Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 8 October 2013

A question of style

What’s that curious relationship between wine styles and consumer preferences? One seems to resemble the other – but when you take a closer look, it’s unclear which came first.

Common wisdom has it that people resemble their pets. Whether dogs turn out to look like their owners, or dog owners land up looking like their hounds, is almost irrelevant. While nothing turns on this, there may be a simple enough explanation for this almost unnatural phenomenon – something as obvious as “when it comes to selecting a pooch, most dog-owners apply aesthetic preferences formulated from their own appearance.”

At a recent lunch to launch the latest vintages of Morgenster’s Italian Collection, the Italian Ambassador Vincenzo Schioppa praised Morgenster’s proprietor Giulio Bertrand for his attempt to find a harmonious fit between the the cultures of Italy and South Africa. Transplanting Italian varieties in Stellenbosch and then making wines which reflect their Italian antecedents as well as their Cape growing environment is no mean feat, even viewed through spectacles entirely free of patriotic tint.

His comment provoked reflection on the connection between a community and the wine it produces. We talk about “Australian-style” reds, for example, meaning red wines whose flavour profile is reminiscent of (the stereotype of) what is made in Australia, but perhaps we also mean (less consciously) wines which would seem at home in an Australian environment. This less overt meaning might emerge in conversation, when terms like “brash” and “bold” are unpacked. Our prejudices about a country and its culture can quite quickly colour our descriptors about its wines.

There’s a dog-looking-like-its-owner/owner-looking-like-its-dog element to this: do Italians produce Italian-style wines because this is what the soil and climate yields, or have they refined their selection of varieties and the way they handle them, based on the aesthetic which appeals to the greatest number of their countrymen? There is, in addition, a corollary to this question, which is – has globalisation dramatically changed this jigsaw-like fit?

In the days before wine left its producer communities and went forth into the world, it was not only an expression of place, but also of the people who produced it, their cuisine, their way of life. The more isolated the community, the tighter this particular connection. By the same token, as and when producers depended on export (beyond their immediate environment) trade, they found they had to modify what they were making to satisfy the demands of their new markets. Bordeaux reds evolved to meet English tastes, Port (as we know it) was invented so that the commercial benefits conferred by the Methuen treaty could be exploited, Champagne was made sweeter for some markets, and drier for others.

The better-known French appellations were the first modern international wines, and they came to reflect the wider cultural melting pot of their major markets. For Bordeaux this meant Britain and Paris, and then over time, other important European centres (Brussels, for example) then the Eastern United States, and so on. This progression was imperceptible, which meant that the newer markets were “educated” into accepting what was produced. Stylistic changes – to the extent that they occurred – were little more than tweaks, and so the myth of the intransigence of terroir developed. “This is how we make our wines,” the message went, “take them or leave them.”

Probably until the end of the 3rd quarter of the 20th century this model worked perfectly. The middle and upper classes who bought the top French appellations shared many of the same values. Elegance, finesse, unshowy restraint were the hallmarks not simply of their taste in wine, but also of their architecture, painting, music and literature. Even if the buyers didn’t have old money, they aspired to the value system of the possessors of old money, so the prescriptive aesthetic of the wine producers went largely unchallenged.

This cosy culture was never going to survive the tsunami of globalisation. At a point – easily dated when it comes to the top Bordeaux wines – the newer markets began to impose their stylistic demands on producers. At first this process appeared invisible, and few people realised what was happening. In the late 1970s an American wine critic named Robert Parker launched a newsletter called the Wine Advocate and swiftly became the most important voice in the wealthiest market for Bordeaux’s wines.

It is now widely recognised that Parker, by rewarding with high scores (and instant sales at ever higher prices) richer, fuller, showier styles transformed not only the top wines of Bordeaux, but also those of the Rhone Valley. His preferred flavour profile also had an enormous impact on Californian wine, a lesser, but still significant influence on Burgundy and a palpable effect on the boutique Australian wines sold in the United States. The term “parkerise” is now widely used to describe the production strategies which yield wines which comply with his criteria.

Of course, if the punters didn’t want Parker-style wines, he would never have become influential: his may have been the voice, but the congregation was waiting for a messiah with his particular message. The Japanese, Chinese, and Russian millionaires upon whom the Old World producers depend to maintain a level of demand which underpins price-points undreamed 30 years ago much prefer the new style European wines to the old classics. That is why the 1982 and 1990 Bordeaux reds fetch vastly more than the 1978s and 1966s. It is possible that if his voice had not transformed (modernised – if you like) European winemaking, the Asian and Russian buyers would have been substantially less enthusiastic about the top wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone. They would certainly not have become the force which has sustained a 20 to 30 fold increase in the young wine prices from these key appellations.

The relationship between wine styles and consumer preferences is symbiotic – and while those who speak of the authentic expression of place in a wine may lament this, the history of the past three decades should leave them in little doubt. Like owners and their dogs, they have grown increasingly similar in appearance: as if they had been made for each other – which, of course, is exactly what has happened. DM


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