it's integrated into the wine.
Today, when teaching folks about wine, there’s more to the equation than just the old, rote formula of grape, region and vintage. Now, there’s a conversation of how wine is made and what a wine "says." No one talked like that over a decade ago.
Think about it. The high-alcohol, richly fruited and oaked wine style is the most important thing to happen to wine in the past decade. The winemakers behind the labels helped spur innovation that in turn led to more diversity. Without them, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Wine is, simply, a helluva lot more exciting now.
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