Sunday, September 11, 2016

International Style - An Historical Perspective in Wine

It was late Friday afternoon. The week was essentially done. My son had invited a bunch of his friends over for a cooking party. The local newspaper had been there, took some photos and made some videos of a recipe we were putting together. We had tons of food. And loads of wine. And then the door rang.

One of my young colleagues was at the door with his bag of wine. He’d been invited to join us and along with it he thought to share what was left of the wine.

One of them, A Sardinian red, he was pretty excited about. It was a three grape blend, grapes indigenous to Sardegna. I took a sip. It tasted modern. The wine was fresh and firm, well balanced to my palate, and it had a healthy dose of oak. It could have come from any number of places in the world. That is was from Sardegna neither added to it nor detracted from it. But the kicker was that I really liked it. It was a well-made wine, albeit in an international style. We finished the bottle in due time.

It got me to thinking about the so-called international style and just where and how it came about. I’ve written tirelessly about it on this site; it seems we never get around to reconciling what we think we should like with what we find we do like.

I went to a wine trade tasting this past week. It was a kickoff off for a company that had just changed distributors. Famous sommelier turned wine-stylist. His winemaker was back home during harvest, but this fellow was beating the streets with some of his wines.

I tasted the red wines, from the Central Coast of California, mainly Pinot Noir. A friend of mine, Elaine, had just been to the winery during harvest and she spoke highly of the wines. So I thought I should check them out. What I found when I tasted the wines was that I liked them. They had good acidity, nice punch, well-balanced, not too strong. The oak was evident but not overpowering, and they finished clean, not heavy. Funny, because I thought, if these were from the Old World we’d mark them as international. But because they were from the New World, the comparison was made in one circle that they leaned more towards the Old World style.

Two wines, from two totally different parts of the world using different grapes. And different techniques. But oddly, in the same camp.

What is it about something from somewhere else that seems more – desirable?

I’ve driven up and down the California coast countless times. During my college days going from home in Southern California to university in Northern California, the Central Coast would be a place where I’d stop for gas, split pea soup, and take a break. Occasionally I’d go into a winery and buy a bottle or two. It was a sleepy spot on earth. Now some of the most compelling wines are coming from there. Do we really care if they lean to the Old or the New World?

Enrico Scavino - 1985
Flash-forward from college days to the Langhe in 1985. Twenty years earlier there were few paved roads in the area. Then, the smell of New World pervaded the air during the time when the newly made wine was being transferred to the barrels. Alongside the larger, older barrels were these newer, smaller ones. Interlopers. Some of the forward thinking winemakers had gone to France and brought back the culture of the barrique. And they were gung-ho to make their Barolo better by putting them in these new little oak casks.

The resulting phenomenon was the birth of the international style in Piedmont. It was happening in Tuscany and it would spread like an epidemic all thought the Italian peninsula and into the islands as well, Sicily and Sardegna. Some wines made their reputation of wines made with extensive use of barrique. And some pretty awful wines were made, as well.

But in that time the outside world saw that they could connect with a wine from Italy that didn’t challenge them and didn’t discourage them from dipping their toe into the greater ocean of Italian wine. Maybe a die-hard Cabernet lover could find a wine from Tuscany that would transition them into the culture of wine in Italy. How bad could that be?

And along the way, there were winemakers who would go back to their traditional ways, alongside one who never left their time tested ways. Who could ever imagine Burlotto restocking his cellar with new French barrique? Why would he need to? And why would we want him to?

But if some young wine stewards in New York had never tasted a Ceretto Barolo Bricco Rocche in the 1980’s who knows when America would ever turn their heads from the West Coast (or France) to Italy? If it was because of a flashy, sexy wine, who was harmed by this? Surely in these days, where all manner of wine styles are proposed (and proselytized), a few years under the spell of barrique hasn’t destroyed the Italian wine culture.

Oh yes, there were, and still are, proponents of massive oak influence. Last year at Radici I tasted some reds from Calabria and Campania that were abominations. One producer from Calabria, when he asked me what I thought, I told him (through an interpreter, so as to not have any doubt) “I saw these kinds of wines in the 1980’s and thought them to be ill-timed. In 2015 they are an anachronism.” He was so proud of his undrinkable Cabernet from Calabria. That was international style gone very awry. No hearts and minds would be won with those wines.

Dino Illuminati (L) loved International style - his winemaker Dr. Spinelli (R), was old-school all the way.
Still, the international style, which can often be recognized as wine which is rich in flavor, tinged with oak, hopefully balanced in the fruit and acidity department and with a finish that is brief but can linger if the lingering is similar to that of two lovers who don’t get up and dress to head back to their respective lives, but who nestle in each other’s arms for a few more precious moments. I know that’s asking g a lot of a wine these days. But when you find one like that, all the signs of internationality are forgiven, even to all but the most stalwart proponents of non-interventionism.

These days I might start with a funky col-fondo from the Veneto and end with a passito from Salina. But if, in the middle of a gathering, when we’re cooking and eating and enjoying each other’s company, why not let the occasional wine with international flair in to celebrate with the other wines? It’s not like we all feel the same politically. Why should we always drink the same kind of wines? And what if you find a good friend of yours is diametrically 180 degrees from you politically? Would you unfriend him? If he’s a decent chap, who cares? Likewise with wine. If that three grape blend from Sardegna is tasty and delicious, why not keep on enjoying it? I know I will. I’m not going to burn in hell for that. Other things, yes, but not that.

So, for now, I’m keeping my preconceptions in check for wines in an international style. Who knows, I might even warm to the outer fringes of the natural wine movement someday. While I’m burning in hell.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Marco Mascalese said...

As always, very well phrased and photographed. I sometimes think the same thing of some Rioja's, but then I take another sip along with a slightly burnt bit of lamb from the grill and...

Bob Rossi said...

I mostly drink European wines (principally French and Italian), and when I consider something to be "international" in style, I think I generally mean that it tastes like something from the New World. I don't always dislike such a wine, but I'm usually disappointed. I recently went to a shop tasting billed as the "Wines of Sicily." When I got there, the wines were all from one very well-known producer, were quite pricey, and were mostly "international" in style, in my opinion. It was very disappointing, as I was expecting some interesting Sicilian wines.

Anonymous said...

our thoughts and prayers go out to all international wine lovers

-Joseph P.

Steve Berke said...

I enjoyed reading this work. I'll come back for more

Keep up the good work :) from TheStillery, a stuart bar in Florida

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