At a recent in-store tasting, I showed a fashionable wine from a much talked-about producer in an up-and-coming area. Almost everyone hated it; some merely disliked it.
The bottle was presented to an audience of 16 people who buy and drink wine regularly, mostly in the £15-60 range, across a range of demographics. Some had barely been to a wine tasting before, others had travelled and bought wine at cellar doors, and some had better Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications than many people in the wine trade.
This context is important because they were proper wine drinkers, like you and me, possessors of multiple corkscrews, decanters and useless gadgets, I imagine. They like wine, and they’re prepared to spend on it. They’re even prepared to attend wine tastings.
So, before I told them the story of the estate, I wanted to hear their initial reaction to the wine. I asked them what they smelled in their glass. Bins. Sewage. Onions. Farts. They weren’t wrong, the wine smelled of all of these things. It made my undelivered pitch about low-intervention viticulture that respects the vineyard and the fruit rather undeliverable. What we were smelling was not fruit, or place, but winemaking.
I don’t want to name the wine because this has happened a lot in recent years with many different producers, some very famous and some barely known. Sometimes, the reduction is acknowledged to be a problem that is addressed the following vintage. That’s good. But often reduction shows up in the same wine across multiple vintages, suggesting that these reductive aromas are deliberate on the part of the winemaker. If it is a one-off, from a difficult fermentation of a wine, it’s understandable, but increasingly reduction is ignored, misidentified or, worst of all, pitched to the taster as a sign of terroir.
It has become all too common to taste a problematically reductive wine only to be told that these flavours are coming from the soil. To mistake, or promote, reduction as terroir is hazardous in an industry that values integrity.
None of this is to say that low-key, well-managed reduction can’t add a certain frisson to a wine, from the smoky bacon of Rhône Syrah, to the struck match of white Burgundy. But when it is so extreme that it masks the fruit or an expression of place, it is justifiable to be concerned.
For a start, if these are celebrated as the fine wines of the future, then many people may decide they don’t like them, retreating to more familiar and traditional styles.
My tasting group was most positive about a 20-year-old red with new oak, an oxidative rosé and a textural, unoaked white. Which suggests that people like richness in wines more than we may think from looking at some of the popular winemaking paradigms.
There are comparisons to be made between the reductive fashions of today and older winemaking choices like heavy battonage or 200% new oak.
For all our talk of terroir and site and fruit, winemaking choices remain front and centre, even among the low intervention set. That’s inevitable. Winemakers will always be hugely important in determining what wine tastes like.
But, just as a 1990s 100-pointer might be castigated for being too oaky or too lactic, the new wave of fine wines can often also be criticised for being too reductive. As an industry, we have a duty to our product and to our customers to be brave about calling those out today, rather than from the safety of 20 years in the future.