Monday, August 4, 2008
The End of the Beginning, Part 2
3 to 4 decades ago the traditional wine producing regions of Europe (the Old World) found they'd escaped almost a century of calamities: phylloxera, drought and floods, wars and severe economic depression. They were poised to capitalize on improved technology, emerging global markets and a resurgence of producers who were ready to bring the past and future together while continuously improving the quality of their wine. Only problem was these emerging markets (the New World) were already producing their own wine and then . . . DISASTER! At a tasting in Paris wines from California were forced to compete with their French counterparts and they won (sort of)! This famous Judgment of Paris is now finally being made into an accurate, objective and sober historical documentary. Winemakers all over the globe were emboldened to break the mold and attempt to copy the success of these California producers. Meanwhile the Seventies and Eighties flew by and emerging middle classes throughout the developing world found they had more disposable income and sought to emulate the lifestyles of their economic counterpoints in Europe and North America. And people in the States began to want something other than beer and martinis at cocktail parties. Wine seemed like a really good idea--classy, pretty, more booze than beer and less than vodka--but the only problem was most people didn't like what was available at the middle to low end of the market. These wines (often European) were too sharp and astringent to drink alone at ambient "room" temperatures (too warm). It was a perfect storm for the New World producers. They had warm climates along with access to technology and cheaper operating costs (inexpensive land, lower taxes, lax labor laws) which allowed them to began producing wines at the same quantity as Europe's wine lake regions for less money. And these wines were friendly w/out food; soft, dark and lush and often flavored w/ oak. No nasty acidity or chewy tannins that needed time and a good meal to be enjoyed. Drink this stuff at the loft party out of an over-sized glass or through a straw. The "New World" of wine had arrived with a bang.
This is where the Old World/New World debate sort of stagnates in the late '90's. But the last ten years has seen a rise in the awareness of "natural" or "artisanal" winemaking and this sensibility is beginning to leave the domain of wine geeks and writers and enter the mainstream. Although this new (some may argue traditional) movement is prone to the same sorts of marketing schemes and gimmicks that the global wine trade inspired, it is, at its most fundamental, a perfect counterweight to the world of mass market, over-produced, over blown wines. And not all (most, but not all) of these natural wines are from Europe. Also, parts of Europe now successfully compete with mass produced wines from North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. And there are even newer wine producing areas like India and China. So reducing wine styles to a simple aesthetic of Old World vs. New World and linking a method or style of winemaking to a region is no longer completely accurate.
In the tradition of (pseudo) Academia, which this series of posts has attempted to embrace, it is now time to conclude with some bold and definitive statements. It seems that wine today can still be categorized or separated in to two camps: wine that is made in a way that respects and is symbiotic with the land it is grown on and the people who grow it and that seeks to be the best it can be for what it is, and wine that is made as a commodity first with the goal of pleasing as many people as possible and making as much profit as possible. The latter could be called "modern wine" and the former "neo-traditional postmodern wine". But that's silly. Instead I like the preferred nomenclature that has arisen lately (not my invention, maybe his) of "Spoofulated" wine vs. "Real" wine. Of course our history shows that winemaking is always a balancing act between nature and technology and the best Real Wines still do this today. And we shouldn't romanticize the past; wine has always been a commodity and some regions have been producing wine with the primary goal of making lots of money for hundreds or thousands of years and even the craziest, stinkiest Biodynamic producers have to make a profit. But clearly there is a vast and distinguishable difference between what one winemaker called "wines that tell a story in a bottle" and those that sell an image to a consumer that wants all his wine to taste the same, day in and day out. And even if Real Wine becomes a global trend it will still be possible to distinguish the real Real from the fake. At least that's my belief.
The pic., by the way, is of a bottle of GrosJean Torrette: a traditional blend of indigenous red grapes grown in the Val d'Aosta by French speaking Italians. It is most definitely on Team Real and it was quite tasty.
A list of references I've used in all the posts dealing with the history of the Old World/New World debate. (Just because I got info. from them does not mean I endorse the views or opinions of these references. The internet is a strange place, dudes).
Phoenician Wines and Vines
Wine making, beer mark Middle Ages | History of Alcohol | Event view
Research Centre for the History of Food and Drink
Wine from Classical Times to the Nineteenth Century: Information and Much More from Answers.com
The World Atlas of Wine 5th Edition, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson
A Wine Atlas of the Langhe, Felice Campenella et. al.
All of the blogs and websites on my roll, but a special thanks to the lab rats at Rational Denial