Everything Old Is New Again (September 20, 2016)
Wine, like everything else in life, it seems, is subject to fads and fashions.
Ever since the first man or woman purposefully trod on a bunch of grapes to crush and ferment them, the style of wines and how they are made has been subject to the changing whims of the winemaker and propelled by the tastes of the ultimate consumer.
The earliest wines were made in clay amphorae that were buried in the ground, where they sealed and left for months or years. Shards of these containers with grape pits stuck to them were found in Georgia and carbon-dated back 6000 years before Christ. These containers were called "qvevri."
Winemakers today are have adopted the qvevri to produce natural wines – wines made without recourse to chemicals and with minimum technological intervention.
The next revolutionary advance in the wine world after clay amphorae was the use of cement tanks to ferment and store wine rather than in huge oak vats. In the 1970s and '80s winemakers moved away from these cement vessels in favour of stainless steel tanks, which were easier to clean and could be temperature-controlled during fermentation.
Now winemakers are going back to cement tanks – not only the huge epoxy-lined tanks in various shapes but also the portable cement tanks in the shape of eggs.
Then some winemakers, like Mondavi in Napa, forsook stainless steel and returned to wood fermenters to help oxygenate the wine.
Then there was the new oak phenomenon. Winemakers in the New World looked to Bordeaux and they saw the producers of the great châteaux leaving their fine clarets in new oak for eighteen months, so they emulated their example. Except the quality of the fruit and the tannin structure produced in climates significantly warmer than Bordeaux was not the same, and even more so when the New World wanted to replicate what the Burgundians were doing with their white wines. The result was Napa lumberyard wines.
The other aspect of fashion in wine is the changing tastes of the consuming public. Currently the liquor boards are awash with Pinot Grigio and Prosecco. Twenty years ago Pouilly-Fuissé and Spanish Cava would have been the popular choices. Twenty years before that the wine everyone was drinking – and decorating their lampshades with – was Mateus Rosé. Then there was Mouton Cadet and Liebfraumlich.
Which just goes to show that wine styles have their day. They may even enjoy a second go-round with the next generation. The same thing happens with wine regions: Australia was huge in the 1990s; at the turn of the century Chile enjoyed its time in the sun; now it's Argentina's and Spain's time to relish the embrace of a fickle public.
Yet with the capricious nature of consumer loyalties there are some wines that defy the changing times. I'm talking about classic wines such as white Burgundy and champagne. Like the Chanel suit and the Volkswagen Beetle, they haven't changed.* I could have added red Burgundy were it not for the proponents of the controversial Guy Accad method: a two-week-long pre-fermentation cold soak under sulphur dioxide to extract more colour and oxygenate the must. Now mercifully no longer practiced.
While port and sherry are not enjoying the popularity they once did, these fortified beverages have not compromised their style. One day they too will be rewarded when consumers discover them again.
And talking about port, in the Douro Valley, the best wines are still foot-trodden by teams of men in lagars. So, who knows, maybe foot-treading will become the next big thing in the wine world.
*Editor's note: OK, the Beetle changed. Once.