Bigger is not always better

Super cuvées lose sight of their roots

Wine and controversy seem to go hand in hand these days. Every time I pick up a wine mag or check out one of the super-geek wine blogs someone is bitching about something new. One of the latest controversial trends has been the birth and subsequent spread of the super cuvée.

For those of you not yet familiar with the concept here’s a quick summary: Super cuvées are basically supped-up versions of established wines. For instance a producer who makes a classic style Châteauneuf-du-Pape releases a new wine that is more intense concentrated and polished than his regular bottling. This super cuvée version is usually produced in tiny quantities given a slick new name and a fancy bottle and sells for an astronomical price. The super cuvée is to wine what the remix is to music — a busier more modern version. And like the remix the soul of the wine is sometimes lost.

This phenomenon is sometimes called the Parkerization of wine referring to the famous wine critic Robert Parker who tends to favour this style in his popular reviews. Producers have figured out the formula for making Parker happy and a slew of cuvées have been created to garner good scores with the wine world’s most important man.

Producers are selecting their best vineyard plots bottling them separately and employing every trick in their arsenal to make the wine stand out. Some of these techniques include aging the wine twice in oak barrels using new high-tech machines to concentrate flavours and picking grapes at incredibly low yields to add additional concentration. All of this means the wine styles in many traditional regions are rapidly changing in order to impress a few select critics. The big question (and the source of much debate) is: Are these wines better than the more traditional versions or are they just bigger?

There is no question that many of these new luxury versions are impressive wines but does that mean they are better? I suppose that depends on how you look at it. For critics a small one-ounce pour is all they ever see of a wine and it needs to be enough to impress them so the biggest wines will be the ones that stand out.

But for us poor consumers we are committing to an entire bottle and if the first sip is enough to saturate our every sense then I’m not sure a bigger wine means a better wine for us. Do we as consumers want to taste the technique of the winemaker or the flavour of the region that created the wine? There is no question that winemaking is an important skill but I believe the best winemakers allow the land to show through while they quietly sign their name in the corner.

Wine like most things in life needs to find a balance. Music is not always better when it’s louder and art is not always more impressive when an artist uses more colour. While big and obvious wines may be fun to taste they are not always fun to drink. They lack subtlety and instead of rewarding your attention they seem to demand it.

With the release of more super cuvées from traditional regions like Rioja Bordeaux Tuscany and the Rhône Valley we are losing the identity of what the land used to showcase and replacing it with the technique of its maker. When we start to interfere too much the wine becomes like a plastic surgery job which is never as beautiful as when nature does it solo.