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04.24.2007

Bring Out Your Dead....Wines

People say the darndest things. I think we're all given to pronouncements once in a while. There's something very self satisfying about declaring with finality that something is so, so much that most journalists (myself included) have a hard time resisting the urge to speak in headlines.

Take this recent pronouncement from the news pages of the wine world: Vins de Garage are Dead.

With this headline Decanter Magazine proclaimed the end of the garagiste movement in Bordeaux. For those unfamiliar with this movement, it began in the mid-1990s as a group of independent winemakers began making small lots of wine in a style that ran counter to the prevailing wisdom and techniques of Bordeaux. This style is both about taste as well as about methods and scale. The garagiste wines tend to be more "international" in style, meaning less tannic and more immediately accessible, but also darker and richer than the top wines of Bordeaux.

Perhaps more radical than their flavor stylings, are the small plots of vineyards that are used to make these wines. They are not Cru vineyards of established terroir. They have no pedigree and no classification. And those making these wines are doing so in small lots with often great attention to detail -- at a level that many of them claim to be of higher quality than the methods used by the First Growths (some of whom make wines in quantities approaching 500,000 bottles per year).

Most interestingly to me, these upstart garagistes represented a very real challenge to the stiff establishment of Bordeaux and their sacred cows: the official classifications determining who is Grand Cru and who is Lesser Cru. About garagiste wines like Jean-Luc Thunevin's Valandraud, Robert Parker said, ""A hundred years from now the garage wines won't be a separate category. They will be up and down the Médoc. Everyone will be making wines that way."

It comes as no surprise to me then, that the demise of these wines is so widely proclaimed (and no doubt celebrated) in Europe. But just like the character in Monty Python's The Holy Grail clip above, I'm not so sure that they're dead quite yet.

Of course, I haven't been tasting these wines for the past 15 years, like some of the critics, including Stephen Spurrier of Decanter Magazine, who is among those proclaiming the demise of these wines. Those who have suggest that these wines aren't lasting as well as the traditional wines of Bordeaux.

That may in fact, be the case, but it certainly cannot be true across the board. And more importantly, even if it is true, that cannot be equated with the death of these wines, or the movement that created them. Parker is completely correct that we will continue to see more and more small producers making wines outside the Cru system, and if the current wines do not stand the test of time, there will certainly be many that will.

Proclaiming the death of the garagiste wines is like proclaiming the death of California Chardonnay due to overuse of oak. Wine styles never fully die, they merely evolve as the palates of the people change, and the minds of the winemakers shift.

Back to the garage with you !!

Comments (20)

Jack wrote:
04.25.07 at 12:45 AM

Sorry to see you do a post on this purposeless Decanter article. File it under Fake Controversy.

Nothing to See Here, Move Along.

Alder wrote:
04.25.07 at 9:02 AM

Aw. But Jack, it's not every day that I get the opportunity to include a Monty Python clip on Vinography.

You're totally right, though. Fake controversy. Move on.

Barrld wrote:
04.25.07 at 1:12 PM

Alder--I do like the clip, bravo! In all seriousness, many of the top cru producers in Bordeaux say that the success of the Thunevin and others forced the establishment to improve technique and upgrade vineyards and wineries, resulting in higher quality wines across the board. For Decanter to dismiss the garagistes in the manner of its pointless article is really a reflection on the narrow mindedness of Decanter and its editorial board.

Arthur wrote:
04.25.07 at 3:58 PM

As wine continues to become a more popular and more readily accessible beverage, I suspect the garagiste or international style will not pass into oblivion.

I think that most of us would agree that the majority of the general public prefers this style.

Barrld makes an important point that (be it through technological advancements, science, competition, market currents or the influence of one or handful of writer/critics) wines are changing. No matter who is making the wine in a hundred years (and whenther they pepper their speech with "Putain!" or not), it is likely that their wines will (in one way or another) bear the legacy of the garagistes.

Steve wrote:
04.26.07 at 10:13 AM

But if they
continue to produce over-extracted
high alcohol fruit bombs designed
to win wine critic points, I hope
they go under.

Contrary to what Arthur says, I
think the majority of the public
only prefers this style because they
get high points from Parker and Spectator,
the two biggest voices for American
consumers. The majority of the general
public trusts the critics more than
their own tastes buds when it comes to
wine purchases.

The same controversy is happening in
Spain. Here's a couple other opinions:

Josh Raynolds of Neal Rosenthal Wine Merchants, a fine-wine importer based in New York, shares similar thoughts about new-wave wines from Bordeaux, California, Spain and elsewhere: "It's not even about the grape anymore, much less the terroir," he says. Raynolds, an industry veteran who regularly goes abroad to sample the new wines from barrel, is a seasoned taster. "I am often at a loss to even hazard a guess as to what variety has been poured," he continues. "I can, however, often guess what type of oak was used and even who the winemaker or consultant was. My experience is that there is a sameness to the wines that makes a taster think more about who made it, who consulted on it, what the alcohol level must be and where the wood came from - not to mention what it must have cost."

In a recent Chicago Tribune article, Christian Moueix, owner of Château Pétrus and Dominus Estate (Napa Valley) shared his feelings on the subject of blockbuster, new-wave wines with columnist William Rice: "The character of these 'global' wines is based on extraction. I do not care for them, but newcomers to wine seeking to launch a new label on both sides of the ocean hire fashionable winemakers who make wines that are noticed because they are dark, overripe and overly extracted ... with a slightly burned taste."

Arthur wrote:
04.26.07 at 10:38 AM

Steve, if you pull 10, 20, or 100 random people off the street and give them a taste of two wines - a subtle and traditional wine in one glass and a "Parkerized" fruit bomb in the other, most people in this country will prefer the over-extracted wine. That is the general American palate. Do I share that preference or agree with it? No. But there is something to be said for market demand.

Also, about 60% of the population does not have a very acute sensitivity to smells and flavors. Combine that with lack of familiarity with many of those smells and aromas as well as near absence of understanding of wine and people will simply choose the wine which makes a bigger impression on their senses. In that setting, wine writer's opinions supporting highly extracted wine have greater impact.

Let me take my comment about the garagiste legacy to greater detail:
I doubt that wines will experience a stylistic turnaround and that wines of 2107 will taste like wines did in the pre-Parker 1900's. I acknowledge that the possibility of a trend reversal exists, but if wines become less bombastic, they will still be more expressive and more accessible in youth than their 1900's predecessors.

Arthur wrote:
04.26.07 at 10:46 AM

I forgot to add that the impact of wine writers is probably less significant than one would think.

Next time anyone is wine tasting, ask 100 people if the know who Matt Kramer, James Laube or Robert Parker are and then tabulate the results.

Then look at the wines purchased buy those who give a blank stare in response ot each of those names.

My limited observation has been that people who don't read wine publications and don't know those 3 writers still choose the fruit-bombs.

Steve wrote:
04.26.07 at 11:22 AM

Arthur,
Most major wine stores selling wine
all display points because it sells.
Many people don't have any other
references. As you said, they probably
do not know who's awarding the points,
but they fully understand a point system
they grew up with in school. And
many people would rather leave it up
to the experts which they assume are
the ones awarding the points.

Here's an excerpt of an interview
between Restaurant Report and Jancis
Robinson regarding the point system:

PS: What is your opinion of numerical wine rating systems?

JR: A shame, a shame. I quite see why people like them but my aim would always be to encourage people to ignore scores and to develop their own taste and not be terrorized by wine. Given that wine tasting is probably the most subjective activity most people ever encounter, why take somebody else's point of view? You might go and see a movie because (the late) Siskel or Ebert gave it a double thumbs up. But you wouldn't let them determine how you felt about it. You'd still walk out saying: "Well they liked it, but I thought it was complete rubbish!" I just wish people would trust their own judgment of wine a bit more because it is all about individual preference. No single person can have the same likes and dislikes as you. My saddest experience of the point system occurred not so long ago. I am a good friend of the English novelist, Julian Barnes, who has a very good wine cellar, and he's mad about wine and he's highly intelligent. He told me that he had a really good bottle of wine but then looked it up in Robert Parker's book, and Parker only gave it an "83" out of "100). So his conviction was that it couldn't have been any good even though it had given him an enormous amount of pleasure. Wine changes so much and different bottles from the same shipment can taste quite different. Wine evolves in the bottle and when a commentator tastes a wine it's usually in youth and it's often before the wine has reached its full potential. It's a great shame to reject it at that stage.

Arthur wrote:
04.26.07 at 12:21 PM

Hi Steve,

I welcome communication via email, if this thread has strayed too far from the original topic.

I agree that scores reflecting quality are the wrong thing to do. It is unlikely that American society will abandon numerical rating systems so the best thing to do is offer them a system that reflects something objective about the wine you are describing. The comparative blind tasting system has lead to wines being increasingly bigger and more extracted. It has been a creeping trend and here is why:

A taster conducts comparative tasting in year one, tasting wines A, B, C, D, E and F. Of those, he ranks them (based on his perception of quality [read: preference]) as F, D, A, C, B, E. He is influential, so winemakers want his nod and strive to make their wines more like F and less like E.

The next year, the taster gets wines G, H, I, J, K, L. Those are all made to emulate wine F from the previous year and now, wine J is the stand out because it outdoes the others in a comparison. So now the winemakers pursue more of the qualities of wines F and J, trying to make their next wines have more of whatever made F and J the top picks.

Repeat this 10, 20 or 30 times and you arrive at the wines produced today.

A numerical system can still have a place if it is not comparative and does not reflect the taster’s opinion of quality or their preference. People will still want a sense of the wine and while elaborate, evocative poetic descriptions full of metaphors and similes undoubtedly make for wonderful, outstanding writing, they are enough for some but they do not objectively convey the wine’s characteristic. I personally believe, that the latter holds potential to inform and educate.

Retro wrote:
04.26.07 at 9:46 PM

Yes, certainly a tempest in a stemmed glass, but...when anyone with a soapbox speaks, even drivel, some will listen and run madly through the land proclaiming the sky is falling or whatever. Thus, while cooler heads (take that as a compliment Alder) comment or counter and sages point to a lack of real substance, a dent is made. Not that everyone will run to the cellar and pour their garage vint down the drain, but it's unlikely that all will adhere to my put-it-on-my-palate bottomline.

Thus, my 2-cents: thanks Alder for the comments and hopes many will read them ...and the lovely comments that followed. Btw, any excuse for a Python clip, I say!

Alder wrote:
04.26.07 at 11:03 PM

Steve,

What I always want to know when someone starts throwing phrases like "over extracted fruit bombs" etc. around is... have you actually tasted these wines? We're not talking about Australian Shiraz here, we're talking about Bordeaux Garagistes.

Alder

Steve wrote:
04.27.07 at 9:59 AM

Hi Alder,

I know I shouldn't generalize, but I'm
speaking about the Garagistes which
Christian Moueix refer too (above).

Many Garagiste wines are quite
expensive (we all know why),
but a more reasonably priced example
I've tried is Quinault L'Enclos.
The 2005 which got
rave reviews from Parker will be
available soon (~$42 pre-arrival
at K&L if you're in the area).
Yes, it all comes down to individual
taste just as many critics were
split with the 2003 Pavie. Perhaps
the general public does have a similar preference with Parker. Half the
pro critics seem to.

Here again are the split opinions from critics
on the over extracted Pavie 2003:

Michael Broadbent MW-- "Very deep, extraordinary nose. Slightly fishy, tarry; fairly sweet, full bodied, powerful, dense and again tarry."

Rating: 14 of 20 points

Clive Coates MW, The Vine -- "Anyone who thinks this is good wine needs a brain and palate transplant. This wine will be scored simply as undrinkable."

Rating: n/a

James Lawther, Decanter -- "Big, powerful wine in the super-ripe mould. Rich, confit nose of dark fruits woven with liquorish-vanilla oak. Almost portlike. Palate full and fleshy with a muscular tannic frame. Firm, persistent finish."

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert M. Parker Jr., The Wine Advocate -- "An off-the-chart effort from perfectionist proprietors Chantal and Gerard Perse, the 2003 Pavie was cropped at 30 hectoliters per hectare. A blend of 70 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Franc and 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, it is a wine of sublime richness, minerality, delineation and nobleness. Representing the essence of one of St.-Emilion's greatest terroirs, the limestone and clay soils were perfect for handling the torrid heat of 2003. Inky/purple to the rim, it offers up provocative aromas of minerals, black and red fruits, balsamic vinegar, licorice and smoke. It traverses the palate with extraordinary richness as well as remarkable freshness and definition. The finish is tannic, but the wine's low acidity and higher than normal alcohol (13.5 percent) suggests it will be approachable in 4-5 years . . . A brilliant effort, it, along with Ausone and Petrus, is one of the three greatest offerings of the right bank in 2003."

Rating: 96-100 of 100 points

Jancis Robinson MW, jancisrobinson.com -- "Completely unappetizing overripe aromas. Why? Porty sweet. Oh REALLY! Port is best from the Douro, not St.-Emilion. Ridiculous wine more reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux with its unappetizing green notes."

Rating: 12 of 20 points

James Suckling, Wine Spectator -- "Super-ripe and almost jammy. Very New World on the nose but impressive. Bordeauxlike on the palate. Berries, raspberries and strawberries. Hint of wood. Full-bodied with ripe and round tannins and a long finish. Chewy. Got to like this."

Rating: 95-100 of 100 points
as

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
04.27.07 at 4:28 PM

We seem to be going to great lengths to villify wine critics. Steve's review of the literature illistrates a point I have attempted to make at least a million times. That is wine critics are no different than any other be they food, movies, music, literature, etc. They approach thier subject from thier own personal point of view. There is no objectivity, they have thier own preferences and priorities and remark on wines accordingly. There is nothing wrong with wine critics if consumers would realize that they are free to disagree with them, that like movie or music critics they can say " we couldn't disagree more". The problem is the blind faith of the consumer in the hierarchy of wine.

Much is also being made about these garagistes and how they take non classified fruit and make these big, juicy, modern wines from them. Hello folks, what else are they supposed to do? History has proven thier vineyards are inferior ( these wine regions have been planted for centuries, vineyards don't suddenly become great). Are they to then make wines that reflect 'place' when thier 'place' sucks? They made the obvious move, one actually favored by bigger wineries, 'make' the wine. They rely more on technique and intervention to make something 'good' or profitable. Ask yourselves what would you do. Be a tradtionalist and make marginal wine or step up to modernity and make a buck and get the ego stroke? If you want 'traditional' wines that 'reflect place' then step up and by a first growth. There are still 'traditional' wines of great quality being made, are you willing to pay the price?

Alder wrote:
04.27.07 at 7:35 PM

Steve,

So what is your point exactly? I don't mean that in a flippant or argumentative way, it's just sort of like... well... OK. So some people don't like them and others do. It's like Jerry says -- everyone's got different tastes, including the critics.

The fact that Parker and the Spectator are giving them big points means that A LOT of people like them. The Wine Spectator is the most widely read wine magazine in the world. There is a reason for this. People agree with what they have to say.

You and I or anyone else can disagree with them all we want, but the fact that millions of people make their buying decision on their ratings AND ARE HAPPY ABOUT IT AFTERWARDS means that, well, their assessments of these wines are pretty useful and accurate to a lot of folks.

Some people somehow with their criticism of Parker, Spectator, etc. seem to imply that all these people who are following their lead really are sheep and that they're only enjoying the wines because someone gave them lots of points. This is incredibly patronizing and arrogant. If these people didn't enjoy drinking these wines, they wouldn't buy them, and they'd stop reading these magazines and go read magazines that rated wines that they DID like after buying them.

People also seem to imply in their criticism that somehow there is an objective sense of what a good wine is or is not, but there is no such thing (though we can get close when every single major wine critic in the world agrees on a wine, like, say 1965 La Tache). You are merely suggesting that you agree with some critics and not with others. And this, as Jerry notes, is why there are critics and frankly there need to be more of them.

Steve wrote:
04.30.07 at 9:24 AM

"...is why there are critics and frankly there need to be more of them."
Bullseye Alder!
I also think having *more* critics
with influence lead to greater benefits
to everyone.

Otherwise, I'm straying
off topic with this thread, my
beef is with the greater and greater lack of variety with wine. Last
night I was
celebrating my mother's birthday at
a seafood restaurant where they offered
over 15 different California chardonnay.
With 12 people at the table we chose
3 different bottles of chard but
found them to all exhibit the same
super intense oaky high alcohol (~15%)
taste. The only notible differences
were the bottle labels. With winemakers
striving for the 100 Parker/Spectator
points, they all end up making the same wine! We all laughed wondering
which wine was which. (I guess you
could say that we at least found one
way to enjoy the wines)

One of the strengths of wine is its
great diversity and its ability to
convey a sense of place. As with a
well written piece of music (say
Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D),
there are many interpretations and
lots of ways for it to be played.
If one wanted
a consistently generic drink that
didn't marry well with food, one
would just pick Coke.

Joe wrote:
04.30.07 at 7:16 PM

Hi Alder - thanks for another great debate. For the record:
1) I had a great 1990 Chateau Clinet the other day - 12.5% alcohol, a Parker 95, no fruit bomb in sight.
2) At the low end of the price range, I had a terrific aglianico (Contador), 13.5% alcohol, a Parker 91 for under 20 bucks. Great, rustic Italian wine - no fruit bomb here.
I don't always agree with Parker, but I do know that he is not all about fruit bombs - it is just that those quotes are most likely to elicit the combined hatred of the entire blogosphere. Critics are just that, an opinion, use them how you wish.

Anonymous wrote:
04.30.07 at 9:00 PM

People are intimidated by wine so they need the point system to "educate" them. I have no problem with it, however I would prefer a system that was less exact. Say maybe something out of 20. 10 would be average and 0 awful. 20 awesome. Maybe the scores could be 11-12 or 17-18 for example. This would give more leeway of opinion. Is a 93 pt wine really better than a 91 pt wine? Is an 88 pt wine really better than a 86 pt wine? As it is now a wine gets 50pts just for being a wine. Sounds silly.
Another point I would like to make is that I really enjoy the so called "big" wines when having a glass. Maybe i'm working on the computer, having a conversation, watching tv etc.etc..
When I'm having dinner, I prefer something more delicate with nuance not just fruit.
So, instead of just being in one camp, I think an open mind is necessary. There is room for all kind of wines even by the same person.
I think the garagistes brought the quality of winemaking up in Bordeaux in general. Even those who pan them are picking riper grapes and making their wines accessible earlier. I know i don't want to wait 25 years to drink my wines.
Finally, I would just like to say that I've had some great sauvignon blancs, zinfandels and gruners and others, but somehow the critics never give these wines the high marks that cab or chard get. It's as if these were inferior grapes no matter how good they are. I think the critics need to re-assess their pt scores on some varietals.
Carlos Serafim

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
05.02.07 at 3:31 PM

Carlos,

I disagree with the point system 'educating' consumers. The problem with the point system is its simplicity when compared to the diversity and complexity of wine. Seeing a score next to a wine tells me nothing. Above, Joe points out that Parker gives 91 points to a wine that isn't a fruit bomb when everyone expects a Parker 91 to be a fruit bomb! What does a Parker 88 taste like? How about a 94? These scores might serve as a starting point for a consumer to decide on a wine; either because Parker is an EXPERT or because the wine becomes a TROPHY, but the consumer is no wiser because they have a score in front of them. Changing the nature of the point system provides no solution; a 17 on a 20 point scale tastes how in relation to a 91 on a 100 point system. Too much is made of wine ratings and I know how hard it is to get away from this ( not from a consumers stand point but from the producers ), unfortuneately I don't see the emergence of any other paradigm that gets to the point; how do we know if we like a wine without tasting it first?

Mac wrote:
05.03.07 at 4:11 AM

Steve - thank you for sounding so sensible

I very much enjoyed fruit bombs when I began drinking wine - the were much easier to understand than those dry, tannic European wines. In fact, I still like some of them when I'm in the right mood - but not with food, as they generally lack acidity

European wine has, historically, been produced to carefully mirror and compliment local food styles, California hasn't had the luxury of a few thousand years in order to perfect this

In short, fruit bombs are (as described by a favourite critic of mine, who isn't an overt Parker-basher) rather the sorts of wines that people grow out of

Ray wrote:
05.14.07 at 5:49 AM

There is a movement in California as well. Small producers ared creating some excellent Juice.

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.