Influences on the Changing Profile of Wines in the Marketplace
Make no mistake. For a number of wines – regardless of the grape varietals or wine regions – the flavor and aroma profiles have changed over the course of this century.
In the past, wines have been produced in a certain style – a reflection of the inherent qualities of a grape or wine region. Pinot Noir wines produced in the Burgundy region of France have always been characterized by their complexity and reasonable alcohol level. The Cabernet Sauvignons of the United States have earned a reputation as wines of distinction, possessing the complexities, bold flavor profiles and higher alcohol levels that appeal to Americans more so than to Europeans.
These (and other) wines have undergone more basic changes than in any other period that I can recall. French wines have reached historically high alcohol levels. American wines have acquired bold, in-your-face, egotistical personalities.
What has caused these changes? Is it the hand of winemakers and marketers or an underlying change in the forces of nature? As in many of life’s mysteries, it is a combination of factors.
Meteorological factors such as wide swings in air temperature, amount of rainfall and protracted cold or hot spells will influence the flavor and aroma profile of wine in a particular year. Winemakers are able to tweak their alchemy (length of fermentation, length and concentration of oak aging, fine-tuning of blending formulas) in order to successfully achieve a consistent flavor and aroma profile from one year to the next. These influences have persisted for centuries and will continue. I am referring to long-term changes that go beyond tradition and short-term causes.
One long-term example is winemakers who are succumbing to the pressures of marketers and wine critics, which have become pervasive as they employ the internet and social networking to entwine themselves in the very fiber of our decision-making.
The impact has been a rise in the concentration of wine flavors and an increase in their alcohol levels. Influential wine critics and industry marketing gurus have decided that more fruit-forward wines are preferable over leaner styles. Eager to sell their wines, winemakers are manipulating their wines to attract favorable wine reviews and recommendations.
In the span of a few years, profiles of American Cabernets and Chardonnays and French and Italian red wines have succumbed, for better or worse. Increasingly, I have seen a number of wines lose their balance between fruit and acidity. Fruit characteristics have become more dominant and wine juice is more concentrated.
Altered states of complexity are coming to market. Though not pervasive, certain wine critics have had a profound impact on the underpinnings of the wine market, perhaps foretelling the future of Cabernet Sauvignon (and other wines).
A more alarming example is the effect of generally warmer growing seasons. Over the past decade, growing seasons have lengthened, providing longer hang-times for grapes once they reach maturity. The end result is riper fruit, which equates to higher sugar levels, which equates to higher alcohol. Let’s focus on alcohol levels.
Typically, wines of 12 percent alcohol by volume have been the accepted norm in the wine industry. Higher levels can “burn” a wine, altering its flavor and aroma profiles. Alcohol tends to blunt the subtleties in many food dishes and to escalate the savory components, potentially masking the true flavors of food.
In addition, higher alcohol can lead to (or hasten) inebriation. The 12 percent average alcohol levels of the past have slowly risen. It is increasingly common to see red wines over 15 percent; I’ve even seen white wines above 14 percent. The Alcohol Research Group in California found that two glasses of 15.5 percent wine have a similar effect on the average person as three glasses of 12 percent wine. For some consumers this can lead to unintended consequences in the course of a meal or social gathering.
One caveat: these changes are individually experienced. Certain consumers will not discern any distinct alteration in either flavor profile or alcohol content.
These fundamental changes beg the question: are winemakers satisfying evolving consumer demand or is nature dictating consumer change? Perhaps only time will tell.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.