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The end of great wines?

Some of us, kind old Pagans, watch with dread the shadows falling on the age; how the unconquerable worm invades the sunny terraces of France, and Bordeaux is no more, and the Rhône a mere Arabia Petraea. Château Neuf is dead, and I have never tasted it; Hermitage – a hermitage indeed from all life's sorrows – lies expiring by the river.' R L Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters, 1883.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s worm was the phylloxera louse, an ecological catastrophe comparable to any we have experienced in our own time. Phylloxera is largely resolved if not eradicated today, but many experts believe there is a new worm – one posing a fresh threat to the greatest wines of Europe – which has infiltrated from far afield, and is gnawing away at the fundamental driver of quality itself: terroir. We may yet be heading for a world in which Bordeaux as we know it will be no more, and Hermitage will once again lie expiring beside the river.


The threat comes not via a direct attack on the soils or the vines, but through the marketplace. On the one hand, an invasion of affordable wines from the New World is so displacing the consumption of appellation controlée that, it is claimed, British drinkers under the age of 30 rarely, if ever, taste French wine. And in the classic regions, producers are responding by making modern wines that appear to be less and less true to their terroir.

At the Institute of Masters of Wine’s International Symposium in Vienna last year, Jancis Robinson MW complained of ‘more wines than ever, less choice than ever’. She evoked an image of copy-cat wines crowding the shelves, shouldering out the regional wines of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Germany. Another speaker, Ch’ng Po Tiong, editor of Singapore’s Wine Review, railed against the ‘Coca-colonisation of wine’, an overriding taste profile that stifles anything that dares to be different. For producers of traditional wines from classic regions, something seems to be going badly wrong.

Recipe for wine

The taste of a wine – and this is what the controversy is all about – is defined by its grape constituents, its method of production and of course by its terroir. Much of this is self-evident. Indeed Stevenson observed it over a century ago. In The Silverado Squatters, he described the search for the best new sites by grape-grower settlers in California in the early 1880s: ‘The beginning of vine planting is like the beginning of mining for the precious metals: the wine-grower also “prospects”. One corner of the land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another. This is a failure, that is better; a third best. So, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite.’

What can be said of the great wines of the Old World – and which is not yet true of any New World wine of the modern era – is that they are the most specialised, the most highly tuned to their environment, and therefore the hardest to emulate or replicate. It is not just a matter of the improbability of matching the specific matrix of soil, climate and topography that underscores the unique qualities of a great wine. It is also a question of invoking the cultural and human values that lie behind. Put differently, the taste of great wine is much more than simply soil, water and sun; there is a powerful human vector in any reading of terroir. The human dimension is the seal on the knot of terroir, but its existence opens the door to change.

In fact the taste of wine from almost any origin has migrated over time, in line with changing demands of consumers and the arrival of new technology. For example, the widespread availability of stainless steel from the 1970s onwards has transformed the taste of wines all over the world: the blueprint for dry white Bordeaux has shifted from ‘broad flavours of soft fruits, a faint nuttiness and a soft, off-dry finish’ to ‘herbaceous aromas, well-defined fruit, crisp and refreshingly dry’. And red Bordeaux has morphed over the centuries from a pallid near rosé (clairet) into a deeper, tannin-rich, barrel-aged wine.

Of course the wheel has always turned so that the taste of wine has always been in constant if slow-moving flux. What has remained constant until now in these regions, despite the changes in style and production, is the suitability of the wines to the local lifestyle and to local cuisine.

I sense that the apparently timeless harmony between a wine and its environment is undergoing a paradigm shift. As a result, the wine scene may never be the same again.

Tastes are evolving faster than the potential of many wine producers to adapt. In 10 years, we have learned to cook with olive oil, garlic, chilli and lemon grass. Which classic wines are able to cope in this brave new world of culinary experimentation and change? Those most anchored in their past will be least successful, and as any Darwinian knows the survivors are to be found among the mutants. Today, wines are becoming polarised between ‘traditional’, a style that has evolved over time to meet the needs of the indigenous market, and ‘progressive’ wines which appear to have turned their backs on their local client base to get to markets beyond their immediate reach.

Changes afoot

Wine has been exported for hundreds of years, but this process has accelerated so much in the last 50 that the regional underpinnings of wine are being shaken as well as stirred. The increased diffusion of Bordeaux or Burgundy in the international marketplace is straining the links of these wines with their own terroirs.

Burgundy styles are evolving to suit not so much the Burgundian as the international palate, hence the emergence of wines of higher extraction, deeper colours and powerful fruit impact. Ditto the wines of Bordeaux, and those of practically every wine- producing region of note that enjoys a significant trade with emerging markets.

Through this gradual detachment from a known terroir, even the most conscientious producer risks losing a grip on regional identity. With it goes the yardstick of quality, the stick which defined all that was special about his or her wine.

The genius of terroir is to produce wines of diversity and distinction. Some are subtle, some are graceful, some are powerful, others light. In our fast-moving world the erosion of terroir in its full sense is almost certainly unavoidable. And it is not necessarily the humblest wines which are at greatest risk, it may be those which have in the past most specifically reflected their terroir – the great wines, the upholders of tradition. Yes, these giants are each indelibly marked by their privileged individual growing environments, gaining attributes which allow them to tower over their peers. But greatness does not arise in a vacuum: those attributes are the distillation of all that is best – desirable – in the wine of the region, be it longevity, perfume, structure or silkiness. Chip away at regionality and you challenge the old order, the edifice which defined greatness in the first place.

We can debate the specifics of the AC system, the anomalies and inconsistencies it has created, but few would deny that it has served to crystalise an important and thus far enduring hierarchy of quality. The disassociation of regional wines from their heritage causes the entire quality ladder to be exposed to scrutiny. Thus we find the great wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux today being measured not against each other but against wines from other countries, indeed other varieties, in order to establish new rankings of honour. Competitions are held to find the ‘World’s Best Wines’ — comparisons of fitness in which the ‘purpose’, once clear to all, is now undefined. Competition judges and wine critics are the arbiters of quality, and each has his or her own yardstick.

Porsche has just launched a new car – the Cayenne – to praise and criticism in almost equal measure. How can it be a Porsche, say the critics, when the vehicle no longer reflects the values for which the marque became world-famous. The Cayenne is a Sports Utility Vehicle, a 4×4 designed to meet the requirements of the vast US market and a far cry from the rear-engined, air-cooled speedsters the purists adore. I understand it is a very good car, and in time may be recognised as great. Classic wine producers can learn from car makers and create great new wines for new markets as long as purpose is understood; understood, that is, by the producer, the consumer… and the wine critic.


Written by Hugo Rose MW

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