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Vinous change

Not a lot of people know that 150 years ago German sweet wines were more costly at the London wine merchants than Bordeaux Grand Cru wines. At that time the consumer preferred sweeter wines to the best age worthy red wines that were available. But when you compared these reds to their current vintage today there is a noticeable difference: the colour of the wines a century and a half ago would be like a Pinot Noir would be today, and the alcohol levels would be very restrained. It was and still is called Claret by the English wine trade, referring to the “transparent” nature of the red wine. But if you looked at today’s Bordeaux wines they would look like all the rest of the Cabernets from around the world, deep red or purple with teeth staining powers.

Even the Napa Valley Cabernets, of the late 70’s and early 80’s would only have 11-12.5% alcohol which at that time would be perfectly respectable, as compared to now where if the wine does not have at least 14.5% no critic or ‘serious’ aficionado would even take a look at it. The most esteemed wine that the highly regarded Napa Valley producer Shafer made a few vintages ago weighed in at 16.5% which is at an alcohol level which years ago was reserved solely for sherry or port wines -both of which are fortified wines, i.e. wines to which alcohol has been added for more weight and/or to arrest the fermentation.

The above two paragraphs illustrate that just like everything else wine is constantly changing, even aside from the surfacing of new grape varieties and/or regions. There are various factors at work which determine a large amount of that change.

The first and perhaps most influential factor in the development of today’s wine consuming public would be the emergence of the über critic, both from the American side of the 49th parallel, notably the Wine Spectator Magazine and Robert Parker JR.

Both of them emerged in the early 1980’s and have gained a very strong foothold in wine related commerce, mostly because of their use of the 100 point scale and their combined love of full, high alcohol, up front, fruity concoctions which have unfortunately shaped the public’s taste and perception to a unhealthy degree.  I feel that this is in a large part a North American issue as the Old world has been drinking wine for centuries as a daily custom and as such is insulated to the new consumer habits of judging a wine like a term paper.  There is a saying in the wine trade, which goes like this “ if you have an 80 point wine you cannot sell it, and if you have a 90 point wine the consumer cannot buy it”- as it is sold out.

The positive side to the dominance of the American wine press is that in their formative years, i.e. the 1980’s there was an urgent need for some rigorous wine criticism as the business end of the wine trade and wine writing was done in a lot of cases by the same individuals, resulting in a lot of insecurity for the average wine buyer. “Is this a good wine? …or are you just writing about it in this wine magazine because you are also selling it?” There were horror stories (of mostly British) wine writers who would pull up to the back doors of French chateaus, and watched while their car trunks were being loaded up with cases of wine, for positive reviews in publications.

Robert Parker, a one time Lawyer from Maryland, became the Ralph Nader of the wine trade, at a time when it was crucial for the industry: The Wine Spectator, a wine and lifestyle magazine from NYC followed shortly thereafter, further popularizing the new “Wine Lifestyle”.

Currently, with the importance of the internet as a information source, including the wide availability of both professional and amateur wine blogs, and a myriad of other wine related information on the net, the whole wine world has become more democratized, which given the power accumulated by Parker and Friends over the last 2 decades, is probably a good thing.

When in doubt trust your own palate, as just like art, music or literature, wine is entirely a subjective endeavor.

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