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Monday, August 14, 2006

The great globalization debate
Is wine all around the world becoming homogenized? Has pressure from wine critics, consumer tastes and flavor fads caused producers to try to create a similar product? First, I must briefly elaborate on the position of globalization and where the belief stems from.

  1. The most influential wine critic of the world, Robert Parker, has the power to make or break a wine estate. The wine consuming public places an enormous amount of stock in his palate. If he scores a wine 90 points and above, there is a positive correlation to sales and price that the particular estate can fetch. With wine makers at the whim of his critique, they know that their business will benefit exponentially from a positive Parker review.
  2. New oak barrels. Yes you heard right, wood. The casks in which a wine is stored in before bottling serves as a temporary aging vessel that can either be neutral, or can add additional dimensions to the wine. The element that causes tension to arise in the globalization controversy lies in the new oak barrels, specifically small 60 gallon barrels (the smaller the barrel, the more influence over the wines flavor).
  3. The objective defining features of 'wine quality.' Ripe fruit, along with balance and concentration in wine making.

I am sure there is a sprinkling of other arguments behind the globalization camp, but I believe those three cover the basis for their feelings and fears. I will quickly address each major issue w/ my humble opinion of general disagreement, and I encourage you to draw your own conclusions in response.

In regards to Robert Parker, no one could deny his consumer influence. He has always proclaimed himself as a consumer advocate and has always acted in an independent fashion. Sponsors need not apply, as he's had none of that, and that immediately provides a foundation of credibility. Parker's reputation was made during the controversial 1982 vintage in Bordeaux. '82 was atypically warm and produced a set of abundantly ripe fruit, which was immediately dismissed by the Bordelais as 'incapable of aging' and several wine critics cautioned that the wines had to be drunk w/in a few years before they would wither away and die. Parker lauded the vintage as one of Bordeaux's best since 1961, and this statement of defiance against the consensus opinion began to disrupt the 'Bordeaux system.' 25 years later, as the wines of ’82 are still drinking incredibly well, we can simply sit back and say he was right and they were wrong (and goodness how those wines have gotten expensive!). So, this ex-lawyer from Monkton, Maryland, has certainly shaken up the world of French wines, and wine on a global scale as well. Is he an intimidating figure to the heralded Chateaux of France? Absolutely, but does his opinion cause wine production to create a similar, global juice to suit his tastes? Not in the slightest. Even if homogeneity was his goal, which it isn't, it is simply not possible to make a merlot from Pomerol taste like a merlot from Napa Valley. Using this example, how can one convert different merlot grapes that come from different clones that are planted to different rootstocks at different hillside slope angles (or on flat terrain) with different micro-climates under different soil types (not to mention different vine ages), to wines that are essentially the same? If I could answer that question, I might believe that Robert Parker caused wine to become a globalized product, but obviously I can't.

Now for the all popular issue of oak. Oak is the winemaker’s tool that allows his two cents to be put into the equation. Oak can be used in a fashion that is modest, as if to sprinkle some salt onto your steak at dinner in the hopes of enhancing the flavor. Oak can be used judiciously by the winemaker, perhaps to cover up the feeble fruit underneath, or just because the winemaker in question is a flamboyant guy that enjoys his wine's to have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Oh yes, oak can be avoided all together. Two appropriate examples are; German riesling, which is typically fermented in stainless steel and then travels straight to the bottle, or a wine from the Chateauneuf du Pape of the Southern Rhone, which typically undergoes it's aging in large cement foudres. A spot on model of the ranging oak saga is beautifully displayed by Fiddlehead cellars, as they offer 4 separate sauvignon blanc alternatives that either receive no oak, some oak, no secondary fermentation or a near complete secondary fermentation. Pretty democratic of them, don't yah think?

I'd like to think I proved my point. I'm not here to debate whether or not oak is a soulless form of make-up that is liberally applied to an ugly girl, or a lovely splice of complexity to a balanced wine. This isn’t an argument over invasive American oak and subtle French oak. This is a statement that oak is not globally used, and its use does not a homogenized wine make.

Lastly, the objective definition of a wine’s quality has lead several opinion leaders to believe that wine has become a globalized product. Out of the definition that consists the terms: balance and concentration, I have chosen to italicize concentration aptly. The terms rich, fat, generous, opulent, etc. all hint at this concentration ideal, basically meaning devoid of excess water and full of flavor. This definition is particularly dangerous to cooler climates like Burgundy and Bordeaux, that often struggle to ripen their fruit set completely. In order to circumvent these issues of dilution, producers have various techniques at their disposal (when legally approved, of course). There are a slew of methods enologists can use, including: crop reduction, late harvesting, encouraging botrytis (a ‘noble rot’ that causes grapes to shrivel on the vine), freezing the grapes, using de-humidifying techniques, saignée (bleeding excess juices pressed from grape skins), and there is a handful of modern, controversial technologies such as reverse osmosis and vacuum evaporation that lead to more concentrated juice. Some of these methods naturally occur in particular climates, others are manipulated mechanically. Irrespective of the practice used, everyone wants concentration in their wines. Critics, consumers, and the majority of wine makers will go to painstaking lengths to achieve fat and fleshy end products. Let’s say mother nature isn’t ideal to a particular domain in Northern Rhone that cultivates syrah grapes, but the winemaker is able to improvise accordingly to concentrate his selection, does that mean his syrah will taste similar to the ripe fruit laden Barossa Valley shiraz of the same vintage that had a bit better luck w/ the weather? Absolutely not. The rationale for harvesting ripe fruit isn’t to create a similar New World friendly fruit bomb. The reason lays w/in a universal goal of any respected winemaker, and that goal is to express his ‘terroir.’ Terroir is a French term that loosely translates to specific characteristics of place. The beauty of great wine is that particular varietals have different expressions from different places. How else can a specific block of pinot noir from Charmes Chambertin, Burgundy, have a dramatically different profile from a neighboring block only an acre away in the same vineyard? It’s the soils, the age of the vines, the clonal selection, the microclimates, the….terroir. At its best, ripe and concentrated fruit will help ultimately express the wine’s particular terroir. At its worst, concentrating crap will yield concentrated crap.

With regards to globalization, I do believe that there is a consistent set of vineyard practices that quality minded producers use in order to coax their best rendition of wine from their particular vine. As far as these practices creating identical products throughout the world, I don’t care how much (or how little) oak is used, what score Robert Parker gave it, or how concentrated the fruit is. If the 3 aforementioned components are equal, the wine will still be distinctly unique because of its terroir, and that’s what makes it a truly special entity….even if Parker did only give it 82 points.


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