Marking the Beginning of the End of a Wine Trend?

What will it take to get California winemakers to concentrate on producing balanced wines with lover alcohol, higher acidity and just a tad less extraction? In other words, wines of substance that have at least the chance to reflect their place of origin and give drinkers an opportunity to have more than two glasses with a meal without getting drunk.

This was the substance of a conversation I had with a client the other day after they called to inform me that they in fact use Enologix on occasion, the company I discussed in a post from last week.

I was struck when my partner in the conversation, a man who has been at the business of making and selling wines longer than most told me that he had concluded that "the trend to bigger, riper, sweeter (as in rounder) early-drinking wines is an irreversible change."

For someone who likes his wines more balanced this is a depressing thought. Yet, while depressed, I was not so put down as to be incapable of asking the right question as I sat and ponder the the content of our conversation. While it is interesting to consider how and why California winemakers got from making balanced, interesting, complex moderately alcoholic wines to big, bold, sweet, alcoholic, low acidity wines, the real question for someone like me to consider is:

Can anything reverse the trend?

Ask nearly anyone connected to the wine business this question and the response will almost always be the same: Convince winemakers that they don’t need to make wine for the critics that are promoting these over the top wines.

So it was with great pleasure I picked up the September issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine and read their survey and critique of West Coast Syrahs. As you read through the huge number of reviews it is clear that the tasting panel as well as their West Coast editors and reporters have made a conscious effort to grade higher those wines that demonstrate balance while downgrading the wines that have too high alcohols and little structure.

This isn’t the first time the Wine enthusiast has quietly thrown down the gauntlet on the trend toward over-extracted, high alcohol, spineless wines. Last year their report on Pinot Noir also promoted a balanced style through their reviews.

On occasion I’ve made the argument that trend in winemaking are reversible. Witness the movement away from big over-oaked chardonnay that dominated the high end of the market in the late 1990s and early 00s. Today we see far more Chards with only a kiss of oak, rather than a slathering of oak. We are even seeing a trend toward "unoaked" white wines.

Those who argue that winemakers must follow their own instincts rather than the palates of critics in order to stop the trend toward Too-Big wines are correct. If this courageous attitude did take hold, you’d see a more balanced winemaking style come to the fore. Consumers, once they taste a well made Syrah or Cabernet will understand that they’ve been duped. They will understand that a wine can be rich, complex and balanced yet also able to age.

Some very good wine minds have argued that there is a significant force of consumers who were introduced to wine with soft Merlot and that many of these newer drinkers are  the ones that graduated to more expensive wines that present that style of wine currently in vogue. They have questioned whether or not this segment of the market would adopt a style of wine that showcases more backbone, less extracted fruit, the slightest hint of herbal notes and slightly thinner viscosity that comes with lower alcohol. This is an important factor. If winemakers choose to eschew the bigger style of wine for a more balanced style they still need to sell it.

My hope is that the Wine Enthusiast, as well as other critics will understand what these winemakers are doing and praise them the way they have praised the BIG wine.


One Response

  1. Terry Hughes - August 19, 2005

    Tom, I sure hope you’re right and that the guy who told you the BIG WINES with too little acidity are here to stay is mistaken. Let’s face it, when we’re faced with a pinot noir of over 16%, something has got to give. I take heart in your point about the slide away from those over-oaked chardonnays.
    In my travels around Manhattan, I have discovered that most regular wine drinkers are seeking greater balance–not all but most. A 16% pinot noir wouldn’t cut it. Hell, pop a couple of sugar cubes in it and you’ve got the rush of a glass of bad port!
    Anyway, thanks for airiing these problems in such an informative and impassioned way. Good stuff.

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