You don’t have to know Burgundy to know wine, but the more you know wine, the more you will want to know Burgundy.
That’s the blessing and the challenge of modern wine. We don’t have to start at the top, seeking out and tasting rare vintages of Echezeaux, Romanee-Conti or other fine Burgundies to understand pinot noir and chardonnay. Nor need we mortgage our future for a taste of first-growth Bordeaux to experience wonderful cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The globalization of wine, especially technological advances in the vineyard and the winery, has made it possible to produce good wine just about anywhere, and the global economy allows us to try wine from anywhere without leaving home.
Good pinot noir is produced in California and Oregon, of course, but also in New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. By concentrating on these regions, a budget-minded wine fan can gain an understanding of pinot noir before tackling Burgundy. Cabernet and merlot fans can explore Chile’s Colchagua and Aconcagua valleys before shelling out for Napa or Bordeaux.
But that globalization has also led to similarity. As Paul Lukacs argues compellingly in his new book, “Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures” (Norton, 2012), modern technology and a global marketplace have helped create an international style that, at a certain level at least, trumps place of origin. The international style “emphasizes ripe fruit flavors, lush textures, and forceful levels of alcohol — in a word, flamboyance,” Lukacs writes. So when we go into a store or restaurant and ask for a chardonnay, it doesn’t matter whether it comes from California, France, Australia or just down the street as long as it tastes like our idea of what a chardonnay should be.
So we are awash in well-made, technically sound wines from around the world that tend to taste alike. We could stop there and be happy with the reliability of today’s inexpensive wine. (There are many evenings and many meals when such wines are just fine.)
Yet many wine lovers want more. We explore the regional expressions that do persist, finding differences in pinot noir from New Zealand’s Central Otago and the Sta. Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County. We move on from our favorite gulpable malbec and discover the nuances that Argentina’s cutting-edge winemakers achieve with grapes grown in alluvial soils at ever-higher altitudes in the Andean foothills. There are winemakers around the world who rebel at the sameness of the international style and take pride in creating wine that expresses its place of origin. The problem, of course, is that those wines are harder to find and cost more. But they are worth seeking out.
Many wine drinkers try to escape the confines of the international style by experiencing unfamiliar regions and grape varieties. Mencia from Spain, gruner veltliner and blaufrankisch from Austria, wines fermented and aged in clay pots buried in the ground; all these are populating lists at wine bars and restaurants. Modern winemaking has helped improve these wines and made them available across the globe. It also has helped spur the dramatic rise in regional wine in the United States, including impressive growth in Virginia and Maryland over the past decade.
Riesling is in vogue among sommeliers, writers and adventurous consumers, despite a lingering misperception among some that it is always sweet. In fact, dry Riesling achieves impressive finesse in New York, concentration and power in Washington state’s Columbia Valley and a full-throated roar in Australia. In Austria, it achieves an intense mineral quality. Perhaps Riesling is the anti-chardonnay: It delights us precisely because it challenges our idea of what a Riesling should be.
In the weeks ahead, we will continue to explore wine from the edges of the map, taking advantage of the success of modern winemaking around the world while seeking vintners and winesnot restricted by an international style. And we may detour from time to time toward iconic Burgundies and Bordeaux. It’ll be a fun voyage.