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Drinking Out Loud

The Greatest Gift

And you didn't even have to ask for it
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says the diverse world of wine is expanding, and every year brings exciting new wines.

Matt Kramer
Posted: December 20, 2016

Like many wine lovers—most, even—I have pastime interests that have nothing to do with wine. For example, in recent years I've been enthralled by jazz. I came to it relatively late in life, even though growing up in New York had offered me all sorts of opportunities to see and hear many of the now-immortal jazz greats. But I didn't. I missed them altogether.

I mention this only because one of the jazz world's nagging preoccupations is the contention that jazz is "finished," that the form is exhausted.

Some jazz lovers, if that indeed is what they are, assert that everything jazz has to say has already been said.

I'm nowhere near knowledgeable enough to say it ain't so. But I'm powerfully persuaded by the famous pianist Bill Evans who pointed out that "Jazz is not a what, it’s a how. If it were a what, it would be static, never growing."

In this seasonal moment of giving, all of this is by way of introduction to a celebration of wine's greatest gift to us: Nobody, but nobody, says today that fine wine is "finished."

This is worth noting if only because it underscores what really is the greatest gift we receive every time we open a bottle that goes beyond the bulk. Never has fine wine been more diverse, more exciting, more various, than today. Far from finished, the fine-wine form is more explosive in both its possibilities and expressions than ever before.

I know that, as with jazz itself, I don't always get all of today's wine jazz, if you will. Recently a wine merchant friend opened a bottle and said, "Try this." It was a white wine which, from its darkish hue, clearly had skin contact—quite a lot of it. I tasted the wine and my reaction was: "Why?"

The wine was made entirely from Gros Manseng, which is a pleasant, rather innocuous-tasting white grape grown in southwest France. Although not oxidized like a Sherry, the wine was clearly oxidative in style.

A lot had been done to this wine. But to what higher purpose I couldn't divine. Why would someone do this to a nice, innocent Gros Manseng? My merchant friend, by the way, absolutely loved the wine. (Lest you think I feel no attraction to any skin-contact white wines, I hasten to note that I very much enjoyed a really beautiful 2015 Alvarinho Contacto from the Portuguese producer Anselmo Mendes.)

Now, I recognize that the problem may well be me. As with jazz, few of us get it all. I rather doubt that I'll ever fully appreciate certain wines that others swoon over, such as overripe-tasting Cabernets or some of the wackier "natural" wines that even fans of the category acknowledge as having a less-than-inviting, "dragon's breath" smell. (When I taste such wines I always hear the Eurythmics singing, "Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree? … Everybody's looking for something.")

But such wines are outliers. The great majority of the world's fine wines are today well-made in what pretty much everyone would agree is a conventional style. They are clean, impressively pure and—here's the thing—increasingly varied.

Now, I can hear you already: What about that ocean of insipid commercial Chardonnays? What about all those cookie-cutter Cabernets and mundane Merlots? Yes, well what about them? Wine is a business, and you show me any sizable business that isn't disproportionately plumped with repetitive, unoriginal, uninspired products.

The thing is that, today more than ever, if you care to walk on the wild side, you only have to go over a block or so to get there.

Unlike, say, bookstores, Internet commerce does not appear to have suffocated either the existence or the ambition of small, local wine shops. (Apparently, even independent bookstores are seeing a bit of a comeback.)

From what I can see, Internet wine commerce seems to be actually helping at least some small, local wine shops—especially those that either specialize in certain sorts of wines (such as Italian or Spanish) or have access to small lots of locally produced wines that have a following (Oregon Pinot Noirs, for example).

The key point, the only one that really matters, is this: Would you say, à la jazz, that the fine-wine form is finished? That everything in wine has all been said?

Myself, I would say that it's quite the opposite. We're now seeing more wines, more interesting wines, from more (often very small) producers and more places than ever before. And yes, from more grape varieties and blends than most of us knew existed.

Think of all that we're seeing from, say, southern Italy alone. Where once the likes of Sicily's Nerello Mascalese was beyond obscure, today it's the new darling. The white Pecorino grape, for its part, was considered very nearly extinct until the 1980s. Italy is famously chockablock with "unknown" grape varieties. (I cannot recommend too highly Ian d'Agata's Native Wine Grapes of Italy, a 640-page book of extraordinarily readable prose that is surely the last word on this vast subject.)

When I think about all of the wines I've bought or tasted in depth in the past year—Canary Island wines from grapes I've never previously experienced, such as Negramoll, Vijariego, Marmajuelo, Tintilla and Forastera Blanca; various and extraordinary Chenin Blancs or Chenin Blanc blends from South Africa; various Valle d'Aosta varieties, such as Vuillermin, Fumin, Petit Rouge, Mayolet, Cornalin and Petite Arvine—I find myself amazed.

No, you're not going to stumble across such wines at the local supermarket. But what product of any real particularity or agriculturally confined production is mass-marketed? Fine wine is no different. Any expectation that it should be so is unreasonable. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe neglected an essential word in his famous dictum: Less is more effort.

That said, it's still impressive what is today easily available. Sure, the shelves still groan with the obvious choices. But hey, they do sell, so why not stock them? Yet we also see more Italian wines than I ever imagined possible on a supermarket shelf. Ditto for New Zealand and Spain.

The greatest gift with fine wine is that, unlike with jazz, you really can't say that it's all been said, all been done, all been tasted, that all has already been achieved. That the fine-wine form is now exhausted. Anybody who submits this is, like, way wrong. Quite a wonderful gift, don't you think?

Charles Chambless
Stow, Ohio, USA —  December 20, 2016 6:06pm ET
I manage a wine shop. I can tell you that I love esoteric wines. I carry many...including Lagreins, Teroldegos, Moschofileros, Bonardas, and many more. The only people who buy these wines are the wine geeks like me. The general population isn't interested. When I do tastings with such wines, people are amazed. But they go right back to their usual suspects..the 25 or so wine types that are familiar when they do their shopping.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  December 20, 2016 6:53pm ET
Mr. Chambless: I'm not surprised that so many of your customers return, as you say, to the "25 or so wine types that are familiar". I've written many times that whomever first said "Familiarity breeds contempt" must have misheard it. Familiarity breeds content!

Still, it's impressive what else you are offering your clients. And I have no doubt that, one by one, you are expanding your audience (and their minds and palates) to less mainstream wines.

Please do keep up the good work. Its merchants like you who really make the difference, delivering the proverbial--and essential--"hand sell".

I can only offer my sincere support and admiration, as I know that it's just so much easier--and surely tempting--to just offer the "25 or so wine types that are familiar" and let it go at that.
Tom Kessler
Parma, Ohio —  December 21, 2016 10:34pm ET
Mr. Chambless,
Where is your wine store located in Ohio? I agree that most wine "stores" carry the same types of wine, and it would be refreshing to find a wine store that is different!

Thank You,
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  December 31, 2016 7:51pm ET

The "hand sell" stuff is the real reason I come to work every day. Thirty years in the wine trade, but every week seems to bring something new and unique. This is indeed a golden age of wine! We needn't abandon any traditional favorites to embrace the new, so I say, bring it on!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Kenneth Rupar
Frankfurt Germany —  March 8, 2017 5:48pm ET
Dear Matt,
I have just signed up with Wine Spectator and delighted that you are a regular contributor here. I have enjoyed your writing where I find it (among other places on my bookshelf) and appreciate your very common sense approach to wine.
Regarding this column, I would agree that there has never been a better time to be a curious wine lover. People are looking for the new and interesting and the wine industry is geared up to deliver it to us. The variety is almost exhausting, life is not long enough to try it all, we can only do our best to keep up.
At the same time, there is still plenty of mileage to be wrought from the old favourites. Same goes for jazz. Some things were good yesterday, they are good today, they will be good tomorrow too.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  March 8, 2017 6:03pm ET
Welcome, Kenneth!

Glad to hear you enjoy these columns. You'll be able to find Matt on our site the first and third Tuesdays of every month. In between those updates, check out our bloggers for other thought-provoking takes on wine.

Dana Nigro
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  March 8, 2017 7:22pm ET
Mr. Rupar: Welcome to Wine Spectator! Thank you for signing up. And thanks also for your very kind words.

You write: "At the same time, there is still plenty of mileage to be wrought from the old favorites. Same goes for jazz. Some things were good yesterday, they are good today, they will be good tomorrow too."

I couldn't agree with you more. And jazz is the perfect analogy. As it happens I've been intensively revisiting Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck recordings from the mid-1950s and if anything deserves the accolade of "classic" it's certainly the likes of Brubeck's and Desmond's albums from the mid-'50s. They are as fresh and invigorating today as they surely were 60 years ago!

As you point out, it's the same with wine. The great Burgundies and German Rieslings, those pinnacles of terroir expression, are as inspiring and site-revealing today as they were centuries ago--even with all the competition they now face today from truly fine wines from so many places on the globe.

Anyway, thank you for your kind and generous attention.

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