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Have We Taken the “Less Is More” Wine Aesthetic Too Far?

If we refuse to accept that red wines can be both powerful and made without artifice, we cede the entire concept of diversity in wine.

big red wines jon bonne

The other day, I decided to take stock of my drinking choices this past season, now that winter will soon be in the rearview mirror. It’s a tricky time for wine: The buzz of the holidays quickly tapers into the cocooning of January and February. Assuming we haven’t taken a month off, this is, in theory, when we choose wines, largely red, that are bigger, darker and thicker—a match for the food we prefer at this time of year.

But as I reviewed the list of what I’d drunk, I realized that I’d basically taken my summer and fall parade of fresh, bright red wines—gamay and barbera and trousseau, a bottle or three of Loire cabernet franc—and carried them straight into winter. (Also, a lot of white and rosé, and lots of Champagne, on both sides of the new year.) Even our recent ode to the beauty of red Bordeaux hadn’t prompted me to drink much afterwards.

Perhaps this isn’t a surprise if you track the wines I tend to recommend and drink, which lean to the subtle and aromatic—an aesthetic that’s shared by the rest of the PUNCH crew. Personally, I’ve gotten great mileage over the years by throwing shade on heavy, dull wines that offer nothing more than what I call “Big Flavor.” But today, a growing swath of the educated wine-buying public seems to be gravitating to a similar place—at least if you pay attention to what avant-garde wine buyers in cities around the world offer their customers. We live in the era of the fresh, mineral and tangy, of carbonic maceration and minimal tannin, of unpretentious wines that offer pleasure in watercolor shades.

And yet, while I have no desire for Big Flavor to return, I have to wonder: Have we gone too far in our craving for less being more? Have we created a decree about lightness and freshness that’s essentially a photo negative of the ubiquity of ripe, impactful wines we used to beat up on?

I don’t think it’s quite as severe as that. For one thing, today you can find what I’ll call “Ferdinand wines”; they have power to spare but choose instead to smell the flowers, and yet are often overlooked in that craving for lightness. Also, there’s just less uniformity of taste. Today’s drinker has a far more pixelated set of advice on hand than the prior generation—endless waves of social media in place of 100-point scores. And “generation” is really the key word; the ascendancy of lighter red wines—a category that just eight years ago was considered fringe—is driven by a younger, less fearful (and candidly, more broke) drinker, which is why wines like schiava and mencia and carbonic cinsault are a lot easier to advance today than, say, the reds of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The big style of the previous generation comes with too much baggage.

But that doesn’t mean we haven’t gone too far. I’m not even talking about the economic foibles today of things like Napa cab or modern first-tier Bordeaux, which have all but priced themselves out of relevance. Instead, let’s consider some wines that, for better or worse, have fallen through the cracks.

Like Amarone. This wine from Italy’s Veneto is big by design—made from corvina and similar grapes that are intentionally dried before vinification to reduce their water content and boost flavors. It’s a technique that made sense when most red wine was dilute and acidic. But ripeness isn’t a problem in most places anymore, mostly because of better viticulture and climate change. In 2018, the Amarone technique comes across as a bit archaic at best, a holdover for a goal that no longer needs to be achieved. And the wines? I had to go back at least five years to recall the last time I’d drunk an Amarone, not because I conceptually don’t like them, but because the whims of fashion have led me elsewhere.

While the few bottles exported by the family of Giuseppe Quintarelli, arguably the iconic producer of Amarone, are probably not struggling to find customers, I also couldn’t tell you the last time I saw one on a dinner table. Even at a down-the-middle Italian spot like New York’s Maialino, Barolo and Barbaresco fill 14 full pages of a 60-page list, while just half a page is dedicated to Amarone and similar wines from the region (most of them Quintarelli).

I could repeat this exercise with any number of more exuberant red wines that were in fashion a decade ago: the rich reds of Priorat; Brunello di Montalcino; California zinfandel; and yes, Châteauneuf.

If we simply refuse to accept that red wines can be big and beautiful, if we can’t embrace the idea that such wines can be made without artifice, we cede the entire concept of diversity in wine.

Châteauneuf is an especially interesting case—the whole southern Rhône is, but that’s a tale for another day—because I’ve rarely encountered a region where producers were so generally unswayed by the changing tastes of the market. During my travels there last fall, I found plenty of the sort of leaden, one-note wines that made Châteauneuf a caricature. But there was also a small handful of woke vignerons who realize that the appellation, to survive, has to reconsider the full-throttle ways that brought it fame in the 1990s. This, for instance, was the conclusion of Laurent Charvin, whose wines are a middle path between today’s freshness obsession and the amplitude of classic Châteauneuf. But then Charvin also pointed out to me that he drinks a lot of dry riesling and chenin, and Jura whites—“all the fashionable wines,” as he put it.

I don’t feel bad, exactly, for places like Châteauneuf—or for California’s Big Flavor holdouts, of which there are many. Those stuck in a more-is-more rut usually can’t get out because they chased the fleeting success of impact, and turned their back on more classic, nuanced styles of wine. Yes, they’re probably being punished for today’s stylistic pressures, namely to make everything bright and acid-driven, to minimize oak and revere the sort of light-taste extraction that carbonic methods provide for. Those choices, candidly, are far less cynical than in the prior era, with its sacrifice of the idea of terroir in favor of sheer power. God knows, we don’t need to go back to an endless parade of pinot noir at 15 percent alcohol.

But a note of caution is warranted. If we simply refuse to accept that red wines can be big and beautiful—that they can thrill when above 14 percent alcohol, even 15—and if we can’t embrace the idea that such wines can be made without artifice, we cede the entire concept of diversity in wine.

Also, I think we may have lost something along the way. Amid the endless Instagrams of Auvergnat gamay, Corsican rosé, Partida Creus and Ganevat and carbonic carignan, have we forgotten the pleasures of Umbria’s sagrantino, classically ripe zinfandel or mourvèdre in its properly broad-shouldered form? (The Montefalcans themselves seem to have realized this plight, recently announcing a marketing campaign to return sagrantino “to the minds and palates of consumers.”) True, the occasional intense red—Barolo, mostly—escapes this fate. But not many. Even syrah, despite having resolved its existential issues, hasn’t exactly found a path to success.

If we aren’t at least willing to consider some of these choices we’ve discarded, we risk heading down a path toward another tyranny of style—one that might not end up not being much better (although it will be cheaper) than the one endured by we survivors of the flavor wars of the early 2000s. When the pendulum swings, and it always does swing, will all our beloved gamay and valdiguié be cast into shadow?

And so, let the repertoire diversify. Big wines certainly exist that adhere to the ambient values—virtuous farming, a minimum of messing around in the winery—so popular today. And we have to believe not only that big can be beautiful, but that a big wine can also share the traits we we love in quieter, more nuanced wines.

In fact, examples of these Ferdinand wines have been around for a while. Consider the Turley zinfandels of recent years, which retain their reputation for power and size, but are also some of northern California’s most complex and nuanced wines. Same with the piercing, dark teroldegos of Alto Adige, which offer intensity without ponderousness. Or that loyal opposition in Châteauneuf, people like Charvin and Domaine du Banneret and all the way up to the legendary Château Rayas, or others in the Rhône like Domaine Richaud, whose Cairannes have both weight and grace.

After a winter without such wines, I legitimately find myself missing them. More than that, I worry that they’ve been cast out of the zeitgeist too easily, which in turn has left an opening for big, silly wines to make a surging comeback. So a modest plea: On the next cold night, let’s find our wintry side. Drink a big, generous red wine. Because if we don’t embrace the idea of power with grace—if we refuse to acknowledge that Ferdinand can have a sensitive side—we’re ultimately as myopic as the enablers of the overwrought wines of the recent past.

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Tagged: Jon Bonne, wine