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The International Style of Winemaking, and why it drives so many people crazy

“So tell me where this wine is from.”

My friend swished, took a sip, moved the wine around in her mouth. “Malbec from Argentina,” she said.

“That’s really good,” I said. “I couldn’t place it, but that’s exactly what it tastes like.”

The catch? That the wine was neither malbec nor from Argentina, but a $10 red blend, mostly syrah, from Château La Tour De Beraud in the southern Rhone in France. That it tasted like it was made with a different grape from the other side of the world speaks to the increasing use of winemaking tools that make wine taste the same no matter where it’s from – the insidious International Style of Winemaking.

In one respect, this has been an extraordinary advance in winemaking, because it has tremendously improved wine quality over the past decade. It’s almost impossible to find a poorly made wine these days, no matter where it comes from. I don’t miss those green, unbalanced wines that tasted like battery acid.

The cost, though, has been high – wine without terroir or personality or individuality, something that was common even for cheap wine in the 20-plus years I’ve been doing this. After the jump, what this means to consumers and how to identify these wines.

Winebits 290: Barrels, wine parties, yeast

Fewer wineries using oak: Yes, believe it or not – the amount of wine aged in oak has declined by one-third, reports The Drinks Business trade magazine. The story quotes a French barrel maker lamenting the change, though my guess is that there are as many consumers who are as happy about it as he isn’t. The short story doesn’t go into two other possible reasons for the drop: the incredible cost of barrels, which run $300 to $900 each and can cost as much as $4,000, and the improvement in oak alternatives, like chips, staves, and dominoes. They give an oak-like result to the wine at a fraction of the cost and time involved.

Just like cosmetics: Can wine be sold through home parties, like Mary Kay or Avon? Or Tupperware, for those of us of a certain age? A variety of companies have tried this over the years, but the concept never really took off. Blame the three-tier system and its restrictions as well as financially insecure operators. The concept is making a comeback, though, reports the Wines & Vines trade magazine, under the auspices of winemaker Boisset Family Estates. The producer is selling selected wines through a new shop at home program, where “ambassadors” conduct the tasting, talk about the wines, and help guests order through a Boisset website. This helps them circumvent retail licensing laws, which hampered previous efforts.

Bring on the high alcohol: Because, if a group of researchers have their way, winemakers will be able to use more efficient, artificial yeast to make wine in the next couple of years. Said one scientist: “Now we have the opportunity to adapt yeasts further, turning them into predictable and robust hosts for manufacturing the complex products we need for modern living.” This is a terrifying thought, given what winemakers can do with technologically-improved natural yeasts. The researchers, apparently, have never had a 15 percent chardonnay.

Cherry cough syrup wine

SyrupThe Wine Curmudgeon has been tasting lots and lots of grocery store red wines lately, almost all of them samples, and he is not happy. Why do so many of these wines taste like cherry cough syrup?

These are not supposed to be sweet wines. They're labeled and sold as dry red wines, with alcohol levels of more than 13 1/2 percent. Nevertheless, they taste sweet and sticky, just like cherry cough syrup. Which, frankly, is kind of gross. More, after the jump:

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