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The Next Big Thing

By |  March 1 2010

But given the capriciousness and tyranny of fashion, as well as the exotic varieties often proposed, it’s hard not to be amused. Impossible, too, is avoiding the contrast with parts of the world where the weight of tradition, wine law, and terroir-not just fashion-constrains growers’ choices. Think of Beaujolais, with its severe crisis. Locally based but Rhône wine-raising Eric Texier has mused about Syrah in Moulin-à-Vent or Morgon, but how could it be marketed? Whereas when Steve Edmunds-one of the Golden State’s old masters of Syrah (now a glut there)-instigated Gamay vineyards in the Sierra Nevada, it was novel but hardly revolutionary.

New World flexibility carries risks, too. The swarm of developers determined to plant today’s darling, Pinot, has imperiled the remnants of Sonoma’s century-old Zinfandel and mixed blacks that render some of North America’s most distinctive wines. Such genetic heritage can never be recovered once grubbed up, often in places where results with Pinot will never be memorable-and it, in turn, might fall prey to the next trend. If this were France, with its AOC system, you might think these treasures would be protected.

But French law has shown similar indifference to old Carignan and Cinsault in the Languedoc, promoting Syrah as an AOC marker in places where it has scant hope. And if the Russian River were Austria, with its new DAC laws, the governing authorities might well have intervened on the side of Pinot as the (now) typical regional cépage.

In fairness to fantasies of "the next big thing," there are success stories. Every established grape had its first toehold. Only last year, Franken celebrated the 350th anniversary of 25 cuttings arriving from Austria of what was to become that region’s defining grape: Sylvaner. Two of the world’s foremost areas for Sauvignon -Marlborough and Styria-began in earnest with that grape only in the past 40 years. But while one can plead the case for other cépages in these regions- just taste the best Marlborough Riesling or Styrian Pinot Blanc-whether it’s Cabernet in Napa or Gamay in Beaujolais, it’s hard to deny that some regions’ varietal destinies are a fait accompli in view of distinctive, demonstrable, historical results; and should they suffer hard times, whoring after a different cépage would be no cure.

The grapes and sites on which a region’s vinous potential rests may seem preordained; and yet the task of revealing their qualities and establishing distinctive styles represents a new challenge. Exciting examples are Roussillon, with its Carignan and Grenache, and Burgenland, with its Blaufränkisch (a grape that may last have enjoyed celebrity in the pre-medieval era, when it was named for the Franks).

Coincidentally, the red-wine slopes of Roussillon and Burgenland rest on common geological origins of schist and gneiss mingled with iron-rich chalk, and their new red wines include complex examples that reflect specific terroirs.

Blaufränkisch is noteworthy both for the speed with which it emerged from nominal obscurity and the selfconsciousness that has attended the search for style. Pure, site-specific Blaufränkisch was rare in the mid- 1990s, when the Prieler family found it impossible to sell Austrians a single bottle of their inaugural 1993 Goldberg for what was perceived as the outrageous equivalent price of a Cabernet. A mere eight years later, Prieler Goldberg had become one of Austria’s priciest, most coveted wines. Beginning with Uwe Schiefer’s Eisenberg cuvées in the late 1990s, and since 2002, with the Moric wines of Roland Velich (see WFW 22) and the Carnuntum collaboration of Dorli Muhr and Dirk van der Niepoort, some of Austria’s most intrepid practitioners have voiced their stylistic intentions in words, not just wines. A vibrant discussion is playing out among trade, growers, and wine lovers on just what-if, in fact, any one sort of thing- constitutes Blaufränkisch greatness.

In Roussillon, time will tell how or if the gulf will be resolved between, on the one hand, those wines of typically 12.5- 14% alcohol and Burgundian inspiration, being crafted by Gérard Gauby and his sympathizers; and on the other, the flamboyantly, sweetly rich reds of 14.5-16.5% alcohol that are now the norm. It’s not three decades since dry red wine became common here, much less the rule. Furthermore, it’s possible for two profoundly disparate styles to coexist for generations. The Mosel Riesling paradigm of delicacy, transparency, spritz, low alcohol, and high acid in brilliant tension with high residual sugar has sired a line of distinctively delicious and prodigiously ageworthy white wines. Yet this is an archetype of the past 40 years, with precursors dating back only to the 1920s and the advent of filtration techniques that permitted stable residually sweet wines. This paradigm has coexisted with an older one, recently much revived, of elegance, refreshment, and stamina-to be sure- but also of dryness and milder acidity.

So, predict, if you like, the next big thing. But here’s what matters: the passionate advocacy of a grape, place, style, or vision, whether by wine growers, consumers, or writers.

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