Thoughts on the International Style
enjoyed Mark's column on The International Style, finding it
to be an extremely thought provoking analysis of an increasingly
difficult, almost tortuous, question for those of us on the
sales end of the wine industry: that is, what exactly is
good, or great, wine in this day and age?
point -- that fruitiness has become pervasive to the extent
of blurring regionality -- leads me to these thoughts:
- The observation
certainly can lead to the easy conclusion that winemaking
has become "internationalized."
- The questions
remain -- are winemaking styles, in fact, becoming "international,"
or is this just indicative of the fact that winemakers around
the world are improving their winemaking and growing techniques
to the point where the more serious flaws peculiar to their
respective regions are being eradicated?
Mark, of course,
answers answers these questions himself, noting that the wine
press, in observing this evolution, have been lauding "the across-the-board
increase in quality." Alas, this makes for boredom among "wine
geeks." So the second set of questions comes up:
- Is increased
overall wine quality preferable to wines with distinctions
which may also be considered flaws?
- How important
is it for wine producers to appease the "few erudite wine
geeks," as opposed to, or at the possible expense of, average
And of course,
the answers are rather self-evident:
it's far better to have higher quality wine -- especially
since it results in greater consumer enjoyment, leading to
increased sales (more visibility and profitability for producers).
Why else is wine made?
- As for wine
geeks, it is far more harmful to the industry to have wines
appeal solely to small segments of the wine drinking population.
Are we not all in favor of increased consumption and greater
us to our original question: What is good, or great, wine? Mark's concern is obviously that cleaner, brighter, fresher
fruit flavors in wine leads to loss of regional distinctions.
This is a big negative if one's measure of a good or great wine
is its adherence to regional characteristics -- sense of terroir,
if you will. By this way of thinking, diversity is defined primarily
history of fine wine, there are numerous examples of quests
by individuals, followed by family generations, who's labors
establish traditions that produce wine of such high quality
and enduring appeal that their products eventually assume identities
that go far beyond regional distinction and sense of terroir.
Here are a ten obvious examples which have gained general acceptance
amongst critics and consumers alike, from old to new:
Champenoise -- an enduring style of wine in which craftsmanship
blurs distinctions of both terroir and vintage.
- Tokaji Aszu
-- the use of puttonyos or tubs of botrytized grapes to concentrate
otherwise ordinary dry table wine.
Recioto and Passito -- deliberate raisining of grapes
throughout an entire country to enhance ordinary table wine.
- Eiswein -- the big "game" amongst German growers to produce incredibly
racy sweet wines that are less about terroir and more about
- Lambrusco -- production of very low alcohol, spritzy, often off-dry
style of red wines for the quaffing enjoyment, first, of Italians,
and later, wine drinkers around the world.
Mouton Rothschild -- one family's movement towards singular
varietal definition (Cabernet Sauvignon) in order to exude
more power and distinction than neighboring crus that continue
to follow traditional varietal blending regimes.
Petrus -- the same idea as Mouton, only with Merlot.
Grange Hermitage -- definitely a glorious, and now traditional,
concept of producing the finest, most powerful red wine possible,
no matter what the varietal makeup (even if usually mostly
Shiraz), vineyard sourcing, fermentation and barrel regimes
(anything goes, with the results that count!).
- Bonny Doon
Cigare de Volant -- another moveable feast of flavors
concerned aimed solely toward emulation of red Rhone style
wine, but not necessarily the techniques and varietals.
- Chalk Hill
Chardonnay -- a widely lauded "white Burgundy" style wine
made from vineyards with no real limestone, in a far warmer
climate, yet nevertheless was developed through adherence
to techniques not generally accepted in its own region (i.e.,
100% natural yeast barrel fermentation, 100% ML, zero filtration,
100% new oak, etc.).
Now I ask you:
is not the world all the better for just these few examples
of wine producers who, at some point in their lives, decided
that they wished to make wine that expresses far more than terroir,
and which go way beyond previously accepted practices?
I think that
is why the question -- "how good are today's wines?" -- is so
perplexing to purists, or geeks or whatever you wish to call
them. It is difficult for them because purists don't like change
or techniques that seem rather manipulative; yet deliberate
change and decisive technique are what has always defined many
of our greatest wines. Many of our great wines, of course, will
continue to represent completely unique, almost accidental growing
circumstances -- it is certainly very much a part of Petrus,
of course, and Romanée-Conti, Montrachet, Roxburgh, Scharzhofberger,
et al. But if anything, I would say that loss of some kind of
previously recognized distinction is often a necessary, in fact
good, consequence of overall improvement of even wines grown
in our greatest vineyards!
But such losses
certainly do not have to run an entire course. The fact is,
during the past 5 to 10 years (and I've been in the business
since 1974) I have observed in my markets, other markets, and
during my own travels around the world that:
Increased quality of both wines and distribution has resulted
in a greater consumer interest in diverse styles and types of
wine than ever before. Twenty years ago, few of us (and far
fewer consumers) even knew of wines from Jurançon, Gigondas,
Carmignano, Banyuls, Bourguiel and other small districts, or
wines made of Gruner Veltliner, Roussanne, Viognier, Spätburgunder,
Lemberger and other varietals. Yet go to any of our own (Roy's)
restaurants tonight and you'll find each and every one of these
wine types, and more, being sold quite successfully. Something
not possible just a short time ago!
there has been some attrition owing to the popularity of standard
varietals, there simply has not been a total loss of interest
in indigenous or "lesser" varietals on the part of growers
and producers. If anything, the reverence is still alive and
flickering, just waiting to be ignited as soon as the industry
as a whole begins to expand our customer base, and when consumers
continue this recent pattern of increased variety and sophistication
As to Mark's
final question -- will tomorrow's sophisticates find superior,
or inferior, wines at their disposal?-- I have this to say:
quality may very well be synonymous with broader based appeal
and technical correctness. But if the vast majority of consumers
and even critics think this preferable, is this not better?
It is certainly far more preferable -- in my opinion, at least
-- to the extremely narrow range of wines, much of which were
highly flawed and even undrinkable (and therefore bad at any
price), which we used to have to deal with just 15, 20 years
In fact, if what
vintners are doing is improving the quality and expressiveness
of their wines, are they not actually fulfilling the full potential
of their vineyards, and thus offering more diverse product than
ever before, while continuing to bring a greater part of the
world of wines to each and every interested consumer? Let me
put it this way: if you were present on the day that the Baronne
Philippe Rothschild decided to produce a Mouton with virtually
no Merlot or Cabernet Franc, and to go to strictly new oak barrel
élevage, would you have protested and said, "No, no,
you will lose your Pauillac identity!"? Very often, there is
some bad involved with the good; but in most cases, the bad
is of far less consequence.
NOTE: The basic text of this article came as an E-mail response
to Mark Arvanigian's "The International Style", from Randal
Caparoso, corporate wine buyer for Roy's Restaurants --17 locations
internationally--, and wine columnist since 1981 for The
Honolulu Advertiser. Randal is also a frequent contributor
Mead's open forum on wines and has his
own page linked to Robin
Garr's Wine Lover's Page.)