Everything, it seems, goes in cycles. Sports. Business. The economy.
And so it is with the use of oak barrels in making wine.
Toward the end of the 20th century, wines lovingly referred to by their makers as “big oaky monsters” were all the rage. The more oak flavors one could impart into a wine — whether it was Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon — the better. Some vintners even began to age their bright and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc wines in oak barrels and labeled them “Fume Blanc.”
The problem, some would assert, is that a good number of vintners overdid it. In a good number of cases, the aromas and flavors imparted by the oak overwhelmed the fruit, earth and other impressions of the wine. Lots of flavors could be identified by wine experts, but those flavors seemed to exist as individual components rather than as parts of a well-balanced whole.
Inexperienced judges at various wine competitions didn’t help matters. After tasting a group of, say, a hundred Cabernets over the course of a few hours, palate fatigue would set in, many of the wines would seem to taste the same, and the only ones that stood out were those “big oaky monsters.” And those wines began getting the gold medals and “Best of Class” awards.
Americans, in a sense, were being trained to expect a lot of oak influence — aromas and flavors of vanilla, butter and baking spices — in their wines. The variety that skyrocketed in popularity as a result of this trend was Chardonnay.
Over time, however, public perceptions began to change. Those big, oaky, buttery, spicy wines were great for sipping and socializing, but virtually impossible to successfully pair with food. As the ranks of “foodies” grew, the desire for more food-friendly styles of wine grew with it.
Today, in a sense, we have returned to the 1970s, a time when most wines were defined by their fruit flavors. The “big oaky monsters” are still out there for those who embrace that style, but the present stage of the ever-evolving cycle is defined by fruit-forward, food-friendly wines.
What will the next big trend in wine styles be? Some are embracing multi-variety blends over single-variety wines. Others are insisting that their wines be made utilizing strictly sustainable practices, mirroring a general interest in an Earth-friendly lifestyle.
Most likely, there won’t be a single “next big thing,” but rather an array of developments that will appeal to a wide spectrum of palates and preferences. In the future, cycles may be replaced by an ever-growing number of choices.
And that’s a good thing.