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slow death by boring wine

by Stuart Walton

Stuart writes on issues close to his heart. His views are not necessarily those of wine-pages, but they touch on topics of interest to all wine-lovers. This essay postulates that something has gone badly wrong with the glorious evolution of wine in the past decade. In many ways it follows on from my own essay, "The Dumbing Down of Wine".

To read responses from wine-pages visitors, along with Stuart's replies, click here.

Stuart Walton's
The Wine Essay
November 2001

My own career as a wine-drinker almost exactly coincides with the consumer wine boom in the UK. Twenty years ago, Britain and I hardly touched the stuff. Today, we are drinking ten times the amount we drank in 1981, and latest figures show that, despite fears of a coming recession, wine consumption is still rising at an annual rate of between 5 and 10%.

That may sound like cause for celebration, at least among those whose vocation it is to sell it to us, but the truth, alas, is far uglier. The high-water mark of excitement in wine was passed in the late 1980s, when the world was young and there were undiscovered appellations all over the high-street shelves. What's on offer today is a pale imitation of those glory days – a pale yellow, lightly oaked, 13% alcohol imitation, in fact.


  Like those BBC commissioning editors who suddenly discover that the shrieking, camp buffoon they've hired to present the latest can-do cookery series has become something of a minor cult, and then go on to pay him to front an avalanche of gardening/interiors/ makeover programmes until you begin to feel that you're living with the said buffoon and all his horrible habits, so our supermarket wine-buyers discovered about ten years ago that everybody liked sweet, oaky Chardonnay and that we might be grateful for lots, lots more of the same. And since then, they have put us on an increasingly unrelieved diet of the world's most boring wine.

The prototype wines from Australia were soon imitated in regions of southern Europe - most notably the Languedoc - where winemakers who had begun to despair of ever turning the world on to the thin, flavour-free whites suddenly found that Chardonnay with a bit of oak on it would have the world beating a path to their bottling-lines.

It was a dream come true for them, and was a sight cheaper for the British buyers than jetting off to Australia every spring.

Plagues of flying winemakers, like proliferating summer pests, then followed, big-heartedly spreading their know-how into those corners of fusty old Europe that obviously needed teaching a thing or two. Once their work of homogenisation was well advanced, and Chardonnays were being produced in Europe that had had all sense of character, noticeable acid edge or any dimension greater than just the one airbrushed out of them, the scene was set for a return to the worst nightmare of the pre-1980 era – branded wines.

We now have not just the biliously sweet Turning Leaf efforts of E&J Gallo, Orlando's monotonous Jacob's Creek, Blossom Hill, Garnet Point, but an all-singing, all-dancing chorus line of copycat whites without a soupçon of personality to show for themselves.

Alongside are wines from countries where they speak funny languages, but that have helpfully been given twee little names like Orchid Vale and Riverview, so that they'll sound as if they come from somewhere hot that speaks English.

One can't just blame the Australians any longer. This style of Chardonnay is now being made in South America, South Africa, New Zealand and California too, and our buyers can't wait to get their mitts on it.

 

Not only that, but they come over all hurt when one points out just what a brain-dead swamp of uniformity they have succeeded in making of wine. 'The choice of flavours has never been wider,' insists one supermarket wine principal in shameless defiance of the evidence on her shelves.

And to complete the unholy trinity of influences that has stifled diversity and limited choice, is that breed of wine commentator who insists on trying to convince you that you ought to be grateful for what you've got, because the alternative is the badly made, oxidised old garbage of southern Europe. These are the scrubbed and wholesome Ovalteenies of the wine press, people who wouldn't know an interesting wine if it were served up to them by naked slaves at a Michelin-starred restaurant in heaven.

When I wrote in 1993 that Australian Chardonnay was the new Liebfraumilch, even I couldn't have known how distressingly close the analogy would turn out to be, in terms of the wines' quality, complexity and market hegemony. But that is what has happened. And no supermarket buyer worth their paycheck is about to kill the goose that goes on laying this pale golden, lightly oaked egg.


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