How Fine Wine Has Changed Since 1980

Did the wines produced a generation ago mature better than they do today? Are they 'better'? Indeed what is 'better'?

For most of the world, especially what British wine merchants jocularly refer to as The Third World – Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, South America – the answer is a definite 'Yes'. The wines are better than they have ever been, and they age with a dignity not apparent in the 1980s or earlier. For this there are a number of explantions: the vines are older; the wines are better made; modern methods enable greater control; tannins are more sophisticated; as is today the experience to understand what varieties suit what soils and what climates. Thirty or fourty years ago these wine regions were largely in their infancy. It would be surprising if great progress had not been made. Naturally, as always, the vast amount of wines produced are made one year for drinking the next – if they are white wines – or within five years – if they are red. But among them, and not only at the Hill of Grace and Grange Hermitage, there are plenty of age-worthy red wines, which I define as those better in their second decade than in their first.

California is an infuriating exception. And here much of the blame must lie with the media. While there are plenty of estates – Ridge is a shining example – where Californian modes rule (as opposed to some sort of mis-conception as to what is France, particularly Bordeaux), and wines are conceived within the context of what California can do best, elsewhere wines have been produced which try and fail to be French look-alikes. Stop looking over the chip on your shoulder, I have urged for thirty years. More recently we have impossibly concentrated, tannic wines, high in alcohol and low in acidity, and empty of elegance. What I fail to understand, with my European palate, is why these largely Cabernet Sauvignon wines attract such high scores. Many are made in very small quantities and sell by allocation to those favoured, for mega-bucks. Not only have I drunk them – or at the very least sampled half a glass before pouring the rest of the bottle down the sink and switching to one of my house wines (Guigal's Côte du Rhône, if you are interested) – but I have even participated in the creation of the blend of one of them just prior to bottling. Undrinkable then; undrinkable for ever. Monstrously astringent a year on. Equally monstrously astringent, but by that time dried out, 15 years later. I much prefer the Zinfandels and the Rhône Rangers. Here you can at least expect balance, indeed even finesse.

With some relief, I turn to Europe. Here again, for the most part, the improvement in the quality and potential to age of the wines is manifest. In Italy not only in Chianti (I fail to accept that Brunellos are worth the extra) and in Piedmont – Angelo Gaia deserves to be presented with a very large medal – but elsewhere (I am very intrigued by what is coming out of Sicily) we have terroir expressive, original wines. Spain is struggling to climb out of its moribund ditch, but Portugal is demonstrating that this can be done. All credit to the Port houses and others involved.

Burgundy has been the greatest success story in recent years and can justifiably be said to be the most exciting vignoble in the world today. Since the early 1980s a new generation – I call them now the 'middle-aged tigers' – have taken over at top domaines from their parents. Alongside them a contingent of others have started bottling for the first time. To the stage where it is practically impossible for a merchant without its own estate to buy any top premier or grand cru . When I first started writing The Vine in 1984 there wre perhaps half a dozen properties to visit in Gevrey, three in Morey and Chambolle and eight or so in Vosne. Now there are five, six, seven times as much. Unlike their parents and grandparents the young today are in and out of each others' cellars tasting and comparing notes. And the more senior are generous with their time and advice to their most recent peers. (None of the stupid jealousy which pervades Bordeaux, thank God!). Blessed by a succession of very good vintages, Burgundy is riding high. And don't believe that Pinot noir cannot last as long as any other grape variety.

The one fly in the ointment has been the premature oxidation of the white wines. Do not be misled into thinking that this problem only applies to the Côte d'Or. It is just that this is almost the only dry white wine part of the world where the top wines are, or should be, made for drinking from five years onwards rather than earlier. The causes are complex: poor quality corks, too much batonnage, wines which after pressing are too clean and not allowed a preliminary brief oxidation to protect them later, and, I would suggest, the fact that just about every wine undergoes malo-lactic. The worst vintages for this phenomenon were 1995-2000, but the problem has not gone away. The most alarming factor is that you can take two bottles, similarly sulfited, with corks from the same batch, and then come back and analyse them a week later, only to find that one has retained all the sulphur while its neighbour has lost 75 percent. I welcome the moves now being made by Laurent Ponsot and others towards artificial corks. And it will solve the question of corked bottles as well.

I have left Bordeaux to the end, because the answer to the question, Did Wines Age Better in the Old Days is more complex here.

Firstly a brief summary of how things have changed. In 1945 as much as 25 percent of the Médoc/Graves classed growths existed in name only. Others had also largely to be replanted. Then came the frosts of February 1956, entailing further large-scale replanting, especially in Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. At around this time bottling was permitted in bond in Britain and a generation of old timers who might never have appreciated the difference between first growth and petit château but who nevertheless were artists at their job was lost. Bottling became industrialised. Quality suffered. Since 1972 the Médoc/Graves classed growths have been bottled at the château, as nowadays all other top wines. In the 1960s big business arrived in Bordeaux. And it has taken over to such an extent that Anthony Barton is perhaps the only classed growth family owner left who lives 'over the shop'. Enter, on the market, first the Americans and then the Japanese (now the Chinese as well). Enter also, from 1982 onwards, a situation where today's wine is more expensive than a good vintage ten years old. And don't let us forget the journalists.

The wines of yesteryear were much less consistently fine than they are today (perhaps I should say 'potentially' today). Man was much more at the mercy of nature. In the 20 years up to 1980 there were only four of five really good vintages: 1961, 1964 in the Libournais, 1966, 1970, perhaps 1978. The rest were not only adequate, as today, but some of them were distinctly poor.

Yet in the fine years, as in the best of the rather more climatically generous vintages between 1945 and 1959, the best wines of this period were delicious. Above all they had harmony. They were full or fullish; alcohol levels were not too high; acidity levels, on the other hand, were high – or noticably higher than today, preserving balance and elegance; and they had ripe, concentrated fruit. Moreover they showed where they had come from. With a group of friends I have made a three-year-and-a-bit-on tasting of all the vintages since 1970. The first growths and equivalents are served last of all. The tasters are the wine bosses of a range of top British wine merchants. People who know wat they are doing. We would have been disappointed if we had not been able to guess at least four out of the eight first growths, and indeed much else besides.

Today life has moved on. The average quality of top Bordeaux has never been better. But too many wines are too high in alcohol, too low in acidity, perhaps too big for their boots. The delicacy has gone. I find the harmony and the finesse and the signature of their terroirs - not to mention the food friendliness - has been cast by the wayside too. They all taste the same. I hope I shall be proven wrong, but I fear they will not last as successfuly as the wines I was brought up on.

This article was commissioned by the Internatonal Wine and Food Society and published in a monograph in September 2012.