Thu 15 Jan 2009
Actually, it’s too late to ask that question. It’s like asking, Does America need French fries?
Anyway, I received a bulletin yesterday, titled “Five Trends in Spanish Wines” — it’s that time of year — from Wines of Spain, the government supported agency that helps promote Spanish wines in the United States. The trends were assembled by Bruce Schoenfeld, wine editor for Travel + Leisure magazine.
Here are the proposed trends in Spanish wines for 2009 (slightly edited for length):
I. Exploring new wine regions and grape varieties
“Viticulture, even in the old world, is never a fixed photograph, but a moving picture,” said Víctor de la Serna, a journalist, longtime observer of the Spanish wine scene and wine producer with Manchuela’s Finca Sandoval. As for emerging regions to watch, de la Serna cites: Ribeira Sacra, Tierra de León, Manchuela, Liébana and Sierras de Málaga.
II. Elegance and freshness
“There’s a definite trend toward making fresher wines, wines of great expression that are more elegant than powerful,” said José Peñín, one of Spain’s most knowledgeable and influential wine critics. Spain is a sunny country and the easy ripening of so many of its grapes give it a natural advantage when it comes to elegance and freshness.
III. Old vines
“Selling wine, you say ‘old vine’ and people go crazy,” said Sara Floyd, a San Francisco-based Master Sommelier and national sales manager for importer Jorge Ordóñez’s Fine Estates from Spain.
The naturally low yields of mature vines, like those in Spain, produce the best raw material for making memorable, top-quality wines. Many Spanish vineyards were neglected because of low yields. Through the efforts of old vine pioneers, like Alvaro Palacios, René Barbier, the Eguren brothers and Mariano Garcia, the world has come to value this rare fruit.
IV. French oak
French barrels have lately come into vogue, at least among top producers. Consumers want tannins that are softer, less assertive, and allow wines to be more complex and elegant, typical of wines aged in French oak. A secondary trend is the use of second-year barrels to complete the aging process.
V. Quality white wines
Spanish white wines have traditionally been perceived as inferior cousins to the country’s bold reds. Today, Spain’s whites are on the verge of stepping up to challenge the red for dominance – though perhaps not market share, as production of the best wines is destined to be limited.
Well, who could be against freshness and elegance — remember when Spanish reds tasted like ancient, dusty church pews? — or exploring new wine regions, or moving into the production of better quality white wines, though we’ve seen that occur in the last decade, especially with the albarino grape. Old vines, sure, why not, though I wasn’t aware that people went crazy at the mention of those words; what happens if you stand up and shout “Old vines!” in a crowded theater?
The trend that I find disturbing is the use of French oak barrels to age wines before bottling. It’s a trend that’s probably unstoppable, because many winemakers of all nationalities and regions see French oak as the only path to greatness and accessibility to the world wine markets, especially in America; the “American palate” supposedly loves new oak.
We have seen what French oak barrels did in Italy since Antinori introduced Tignanello in the 1970s. Granted, that great wines are produced in Italy now, under the influence of nontraditional grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot aged in French oak; Tignanello, Solaia, Ornellaia and other cult wines are among the best in the world. On the other hand, the use of French oak has also dumbed down the individuality of many Italian red wines, so that tasted blind they might as well have been made in Pauillac or Napa Valley. Some producers of Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino, enamored of French oak and seeing its use as progressive and “modern” (and fit for those legendary American palates), have robbed their wines of authenticity and sense of place.
Why should that happen in Spain? Think of a 10-year-old Rioja red, with the tempranillo grape’s characteristic tang of sour cherry and dried mulberry with a hint of slightly astringent allspice; why would you want to ruin those qualities with excessive oak?
I’ve been to events in the past few years at which Spanish producers proudly offered their newest wines, sleekly packaged and expensively priced, and all I could smell and taste was new oak. I don’t think that such wines are viable or necessary now. I think that American wine drinkers are sophisticated enough that they’re not searching for the latest blockbuster cult wine that could have been made anywhere.
The whole tenor of the wine world is toward smaller, more authentic, more real wines that embody a sense of their makers, their grapes and their regions. Consumers feel that way now about all sorts of products; we want to feel close to home, perhaps anybody’s home, and we want to feel as if by drinking a glass of wine we’re participating in a process that started with someone’s hands tending the vines. Oak is useful in shaping a wine, but it shouldn’t be the reason why we drink wine.