For me, one of the best things about wine is how it can transport you to another place with just a sniff or sip. Crack open a Bordeaux or a Riesling from Mosel, Germany and voilà! you’re there. If you think about what the wine really tastes like, you’ll notice the taste of soil, slate, or chalk. You may then notice that it can make you feel like you know a place without ever having been there.
But sometimes you can’t taste those things at all. Sometimes wine is just “white wine” or “red wine” or “rosé.”
As the world becomes ‘smaller’ with technology constantly providing feedback on what wine buyers want and what they don’t want, and the soaring popularity of influential wine critics who decide what wine should taste like with the stroke of a key or the uttering of a phrase, many wines have reached a very “same-y” middle ground.
As I've said before, I was once a brand marketer for a very large winery. I remember sitting in meetings where consumer research folks presented a “taste map” to my manager and me. They circled the spots that indicated which flavors people liked and which they didn’t (as if most of us can even pinpoint that while being drilled about it!). The wines we subsequently made fit into the profile for the price point, even if it meant that other brands we made also fit into that profile. Any extreme flavors or unusual character were disguised with the help of oak barrel aging and extreme filtering.
Although this was a huge winery with the ability to hire a team of people to make a “taste map,” I’ve noticed that in the last 5 to 7 years, many, many wines I’ve had, regardless of origin have a neutral, “pleasant” profile with no sense of “somewhere-ness” at all. That dirt taste I mentioned is often absent in a Bordeaux, and the juicy fruit is tempered in Napa Cabernet (and not just because of vintage). Everything seems to be moving to a center point. Or to put it more bluntly, more and more, a lot of the wines that are available to most of us just lack character.
In the world of globalization and more open transport and trade of goods, are we losing something in the translation?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that with this change, it’s become more and more important to study up, travel to places and seek out wineries that are making wines that represent the land and region so you know what the stuff really tastes like. That way, when you grab a bottle from the shelf you’ll know if it’s been whitewashed to fit with what we supposedly want or if the winery has stuck to its guns and made a wine that represents the land in which it grew.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again…wine is just the manifestation of agriculture. Although chemical processes and various means of storage can help enhance the flavor or tame harsh tannins, I really believe that a great wine should remind you of the land in which it grew. Sadly, in the world of globalization, data obsession, and commercialism, wine consultants and critics rule and, unless you hunt and do your homework, the wine available en masse is a pale version of what it is on its home turf (if you are interested and want to know more, watch the movie “Mondovino” and you’ll see how dramatic the situation really is!).
I don’t want to be all gloom and doom: the great benefit to globalization of wine is that bottles are available from regions that had previously exported their wines only in small quantities, if at all: Mendoza, Argentina (Malbec is smooth and delicious), Southern Italy (the wines of Campania are amazing), Yecla (red Monastrell is bold and beautiful) and Rias Baixas (Albariño, the crisp white) in Spain, and more. We are fortunate to have access to the great wines of these areas and without globalization and importers looking for new gems, we’d never taste them.
But issues exist with these “new” areas too. They’re subject to the demands of importers who throw money at them and often require them to change their style slightly for the American/British/Asian market.
Lots to think about. So I’ll try to bottom line it: What does this mean for us, the normal wine consumer? When we’re traveling, we need to order local wines and remember how they taste. And when we buy a wine from that region at the wine shop when we return home, we need to evaluate whether or not it transports us back to our travel experience. Because if it doesn’t, if it’s “just red wine,” or lacks the essence of what brings a smile to our face as we think about the Brunello di Montalcino we had while watching the sun setting over the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, as the bridge turned from yellow to vibrant orange to blue, then we need to keep hunting for the wines that bring us there.
Globalization has its benefits, as we have access to wines that we many never have had before, but the downside is real. For those of us seeking authenticity, even on our dinner tables, we need to work to get there.
We need to buy wines that represent place and send a message to the large wine producers that earthy, slate-y, or acidic wines may not show up on their taste maps as universally appealing, but that we love them and we’ll buy them and over homogenized “just” wine any day.