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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Thursday, 12 August 2010 16:39

Tradition vs. Innovation:: Past and Future of Wine

We often forget that tradition is seldom more than yesterday’s innovation when tomorrow’s developments fly past us unawares. More than others, though, wine lovers tend to look longingly backwards at the legends of history rather than stare the future directly in the eye, writes Joel B. Payne, Chief Editor of  Gault Millau Wine Guide from Germany.


We’re enraptured by the antique world and see in the white Assyrtiko from the Greek island of Santorini or in Virgil’s favourite red, the Falerno des Massico from the Italian coast between Rome and Naples, the ancestors of today’s finest growths. Humorously, though, we don’t even truly know from what grapes these wines were crushed, much less how they tasted. One thing is certain, however, it was probably little like their ostensible descendants, much less a Chevalier Montrachet from Domaine Leflaive or a Pauillac from Château Lafite-Rothschild.

In those bygone days, vines were not cloned nor grafted onto the roots of another Vitis genus from the United States, not doped with chemical fertilisers to bring outlandish yields nor protected from the environment by herbicides and pesticides. The seldom overripe grapes were not harvested by machine, chaptalised with sugar from beetroot nor tweaked with artificial yeasts to induce fermentation. Neither was bacteria added to convert Malic to Lactic acid or the resulting brew balanced with residual sugar to optimise the flavour profile. Matured in amphoras, not cask, they would not have smelt of vanilla.

In the vineyards, we now irrigate in arid regions to improve god’s plans for nature, but dig drains below the vines in other parts of the world, even in the classified growths of Bordeaux, to reduce the negative impact of unwanted rains. In spite of all this manipulation, we nonetheless speak of authentic wines from indigenous varietals; but what, a sceptic might ask, is left of ‘terroir’, that ineffable interplay of soil, light, topography and microclimate that, over generations of human stewardship, endows a wine with its unique soul? Can you bottle such genius under screwcap? Or does cork remain the king?

The Germans often boast that their Riesling’s original home as a wild species was on the banks of the Rhine; but is a Hermitage worth less, merely because it was only the Romans who brought Syrah to the Rhône? Moreover, Carole Meredith from the University of California at Davis recently discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a crossing of Cabernet Franc with Sauvignon Blanc that is, at most, little more that 250 years old. Does that lessen its pedigree? Similarly, Chardonnay is the offspring of Pinot Noir and Gouet from a neighbouring region of the French Alps. Purists, though, tell us that there is no legitimate reason to plant Chardonnay in Sicily or Cabernet Sauvignon in Tuscany.

In a time of religious intolerance, it would be wrong to wage a holy war for wine. We do not really know if a chaptalised Chardonnay is better than one concentrated through reverse osmosis  - nor if the use of chips and micro-oxidation is worse for a given Shiraz, especially a value for money variety, than ageing the same must in often poor French oak barrels.

Today, though, these processes appear to many collectors as resembling a product from Frankenstein’s kitchen. I must admit that even I find the use of the spinning cone to reduce alcohol levels in overblown wines from the Barossa or Napa Valley a bit artificial, but where would the world be today if we had banned every innovation? Perhaps in the not so distant future we will see this new device as a saviour, much like Charles Martel who held the Arabs, from whom we have the word alcohol, at bay.

Whether we like it or not, we must now think seriously about just that development. Scientists predict that within a century the average temperature in Europe’s famous wine growing regions will rise by 2-6° C. Combined with the accompanying changes in rainfall patterns this will have a major impact on wine production almost everywhere in the Old World. Some highly prized areas like Penedes, as Dr. Xavier Sort from Torres explains, will become to hot and dry for grape growing - or only with different varietals that are better adapted to extreme conditions. According to the well-known viticulturalist Richard Smart, even Bordeaux will have to plant more Malbec and less or no Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Will Latour, then, one day taste like Catenas of Argentina do today?

People buy wines for many reasons. Our choice is influenced by numerous factors such as packaging, price, label design, country or regional origin and familiarity, all of which can be battlegrounds of tradition versus innovation. But it’s the way the wine tastes that will influence whether or not a repeat purchase is made. It is likely that some of these taste preferences are cultural or national, while others have their roots in biology and, as such, are more hard-wired. Some preferences are innate; others are learned. Tastes change with time and age - and even fashion can influence preferred styles of wines.

The finest wines, though, will forever remain a difficult to define synthesis of the right varietal in a mature period of its life planted in a choice location and, of course, the ability of the vintner to tease the best out of each harvest, whether it be in the Rheingau, Burgundy or the Shivalik Hills. Perhaps one day the world will marvel at an Indian winery, which today has not even planted its first vine.

Joel B. Payne

Joel B. Payne, an American expat living in Europe since 1979 was thrice Germany's best sommelier. Beyond a long career as wine buyer, consultant and managing director of two large import companies, he has been active as a wine journalist for 25 years.. A regular contributor to several leading international and German wine magazines , he is best known for being the editor of the German Wine Guide, which has appeared annually for the past 17 years. A founding member of the Grand Jury Européen, he is also since 2007 the president of the international circle of wine writers, FIJEV.


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