Bring back buttery wines

Should winemakers have to make styles they don't personally like, if there is consumer demand for them? Robert Joseph weighs in.

Photo by rafa espada on Unsplash
Photo by rafa espada on Unsplash

Way back in the 1980s, Jancis Robinson’s husband Nick Lander ran l’Escargot in Soho, one of London’s best, most innovative, French restaurants. Among my favourite starters on its menu was a simple spinach tart, which I remember mentioning one day to Nick. “Yes” he replied. “It’s a dish we’ve had for ages and I’d love to replace with something different, but customers keep asking for it.”

I was reminded of that conversation by a recent comment by a leading Australian wine writer, Huon Hooke.

“The swing away from rich, buttery, golden Chardonnays to finer, more restrained styles has left a lot of wine lovers high and dry… It’s curious that the Australian wine industry seems to have all but deserted the big-n-buttery style that so many wine drinkers still crave”.

Hooke then goes on to direct his Australian readers’ attention to examples of this style from California and New Zealand which, unlike his country, have continued to produce their alcoholic version of l’Escargot’s crowd-pleasing tart.

In my experience of talking to Australian producers and critics, the very mention of those sunshine-in-a-bottle wines is enough to elicit a groan very like the one I can imagine movie-makers emitting when they are reminded of the casual sexism to be found in the films they made 30 years ago. As Hooke says, today’s wines are much fresher and ‘finer’. Why would anyone want the kind of stuff that used to be so popular? We’ve moved on.

For the sake of consistency, I’d ask the same question about anyone who waxes nostalgic about the less ‘over-ripe’ (aka frankly green), tannic red Bordeaux or the cat’s-pee Loire and Bordeaux Sauvignons of the 1970s, whose 12% strength was only achieved with the help of huge amounts of chaptalizing sugar. Why do they still hanker after those kinds of wine?

Fans of those wines, and the wine drinkers Hooke is writing about, live in very separate bubbles, which are, in turn, isolated from the bubble in which most modern producers and opinion formers are to be found. So sommeliers talk and listen to the customers in the restaurants in which they work, and bloggers chat to the people they meet in their favourite city-centre natural wine bar, without ever pausing to wonder whether these conversations represent the broader world of wine drinking to be found in the aisles of suburban supermarkets.

The default attitude of many in the modern wine industry towards the Big Chardonnay and Green Claret fans is either that they simply don’t exist. Or, if they do exist, that their tastes are aberrant and not to be pandered to. Like those of cinema-goers who may want more movies featuring middle aged men chasing young women.

But there’s a big difference. The production and screening of sexist films is offensive to people who never watch movies; oaky, buttery white wines don’t tread on any toes. You and I may not choose to buy and drink them, but other people may have quite different tastes – and be none the worse for that.

Looking back, I think Nick Lander was right. He may have been bored with the spinach tart his chef, Martin Lam had created, and so too, more than likely, were some of his more cutting edge customers. But, as a skilled restaurateur, he understood the need to keep his customers happy. And, if Huon Hooke is to believed, that’s not what the Australian wine industry is doing today.

Robert Joseph

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