​How wine has changed since 1985


The following is a longer version of an article written to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Financial Times’ celebrated FT Weekend published every Saturday. The picture was taken at the Palazzo Antinori in Florence in 1985 or 1984 when we were filming the second series of The Wine Programme for Channel 4. Note the spec size (they were bright red and as quintessentially eighties as the shoulder pads). 

When FT Weekend was launched 30 years ago, Nick and I were returning from Australia, a country that was yet to launch its wine exporting offensive on the rest of the world., In 1985 it was shipping only 2% of its wine abroad, as opposed to 60% today.

Australian vine growers were busy planting Chardonnay, rueing all the unfashionable red wine vine varieties they had in the ground. By then virtually all the world’s wineries were equipped with some form of cooling, so white wines were at last reliably fruity and fresh and drinkers were looking above all for refreshment. In the 1980s, Chardonnay was so popular and so relatively scarce that in much of the world it had to be rationed. In Australia, ‘Sem-Chard’ was a popular blend that eked out the produce of such Chardonnay cuttings as had made it through the country’s strict plant quarantine with the (then) much more widely planted Sémillon (usually without its accent in Australia).

It was not until the early 1990s that CBS’s 60 Minutes would highlight the French Wine Paradox, suggesting red wine had health benefits and resulting in shelves immediately denuded of Gallo Hearty Burgundy (sic). From then on, attention was increasingly focused on red-wine production, with Cabernet Sauvignon king of the pack, because it was associated with what was then seen as the fine-wine icon, classed-growth bordeaux. Red wine grapes that had thrived in local conditions for decades, such as Sangiovese in Tuscany, Zinfandel in California, Shiraz in Australia and Malbec in Argentina, were pulled out in favour of the glamorous French interloper. By the mid 1990s it seemed as though the world’s vineyards would soon grow little other than Chardonnay, Cabernet and its softer Bordeaux blending partner Merlot that provided even more immediate drinking in this impatient era.

Chardonnay was retained because, of all white wine grapes, it had the greatest affinity with the winemaker’s accoutrement du jour, the new, small, French (to be smart in wine then was to be French) oak barrel. The totems for seriousness of intent for wine producers in the 1980s and early 1990s were their attempts to mimic white burgundy via Chardonnay, red bordeaux via Cabernet, and the number of small oak barrels they bought each year. The more the merrier, and wines tasted oakier and oakier.

New World v Old World was a big preoccupation then, with California the first successful representative of the former, thanks to the seminal Judgment of Paris California v France taste-off in 1976. This sparked a vogue for comparative blind tastings, then a novel phenomenon. In London in 1987 I managed to assemble renowned wine producers Alexis Lichine and Patrick de Ladoucette from France, Ezio Rivella from Italy, wine writers Jo Gryn and Hubrecht Duijker from Belgium and Holland respectively, and Michael Broadbent from Christie’s for an article in Conde Nast Traveler comparing what were then considered the top wines of California and Australia. (Penfolds of Australia ’won’, for what it is worth.)

New World wine producers had three attributes that were seen as particularly attractive then. Their extra sunshine resulted in wines that seemed riper, friendlier and readier to drink than Europe’s more reticent offerings. The New World way of naming wine after the grape rather than with a complicated, highly regulated, geographical appellation made life much easier for consumers. And New World winemakers had been scientifically trained, and knew how to use an armoury of inputs and techniques in order to produce dependably clean, fruity (though sometimes too oaky) wines. So-called flying winemakers, hard workers typically from the southern hemisphere, swept through the less favoured wine regions of Europe preaching the gospel of cleanliness and technological efficiency so that technically faulty wine had become a thing of the past throughout most of the world by the early to mid 1990s.

The top end of the wine business was undergoing revolution too. In 1986 in the Sunday Times magazine I wrote the first UK profile of an up-and-coming American wine writer, an ex-lawyer called Robert Parker who devoted his days to tasting up to 100 fine wines, and introduced the concept of scoring these wines out of 100. Bordeaux, his first love, was at the beginning of a new era in which, thanks to the work of an inspiring oenologist Professor Émile Peynaud, stringy, tart, underripe red bordeaux was becoming a thing of the past.

Parker’s scores were so delightfully consistent (unlike mine) and the scores themselves so easy to understand and use as a marketing tool, that they came to dominate the fine-wine market throughout the rapidly expanding world of wine consumers – even in the burgeoning markets of Asia. Although he has repeatedly denied that he favours super-ripe wines, the perception became widespread among producers that the formula for attracting a high Parker score, a shortcut to high prices and easy sales, was particularly ripe grapes, high alcohol and quite a lot of new oak. (This for red wines; white wines have, alas, played a minor role in the world of fine wine this century.) Of course, as Parker well knows, fine wine is much subtler than this, and many of the attempts to emulate a supposed Parker Platonic ideal failed miserably. But the result, particularly in California, South America, Australia and even in some quarters of Bordeaux, Italy and the Rhône, was a rash of exaggerated, highly potent wines in which winemaking technique all but obliterated their geographical origins.

But for every action there is a reaction, and Parker, by dint of his own hard work, became so powerful that a counter-movement was inevitable. Coinciding with the sale of his newsletter The Wine Advocate and website erobertparker.com, a new paradigm of wine has emerged, not just as a reaction to what was perceived as ‘Parkerised’ wines but as part of the zeitgeist that seeks less industrialisation, more geographical traceability and expression and, once again, more refreshment. In wine terms this translates into more emphasis on the vineyard than on the winery, much less new oak, more celebration of indigenous rather than international vine varieties, wines that taste lighter and fresher. So-called natural wines in which chemical inputs are reduced to a sometimes-dangerous minimum are at the extreme of this spectrum. Those made with minimal but some intervention in the winery from biodynamically or organically grown vines are increasingly common.

Climate change, so obvious to wine producers, has played a part here. It has exaggerated the effects of grapes left to hang on the vine for extra ripeness and, together with yeasts that through selection for risk-free fermentation have become more efficient, has tended to increase alcohols to levels that an increasing proportion of consumers find inconvenient. Until quite recently, 14% was looking like the new normal for wine’s alcoholic strength but, thanks to fashion, planting in cooler regions and picking earlier, an increasing number of wine labels are displaying 12 or 12.5% as a badge of honour – and a throwback to the pre FT Weekend era.

1985 superstars
These 1985s score at least 19 points out of 20 in our 112,000-strong tasting notes database:

Tenuta San Guido, Sassicaia, Bolgheri
Guigal, La Mouline, Côte Rôtie
Louis Roederer, Cristal, Champagne
Krug, Champagne
Charles Heidsieck, Blanc de Millénaires, Champagne
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée-Conti, Burgundy
Ch Cheval Blanc, St-Emilion, Bordeaux
Ch L’Évangile, Pomerol, Bordeaux