A Wake-up Call To Some Winemakers
© copyright 2003 by Ric Einstein
The development of the Australian wine industry is one of change and evolution. It's obvious to all wine lovers that overall Australian wine is getting better as each year passes, but I have some concerns and comments in relation to many of the current crop of South Australian (and some other) reds.
In the early 1980's we underwent a green period where many of the wines were unripe. Thankfully things quickly changed and the ripeness improved and the green wave was over. The next wave was huge amounts of American oak. Thankfully that's passing and the oak levels are becoming more judicious, but even then some wineries have switched from over-American-oaked wines to under-fruited French-oaked wines.
The problem here is that because in many ways French oak is more subtle the over-oaking is not as obvious until the initial fresh blush of youthful fruit starts to wear off and the oak characters start to become more prominent. Having tried a number of highly regarded high-priced and well regarded mid-priced 2000 Shiraz wines that have been matured in French oak, many of them are now showing large amounts of clove flavours which are oak derived. The initial fruit is fading and the resulting oak-derived flavours are dominating. Not a good look and one that will only get worse with time. Purists may point out the effect of the poor 2000 vintage may be exaggerating the quick decline of the fruit in these wines, but we are talking about wines that are meant to last more than three years.
Over-oaking, be it in French or American is still over-oaking. The only difference is in many cases the wine with French oak needs a little time to become obvious. This is something that those wineries that are playing around with Shiraz and French oak need to monitor carefully.
And although that's an issue of stylistic adjustment that some wineries have to play with and get right, it's not the biggest issue facing South Australian wine lovers.
Now if you like sweet fermented blackberry or prune milkshakes don't read any further, this won't interest you; but if you like quality wine with some variety and complexity then keep going.
Over the last year I have tasted many of the 2001 new release wines as well as a number of 1998 vintage wines and have some grave concerns at the stylistic direction that many South Australian wineries are taking. And whilst I say that, these comments are not just restricted to '98, '01 and South Australia; they can and do apply to other vintages and other areas but to a lesser degree.
The issue could best be described as "pushing the ripeness envelope." By that I mean that many wineries in an effort to achieve maximum flavour are going over the top and producing wines that have some or all of the following characteristics:
- Hot and alcoholic
- Blackberry spectrum as the dominant flavour with little other flavour complexity
- Prune and blackberry flavours
- Stewed fruit characteristics
In most cases as these wines age the offending character of the wine will become magnified and become a caricature. The wines that seem hot and alcoholic now will be like drinking crude boring port in time. The blackberry and prune spectrum fruit in most cases will become totally one-dimensional, lacking in complexity and generally full of flavour but boring. The stewed fruit wines will just become more stewed as the stew matures.
In terms of longevity, these wines will generally not mature well and will not last as long as long as their better balanced predecessors.
Full flavoured wines are desirable and many people love the in-your-face flavour intensity; but as important as full ripe flavour is, balance is just as, if not, more important. For a wine to be "good" as distinct from just "good tasting" it must have complexity. These blackberry stewed prune alcoholic milkshakes are very short in that department. Unfortunately many wineries have sacrificed balance and complexity by pushing the ripeness envelope.
Some people may say, "Why shouldn't I buy, drink and enjoy something that tastes good when it's young, I don't want to wait 10-15 years," and that's fine, that's their right. However you can still have both big flavour and complexity if the wine is well made.
For those cellaring these wines, be aware, you may be disappointed with them in a few years' time. For those wineries that keep going down this track, many of you are capable of better things and will look back in a few years' time and wonder why you pushed the ripeness envelope so far. Too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing, be it flavour or French oak!
Sept. 10, 2003