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.
The genesis for this post was not the Beraud, but two California grocery store wines, a petite sirah and a merlot from different producers, that tasted almost exactly alike. This does not happen naturally, but only because someone wants them to taste that way. Both had lots of sweet black fruit, almost no acid, and even less in the way of tannins. If I had been tasting them blind, I would have been hard pressed to tell the difference.
So I started to look for the International Style as I worked my way through my samples this summer, and it showed up constantly – even in wines that I bought, like the Beraud, where I didn’t expect to find it.
One of the biggest disappointments was The Other Red, a red blend from Peirano Vineyards that had long been one of my favorite cheap wines. The current vintage is almost devoid of personality – just another Lodi red with lots of sticky, sweetish red fruit and little else. If Peirano, which had fought the good fight for so long, had succumbed, how many others would follow?
The biggest producers, which have convinced themselves that American wine drinkers like the International Style, make wines that way because they sell, and the chicken and egg thing doesn’t occur to them, that their sheer size would let them sell even poorly made wines. My guess is that the recession pushed smaller producers like Peirano and Beraud over the edge; if their wines weren’t selling, why not copy the multi-nationals and see if that helped?
Again, these wines aren’t bad in the sense that that you’ll gag on them. They’re just boring, and given how many wines aren’t boring, even for $10, what’s the point of drinking them? These tips will help you identify International Style wines, something that’s not always easy to do:
• Alcohol content – 13 1/2 percent, for either red or white, hints at an International Style wine. That’s because, given labeling regulations, it’s easier to say 13 1/2 percent than to use a more accurate alcohol number.
• A Big Six producer. Look on the label to see where the wine was bottled; the biggest producers generally use the same California locations, like Ripon and Livermore in California for The Wine Group and Modesto for E&J Gallo. More complete information is here, including details for imported wines.
• The back label adjectives. International Style wines rarely describe themselves as fresh, clean, or earthy. Rather, they use terms like rich. plush, luscious, and even roasted. Also, chocolate and caramel show up more often than not, along with badly written homages to oak.