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Bridging Thoughts on Wine Styles

There's a point where progress eclipses nostalgia
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 8, 2010 9:15am ET

Today I ride piggyback on two of my colleagues' recent blogs.

James Molesworth's thoughts on the past decade's global shift to riper, fuller-bodied, more flavorful wines sums up my sentiments exactly. There is too much hand-wringing by those who decry what they perceive as wines that are overripe and alcoholic. Well, those wines, call them what you may, are just a part, and perhaps only a small part, of a much bigger, ever-evolving picture.

I know that my wine-drinking buddies who may read this often roll their eyes when I extol the beauty of delicate, fragrant Rieslings, yes those 7 to 8 percent gems, wondering if I've lost it, "it" being my appetite for bold, expressive wines. No, I haven't. Wines are to be enjoyed and appreciated on all levels, and if the criterion is only the alcohol level, well, that's too narrow and singular a focus. Wine is to be assessed in its whole, which gives us a wide birth for determining what constitutes balance, complexity and appeal in each wine.

On the flip side is James Suckling, embracing a few wines from yesteryear and wondering if others too miss that style. He laments as well what he terms the trend toward "high-octane jam juice" made by vintners in his home state of California.

He ends up admitting he's been bitten by the bug of nostalgia (but also that he really does love some of those jam grenades) and that's healthy too. Would we all like to see perhaps more diversity in styles, as in better-made wines in a more restrained manner? I think so.

As I wrote a few days ago, looking back is as important as looking forward. It's enlightening to experience a great old wine that has survived and gained with time. But it's too easy to forget the sea of wines that weren't that good years ago and still aren't.

There's a bridge that connects the two editors' views and it's a link that connects our editors at Wine Spectator for the most part. At the end of the year, when we as a group sort through and discuss what we considered to be many of the top wines, the preferences for ripe, rich, complex and concentrated wines is on full display, whether they come from the Old World or New.

Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  January 8, 2010 2:12pm ET
Mr. Laube: I just don’t see how you can say – 1) that the very much riper wines made these days are inherently “more flavorful”, and 2) that alcohol level is too narrow a focus. Wines that are restrained and more austere are assuredly different, but no less flavorful and quite possibly more complex. And alcohol level in wine has many, many knock-on or accompanying flavor profile effects. So by knowing the alcohol level alone one can draw additional conclusions about other likely flavor profile characteristics, unless of course the wine is heavily “adjusted” in the winery.

Adam Wallstein
Spokane —  January 8, 2010 3:35pm ET
It's perhaps all too tempting to correlate the undeniable rise in overall quality within the wine world, with the steady inflation of alcohol percentage and ripeness. To be sure, we consumers have benefitted enormously from the impartial, meritocratic diligence of wine-writers, holding producers' feet to the fire. However, it seems reasonable to wonder if the tent of those highly celebrated wines might be broadened and further diversified?
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  January 8, 2010 4:29pm ET
Amen James...in this world of wine, where there is just about any style of wine imaginable, the only critcism that needs to be labelled is by your wallet --if you do not like it, do not buy it. Riper styles of wine in California are ultimately inevitable, given the climatic differences between here and the old world. JSs comparison of modern CA wines as jam juice and older CA wines as not is misplaced -- for the most part, low EOTH levels in the 70s was because most viniculture knowledge was imported from France. Now that we've learned our terrior, to get a properly ripe and balanced wine here generally (not always of course - the Ridge Cab JS blogged about, from the cooler Santa Cruz Mtn region is an exception) requires a higher Brix (thus higher ETOH) than in France, plain and simple. if this style is not to your taste, than instead of critcism simply do not buy it!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 8, 2010 5:07pm ET
Adam, it will be both broadened (or flattened) and either way a more diversified wine world will continue to reinvent itself. What makes wine so beautiful is the creative minds who grow and make it and it is their relentless desire to improve on what they have and not stand still that pushes stylistic changes and quality in different directions. Many changes are already underway in vineyards and wines we won't taste for a year or two. It's only going to get better.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 8, 2010 8:07pm ET
Just wondering out loud here... mightn't part of the "alchemy" of winemaking success be fundamentally related to the discovery of the style best suited to a given AVA? E.g. Can one truly emulate a Bordeaux using Napa Valley grapes? Perhaps it's possible, perhaps it's done already, I don't know. But isn't that kind of "forced" emulation actually so risky as to more likely end up with a product marred by intense herbaceousness & aggressive structural elements? I rarely see those wines attain the kind of scores or praise that the bolder, fuller-bodied Napa bottlings achieve. It just seems to me, having browsed thousands of reviews and scores, that year in & year out, the most consistently rated successes among all wines are those where the vintner has both identified and embraced the "norm" for their AVA and learn to sublimate it in the style most natural to it. Regardless, I'd never presume to call for changes one way or the other: let the vintners (and market) decide what yields the best results. In the end, I too feel there's room for all styles in our dining rooms and cellars.
Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  January 8, 2010 10:16pm ET
Andrew W. – I agree with you fully, if you don’t like it don’t buy it. Ain’t capitalism wonderful, and I’m not being facetious. But, and there’s always a but, the reasons that alcohol levels are much higher now compared to the 70s is far more complicated than CA (and OR and WA) finding their terroir.

Don R. – winemaking is not alchemy, artistry, or voodoo for that matter, but that doesn’t mean winemaking is mundane or of no consequence. It’s a very practical process with lots of options for the winemaker. Some options are the same as they were decades or centuries ago and some have only become available in the last 10 or 20 years. If a wine is special and unique it is an amalgam of people, place and time. Additionally, I would encourage you to spend less time perusing critic’s wine scores (no offense Mr. Laube) and spend more time just tasting and learning about those people, places, and times. You just might be surprised.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 9, 2010 10:37am ET
Scott, I used "alchemy" in a respectful and colorful way, to describe the "special and unique...amalgam" of elements that vintners create. Of course I do taste, but in hundreds, as I can afford to do so. But I can read in the thousands virtually for free, and education of any kind is never bad.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  January 10, 2010 11:29am ET
Scott..you are correct. In addition to the identification of what works here from a vinculture perspective, Riper wines (for the most part, at least in CA) taste better, esp in their youth, which is when most people drink their wines. And thus the reason why they are made and purchased....capitalism 101. Cheers!
Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  January 10, 2010 4:25pm ET
Andrew W. – Ah yes, riper wines taste better. You say it like that is some fundamental truth. One camp would say that Americans have sweet-loving palates since we are raised on soda pop and corn syrup, and so it wasn’t that CA found their terroir, but rather the wines quickly evolved to satisfy our sweet tooth. There are other camps, as well…

And as far as what works from a viticultural perspective, are you then saying CA viticulturists didn’t know what they were doing pre-super ripeness?

Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  January 10, 2010 11:04pm ET
I favor a wide range of various reds from around the world. And yes, I enjoy the recent rich Cali-Cab trend of fruit forward wines - but if they do not also have structure, complexity and that super soft velvet mouth feel, well then, they are not at the top of my list. Those three qualities distinguish a great wine for me, high alcohol and jam aside.
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  January 11, 2010 9:33am ET
Dennis values "structure, complexity and that super soft velvet mouth feel." So do I; I think that "mouth feel" is one of the primary markers for the best of what I call modern international style wines. In the old days, I think, it was hard to get the complexity (after aging) without an assertive structure that made wines tough to enjoy in their youth. Better tannin management has helped resolve that conundrum, hence wines with both structure and "velvet mouth feel." I think critics of the riper style sometimes miss the very real structure that "velvet mouth feel" can mask/balance.
Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  January 11, 2010 2:33pm ET
Thomas M. – I understand what you are describing, and tannin is the cornerstone for mouth feel. But I also think that tannin and acid are two of the primary cornerstones of red wine structure. So another conundrum is can you really achieve “velvet” while maintaining good structure? Another fundamental character about tannin and acid, even if assertive in a young wine, is they generally change dramatically in the mouth with food.

Just so I understand, are you saying some critics are sort of blinded by the velvet mouth feel and miss other attributes (positive and negative) in wine?

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 11, 2010 3:51pm ET
My dictionary defines "austere" as "severe or strict in manner, attitude, or appearance; having no comforts or luxuries; harsh or ascetic." Yum.

In wine tasting, "austere" usually indicates a relative lack of fruit flavor.

Sometimes austere wines are wonderful to drink, just as dissonant music can be fascinating to hear. But by definition, they have a limited audience. The wine industry would go broke if it went entirely in that direction.

Why can't we just agree that different styles are all part of the mosaic we love? It's not necessary to like every wine, just to have enough of the ones we do.
Steve Kirchner
huntington beach, ca —  January 11, 2010 3:52pm ET
i've heard that 'velvet mouth-feel' can be obtained by adding gum arabic. and 'balance' can be achieved by adding tartaric acid.
Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  January 11, 2010 5:50pm ET
My “austere” comment was just to point out that I think the acid-tannin balance side of the equation often gets trumped by fruit.

There is a time and place and person for most wine, so I appreciate your mosaic analogy, Harvey.

Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  January 11, 2010 9:28pm ET
Without entering into the whole issue of "what is balanced," or "what does austere mean," I'd like to say that I've really enjoyed this whole set of blogs. I often read a blog by [editor x] and think, "I wonder what [editor y] thinks of this?" It's nice when editors comment on their colleagues' blogs, but this trio of blogs has been even more interesting and enjoyable. Thanks, and I hope you guys do more of this. Let each person have their say, and call it good. An open exchange of ideas with lively discussion: what could be better? Bravi!

Fwiw, I personally couldn't care less about the percentage of alcohol in a wine... unless, that is, it has an unpleasant effect on the wine. If a winemaker can make a glorious, complex, balanced wine with 15+% alcohol, fine with me! :)
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  January 12, 2010 1:36pm ET
1. Obviously, there is a difference (albeit personal and subjective) about what constitutes ripeness versus overripiness and, ripiness levels in CA wines (as measured by Brix and ETOH levels) have increased. To my knowledge, this seems to have plateaued or even dropped over the past few years (although I wonder how much of this has been because of the relatively cool summers from 2005-present). As businesmen for the most part, one cannot blame wineries for meeting consumer demand regardless of whether this is fueled by a basic "austerity" reduction in ripe wines or by an adolesence wasted on classic Coke
2. Has Viniculture improved over the past 4 decades? While I am a vintner (serious amateur), not a farmer, so I cannot speak from practical experience, I would certainly hope so. Experience is the best teacher
3. I read your website...vaya con dios...that looks like a seriously interesting project you are embarking upon
James Zalenka
Pittsburgh PA —  January 13, 2010 4:30pm ET
I completely agree with Scott's comment: "One camp would say that Americans have sweet-loving palates since we are raised on soda pop and corn syrup, and so it wasn’t that CA found their terroir, but rather the wines quickly evolved to satisfy our sweet tooth."
The mere fact that we "rate" wines with scores gives the impression that there is a winner and a loser. Is it a coincidence that most of the 90+ rated wines in the WS are almost always described as "ripe, oppulent, jammy, full bodied", etc? And those wines are always well over 14% and some 15%. To me, this is formulaic based on attaining a 90+ rating and nothing to do with CA terroir.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  January 13, 2010 4:43pm ET
Amen Harvey. I love both styles. I prefer the riper wines for the depth of flavor profile, however, a simple well made wine of one or two dimensions really gets me going from time to time. Like a simple, dry, sparkling wine or a well made, DRY, Chianti with pasta.

Here's to having an opinion. Thanks for sharing yours.


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