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The Modern Age

Even old-fashioned wine regions are aiming to please global tastes.


Of all the wine-producing countries I have been lucky enough to visit, Chile best illustrates the gulf between old-fashioned wine and its modern counterpart.

For some years, Chile has been one of the world's best-value sources of supple, fruity, thoroughly modern red wines. All of Chile's serious wine companies know exactly how to make this style of wine, which has found a ready market throughout North America and Europe.

But the visual image that haunted me from my first visit to Chile in 1994 was that of a young man parking his horse and cart in front of a giant Blockbuster Video store on the outskirts of Santiago, the country's capital. There is a similar contrast between Chile's sleek modern wines and their rough, rustic antecedents.

In the best restaurants of Santiago, wines tailored to the traditional Chilean taste are still sold, sometimes even under the same labels as totally different export versions. They are old rather than young, tough rather than fruity, skinny rather than plump.

In fact, Chileans have historically been wary of fruit in a wine. The prevailing Chilean belief is that austerity equals sophistication. Of course, even in Chile, tastes are changing as the country's own well-traveled winemakers put into effect what they have learned abroad.

This pattern is being repeated all over Latin America. For instance: Until recently, Argentine wine drinkers have revered gutless pale reds matured for years in large old casks of dubious cleanliness and labeled with ersatz names like Pont l'Eve^que. But nowadays, internationally aware producers such as Nicolas Catena (responsible for Bodegas Emeralda, Weinert, La Rural and, with winemaker Paul Hobbs, his own Catena label) are steering the supertanker that is the Argentine wine industry--the world's fifth biggest--in a new direction.

It is extraordinary how fast wine styles have changed in the greater world of wine over the last--well, how many years is it? Ten? Five? In some cases, it's only three.

Just think back to the rigid Cabernets and jagged Chardonnays we once tolerated from California. Today's wines are so much gentler and more obviously fruity, whether they be lowly table wines--red, white or pink--at the very bottom end of the price range or classed-growth Bordeaux with a possible life expectancy of 30 years.

In a way, I feel sorry for modern wine producers. To stay in the race, they have to keep on raising their game with every vintage, as do their competitors all over the world. Today's consumers are spoiled, I am delighted to say.

We want fruit, because we identify that with pleasure and flavor. We want some structure and tannin because we want to be able to cellar a fine wine if we don't feel like drinking it right away.

But sophisticated consumers don't want just any tannins. We now want the right, ripe sort of tannins. We have reached the stage at which, for example, we fuss over not just the tannin levels in our wines but whether the tannins are green, ripe, hard, fine, tough, woody, grainy. . . . (The Australians are developing a "tannin wheel" for use in describing tannins alongside the aroma wheel conceived by Ann Noble of UC Davis.)

We have voted vehemently over the last two or three years against excessive oak, with more obvious success in white wines so far than reds.

But in some cases, our demands are confused. We say we don't want sugar--unless there is an awful lot of it and the wine is very expensive--so medium-dry wines, such as many from Germany and the Loire, are finding it harder and harder to win friends abroad. On the other hand, many of the best-selling commercial blends, especially those labeled Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, rely to a great extent on heavily masked sugar for their appeal.

What we clearly want from wine, as from everything else in life, is immediate gratification. We want our wines to come at least halfway to meet us. We would rather not have to make an effort to like them or to have to forgive any youthful imperfections.

I was fascinated the other day to meet Francisco Antunes, one of Portugal's leading winemakers, who works for Caves Alianca. His first job was in Bairrada, the northern Portuguese wine region dominated by the Baga grape, which, left to its own devices, turns out wines as tart and tough as any I have ever come across.

After a stint at Bordeaux University, he is once again responsible for making, among others, Bairrada wines. He has seen how Bordeaux's wine makers have coaxed fruit as well as structure out of cussed Cabernet grapes, and now he wants to do the same for Bairrada.

"My aim is to make wines that give pleasure," he told me defiantly, adding, in a more plaintive tone, "Otherwise, what is the point?"

But he knows that to make Bairrada acceptable to the outside world, he has to change the taste of the Portuguese themselves. "They want age," he pointed out. "They don't like fruit or young reds in general."

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