Red wines: power versus elegance

Red wines: power versus elegance

Decades ago, there was an intriguing red wine tasting written up in the now defunct Wine & Spirit Buying Guide. The panel of tasters just couldn’t agree on the style of wine that should be rewarded. Half the tasting team liked elegant reds – lighter, brighter, more subtle wines – but the other half of the tasting panel saw these wines as thin and lacking in generosity. Their preference was for bigger, riper, more powerful reds which the other half of the room saw as clumsy, obvious wines lacking in finesse.

This debate about preferred red wine styles also played out internationally. British wine writers always had a preference for elegant reds, using terms like ‘luncheon claret’ to describe lighter Bordeaux reds from cooler vintages.

Then, in the 1980s, the American wine critic Robert Parker Jr came to prominence writing in The Wine Advocate and scoring wines out of 100 points. Parker loved big reds! And he became so influential that wine producers around the world started picking their fruit later, making bigger more alcoholic red wines, all in the hope that they would get a high score from Parker.

In Australia, we saw the Parker effect in many of the shiraz wines from warm regions like the Barossa Valley where the starting point for alcohol levels became 14.5% and many reds crept up to 15.5% alcohol or higher.

Then the grumbling started – these monster reds were just a bit … dull. When fruit is picked very ripe it loses some of its distinctive varietal character, instead the flavours are more akin to prunes, port, even licorice. What’s more, these big, blockbuster reds didn’t go that well at the dinner table, tending to overwhelm food rather than complement it. And, contrary to expectations, the big, boots-and-all reds didn’t cellar very well.

Now the pendulum has started to swing back the other way. High alcohol reds are on the nose with health conscious consumers who are increasingly looking fresher, more balanced wines with brighter varietal character. There is a spotlight on wines from cool climates, which naturally tend to produce medium-bodied wines. Lighter bodied varieties like pinot noir are very much in vogue. In warmer regions winemakers are picking their fruit earlier and consequently alcohol levels are coming down. And these regions have revived grenache, its soft fruitiness a real contrast to the big, thumping reds of the past.

So, if you and your friends just can’t agree whether elegance or power is more desirable in a red wine, be aware that this debate has been going on for decades.