How our taste in wine styles has evolved


19 Feb 2015 The article below was published at the very end of 2001, not long after Purple Pages were born. I thought in this week when we have focused so much on all the recent changes in the Chilean wine scene it might be interesting to reprise this state of the nation (and indeed wine styles in general) overview from more than 14 years ago. The picture is of a Chilean hueso in a wheatfield in 1940. Chile has changed a great deal since 2001 but in the country it probably didn't change all that much between 1940 and 2001. Blockbuster Video, of course, is no longer with us.

31 Dec 2001 Of all the wine-producing countries I have been lucky enough to visit, Chile best illustrates the gulf that yawns between old-fashioned wine and its almost unrecognisable modern counterpart.

The visual image that sticks in my mind from my first visit in 1994 was that of a young man parking his horse and cart in front of a giant Blockbuster Video store on the outskirts of Santiago. But even on my second visit, the vinous equivalent of this clash of cultures persisted. For some years Chile has been one of the world's best-value sources of supple, fruity, thoroughly modern red wines. All of Chile's serious wine companies know exactly how to make this style of wine which has found a ready market all over Europe and North America. Yet even today in the dynamic capital's best restaurants, it can be difficult to find this sort of wine.

Sometimes even under the same label as a juicy export version, completely different wines tailored to suit the traditional tastes of Chileans are sold within Chile – which means they are old rather than young, tough rather than fruity, skinny rather than plump. Chileans have historically been wary of fruit in a wine. Austerity equals sophistication has been the prevailing belief – although even here it is changing as Chile's posse of well-travelled winemakers increasingly impose what they have learnt abroad.

This pattern is being repeated all over Latin America. Eviscerated pale reds matured for years in large old casks of dubious cleanliness and labeled with such ersatz names as Pont l'Évêque have until recently been revered by the wine drinkers of Buenos Aires, for example. But nowadays internationally aware producers such as Dr Nicolas Catena (responsible for Bodegas Esmeralda, La Rural, various combinations of the Catena name and South American's snazziest new winery) have been steering the supertanker that is the Argentine wine industry, the world's fifth biggest, in a completely new direction (although they may be slowed by the current economic chaos that has been emerging there).

It is extraordinary how fast wine styles have changed in the greater world of wine over the last – well, how many years is it? – ten? five? in some cases just three. As someone who took her first timid steps in the wine world in the mid 1970s, I know that in Britain too we used to tolerate a haze of sulphur, painfully grating texture (the expression 'mouthfeel' is a very young one) and sometimes even oxidation. Today's wines are so much more obviously fruity, whether they be lowly table wines – red, white or pink – at the very bottom end of the price range or classed-growth bordeaux with a possible life expectancy of 30 years.

I feel sorry for modern wine producers and happy for today's wine consumers. To stay in the race producers have to keep on raising their game with every vintage as their competitors all over the world do the same. Today's consumers are spoilt, I am delighted to say.

We want fruit, because we identify that with pleasure and flavour. We want some structure and tannin because we want to be able to cellar a wine if we don't feel like drinking it straight away. But consumers in markets such as the United States, Australia and much of northern Europe don't want just any tannins. We now want the right sort of tannins. We have reached the stage where, for example, we fuss over not just the tannin levels in our wines but whether the tannins are green, ripe, hard, fine, tough, wood, grainy and many other sorts of tannins besides. (The Australians are apparently developing a 'tannin wheel' for use in describing tannins to use alongside the aroma wheel of Ann Noble of Davis, California.)

We have voted vehemently over the last two or three years against excessive oak, with more obvious success in white wines so far than reds.

We say we don't want sugar (unless there is an awful lot of it and the wine is very expensive), so medium-dry wines such as those from Germany and the Loire are finding it harder and harder to win friends abroad. But on the other hand many of the best-selling commercial blends, especially those labelled Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, rely quite heavily on heavily masked sugar for their appeal.

What we clearly want from wine as from everything else in life is immediate gratification. We want our wines to come at least halfway to meet us. We would rather not have to make an effort to like them, to have to forgive any youthful imperfections.

I was fascinated to meet one of Portugal's leading winemakers, Francisco Antunes, who currently works for Caves Alianca. His first job was in Bairrada, the northern Portuguese wine region dominated by the Baga grape, which, left to its own devices, turns out wines as tart and tough as any I have come across. After a stint at Bordeaux University he is once again responsible for making, among others, Bairrada wines. He has seen how Bordeaux's winemakers have coaxed fruit as well as structure out of cussed Cabernet grapes and now he wants to do the same for Bairrada. 'My aim is to make wines that give pleasure,' he said defiantly, adding plaintively, 'otherwise what is the point?' But he knows that to make Bairrada acceptable to the outside world, he has to change the taste of the Portuguese themselves. 'They want age. They don't like fruit or young reds in general.' For him the silver lining of the disastrous 1993 vintage in Portugal which produced only a tiny fraction of a normal red wine harvest was that it forced the population to drink subsequent vintages younger. Perhaps the Portuguese will eventually catch up with today's evolution in wine taste, as Spaniards have done with a vengeance.

What the rest of us at the sharp end of this trend must now guard against is that wines become too facile, too precocious, too similar, too self-conscious, too manipulated, in a word, too modern.