Food & Wine Thursdays: Wine Geek Obsessions That Came and Went

Look, I’m a wine geek. I love the weird and wonderful wines of the world. And I love all my wine geek brothers and sisters out there, seeking out amphora-aged Saperavi or pre-phylloxera Romorantin. But wine geeks are also fickle and as quick as we are to hop on to the next cool weird wine thing, we’re just as quick to hop off and catch the next train to cutting-edge vino bliss.

For every geeky trend that catches on and sticks, like Biodynamics or natural yeast fermentation, there are three that have a few months in the sun and then shrink back into their respective dark corners, either too eccentric or too inaccessible for mainstream tastes. And it’s a double-edged sword: while sometimes it’s good for these wines to remain on the margins and not become homogenized due to excessive demand, at the same time if the geeky buyers and sommeliers don’t commit for an extended period of time to the wines they believe in and commit to selling those wines to their customers it becomes extraordinarily difficult for the companies who are taking on most of the risk by importing these wines to keep working with them.

Here are just a few wine geek trends I’ve seen come and go in California over the last couple of years. Obviously all of these wines are still available and many of them are excellent, but those 5-6 months of intense interest has yet to lead to sustained demand.

1. “Island Wine.” About a year and a half ago, maybe a little more, I was bombarded with calls asking if I carried any “island wines,” a blanket term for Spanish wines from Spain’s outlying islands, primarily the Canary Islands and, to a lesser extent, Mallorca and Minorca. The geek hook was that these wines were made primarily from little-known native grapes grown ungrafted in the islands’ volcanic soil. The red wines, many of them produced in some version of the “natural” style, were light to medium bodied with exotic aromas and flavors. Interest in these wines subsided, I believe, simply because there just wasn’t a lot of wine available and the wines, while eminently appealing to the wine geek, lack enough of the conventional wine making hooks to appeal to even the adventurous average drinker. Without the diversity to keep replenishing the ever-changing geek wine lists and without enough mainstream appeal to garner wider attention, the Island Wines floated back out to sea.

2. Jura. Earlier this year it seemed like in every interview with a sommelier I read, he or she mentioned the wines of France’s Jura region as garnering a lot of attention. This mountainous region on the Swiss border produces rustic and weird wines, from deliberately oxidated white table wines to brambly picholine-olive tinged red wines made from the native grapes Poulsard and Trousseau. Although not prohibitively expensive, I believe these wines failed to catch on because they also aren’t particularly cheap–Jura’s terrain and elevation make it expensive to grow grapes. The wines compete in price and, to some degree, style and varietal, with Beaujolais and lesser Burgundy, both of which have more modern, mainstream appeal. The sparkling Cremant du Jura has made some headway though and is an excellent ersatz-Champagne for a fraction of the price.

3. Brettanomyces. This genus of yeast is a common wine contaminant that can, if allowed to proliferate, spoil entire batches of wine. In small amounts, however, the yeast can impart “Bretty” aromas that are desirable including smoky spice, cloves and that catch-all for all things pleasantly stinky, “barnyard.” About two years ago though, as Natural Wine fervor was at its peak, a massive Brettanomyces presence was viewed by some as a badge of honor, indicating an old-school approach to wine making and a commitment to light or non-existent use of sulfur dioxide or other preservatives. It was symbolic of a radical rejection of mechanized, sterile and homogeneous wine making. Of course it also made, in many cases, very shitty wine or wine that, while interesting, was incompatible with food and existed primarily as a conversation piece. It’s self-evident why these wines failed to catch on; most drinkers, myself included, who might find hints of bacon and sun-dried horse manure in a wine appealing, nevertheless don’t want their wine to smell like a portable toilet at 3PM on the last day of Coachella.

The current geek obsession appears to be amphora-aged wines, but we’re still in the midst of it so I’ll be curious to see if this one endures. What other wine geek obsessions came and went, do you think? Are there any you want to come back? What new ones do you see on the horizon? Agree? Disagree? Radically ambivalent? Comment below.

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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