Given the legalistic mumbo-jumbo we’ve been exposed to recently in the news, I began to muse about the co-conspirators who have colluded to fool average American wine drinkers into believing that mediocre wine is good because it’s tasty.
Sure, tasty is nice, but what of authenticity and balance?
Please don’t misunderstand. I like tasty wine better than un-tasty. But in the quest to make many wines more broadly appealing, especially to people who really don’t understand wine, many wineries resort to tricks that rob many wines of key components.
Some of these artifices weren’t in most wineries’ arsenals a decade ago.
I see the culprits as foes of classicists who once hewed to classic European place-names styles. Authenticity is under attack, at least when it comes to wines of fair prices. (And sure, some of this is due to the European wine tariffs.)
We can still find authenticity, but prices are higher than they were.
What bothers me most about this topic is that I’ve never seen another wine writer address this topic, though I’m sure that anyone who has professionally evaluated wine for two decades knows what I am talking about: cheaper versions of the classics that once were good value are disappearing.
A case in point comes from the eastern end of the Loire Valley, where Sauvignon Blanc reigns. From these soils we get classic whites like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
A quality Sancerre is perhaps $30. The same house often makes a regional blend from similar grapes that’s $15 and is usually pretty good. Today, most such lower-priced wines are simpler and not a substitute for the primary wine.
The main problem with some “popularly made” alternatives is that a few “clever” marketing-oriented people have decided most such wines must be made to be more broadly appealing to people who’d never know what the real thing was supposed to taste like.
In my view, the marketing people have dumbed down many of the elements of “second” wines from reputable sub-regions that once indicated we’d be getting something akin to the original.
I experimented before writing this column. Six months ago, I bought about 20 bottles ranging from $6.99 to $17.99. Since I usually write a lot about domestic wines and wanted more diversity, I bought imports from seven different regions of the world.
The reds mostly were pretty good and good values. But the whites disappointed.
A $13 white Burgundy “blend” from a producer based in Chablis was probably from that district. Two decades ago, it would have been Chablis-like. This one was so soft, I thought it had sugar.
A Loire Valley house that makes only Sauvignon Blanc has long had a $10 white that I used to love. It once was true to type and dry; the 2017 I bought was soft and had little of the character it once had.
An $8 Vinho Verde from Portugal was too sweet. A $6.99 Spanish white blend had no flavor.
(The best bargain white was an Austrian Grüner Veltliner. A one-liter bottle was less than $12!)
I see this trend as a conscious effort toward de-toothing classic elements in cheaper wines. Wines that once were dry no longer are.
Many wineries figure that if they make wines that look dry (such as $7.99 Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs or $6 Soaves or $8 Muscadets), more consumers will love them and any sugar can easily be masked by chilling them down to near freezing.
In fact, sweet Sauvignon Blanc is now a real thing. Proof: A high-image Napa Valley winery just released a 2019 Sauvignon Blanc at $50 a bottle! The aroma was superb, but it’s so sweet I thought it was meant to be dessert.
Sugar now makes an obvious appearance in many red wines, too. I don’t have laboratory proof of actual sugar, but a $20 Zinfandel I had recently tasted sweet. It had an alcohol of 16%, low acid (.52), and a high pH (3.81). It was like Port.
Why sugar in red? Because most red wines have tannins, which can taste bitter to about 25% of the public. Sugar helps mask bitterness. It also makes for some pretty simple flavors.
This trend seems to cut across almost all wine categories. Even traditional Chianti has been invaded by the serial dumb-downers.
I don’t expect classic wine from a $7.99 bottle of red from Tuscany, but for that price I expect at least a savory experience that wasn’t compromised by some marketing “genius” sitting in his 9-by-9 Milan cubicle.
I first heard about the sweetening of lower-priced whites in the late 1980s. I had a strong professional relationship with a Central Coast winemaker who was helping to assemble components for a large company’s Chardonnay.
At a staff blending session, the winemaker said, the winery owner tasted one of the components. The winemaker was rightly proud of it, but the owner disdainfully grunted, “Sweeter, it needs to be sweeter.”
Said the winemaker days later: “I guess if you wanna sell 200,000 cases of low-priced Chardonnay, that’s the reality — my new reality. Make it sweet.”
None of this is a shock, especially if the wine is to sell for $5.99 per bottle in today’s market. Since chilling a wine acts as if it were acidity, cheap Chardonnay is still selling.
Lovers of fine wine know that this is no way to treat a wine of real caliber. The colder you serve any beverage, the less you can taste, which is one reason (the main one?) that most large American breweries strongly emphasize we drink their brews as cold as humanly possible.
Do they really want us tasting it or guzzling it? “Ice brewed?” Popsicle Lager?
There’s an important postscript here. Many expensive Chardonnays have long been extremely soft if not actually sweet. Such a tactic broadens the mid-palate and expands its aftertaste, a characteristic that has long seduced a lot of upscale Chardonnay buyers. Sweetness challenges acidity. Butter anyone?
Softening Chardonnay by various means was, in the past, a tactic I long decried because it robbed wine its ability to work with food. That never seemed problematic for many reviewers, who even now give ultra-soft Chardonnays extremely high scores, even sweet ones.
As sugar has made an ever-greater impact with almost all white and rosé wines, a curious byproduct is occurring, notably at the upper reaches of quality (vineyard designates as well as high-priced) Chardonnays.
These wines are better than they have ever been! Not only are delimited-area Chardonnays more distinctive than ever, but more of them are actually drier than they once were.
There are several reasons why this has occurred. We will explore this in an upcoming column.
Wine of the Week: 2019 Cuvaison Pinot Noir Rosé ($30) – It’s more expensive than most pink wines, but there is something special about this pink wine. It is that it is essentially not pink. Or white. It’s sort of a light red. So chilling it is optional. Cool is best. It isn’t easy to make dry rosé in “cooler” regions where temperatures over the last several years have been rising. Carneros isn’t as cool as it once was, so this wine is a reflection of what Mother Nature has become in Carneros. The aroma is halfway between pink and red, with attractive strawberry and raspberry notes, and the entry is decidedly dry. There’s no sugar in the finish. For all intents and purposes, this is red. But with the added benefit of being perfectly quaffable with dishes like terrines and steak tartare. Lovely and so distinctive.