Check Your Preconceptions at the Door

Glasses without stems? bottles without corks? wine without bottles? the ways in which wine is presented to enthusiasts are changing fast.

Winemaking is as old as mankind; to say that it’s a craft steeped in tradition is only half-true—it’s also one limited by chemistry, by nature itself. That’s fine by me. I love wine in all its dazzling variety, just as it is. Wine may not change, but in this period of modernization, globalization and increased consumption, the way in which it is presented and enjoyed is undergoing a revolution.

Screwcaps aren’t new, of course, but think back: What was your attitude toward screwcaps five years ago? What is your attitude today? Chances are, you’re more open to buying a bottle sealed with a screwcap than you used to be. Once thought of as a closure for only the least expensive wines, screwcaps are now being used by premium producers and touted as the very best way to seal a bottle of wine.

A June 2004 survey conducted by Wine Business Monthly revealed that, although natural corks continue to dominate the industry, other closures are closing in fast, in terms of winery purchases and customer acceptance. The survey broke closures down into four categories: natural corks, technical corks (molded, granulated cork with natural cork disks at both ends), synthetic closures and screwcaps. But it seems that every week some company somewhere comes up with some kind of hybrid closure intended to trump all others.

No need for cork when there’s no bottle. Boxed wines—sometimes referred to as cask wines or bag-in-a-box wines—are appearing in stores all over the world, and the quality of these wines is increasing. Already hugely popular in Australia—where roughly half the wines sold are in boxes—most boxed wines contain five liters, which is the equivalent of seven 750-mililiter bottles. Inside the box is a triple-reinforced, airtight plastic bag that collapses as wine is drawn out, providing a perfect “wine preservation system” to maintain freshness. Millions of cases of box wines are being sold, and companies like Franzia, Gallo and Almaden are bringing new enthusiasts into the fold via the box.

Another example of “outside the box” thinking comes from a source closely associated with tradition: Riedel Crystal. Earlier this year, Maximilian Riedel introduced a stemless wine glass, and response on the part of the public has been overwhelmingly positive—Riedel “O” stemless wineglasses are selling out of stores and catalogs; they are now on extreme allocation as hundreds of thousands of consumers are clamoring to hold their wine in their hands.

For a textbook example of the tug of modernism versus tradition, look no further than Jamal Rayyis’s story on Greek wines in this month’s issue. In Greece, as in so many other wine regions of the world, producers are striving to modernize and take their place in the global market. Though winemakers honor their forefathers, they are striving to avoid the winemaking mistakes that have kept Greek wines at a disadvantage in the marketplace. And though they are proud of their native varieties, of which there are hundreds, the Greek winegrowers realize that by producing wines from varieties the rest of the world recognizes—Chardonnay, Cabernet and so on—they may lure people to try Retsina or Xinomavro.

Also in this issue, our contributing editors from all over the world join forces to file a state-of-the-grape report on Merlot, surely one of the most confounding, popular varieties of all. Capable of producing wines of superior flavor and great depth, the Merlot grape is also the foundation of dreary and characterless wines. Our editors will help point you in the direction of excellence.

Roger Voss cannot contain his enthusiasm for Burgundy’s 2002 vintage, a year in which the winegrowers in that region were blessed with perfect weather, and the winemakers capitalized with peerless craft. Read Voss’s Burgundy report for recommendations on the best of the best. Also in this month’s issue you’ll find Margaret Littman’s follow-up to my column last month on wine’s role in a low-carb diet.

The focus of the world has been on Greece and the Olympics, and we at Wine Enthusiast, at press time, can only offer the sincere hope that the games are held in peace. That’s something we can all raise a glass to, whether the glass has a stem or not.


Published on September 1, 2004