That awkward phase

Do wine regions go through adolescence? Robert Joseph explores the idea.

Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash
Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

Teenager: almost everyone who has ever been or parented one will, if prompted, have a mental image in reaction to the word. It has been used since the 1940s to describe human beings who fall into a specific age range and exhibit a peculiar set of behaviour patterns. Hard to wake in the mornings, teenagers are also likely to develop wild enthusiasms and quite possibly take risks that might terrify their elders. Recent scientific findings that these characteristics are caused by brain development and explosive hormones may make them more understandable, without necessarily easing inter-generational relationships.

Eventually, however, most teenagers morph into socially acceptable adults who laugh at some of their more youthful excesses.

Listening to Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW talking to an attentive audience of Russian sommeliers about Spanish wine recently, I was struck by the notion that some wine regions – and producers – go through their own teenage phase. Ballesteros MW, who is always worth listening to, was describing the period during the 1990s and the early part of this century when winemakers in regions such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat embraced the use of new oak and the harvesting of super-ripe grapes. It is easy, he said, to forget what these Parkerised – to use a simple term – wines replaced. While Spain had a number of great producers of classic, subtle wines, most of its production was very basic. 

The roots of the Spanish wine industry may be traced back more than 3,000 years, but the notion of fine wine is surprisingly young in this region. Pioneering producers including Riscal, Murrieta and Vega Sicilia, names we associate with the greatest of this country’s wines, set up shop in the middle of the 19th century, at roughly the same time as Penfolds in Australia, Cousiño Macul in Chile and Buena Vista in California. These iconic Spanish names were also the exception to a rule that generally covered wines with a closer relationship to vinegar than would ever be acceptable today.

And the importation into Rioja of Bordeaux winemaking methods that reduced the risks of oxidation were as unpopular in the region in the late 1880s as any efforts to please an American critic might have been a century later. 

For Ballesteros, old regions like Priorat, in particular – and I’d say Sicily – have evolved from a first phase of producing basic wine of little international interest, through a second phase of exuberant experimentation and excess, to what we now see as far more balanced and attractive adulthood. Like the CDs and posters than once filled a teenager’s room, oak abuse and jammy fruit have increasingly been set aside. As confidence has grown, flirtations with international grapes – like brief-lived romantic interludes – are now forgotten as long-term relationships with indigenous varieties develop.

Every adult wine lover who welcomes this third phase should look back over their own lives and consider whether they would have got to where they are now as a human being without an adolescent period of which they might now feel just a little embarrassed.

Robert Joseph

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