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The Two Ends of the Quality Spectrum Are Creeping Closer Together

August 04, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

Wine is not as good as it used to be.

Wine is better than it's ever been.

These two thoughts, which seem contradictory, are compatible with one another when you consider where wine making has been in the last century and where it is today.

In the 1880s, when the wine industry in France was in its heyday, truly great wine was being made, by all I have read. Even though production from the great regions was very small, the quality of the best wines was reportedly phenomenal.

Back then, before the root louse phylloxera attacked most of the vines in France, vintners picked the best barrels to put under their most prestigious labels. The rest was sold to negociants who would buy various lots of wine and make blends to sell at lower prices.

However, a lack of scientific knowledge about fermentation and a lack of knowledge about how to keep bacteria out of barrels and hoses combined with rudimentary equipment to produce lots of spoiled wine. Thus there was very great wine and some very awful wine.

Stainless Steel Tanks

It wasn't until the 1960s that stainless steel tanks began to replace concrete vats in which wine is fermented. And it was then that wineries had the capability to control the temperature of the grapes as the fermentation began, to avoid making spoiled wine.

The huge amount of poor wine and tiny amount of excellent wine led to great enthusiasm by wine connoisseurs for the best stuff, not only because there was so little of it, but because of the huge gulf between it and the swill in terms of quality. Of the few bottles of top-quality 1880s wines I have tasted, almost all have shown characteristics of greatness, even though many are well past their prime.

In the last three decades, though, the two ends of the wine spectrum have crept much closer together. By extrapolating from the writers of a century ago, I feel the greatest wines being made today are of lesser quality than the best then. Experts feel that the end of great wine, and the beginning of consistency, began in the 1880s when the phylloxera plague devastated European vineyards and required wholesale replanting.

The only way to get rid of the pest was to graft vine stock onto rootstock that was resistant to the louse. Purists say this lowered the quality of the resulting wine, and wine writers of the 1930s and 1940s sprinkle their commentary with fond recollections of the pre-phylloxera wines, referring to their depth, richness and greatness.

Meanwhile, however, in place of disease- and insect-ridden vines that were erratic in their yield and quality, wine makers gained higher production and more uniform quality. Instead of there being huge swings in the quality of vintages, with one year being great and another terrible, now wine was more uniformly drinkable.

At the lower end of the quality spectrum especially, wine makers now make better wine. Thanks to science, we make very little wine that is spoiled. Most everything is drinkable, even if much of it is innocuous plonk.

But from the accounts of those who have tried lots of older wines, quality of the top level stuff isn't as great at it once was.

One reason is demand. More people than ever before seek top-quality wine, and this greater demand combines with the static size of the greatest vineyards. Science has yet to find a way to cram more vines into an acre of premium land to yield more top-quality fruit. Over a certain point, the more grapes you get from an acre, the lower their quality.

Yet high demand encourages wine makers to make more and more wine anyway, and they do this by blending into their top blends those barrels that in past years would have been sold off and never would have seen the light of day under the house brand--brands that once were reserved for infinitesimal amounts of nectar.

Greater Production

Production is much greater today for most French properties than in the past.

For example, from 1945 through 1950, production of the top-quality red Bordeaux (designated Appellation Controllee) averaged 916,000 hectoliters per year, according to "The Wines of Bordeaux," a book by Edmund Penning-Rowsell. The book shows that that average dropped to 812,000 hectoliters of wine for the period 1951 to 1960.

However, look at the average annual production of red wine in Bordeaux in the next three periods:

1961-1970: 1,301,000 hectoliters per year;

1971-1980: 2,068,000 hectoliters per year;

1981-1984: 2,802,000 hectoliters per year.

This increasing production indicates a lessening of overall quality of the best wines. To this day, when people talk about great Bordeaux, they refer to the good ol' days when pre-phylloxera wines were still available.

In his 1933 book "Wines," the late Julian Street acknowledges the debate over whether wine from pre-phylloxera vines was better than the wine from today's grafted vines, and he said the longevity of the more recent wines is questionable: "Wines now mature more rapidly and pass their 'point' (of perfection) much earlier."

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