Predictability is the New Black

Driving home from work the other day, I caught another of NPR’s excellent stories about global warming. In the teaser for the segment, the announcer said something about “a positive side to climate change,” and I immediately knew we were going to hear about wine.

For some reason, the only upside anyone can seem to find to global warming is that France has been having record highs, which has resulted in ultra-fruity, superripe, California-style Bordeaux and Burgundy. This is the kind of wine that Wine Ratings God Robert Parker gives 10,000 points to, which sells wine, which is definitely good news for French wineries.

Not so good news for warm-weather climates, though, this global warming. The NPR story focused on Spain, and had a Spanish winemaker talking about planting in the foothills of the Pyrenees, hoping for cooler temps there.

What really caught my ear in this story, though, was not the discussion of rising temps and their fears effects on our agriculture. No, what I thought was so interesting (not that disaster isn’t interesting, my apologies to the 4 horseman and all) was the comment by Albert Puch of wine giant Torres that vintage variations, once a given in the minds of European winemakers and consumers, is no longer an excuse for mediocre or bad wine.

Que que?

Some background: Old World wineries (winespeak glossary — Old World = wine regions in Europe; New World = wine regions everywhere else) trained their consumers long ago on the vintage system: if you wanted to know which of their wines were the best, you needed to memorize which vintages were the most successful. Of course, every wine maker does her best with every harvest, but sometimes your weather is great and sometimes it’s crap and it’s hard to control that, even in France.

Then, when everyone agreed that average vintages were a shame but what could you do?, New World wineries started bringing vintage after vintage to the table with no variation in quality. Regions like Australia, California, Chile, even Washington all have very predictable weather, and could make a wine that tasted the same year after year after year after year… You know when you buy a bottle of Chateas Ste Michelle Riesling or Jacob’s Creek Shiraz and you enjoy it, you can buy another one next year and it’ll be equally likeable. Victory! No more vintage charts!

Old World winemakers fought back, charging that their wine had very much specialness in it that made it better than predictably drinkable New World wines do not. They can’t really tell us what that is, but it’s there, and you’re missing out if you drink tasty new world wine all the time. And lots of people beleived them for a long time, feeling undisciplined and bourgeouis when they forgot their vintage cheat sheet at home and had to buy something they simply knew they liked, without remembering whether hail fell in the Rhone Valley in 2002.

Hearing someone from Torres saying that they needed to find places that weren’t going to provide unpredictable harvests was like hearing the fashion editor of Vogue say she was going to have to write about some shoes for women that don’t hurt our feet. Finally, the cart is placed behind the horse where it belongs, and you, gentle reader, are in the driver’s seat. Giddup!

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