Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – August 20, 2016
The Next Big Thing, Again? Let’s Focus Instead on Real Big Things.
by John Szabo, MS
The main theme for the August 20th release is ‘the next big thing’. It’s a common vinous leitmotif that I’m sure must drive winemakers and winery owners wild. Countless articles are dedicated to reporting on the hottest, latest, trendiest things in the world of wine: new grapes, emerging regions, cutting edge or re-discovered ancient techniques, and anything else that might be deemed the next big thing. Journalists by nature, and necessity, are desperate for news, which consumers are eager to lap up to stay ‘in the know’. Many sommeliers have built careers and reputations by listing only new, fashionable, invariably obscure wines. I am guilty on several counts. But, for a change this week, let’s focus instead on genuine big things. Here’s why.
The trouble with chasing the next big thing in the world of wine is that making the stuff – and here I mean the kind of wine that causes pause for intellectual or artistic reflection – is a pursuit of incredible patience and unswerving dedication to an ideal, not a trend. The reality is that, cosmetic changes aside, the wine industry is as nimble as an aircraft carrier. It’s impossible to re-tool your operation overnight to produce the latest shiny object for people to chase. It takes at least 4-5 years to establish a vineyard, and another decade or so before its full potential begins to reveal itself. Establishing the sort of cultural framework that gives rise to a distinctive and identifiable regional style – the old world appellation model – takes much longer still, generations in fact of doing the same thing over and over. Overnight success, as they say, is a lifetime in the making.
Sure, you can graft new varieties onto the roots of existing vineyards and change your production from one year to the next. It’s frequently done. But that’s the game of corporate wine factories, chasing trends like a dog chases its tail, seeking quarterly profits, not meaningful cultural patrimony. Step one: plant the darling grape of the day, say, chardonnay. When consumer preferences shift to red, graft the vineyard over to cabernet. Then a movie comes out and everyone wants pinot noir. Then pinot grigio is all the rage. Or is it moscato, or fiano, or trousseau? Vineyard managers and nurserymen are ever grateful for the next big thing. They’ll never be out of work. But the results of flip-flopping your vineyard or planting what’s trendy, not necessarily suitable, are predictably poor – basic commercial wine at the lowest level.
On the contrary, memorable, distinctive wine is by definition the antithesis of trendy, born of a long, well-crafted story arc, not a loose reality TV script. It takes years to create, fine-tune, and perfect. And when you start, predicting trends at least 15 years into the future is both impossible and foolish, doomed to fail. You’re far better off focusing on what your patch of dirt will likely do best, and dedicating all efforts to maximize that potential, not guessing at what hipsters will be drinking in 2030. There’s always a market for quality, timeless fashion.
That’s why slavish devotion in the media and sales to celebrating the newest and shiniest, at the expense of the established and reliable, must really cause winemakers deep exasperation. It can jeopardize a decade’s, or several generations, worth of effort, as consumers are encouraged to forget the old and embrace the new, until something newer comes along.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t experiment, explore and discover. That’s what keeps us – writers and sommeliers, passionate wine drinkers and yes, even winemakers – permanently engaged, and keeps the industry evolving positively. But it shouldn’t be your exclusive MO. Save some liver function for those old-time, non-trendy classics. They deserve the lion’s share of the spotlight. So let’s forget the ‘next big thing’ this week, and focus instead on the wines that have earned the right to call themselves a genuinely big thing.
Our Top Picks from the August 20th VINTAGES release:
Big Thing Sparkling & Whites
The region of Champagne has been producing wine since Paris was a swampy village, even if champagne as we know it today, sparkling, is only about three centuries old. But hell, let’s call it established anyway. I was floored by the Guy Charlemagne Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Réserve Brut Champagne, France ($61.95), an archetype in every way from a family-grower operation founded in 1892. From all grand cru-rated chardonnay vineyards in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, next door to Champagne Salon’s vineyards, it offers classic blanc de blancs finesse and precision, balanced on razor-sharp acids, and blends a just measure of white chocolate/blanched almond-brioche character from reserve wines and sur lie ageing, with zesty-bright green apple and citrus fruit showing no signs of tiring yet. It’s for fans of refined and sophisticated champagne with no small measure of depth and power in reserve.
Chablis has rightfully established itself as one of the most original places on earth to grow chardonnay. It was trendy perhaps half a century ago, now a genuine and lasting big thing. Why would anyone want to make anything other than classic Chablis in Chablis? Tinkering with it would be like trying to perfect the wheel. For example, try the Jean Collet & Fils 2014 Montée de Tonnerre Chablis 1er Cru, France ($37.95). It’s a lovely, balanced, convincingly concentrated Montée de Tonnerre with exceptional length, while flavours are absolutely textbook, all quivering stones, fresh cream and lively green apple and citrus – a superb value in the realm of fine white wine. It’ll be better in 2-3 years, or hold into the mid-’20s.
At the risk of appearing trendy, I’m including Mastroberardino’s 2014 Greco di Tufo, Campania, Italy ($19.95) in this list. But while greco may not be a household name, the grape has been planted in Campania for at least two thousand years, and Mastroberardino is the grand old company that brought it back to prominence starting in the early 20th century. The current generation, Don Piero Mastroberardino, is most decidedly not chasing trends. This latest release is sharp and phenolically rich, putting the variety’s almost extreme minerality on display. A lively streak of acids pins down the ensemble – a crackling backbone of energy, while fruit is very much a secondary feature. There’s plenty of wine here for the money, but it needs at least another 2-3 years to really start showing its best.
Once ultra-trendy Soave is thankfully past that awkward era in the ‘70s when practically anything wet and white would sell under the regional name. Now it’s so untrendy in fact that winemakers can (have to) again focus on quality, which has risen astonishingly since the turn of the millennium, with prices yet to follow suit. La Cappuccina 2014 Soave, Veneto, Italy ($15.95) is a fine example of the value to be found, a gentle but fresh and nectarine-flavoured wine with appreciable character and evident depth and concentration, not to mention an extra dimension of stony-minerality on the long finish.
Big Thing Reds
Montalcino came perilously close to collapsing under the sinister pressure of international trends last decade when the excessive use of new barriques and illegal grapes conspired to thicken, darken and denature the gorgeous perfume and delicacy of many of the region’s Brunelli in an effort to make everything taste like then-fashionable cabernet. Many wineries were accused, and some convicted, of blending grapes other than sangiovese in the ‘Brunellogate’ scandal, since Brunello must be 100% sangiovese by law. The region subsequently voted narrowly in favour of keeping the appellation pure, a clear victory for the anti-trend faction.
For a taste of what Brunello should be, cursed trends aside, try the Caparzo 2010 La Casa Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy ($73.95). This is Caparzo’s single vineyard expression from the premium north side of Montalcino in an excellent vintage, a wine of exceptional structure, depth and character. Don’t expect it to bowl you over with masses of fruit; it’s a toned and firm expression, lithe and sinewy, energetic and tightly wound the way we like it, still a couple of years away from prime drinking. Length is terrific and complexity will only continue to build from an excellent, savoury, umami-laden base in classic sangiovese style. Best 2018-2028.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley has arguably done a better job than any other new world region in forging an identity within a single generation based on regional vocation, not pie-in-the-sky trend chasing (only Marlborough Sauvignon comes close). Pinot noir was among the first grapes planted in 1966 and today still accounts for the overwhelming majority of production. And remember, that pre-dates the big trend for pinot by over three decades – no one succumbed to the temptation to plant cabernet in the interim (which would never have ripened anyhow).
Domaine Drouhin’s excellent 2013 Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills sub-AVA ($52.95) is a classic of the genre: light, fresh, balanced, firm but not hard, with a scratchy bit of minerality on the palate, generous tart red berry flavours and impressively long finish. It’s fitting, too, that Drouhin was the first major foreign investor in the valley in 1987, and from Burgundy no less. Was Véronique Drouhin chasing a lucrative trend? Hardly. Most Americans at the time didn’t know pinot from peanuts. She simply understood that the Dundee Hills would make an excellent place to grow pinot, now robustly proved.
Rioja, and indeed all of Spain, is living on the edge of a dangerously trendy abyss, emerging as the nation is from its 20th century isolated slumber. So many wineries/regions/wines are seeking a foothold in the 21st century, tempted by various fashionable styles. Viña Olabarri’s 2011 Rioja Crianza ($14.95), however, stands steadfast in traditional garb. It delivers the classic resinous/balsam/sandalwood flavours of abundant American oak, in use since the 16th century, (albeit in rustic form), with a nice dose of tart red and black berry fruit. Tannins are a little rough-and-tumble, but nothing that some grilled, salty, fatty protein couldn’t soften at the table. It’s a decent little value for fans of traditional style Rioja.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next unfashionable bottle.
John Szabo MS
From VINTAGES August 20th, 2016
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