Over the course of the last decade many wines have gone through a transformation in style. They have become more fruit focused and higher in alcohol.
This is a radical departure from the past for wines such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the past, the dominant style that winemakers strove for was balance – a balance of acid, tannins, fruit and alcohol.
The overweighting of the fruit and alcohol components of wine has created a debate in wine circles on the cause and effect of this new approach. Consumers have mixed feelings about the result. Wine is a living, breathing organism that is highly sensitive to changes introduced during its creation and maturation. It is these changes that we will explore this week.
I often think of winemaking as alchemy: Mother Nature provides the raw ingredients and science adds a certain consistency to the formula. Combining these ingredients in a cauldron with a wizard’s proprietary ingredients, this mixture is transformed into a hand-crafted creation, distinct unto itself. Taking a common product and transforming it into an altered state as “liquid gold” is a centuries-old endeavor – both in Merlin’s laboratory and in winemakers’ caves.
However, in the 21st century, an additional element has been added to the alchemist’s formula. It is from an unlikely source: the word masters. These power lords have invaded the denizens of winemakers worldwide, subtly and covertly changing centuries-old winemaking formulas with a sociological component of great power – the power of the pen.
Yielding influential opinions that are accepted by the consuming public at face value, these wordsmiths, the media, can force a winemaker’s hand to alter a proven formula in order to appeal to changing consumer perceptions of wine.
How has the change in the balance of wine’s components occurred?
First, Mother Nature’s influence in the vineyards has been compromised by changes in global climate. Growing seasons are becoming more variable as increasing temperatures may cause grapes to ripen more fully than in the past, increasing the levels of sugar (and the resulting alcohol in fermented grapes) while enhancing fruit flavors.
Second, science has introduced high-tech equipment that allows greater control over the steps in the winemaking process; this allows the alchemists/winemakers much more latitude in finessing their wines.
Third, alchemists are better educated and have a deeper understanding of the art of winemaking. Utilizing this knowledge permits them to create a finite, personalized wine style.
Perhaps the most influential element is the fourth element – the fourth estate. Wine critics have created an aura of infallibility in the minds of a large segment of the public. Their opinions are dictums for producers, distributors, retailers and consumers. They have changed the style of a number of wines in the last decade, more so perhaps than any of the three elements mentioned above.
The debate continues over the merits or detriments to this changing style in 21st century wines. Advocates appreciate the enhanced fruit forwardness and the refined aroma/flavor profiles afforded by a winemaker’s mastery of advanced technology and techniques. Opponents criticize the lack of sophistication and balance in recent vintages of their favorite wine. Where will this dilemma take us?
The future of wine style is in the hands of the alchemists. Will they be able to master the influences of climate change and science? Will they stand up to or succumb to the influence of critics? The consuming public will be the ultimate arbiter, each time we enter a wine shop and open our wallets.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.