One of the shore excursions we enjoyed during the wine-tasting adventure and cruise I hosted on Crystal Serenity in September, was a vist to the Greek island of Corfu. There, we visited the Ambelonas Winery and Farm where they produce only two wines, a white and a red, following their own centuries-old practices of viticulture and winemaking without even a nod to modern technology.
The wines are sold on-site without brand name or labels and no effort is paid to compete with the flavor and aromatic profiles so highly sought after today by New and Old World producers. What we experienced that afternoon was a step back in time as we enjoyed the simplicity of wines in a style from long ago
After that nostalgic and intriguing experience at Ambelonas, I was drawn to a question posed by Britt Karisson in his Oct. 31 BKWine Brief. “How did wine taste before phylloxera hit [Europe] during the second half of the 19th Century?” He also observed that “…consumers easily accept new tastes” leading to one of the many challenges occurring within the wine industry.
Changing taste patterns and preferences in the culinary and wine worlds are well documented and understood by consumers, critics and trade with considerable press devoted to the subject. Since I began my vinous journey in the late 1970s, I have closely monitored the changing trends in wine and developed some speculations regarding their origin.
Wine enthusiasts often enjoy the debate on the quality and authenticity of wines. These discussions typically focus on several somewhat technical and esoteric opinions about the nuances of acidity, tannins, alcohol, fruit, ripeness, color, aromatics, balance, structure, finish, fermentations and barrel routines along with countless other topics that may be raised as the conversation gains steam.
But, while all these discussions may have relevance to those participating, the bottom line and basic attraction to most wine consumers is the simple question, “Do I like this wine or not?” And, as pointed out by Karisson and others, these tastes are always changing. Each person has his own interpretation of what they expect when opening the bottle and pouring that first glass.
Our sense of taste and smell originates from our own experience and memory along with our ability to define them within a personal context. They are not necessarily dependent on what you may read or hear from someone else, and as a result, each taster will have her own individual sensitivity to specific aromas and flavors.
This is not to say my impression of green apple will be comparable to another’s sense of mango. But I may detect peaches and another taster may describe nectarines. We are all correct within our own frame of reference regardless of market trends or a critic’s opinion.
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Looking back at the popular Napa and Sonoma Cabernets of the 1970s (and earlier) into the mid-1980s we find wines expressing more elegance than power with alcohol typically 12 to 13.5 percent. Most consumers related to that style, but the market shifted in response to some critical acclaim for more weight and muscle with higher alcohol (14.5 to 16 percent), softer tannins and more forward fruit; bringing on a new generation of wine drinkers that no longer related to the more traditional styles of the past.
In addition to the Cabernets of those times, I also recall the steely/crisp Chardonnays I enjoyed through the late 1980s that morphed (because of critical suggestion and market forces) into wines exhibiting heavy oak, higher alcohol, buttery flavors and often the sweetness of residual sugar.
While the market gravitated to this flavor pattern, I tended to search for other white wines in order to branch out from one of my early go-to varietals. The same was true for Cabernets, Zinfandels, Pinots and other favorites where I became very selective in my choices so I could focus on the styles I found appealing.
It became apparent at the time, that although my tastes weren’t necessarily changing, the style of many of my favorite wines was. Happily, my new discoveries became the rewards.
The demand for bigger and bolder wines was also fueled through the 1990s in part by the phylloxera scourge that devastated the majority of North Coast vineyards. Thousands of acres were pulled out and replanted with new clonal selections and rootstocks along with newer vineyard designs and harvesting regimens that in their own way supported the bolder style of the day.
There is no question that personal taste drives the market. Yet the market, in its own way, also drives taste preferences. This is the classic “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” question so often posed by producers and critics. Did critical suggestion drive the stylistic changes we observed during the 1980s through the mid-2000s, or did consumer demand for more power-driven wines drive the producer to deliver?
Thankfully, the pendulum is swinging back to some degree and we have many more choices in today’s market to satisfy a larger consumer presence with a range of styles far more inclusive than at any time in history.
I’ve long observed the evolution in consumer taste patterns, historic developments in winemaking and viticulture as well as the emergence of lesser known varietals and growing areas as factors driving the market. However, while I once regarded them as separate entities merely co-existing, I’ve come to view them clearly as part of the integrated forces of change in today’s wine world.