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Too much about wine is yesterday

Matt Kramer
Posted: March 19, 2013

It's a curious, and powerful, feature of fine wine that it constantly refers to the past. Like starlight, many of the wines we buy are already years old by the time they reach us. For example, we're only now tasting the 2010 vintage.

So the past is always present. Of course, it's not just a matter of vintages. We measure greatness—often inappropriately—in part by a wine's longevity. A wine that has either lasted decades or is presented to us as having such a capacity is esteemed. It's considered a marker of quality, never mind that an ability to age tells us surprisingly little about quality.

For example, many wines made from the Tempranillo grape can retain astonishing youthfulness for decades, yet only rarely do they transform into something truly complex and layered. The power of the past is such that the mythology about age and greatness is unshakable.

But it's not just about old vintages. The power of the past also lies in its reassurance. Traditional wines and winegrowing areas are seen as sure things.

This was brought home to me during a recent trip to China. Wine lovers there seemed to be interested mostly in renowned and lustrous wines such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. This is understandable, to be sure. All wine newbies want to taste the benchmarks that have been sanctified over centuries. Fair enough.

Yet it has to be said: Fine wine today is much more about the future than ever it was. The “future” used to be merely the upcoming new offering from Bordeaux or Burgundy. It was a static, known universe, where the tick of the clock was measured only in vintage differences.

That's now been swept away by a far broader vision of the "future." Today, the "future" means whole new countries, regions, districts and even heretofore-unknown grape varieties.

After I left China, I flew to New Zealand, where I was a speaker at a Pinot Noir conference. I've been to New Zealand numerous times; my first visit there was in 1974, when I hitchhiked around South Island for six weeks. (Full disclosure: I drank a lot more beer than I did wine. There wasn't much local wine back then—especially in South Island—and what was available wasn't very good.)

Anyway, I spent two weeks in New Zealand, most of that time on my own touring North Island and visiting wine producers. What I really saw (and tasted) was the future. For example, during the Pinot Noir conference, I tasted, like everyone else, hundreds of New Zealand Pinot Noirs. That in itself is astonishing when you think about it. Hundreds of New Zealand Pinot Noirs? The traditional "wine past" never had such a thing, or even imagined it.

While tasting through the array I came upon a producer I had never previously tasted or even heard of. Yet when I tasted their Pinot Noir I was bowled over: Ostler Vineyards "Caroline's" Pinot Noir struck me as a remarkable wine.

I managed to taste three vintages worth; the 2008, 2009 and 2010 and all shared the same—dare I say it?—Chambolle-Musigny-like qualities of mineral-scented perfuminess allied to a layered depth and dimensionality. Produced in the ultracool, limestone-rich Waitaki Valley in New Zealand's South Island, it was a revelation. Here was the future!

In the North Island, I came across the utterly different yet equally remarkable Pinot Noirs of Kusuda Wines, in the Martinborough district about 40 miles east of Wellington. Here again, I tasted sheer remarkableness. Owner-winemaker Hiroyuki Kusuda, born and raised in Japan and now residing in New Zealand, is obsessed with extreme berry selection. Kusuda brings in 50 Japanese pickers at harvest, and he described (and displayed photographs of) the most rigorous and extreme berry-sorting that I've ever heard of. The result? Suffice it to say that you can taste the difference. The future!

The list of producers such as these that I encounter in my travels and tastings is extensive. They're everywhere today. You find them in Argentina: Try the exquisite Malbecs from Mendel Wines, where winemaker Roberto de la Mota employs an exacting, multiphase harvesting regimen and a highly involved blending approach derived from his decades of experience making sparkling wines.

You find it in Napa Valley: Try Dana Estate, which is so committed to the particular needs of each of its three vineyards that each has its own vineyard-dedicated (and differently equipped) fermentation facility.

You find equally intriguing/thrilling/fascinating/profound/different wines and producers in Oregon, Ontario, seemingly everywhere in Italy, Austria, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Hungary, Australia, France's Loire Valley (among numerous other places in that wine-rich nation) and in many parts of California.

The bottom line is this: If you really want to know fine wine, forget the past. The real action today lies in the future—which, paradoxically, is already here. But not everyone, quite understandably, knows it or (not quite as understandably) believes it.

Taste all of these "futures" and, as my friend and colleague the late Alexis Bespaloff used to say, "You'll agree for yourself."

Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  March 19, 2013 12:57pm ET
It will follow the vintners and their commitment to producing better wines, but the future will also bring forth a more discerning, educated consumer, which in turn will drive quality ever more. The key here is communications and validation. Matt, your role (and others of your kind) in this process will be very critical. Thank you for the view!
John B Vlahos
Cupertino, California —  March 19, 2013 6:58pm ET
Matt, I've been involved in wines in various capacities for the past 52 years and I can say without hesitancy that wines today are better than ever, and getting even better. Living in California has allowed me to experience wines from numerous small independant producers that are making small lotsd of outstanding wines at reasonable prices. And they do not need excessive aging to be enjoyed. In fact, I've come to prefer younger wines to those that require aging. I'm still waiting for my 1958 Inglenook special cask selection cabernet sauvignon to "reach it's peak," It is still not drinkable!
Dustin Hartung
Salt Lake City, Utah —  March 19, 2013 9:37pm ET
Would it be wrong to think the 2000 Bordeaux that compelled me to begin my wine life is obsolete? I started my cellar by the case. I thought the future was then? Neophyte!
Don Clemens
Elgin, IL, USA —  March 20, 2013 11:38am ET
Great article, Matt. I've been lucky to have been in the wine biz for about 40 years. The explosion of wines coming from all over the world, accompanied by technical mastery and appropriate grape variety plantations, has been dazzling! I've been enjoying wines from areas that were certainly not previously well known in the US, even while they were being appreciated in their respective home regions. Northern Italy, Slovenia, central Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union continue to surprise and delight me with their unique styles and their absolute "food-friendliness". Long live the future!
David A Zajac
Akron, Ohio —  March 20, 2013 12:37pm ET
Matt, I have to disagree with you on the overall premise but agree that wines from all over the world are getting better. I guess as long as you have motivated winemakers and technology keeps improving, that is a given that wine overall will be better than say 50 years ago. However, I do not believe that in our lifetimes you will ever hear anyone compare the greatest pinot noir they have ever had to some benchmark anywhere but in Burgundy. Ditto Bordeaux and Champagne. Remember, the improvements your tasting throughout the world apply to these area's too, aren't the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne better than they were even 20 years ago? I believe its safe to say you will be able to pick a bottle off of a store shelf and almost be assured it will be a good bottle of wine, but the benchmarks will remain what is being done in Burgundy, Piedmont, the Mosel etc.
Marco Laico
charlotte nc  —  March 20, 2013 2:56pm ET
my view is that, the benchmark still exist in burgundy, piemonte, tuscany, bordeaux and napa but there are also new benchmark created in southern italy , northern italy , loire , spain and argentina
lots to drink and discover my friends...
Staffan Bjorlin
Los Angeles —  March 21, 2013 1:30am ET
I agree that there are tons of new interesting stuff coming from new places, but isn't "forget the past" a little too drastic?

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