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Ripeness Part One: The Rise of the International Style

The world of wine has changed more in the last forty or so years than it ever has. 

Grapes are picked much riper, and the resulting wines are becoming more similar regardless of where they are grown. Is this new international style the future of wine? Or are we losing our heritage? Fifty or one hundred years ago, it was known that the best European wines came from sites where grapes would hardly ripen. Bordeaux is the coldest region for Cabernet Sauvignon, Champagne the coldest for Chardonnay and so on. This marginal weather makes the most terroir driven, or site specific wine. That is, the wine tastes like where it came from. However, the warmer years made fruitier wines which were universally more appealing and could age a bit longer. Growers, who had always been paid purely on yields, now received a bonus for riper grapes. They learned that if they limited yields by dropping some of the fruit, the remaining grapes would be riper.  They also learned that waiting as long as they could before the rains came in late October would achieve a similar result. These practices became universal and the grower, winemaker and consumer were all happy. But wait, isn't there an easier way to get riper fruit? Of course there is, and the answer is to plant in a warmer climate.  Vineyards sprung up in regions previously thought to be too cold to plant. The challenge, here, was that the sugar levels increase much faster with the added heat, and are sugary before flavors have developed fully.  And so growers had to learn another trick: Instead of picking solely on sugar accumulation, they would wait until the grapes actually tasted jammy on the vine. In both red and white wines, there is a natural progression of the flavor in fruit: the flavors in reds shift from vegetal, to red tart fruits, then black, and finally jammy. White wines progress from green fruit, to citrus, to tropical, and lastly dried. Picking very ripe fruit comes at a cost, however.  As grapes mature on the vine for an extended period, the sugar levels go up.  The high sugar is converted to high alcohol, which adds body and a sweetness of sorts.  Someone only needs to pick up a bottle from the same producer twenty years apart to see what is happening.  Wines from Bordeaux, California, Italy, Australia and so on have an average of 2% higher alcohol than they did in the 1970's.  Another unfortunate side-effect to higher alcohol is that the wines don't age as well.  We are lucky to have these relics to enjoy, but I fear that my children will not have the same opportunity. The focus has shifted from the vineyard to the winery. The resulting high-alcohol wine tastes hot, so we have learned to remove it either by centrifuge or by adding water. Moreover, precious acidity is lost.  “No problem”, says the winemaker, “I can just add powdered tartaric acid to make up for this”. And it is not just alcohol and acidity; winemakers the world over have learned to adjust tannin, color and body. Many consumers, particularly Americans, love oak. Perhaps it stems from our love of Bourbon. It enhances the wine when done well, but also can take away from the natural attributes of the grape if done poorly. Moreover, it can contribute to the homogenization of wine. If these extra steps help sell the wine, then many producers are all for it. On the other hand, what makes your wine special if I can recreate it anywhere in the world? Additionally, these types of wines garnished higher scores. The professional critic may taste hundreds of wines in a sitting. These "made" examples with their increased fruit and oak stand out. Since the 1980’s, these types of wines have been awarded higher scores, a natural marketing tool that appeals to consumers. This led to the development of the so-called International Style which peaked in popularity around 2000. A high score helped the wine to outsell its competitors, to the point that consultancy agencies were developed to help wineries manufacture wine that would appease the critics. It became the norm. Certain flavors are expected year after year. And if this is what the consumer prefers, who are we to tell them that they are wrong? After all, it is the consumer which drives the market, right? 

This article takes us to the year 2005. Stay tuned for next month’s blog post Ripeness Part Two: The Reaction to the International Style & the Rise of Low Alcohol Wines.


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