Devil's Advocate - Different Strokes for Different Folks

Robert Joseph admits that, when it comes to wine, sharing your opinion of what's right and wrong may sometimes have limited value.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

It always feels good to be among people who agree with you on what’s right and wrong. Which is how I felt, two decades ago surrounded by fellow British tasters who’d been flown to Santiago to take part in the first Chilean Wine Export Awards - a competitive event to identify and reward the wines we thought would do best in our and other overseas markets. 

After the tasting - at which the visitors were joined by local producers or critics - and the allocation of medals, there was a conference attended by numerous members of the Chilean industry who were eager to hear what Jancis Robinson and her compatriots had to say about their wines. 

Gratifyingly for them, our comments were generally positive and, in particular, included positive recognition for the limited use of new barrels in the samples we had tasted. Watching the audience, I could imagine them writing menos roble - less oak - with a tick, in their note-books. 

Then one of the Chilean tasters quietly had his say. Patricio Tapia is, as he was then, a distinguished critic with a large professional audience in the US. What, he wondered, if North American wine drinkers were actually keener on oak than the Brits? Should they be forced to drink styles of wine that happened to suit the tastes of experts on the other side of the Atlantic? And should Chilean producers risk losing sales to US importers who might go looking for oaky wines elsewhere?

I had a flashback to that moment this week while sampling wines in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. This time, oak wasn’t the focus of attention. It was the softness and, what I thought, early maturity of some of the reds. These were undoubtedly good wines but, I wondered, might they benefit from being a little, well, fresher? 

Once again, I was looking through my British or, on this occasion, Western European/US lens, forgetting that the majority of people currently buying these wines don’t live anywhere near London, New York or Paris. Generations of wine drinkers in Eastern Europe have grown up with sweet and semi-sweet reds and dry ones with little discernible tannin. Viticultural and winemaking skills have improved enormously over the last few decades, and there are plenty of delicious wines that conform to what one might call the western model, but these may not be the ones that someone buying a bottle in Chisinau, Budapest or Bucharest will necessarily prefer - even at a premium price. 

The highly respected Polish critic and editor Tomasz Prange-Barczynski, one of my fellow tasters in Chisinau and a very broadly-experienced judge, understood this point perfectly. In his country, he said, you find both kinds of wine drinkers. The ones who still prefer the ‘Eastern European’ stuff their parents would have been used to, and the ones whose tastes are very similar to their counterparts across the border in Germany or on  the other side of the Baltic Sea in Denmark or Sweden.

After our trip to Santiago, the Chilean producers certainly took note of what we had to say, but they also listened to other visitors, especially from the US. Some steered a middle course between the two preferences. Others, equally sensibly, made wines to suit a range of palates. Just as a friend of mine in southern France annually produces an oakier ‘Reserve’ cuvée that delights her American importer but that has few fans in her own country.

I hope I’ve learned a few things over the years. I still have faith in my tastebuds and still prefer fresher, less heavily-oaked wines, and still believe they will ultimately get the highest prizes and prices internationally. But I’m rather less ready to think I have any right to offer a prescription for the style of wine any producer should make unless and until I know who is most likely to be buying and drinking it.

Similarly, while I, or other outsiders, might regret Moldovan producers planting Merlot rather than the locally indigenous Feteasca Neagra, we really can’t argue with the fact that when they are offered both varieties, many younger Moldovans - the ones most likely to enjoy fresher ‘Western’ styles - opt for the former. 

Declaration of interest. Robert Joseph provides consultancy services to the Moldovan wine industry



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