Just a Spoonful of Sugar: Dry Innovation in Traditionally Sweet Territory
November 14, 2019
The film version of Mary Poppins may indeed be best remembered for spooning out saccharine solutions. Yet were the English nanny to encounter her grown-up charges today, a drop of modern dry would just as like be her first choice. And according to the numbers, Mary isn’t alone.
For a variety of reasons ranging from climate change to shifts in consumer palates and even cold, hard economics, many of the world’s traditionally sweet regions are going dry. Not in the direction of zero alcohol, mind you, but of zero grape sugar. Borne along by currents of change, the results are often striking innovations on display for eyes and palates at Prowein 2020, The Worlds’ No. 1 International Trade Fair for Wines and Spirits (March 15 – 17, 2020 at the fairgrounds in Düsseldorf, Germany).
Sauternes: Preserving Tradition through Innovation
Sometimes a trend emerges for the simplest of reasons: drinkers’ tastes change. Take for example Sauternes, whose dessert wines were considered an opulently iconic postprandial treat in the minds of a certain generation and class of diner.
Yet behind every legend are real-life circumstances, and those for Sauternes did not always equate well with modern wine production. The multi-pass berry-by-berry harvests dictate small quantities and daunting production costs. The 20th century’s financial and natural crises, world wars and falling vineyard prices weighed on production and, often quality too. Add to that an aging core of tradition-minded drinkers and a surplus of older vintages on the market as well.
A few regional pioneers saw an opportunity in this crisis to broaden their region’s program without diluting their own heritage. Despite the massive historical pressure to stick to what works -- i.e. sweet wines – winemakers at historic estates like Oliver Bernard of Chateau Guiraud began to ring in change with drier bottles.
At Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey, new owner Silvio Denz opted to halve his estate’s volume of sweet wine production in favor of dry. In the words of David Bolzan, Directeur Général of Premier cru Classé Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey, the considerations certainly reflected commercial concerns: “Our DNA is to produce sweet wines through the concentration of the botrytis. We have to be creative and inspired in our fight to come back and gain market share.” Yet the intention was to use the cash flow available through serious dry wines to help offset some of the extraordinary costs associated with making the sweet stuff. In this way, Bolzan reasons, the move to dry is actually protecting the sweet wine tradition.
So how are the wines? Dry Sauternes offer a beautiful blend of depth and verve, often with a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc kick. In fact, the same conditions that so well suit sweet wines -- high limestone content, excellent exposition, old vines, a delicate balance of sunlight, temperature and moisture -- lend themselves to a dry style as well. Close to 160 ha of the region’s vines are currently devoted to producing dry, whites, and that area will continue to rise.
Mosel: Changing Climate, Changing Style
Unlike her French cousin, Germany’s legendary Mosel Valley has turned to the drier side due more to changing climates, than shifting taste preferences. Traditionally speaking, the German portion of the Mosel Valley features steep, slate cliffs, a strong moderating influence by the river and chilly temperatures that led to very slow, often stalled, fermentation and ripeness. While some producers pushed the idea of dry wines from the Mosel as early as the 1980s, historically they rarely achieved the combination of conditions necessary to make high-end dry wines on a consistent basis.
It is an open secret that climate change has helped, not hurt, vintners here. The last 20 years have not only seen an explosion of successful, dry wines, but now only a small elite handful of the Mosel’s major producers (e.g. Weingut Egon Müller and Weingut Joh. Jos. Prüm) are still dedicated exclusively to wines with residual. The 2018 vintage, in fact, set yet another record for the number of dry wines released.
Weingut Dr. Loosen, a prominent producer from the region, released a groundbreaking 9 GGs this year. “We’ve always had the vineyards… we just wanted to take it slow,” Ernst Loosen explained. “We’ve been releasing the GGs one or two a year over the last 11 years. It’s not the kind of thing you can do all at once.” With the 2011 vintage Dr. Loosen also introduced the GG Reserve category for single-vineyard dry wines that spends two entire years on the gross lees in barrel instead of one year for his regular GGs. These are already sought-after collectors items around Planet Wine.
Tokaji: “Liquid Gold” returns in a Dress of Dry
In northeast Hungry, the 11,000 hectares of the Tokaj area became the second demarcated wine region in the world and the first to classify its vineyards. Louis XIV, the Sun King himself, declared the rich, almost amber-like bottles from this territory not just liquid gold, but the “wine of kings, the king of wine.”
But as they say, man plans and God laughs. First came the phylloxera blight. Then, behind the Iron Curtain many of the grand vineyards were consolidated into a state-run monopoly and slowly fell into disastrous disrepair. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the industry was revitalized with astonishing rapidity. But not all returned directly to the dessert wines of yore. For some like Istvan Szepsy, founder of one of the first independent wine estates after the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 it was an aesthetic choice. Alongside his now legendary Aszú and Essencia wines he explored modern, 0%-botrytis iterations of Furmint that reveal a beautiful dry, authentic expression of the sites that had made Tokaji Tokaji. Other producers such as the state owned Grand Tokaj, iconic Disznoko and the newly opened VAXCO are also seeing strong success with a similar approach.
Warming temperatures and more practical economic concerns drove the switch to dry at many other wineries, particularly smaller, family-run operations. The traditional Tokaji style is a slow process -- the wines must age for years after harvest before coming to market. By introducing dry wines to their portfolio, wineries and estates with vineyards -- but not ready access to large pools of capital that would allow them to sit and wait -- could launch into production immediately. As an added bonus, the dry wines also helped hedge the risk of vintages not suitable for Aszú. Twenty years later, dry wines now play a major role in nearly every important Tokaji producer’s portfolio.
And these regions are only the tip of the sugar cube. A quick look around planet wine reveals the same narrative taking place elsewhere. Whether it’s deep, dry reds in the Duoro/Portugal, zippy herbal Zibiddos from Pantelleria/Italy, or bright fruit-driven reds from the botryisized banks of Neusiedlersee/Austria, regions are preserving their tradition through diversification -- complement, not conflict.
With all respect to Julie Andrews, “just a spoonful of sugar” is not enough. Liebfraumilch, cheap Lambrusco and the well-deserved backlash that followed should have taught us that lesson. But why try to get by on sugar alone, anyways? What we admire is that these dry or sweet, great wines are made in great vineyards. And this trend only makes it easier to explore new expressions of traditional sites.