Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The rise of the traditional wine

"The only shocking stance now is to be traditional," said UK writer Alain de Botton on Twitter the other week.

And oh so applicable to the wine world, is it not?

I believe it probably started with the release of Mondovino back in 2004 (Jonathan Nossiter's interesting but overly long and indulgent wine film which was the very embodiment of de Botton's statement). Nossiter's film, while exposing many important issues in the wine world today - which includes exposing the Antinoris as fascist sympathisers - had as its conclusion this idea that the 'traditional' was to be defended.

[Nossiter may well disagree with my interpretation: after the film's release, he had the ultimate intellectual arrogance to not state his position. This was a commendable stance only in the sense of letting the film speak for itself.]

But now it seems the 'traditional' is gaining over the 'modern'. In fact, there is less and less talk of new oak, extraction times, micro-oxygenation, 'Parkerised', and more of 'hand-harvested', 'manual', biodynamics (the ultimate in traditional), 'organic', and so on.

From this we might tackle a few things.

Firstly, it is becoming increasingly clear that Robert Parker (an unwitting advocate of the 'modern') is being overtaken by the times. I think his influence, especially in Bordeaux, will continue for a good while. But, whether it is through his support of a 'modern' style or through the simple fact that internet wine writers will become the new Robert Parker (history is repeating itself) or both, I think change is in the air.

Secondly, what does this tell us about progress in the wine industry? For instance, is it possible to get any more new oak into a wine? Is it possible to make anything more labour-intensive than hand-harvesting and manual destemming? Can we find a wine that has more alcohol/extraction than went before? No. In a certain sense we've reached the boundaries of 'innovative' winemaking (progress if you wish) and thus, perhaps, we are seeing a return to craftsmanship.

As a sub-clause, this stance enables us to question what 'progress' really is. For instance, when we say so-and-so have 'made progress' in the last few years, what exactly are we talking about?

Thirdly, the economy may well have something to do with it. Remember, overheads drop considerably when one does not vinify Cabernet in 200% new oak. It makes business sense to be 'traditional'.

Lastly, wine is a traditional beverage in itself. How many people worry about traditional winemaking becoming a thing of the past in Barolo? OK, maybe not a lot - Italy seems to have a healthy quota of opinionated winemakers - but you see my point?

But, if we are, in essence, re-acquainting ourselves with the traditional, what of 'progress' in the wine world? Should we perhaps not be a little beware of this 'traditional' trend?

Perhaps we should. While I wholly embrace a multitude of wine styles, some of which many people might find appalling, we have to remember that whatever his faults, Robert Parker did start out with one criteria: the wine had to be good.

Personally, I don't think wine has to be 'good', but in the last 30 years, the wine industry has grown hugely and as we start to immerse ourselves in the traditional, perhaps we should not forget our 30 years of 'progress'.

  • The start of the return to the 'traditional' could go back to Bordeaux's 2003 vintage. In itself a polarising vintage, but it was the Parker and Robinson spat over Chateau Pavie that could been seen as the high-tide mark of the 'modern'. Who wrote that article, I wonder...

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