Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Spanish Wines and the Modernist versus Traditionalist Battles

In his book Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters, Jonathon Nossiter lauds French (Anjou, Touraine, Chablis, Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy, Rhone, Provence, and Jura), Italian (Friuli, Sardignia, Umbria), and German wine regions for resisting the homogenization wave but is especially hard on the Spanish wine industry for its "abdication."  According to Nossiter, "a disaster has befallen the Spanish wine industry over the past 15 years."  With very few exceptions (Manzanilla Sherry and 20+-year-old Tondonia Rioja Blanco), the "whites are alcohol heavy, lacking any balancing acidity, cloyingly fruity, battered and botoxed by new oak" while the reds are "overconcentrated, overripe, saccharine, syrupy, and also artificially wrinkle-free."

Writing, longingly, in the Old World Old School blog, Joe Maneken hearkens back to a period 15 years in the past when Spanish winemakers picked their grapes before they became super-ripe and aged their wines for long periods in oak (mostly American) or concrete.  Some of the resulting wines were oaky, dried out, and lacking in vibrancy but many were "distinctive and delicious" at reasonable prices.  Writing in The World of Fine Wines, Mike Steinbereger, commenting on Spanish wines, indicated that "much of Spain is a black hole these days."

Why did Spain, with a wine tradition stretching as far back as its fellow Roman-era European cohorts, and with the largest area under vine of any country in the world, succumb where others did not.  Nossiter points to two potentially contributory factors.  First, Spain had experienced societal repression under Franco and, like the Pastor's children, once freedom was gained they became susceptible to "edgy fruit."  Second, one way for the nouveau riche to gain social acceptance is to own a vineyard and many of Spain's new vineyard owners, according to Nossiter, have made their fortunes outside of the winemaking industry and are driven by other than "traditional" values.  He illustrates the point by relating the story of Fernando Ramirez Ganuza, a real estate tycoon who bought land and established his brand in 1992  and by 1998 was receiving 95 and 96 points from Parker for his "jammy" Rioja wines.  When Nossiter met with him in Madrid in 2006, Ganuza told him that Rioja was a brand ( a marketing conception) rather than a terroir.

Steinberger, while being firmly rooted in the traditionalist camp, does see some benefits accruing to the wine industry as a result of the modernist movement.  For example, while their luster is fading, Super Tuscans gave "Tuscan winemaking a dynamism" that was sorely lacking and raised winemaking standards throughout the region.  French garage wines, while in retreat, have attracted great attention to the St. Emilion region and have shown that winemaking can be practiced outside the hallowed halls of the Bordeaux chateaux.  Steinberger sees the modernist movement in retreat (changing sensibilities; global economic crisis; a renewed passion for the authentic, the local, the natural; and the waning influence of previously influential wine critics) but posits that the modern versus traditional battle has redounded to the overall benefit of the wine industry.

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