Friday, February 1, 2008

Traditional versus Modern

Traditional winemakers who learn from their parents and grandparents are prone to errors in the vineyard or in the cellar that a trained oenologist would never make. They may also know secrets that cannot be learned in school. In the Southern Rhone, a trend has emerged that has blended the traditional and the modern in important ways. Laurence Feraud of Domaine Pegau in Chateauneuf du Pape, Bernard Latour of L'Espigouette in Cotes du Rhone and Veronique Peysson at Font-Sane in Gigondas are just three examples that come to mind of the newest generation of winemakers who have been trained as winemakers and returned home to bring new insights to a long-established family business. The result is the best of both the traditional and the modern way of doing things. The wines from these estates over the past two decades have been beautiful.

Another move that has been taken by many estates in this region is the introduction of new oak barrels. To appeal more to international tastes, some importers have encouraged this move. And high ratings given to the oak-aged cuvees by wine writers such as Robert Parker and Steve Tanzer have reinforced this direction as a way to sell more wine, particularly in the United States. Some estates have carefully separated the oak-aged from the traditional bottling, and, at places like Gigondas, locals make it quite clear that they prefer the "traditional" over the "American" version. So do I.

Wine drinkers should realize that the use of new oak is a style and by no means the only technique for producing good or ageworthy wine. Laurence Feraud and Bernard Latour know how to avoid stinky, off qualities in their wine by correcting for H2S or eliminating brett from their cellars. Any winemaker using new oak can cover up, rather than correct, those mistakes over the short term. But the mistakes will re-emerge after a few years of aging, while the positive traits of the traditional wine will be lost in translation.

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