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Further Thoughts on the International Style

I especially enjoyed Mark's column on The International Style, finding it to be an extremely thought provoking analysis of an increasingly difficult, almost tortuous, question for those of us on the sales end of the wine industry: that is, what exactly is good, or great, wine in this day and age?

Mark's opening point -- that fruitiness has become pervasive to the extent of blurring regionality -- leads me to these thoughts:

  • The observation certainly can lead to the easy conclusion that winemaking has become "internationalized."
  • The questions remain -- are winemaking styles, in fact, becoming "international," or is this just indicative of the fact that winemakers around the world are improving their winemaking and growing techniques to the point where the more serious flaws peculiar to their respective regions are being eradicated?

Mark, of course, answers answers these questions himself, noting that the wine press, in observing this evolution, have been lauding "the across-the-board increase in quality." Alas, this makes for boredom among "wine geeks." So the second set of questions comes up:

  • Is increased overall wine quality preferable to wines with distinctions which may also be considered flaws?
  • How important is it for wine producers to appease the "few erudite wine geeks," as opposed to, or at the possible expense of, average consumers?

And of course, the answers are rather self-evident:

  • Certainly, it's far better to have higher quality wine -- especially since it results in greater consumer enjoyment, leading to increased sales (more visibility and profitability for producers). Why else is wine made?
  • As for wine geeks, it is far more harmful to the industry to have wines appeal solely to small segments of the wine drinking population. Are we not all in favor of increased consumption and greater profits?

Which returns us to our original question: What is good, or great, wine? Mark's concern is obviously that cleaner, brighter, fresher fruit flavors in wine leads to loss of regional distinctions. This is a big negative if one's measure of a good or great wine is its adherence to regional characteristics -- sense of terroir, if you will. By this way of thinking, diversity is defined primarily by regionality.

Throughout the history of fine wine, there are numerous examples of quests by individuals, followed by family generations, who's labors establish traditions that produce wine of such high quality and enduring appeal that their products eventually assume identities that go far beyond regional distinction and sense of terroir. Here are a ten obvious examples which have gained general acceptance amongst critics and consumers alike, from old to new:

  1. Methode Champenoise -- an enduring style of wine in which craftsmanship blurs distinctions of both terroir and vintage.
  2. Tokaji Aszu -- the use of puttonyos or tubs of botrytized grapes to concentrate otherwise ordinary dry table wine.
  3. Italian Recioto and Passito -- deliberate raisining of grapes throughout an entire country to enhance ordinary table wine.
  4. Eiswein -- the big "game" amongst German growers to produce incredibly racy sweet wines that are less about terroir and more about maximum intensity.
  5. Lambrusco -- production of very low alcohol, spritzy, often off-dry style of red wines for the quaffing enjoyment, first, of Italians, and later, wine drinkers around the world.
  6. Chateau Mouton Rothschild -- one family's movement towards singular varietal definition (Cabernet Sauvignon) in order to exude more power and distinction than neighboring crus that continue to follow traditional varietal blending regimes.
  7. Chateau Petrus -- the same idea as Mouton, only with Merlot.
  8. Penfolds Grange Hermitage -- definitely a glorious, and now traditional, concept of producing the finest, most powerful red wine possible, no matter what the varietal makeup (even if usually mostly Shiraz), vineyard sourcing, fermentation and barrel regimes (anything goes, with the results that count!).
  9. Bonny Doon Cigare de Volant -- another moveable feast of flavors concerned aimed solely toward emulation of red Rhone style wine, but not necessarily the techniques and varietals.
  10. Chalk Hill Chardonnay -- a widely lauded "white Burgundy" style wine made from vineyards with no real limestone, in a far warmer climate, yet nevertheless was developed through adherence to techniques not generally accepted in its own region (i.e., 100% natural yeast barrel fermentation, 100% ML, zero filtration, 100% new oak, etc.).

Now I ask you: is not the world all the better for just these few examples of wine producers who, at some point in their lives, decided that they wished to make wine that expresses far more than terroir, and which go way beyond previously accepted practices?

I think that is why the question -- "how good are today's wines?" -- is so perplexing to purists, or geeks or whatever you wish to call them. It is difficult for them because purists don't like change or techniques that seem rather manipulative; yet deliberate change and decisive technique are what has always defined many of our greatest wines. Many of our great wines, of course, will continue to represent completely unique, almost accidental growing circumstances -- it is certainly very much a part of Petrus, of course, and Romanée-Conti, Montrachet, Roxburgh, Scharzhofberger, et al. But if anything, I would say that loss of some kind of previously recognized distinction is often a necessary, in fact good, consequence of overall improvement of even wines grown in our greatest vineyards!

But such losses certainly do not have to run an entire course. The fact is, during the past 5 to 10 years (and I've been in the business since 1974) I have observed in my markets, other markets, and during my own travels around the world that:

• Increased quality of both wines and distribution has resulted in a greater consumer interest in diverse styles and types of wine than ever before. Twenty years ago, few of us (and far fewer consumers) even knew of wines from Jurançon, Gigondas, Carmignano, Banyuls, Bourguiel and other small districts, or wines made of Gruner Veltliner, Roussanne, Viognier, Spätburgunder, Lemberger and other varietals. Yet go to any of our own (Roy's) restaurants tonight and you'll find each and every one of these wine types, and more, being sold quite successfully. Something not possible just a short time ago!

• Although there has been some attrition owing to the popularity of standard varietals, there simply has not been a total loss of interest in indigenous or "lesser" varietals on the part of growers and producers. If anything, the reverence is still alive and flickering, just waiting to be ignited as soon as the industry as a whole begins to expand our customer base, and when consumers continue this recent pattern of increased variety and sophistication of tastes.

As to Mark's final question -- will tomorrow's sophisticates find superior, or inferior, wines at their disposal?-- I have this to say: quality may very well be synonymous with broader based appeal and technical correctness. But if the vast majority of consumers and even critics think this preferable, is this not better? It is certainly far more preferable -- in my opinion, at least -- to the extremely narrow range of wines, much of which were highly flawed and even undrinkable (and therefore bad at any price), which we used to have to deal with just 15, 20 years ago.

In fact, if what vintners are doing is improving the quality and expressiveness of their wines, are they not actually fulfilling the full potential of their vineyards, and thus offering more diverse product than ever before, while continuing to bring a greater part of the world of wines to each and every interested consumer? Let me put it this way: if you were present on the day that the Baronne Philippe Rothschild decided to produce a Mouton with virtually no Merlot or Cabernet Franc, and to go to strictly new oak barrel élevage, would you have protested and said, "No, no, you will lose your Pauillac identity!"? Very often, there is some bad involved with the good; but in most cases, the bad is of far less consequence.

by Randal Caparoso

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The basic text of this article came as an E-mail response to Mark Arvanigian's "The International Style", from Randal Caparoso, corporate wine buyer for Roy's Restaurants --17 locations internationally--, and wine columnist since 1981 for The Honolulu Advertiser. Randal is also a frequent contributor to Jerry Mead's open forum on wines and has his own page linked to Robin Garr's Wine Lover's Page.)




Article written July, 2000.
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