Americanization or Improvement? Tailoring Wine for Export

I spend a good deal of time traveling to wine regions around the world, tasting and talking. My interests in wine tend to be driven by my curiosity, and my thirst driven by diversity. As a result, I find myself in emerging wine regions more often than I do the blue-chip standard-bearers. To wit: I have been to wine regions in Turkey, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, Uruguay, and South Africa, but I have yet to visit Bordeaux.

In many of these so-called “developing” wine regions (many of which have been making wine for a very long time), I often find a tension between the history and traditions of that region’s wine culture—a struggle to balance the exigencies of economic viability, the demands of the local market, and the desire (even necessity) for access to export markets. In country after country, wine region after wine region, I see these various competing needs resolve in familiar, recurring patterns.

Most often it goes something like this:

  1. Significant use of (expensive) new French oak on both red and white wines
  2. A tendency towards making riper, richer wines
  3. A real pride on the part of many winegrowers in indigenous grape varieties, but low demand/respect for them in the local market
  4. Lots of planting and making of “international” grape varieties like Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay because that’s what “the local market” seems to want
  5. Difficulty penetrating the American market

Confronted with some version of this reality, and the frustration, resignation, or heedless acceptance of this situation by local winemakers, I find myself urging anyone who will listen to stop the madness.

The world does not need another Merlot aged for 12 months in 100% new French oak from <insert emerging wine region here>.

Instead, what the wine world does need is the rehabilitation of old vineyards, the resurrection and conservation of ancient indigenous grape varieties, and the making of these varieties into wines that taste like the grapes and the place they come from, not raisins fermented in expensive barrels.

That’s why I found myself scratching my head a little bit when I read Farrah Berrou’s recent article for Tim Atkin’s site.

Berrou seems to offer perspective on a post-Parkerization world, one in which “American tastes” are driving winemakers in emerging markets like Greece to make “bright, crisp, steel-fermented” wines, with hopes of selling them abroad.

Um, yes, please?

To be fair, it doesn’t seem like Berrou is advocating for the old days of Parkerization, but she has set up these bright and crisp wines in opposition to those that she describes as traditionally barrel fermented. What’s more, she has tarred these wines with the epithet “Americanized.”

Insert sound right here of the needle being pulled off the record.

Firstly, I think we have to be very, very careful when we use words like “traditional” in describing wine or winemaking techniques. What most people think of as traditional in the world of wine is, on any historical scale, dreadfully recent. Wine has only been consistently packaged in glass bottles for a few hundred years, and most of the basic techniques of wine hygiene (beyond adding sulfur) have only been around for a hundred years or so.

Humankind has been making wine for 8000 years, so who do we think we are in the 21st Century talking about what is “traditional” when it comes to winemaking in any wine region around the world?

OK, OK. Besides all those Georgians practicing qvevri winemaking relatively uninterrupted for all those millennia.

Wine historians suggest that most wine made before say, 1500 was probably pretty lousy by modern standards. And even the best of those wines may have only tasted decent for a little while, as early winemakers had little knowledge or control over fermentation, oxidation, and other spoilage factors. Hence the many adulterations made of wine with resins, herbs, potash, etc.

As much as I romantically dream of tasting the famed Falernian wine of ancient Rome, I suspect to our “modern” palates, it would probably suck.

More to the point, however, many of the things that we look back on with the perspective of history and label “innovations” showed up in the moment of their invention as a break with tradition. We risk being irresponsible when we characterize new trends in winemaking as “untraditional” when those very trends could soon become the tradition.

We also have to be very, very careful when we criticize (or even silently regret) winemakers for making wine that sells. No one can be faulted for seeking commercial success while pursuing their livelihood. I don’t think Berrou goes quite that far in her piece, but a wistful nostalgia for a style of wine that winemakers have abandoned or moved away from for commercial reasons isn’t far from condemnation.

Of course, the one concrete example Berrou provides in her piece isn’t even really the abandonment of a winemaking style. She’s only bemoaning the fact that Greek winemakers have started to make a second style of wine for the market.

It’s perfectly valid for anyone, Berrou included, to say they don’t like a wine, or set of wines, or even a whole stylistic approach to winemaking in a place. It’s quite another to suggest that perhaps a new approach to winemaking means the resulting product isn’t a “good example of that location’s winemaking craft and terroir.”

Especially when the style being questioned (fermenting in steel, picking earlier) has the potential to show off better what the native grapes and the soil that they grow in actually taste like.

As I noted at the start, the gradual move towards this kind of approach and away from what is typically the over-use of new oak in many regions strikes me as an important and necessary evolution in winemaking style for many regions.

Just to cite the specific example Berrou uses in her piece, thank heavens some people have stopped treating Greek Agiorgitiko like Cabernet Sauvignon by picking it for 14.5+% alcohol, barrel fermenting it, and aging it in 100% new oak. Personally I only really feel like I found out what Agiorgitiko tasted like when I had renditions that were made in steel, concrete, or aged only in old oak barrels.

To me that’s not Americanization, that’s just starting to respect your raw materials a little more, and it’s a trend we’ve thankfully seen in many wine regions around the world.

Wine quality around the world is getting better on average, and wine is getting more interesting everywhere on average. Not because people are sticking to their traditional winemaking methods, but in many cases, precisely because they are, if not abandoning them, then certainly experimenting with alternative approaches.

If such experimentation is commercially driven (i.e. people are only doing this because they think it can sell—in America or anywhere else) then in my opinion, the market is driving the right way for a change.

Maybe there are some so-called “traditional” approaches to wine we don’t need anymore.

Read Farrah Berrou’s article.