Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How Certain Wines Get Boring

I mentioned wine writer Craig Camp's article "Fear of Wine: 100 Points of Perfection," where he also complains about the trend of American winemakers (and, increasingly, international winemakers looking for export markets) to make their wines all taste alike.

This is true, and it will help explain an oddity about wines to you, the wine enthusiast. When you start enjoying wines, you likely drink a limited number of types, because that's what you liked. You drink Chards, or Cabs, or Pinots, or Australian Shirazes. And you look for more Chards, Cabs, or Pinots that taste similar to the other ones you liked.

Then one day you go to a winetasting event and try something unfamiliar; say, Petit Syrahs. You find, to your surprise, that each one you try tastes quite different from each other one you try. Brand X's PS has one kind of taste, Brand Y's PS tastes completely different. It's a puzzlement.

The reason simply is that most winemakers respond to their perceived markets. When a particular type of wine becomes popular, and sales go up, volume winemakers try to figure out what it is about that particular type of wine that drinkers are responding to. Is it the bright cherry notes? The sweet lingering aftertaste? The creamy oakiness? Then they start tuning their winemaking to imitate the tastes of the most popular wine of that type on the market.

Of course they would! The problem is, after a while, all the popularly-priced wines of that type taste more alike than different.

This happened first with Merlots, back in the 1980s. Merlots were the first "grown-up" red wine to gain popularity among the Boomers (like me). It can be light, approachable, easy to drink, yet with flavor enough for a real wine. And back then, the variety of styles of Merlots meant that each bottle you'd try from a different vintner would be a surprise as each vintner interpreted the Merlot style a bit differently. It was fun to drink Merlot!

Until everybody was drinking it. Wine growers put in thousands of acres more Merlot vines--often putting them on any open land, without regard to its suitability to that grape. As a result, a lot of simply bad Merlot crowded the market. At the same time, Merlot winemakers all headed in the same direction, producing uninspired, bland, plain, general-purpose Merlots intended to hit the middle of the market squarely on, as inoffensively as possible.

That's the kind of Merlot the character in Sideways is complaining about. Basically, they ruined Merlot for a generation. Now you can find good Merlots, but you have to know what you're looking for, and you'll pay a lot more than you used to: Geyser Peak, for example, makes a real Merlot, if you want to see what a real Merlot actually tastes like. But it costs around $30 a bottle.

Cabernets have been hit by this same flight-to-sameness syndrome, though not quite as badly because Cabs are difficult and expensive to grow, so they will never be the standard mass-market $10 bottle of wine (there are $10 Cabs but they are very uneven). But these days, you can pay $20, or $30, or $50 for a Cabernet and you'll be rolling the dice on whether you get a pretty nice bottle of wine, or an uninspired, insipid, bland red.

The Shirazes of Australia have been an enjoyable and fresh alternative for many years now; less than $10 gets you a nice fun wine, and every label makes it a bit different. This is the kind of fun wine that Merlots used to be decades ago. It amazes me, though, that the volume winemakers in Australia, like Yellow Tail and Rosemount, have managed to increase production to Gallo levels but haven't quite managed to lose the fun in their wines. God bless 'em!

If you really want to have fun with your wine these days, try Roses. Not White Zinfandel, mind you, but the countless types of Roses made in the US and in France, but not that easy to find, because White Zin ruined the idea of Rose for most Americans. You are going to have to trust me on this: White Zin is not the only way Rose can taste.

There are more different kinds of Roses than any other wine style, simply because you can make a Rose out of any red-skinned grape: There are the classic French dry Pinot Noire Roses, as well as Roses made from Zinfandel, from Merlot, from Cab, from Syrah and Shiraz, and Grenache, and everything else. And not only do each of these types of Rose taste different, but each winemaker makes his own Roses different from every other Rose maker. Reason: You can't really sell enough Rose in the U.S. to make it profitable, so most winemakers are making Rose as a labor of love, according to their own individual tastes, without trying to please some marketer's "definition."

I promise you, if you find a Rose tasting in your area, go--and you will have the most amazing, fun, varied, and astonishing wine drinking experience of your life. There will be plenty of them you won't like--and even more of them you will. Whether you like light or heavy, sweet or dry or something in between, fruity or flowery or neither -- you will find many Roses to please your surprised palate!

Try it -- and have some fun with your winetasting!

1 comment:

Lewis Perdue said...

Boring happens a lot when winemakers try to create something that they hope Robert Parker will like.