Mourning Terroir

Lafite Rothschild terroir

I am disheartened by the gradual but obvious changes in some of wine’s Old World regions that have been moving toward producing wines that take on New World wine characteristics. Specifically, many wines from France and Italy, including Bordeaux and Brunello di Montalcino, have over the past ten years been quietly changing their taste profiles. Even Burgundy, perhaps to a lesser extent, is in on the changeover. America is the largest wine market in the world and Americans buy roughly 95% of their wine from US wineries, which naturally makes foreign winemakers want to expand their market by catering to American tastes. By way of explanation, I need to divert for a moment.

For the past 60 years or so, the American palate has been altered and shaped by successfully deployed marketing campaigns funded by huge corporations and, today these companies are largely accountable for health problems related to obesity in this country. This is not a conspiracy theory but, rather, a well-documented fact (for further reading on the subject, there is a blistering exposé in a New York Times article here, published in 2013). From junk food developed in the 1950s, to encouraging the use of chemicals and other unhealthy ingredients, to promoting the overuse of sugar, the US has been put on a steadily declining path leading to poor health. Prior to this phenomenon healthy eating consisted of a daily balance of fresh foods, not processed food coming off the line of a factory. Corporations have known for decades that sugar effects us in an addictive manner, which is why it’s a prevalent ingredient in nearly everything being sold today. Go to the grocery store and look at ingredient labels – it’s absolutely remarkable (in an appalling kind of way; does there really need to be sugar in mustard?). Bare in mind that sugar is only one name for many similar substances and overconsumption of dextrose, sucrose, fructose, glucose, and a number of other natural and chemical ingredients have the same (or worse) effect on the body as sugar. The difference of being a European growing up drinking tea, for example, and being an American growing up drinking soft drinks, is stark and sobering (no pun intended). I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that not only don’t drink tea or coffee but refuse to even drink water. With some of America’s largest and most respected corporations actually engineering products to capture and grow market share, how could wine hope to escape such gravity?

Back to wine, New World regions didn’t really produce (or consume) all that much wine until Australia introduced its fruit forward wines to America and its taste profile really resonated with the American palate. There was nothing obtrusive here, just soft fruity beverages with ‘cute’ labels, made for people that didn’t really like wine in the first place. Australia exported tens of millions of cases per year to the US by 2004 (that volume has been declining since around 2007), and was very instrumental in the growth of wine consumers in America, which opened the door for other regions, like California, Chile, and Argentina. In fairness, there are a handful of great New World wineries that make a concerted effort to not manipulate wine with technology and to ensure their wines are expressive of its terroir.

With California and Washington wine being highly extracted and at the extreme edge of fruitiness, they intentionally and perfectly align with America’s taste for sugar, or at least not offer wine in which one might detect tannins or acidity. These wines are very often more soda-like than wine-like and France and Italy, perhaps the two most admirable wine countries in the world, are following the trend by changing taste profiles from balanced beauty to an eat-it-with-a-fork fruit bomb character. Given the evolutionary steps of the American diet, it’s no wonder that Americans are much more likely to enjoy domestic wines as opposed to European wines. With flavor profiles being slowly ground into into sameness, forget about terroir being a celebrated element of wine because soon there will not be any expression left of a ‘sense of place’. Slowly, we are losing our most treasured wines.

In the US, Old World wines get a bad rap because they’re often consumed too young and therefore can be afflicted with bold tannins and high acidity before maturity. In cooler vintages the grapes may not be as ripe as in warmer vintages when harvested, which can produce wine with less residual sugar and even sometimes with slightly sour notes, which is also a turnoff to Americans. The complexity of a quality mature Old World wine, however, is incomparable. These wines often continually evolve in the glass with every sip, changing aromas and flavors as exposure to air open them up and, finding wines that have a finish that lasts seemingly forever is absolutely thrilling. New World wines, although they have their place, seem extraordinarily one-dimensional by comparison.

Both New World and Old World can coexist in this one world, but it would be an enormous loss to every wine aficionado to just let Old World wines slip away into oblivion. Considering the way were headed today, eventually, as we walk ever deeper into this foreboding future or manufactured wines, blind tasting wine will boil down to resolving the question: is it Pepsi or is it Coke? I, for one, am going to be very sad that day.

David Boyer


Photo: some of the most coveted terroir in the world, Château Lafite Rothschild in late May, well before veraison