Traditionalists vs modernists: a battle royale?

The current copy of The World of Fine Wine just landed on my desk with a thud. Since it’s based in London and costs $169 a year, it’s not something you can readily pick up at Hudson News. In this issue, the 216-page glossy magazine/journal compiles provocative essays and tasting reports from independent journalists and some people in the trade.

One essay that caught my eye was about the stylistic struggle between modernists and traditionalists that has been roiling the wine world for some time now. (For those who haven’t been following, “modern” wines are often characterized as having abundant, ripe fruit, lots of extraction, quite a bit of oak influence, and higher in alcohol while “traditional” wines are construed as being less overtly oaky, having much less extraction and manipulation in the cellar.)

In the piece, Mike Steinberger argues that the polarization has been overplayed–too bad since it could really do well in a Broadway adaptation, perhaps besting the Sharks vs Jets! Further, there’s a vast gray area between these two poles. Finally, he argues that the rise of modern wines has actually been largely beneficial by getting the traditionalists to clean up their cellars and pay more attention to their vineyards. Here’s a snippet:

It is wrong to depict this modern-versus-traditional split as a kind of Manichean, zero-sum battle. It is something far more mild: a push here, some push-back there. Not only that; it has largely redounded to the benefit of both wine and wine consumers.

As to the state of play in the non-war, he argues, the pendulum is swinging back to the traditionalists. As evidence, he cites, on the one hand, general fatigue with Super Tuscans and garage wines of Bordeaux. On the other, he notes the tremendous regard for traditional Piedmont producers such as Giacosa, G. Conterno, and G. Moscarello, a tsunami of articles about Lopez de Heredia in Rioja (I’ll add that the crowds are always deep at their annual distributor tasting in NYC), and a “greater demand for authenticity–for wines that are made by people who actually get their hands dirty in the vineyard.” Check out the whole article in print if you get a chance.

What do you think? I find it a convincing argument while also admitting the evidence is still contained to something of a niche. But with all the interest in natural wines, making wine in amphorae, resurrecting heirloom varieties, and a greater respect for the vineyard more generally, that niche could expand noticeably over the coming decade. Moreover, the amount of column inches (remember those?), blog posts and tweets in favor of traditionally styled wines must sooner or later spark some demand, thus leaving some modern producers wondering if they might want to cancel their next order for new oak barrels and experiment with something a little more olde tyme.

UPDATE: the article is now available online at The World of Fine Wine website. Also, they are extending a 20% discount to the readers of this site; enter WFW5 into the subscription form ( receives no compensation).

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17 Responses to “Traditionalists vs modernists: a battle royale?”

  1. Sure, all the coverage of traditional wines will spark demand…as long as that information isn’t presented with the “too cool for school” attitude that pervades some pro-traditional wine writing. (Nothing against traditional — that’s probably the direction I lean in, too.) Some of these wines need hand-selling and explanation — yes, that white wine is supposed to taste a little like sherry, because it’s intentionally oxidized. Saying “this guy is a rock star because he doesn’t use barriques and favors wild yeasts so you should definitely buy his $40 wine” (when the wines of his AOC/DOCG average $25/bottle) isn’t going to to move the needle in a big way.

  2. Quite relevant article. Especially given some of the controversy about the 2009 Bordeaux vintage which Jancis Robinson unbelievably described as making her think she was “tasting in the Napa”. It is a tired old argument that Parker somehow lead the wave of clean winemaking because of his focus on the modern style. Ask any Bordelais and they will tell you the 1980’s and 1990’s gave them money in the bank and they could finally do a lot of things they already knew about. Winemakers are always seeking to know what is good for wine. The real traditional versus modern is really about hang times, extraction and micro-oxygenation. And the real issue is – does this de-limit the impact of terroir as production techniques standardize wine to some extent in that “modern” style. This quest for terroir expression and artisinal wine making is just part of the whole food scene whose time has come. Frankly that white wine made in open amphorae is crap by anybody’s honest palate, modern or traditional.

  3. The struggle between traditionalism and modernism has been roiling in nearly every cultural sector since at least the Industrial Revolution, and arguably much before. Pure traditionalist arguments—nativism, pastoralism, romanticism, and the like, which hold that “things were better in the old days”—are dangerously retrograde, the kind of thinking that underpins fascism. Those who lament the loss of certain qualities of our cultural artifacts (viz. wine) due to the impact of industrialization and mechanization would be best served to think forward not backward, toward not away. Winemaking can never return to an idealized past, and it probably wouldn’t want to. A better approach is to learn from history, adopting, adapting, and reinventing traditional methods, making them contemporary. In this way, natural wine becomes not something old but something new, relevant to our modern context. Yes, this is an argument from postmodernism. But I think this philosophy is one that will ensure natural wine may comfortably cohabitate with our modern tools, tastes, and palates.

  4. Doc,
    Great Post! I love this- but I think it works both ways, and indeed most of the great “traditionalists” are working in a much more modern way then their ancestors did . . Though Meg’s argument is thoughtful and well put it has too many isms for me. I like the traditional wines; the orange wines; and the oddball wines that is what compels me to buy and keep tasting and all of that. Having said that it’s good to remember that modern and extracted is good for so many people. I just wish it showed more of a sense of place when they made bottles like that.

  5. This isn’t about traditional or modern, but the push for something real vs modified.

    Modern wineries are feeling the buzz, and quickly adapting there stories (not so much practices) to tell their tales of traditional winemaking and greenwashed practices… “We farm sustainably (whatever that means), and use a hands off approach in the cellar (just h20, acid, tannin, concentrate, sterile filter, velcorin, and shoot it with lasers because we just love to shoot lasers)”

    Consumers are buying this shtick now– They are being told the right answers, but they aren’t asking the right questions, which are the ones asking for the details. We’ll see if that happens, then, we’ll see if that matters.

  6. Hardy’s right, lasers are freakin’ cool.

    Still though, the day more winemakers can actually make a living buying less oak, doing less work (in the cellar) and being freed from the chains of oxidation prevention, brett infection prevention, and the elbow grease involved in keeping a winery generally sanitary, I gare-run-tea you’ll see an incredible flood of authentic wines hit the market.

  7. I have to ask what the wine in the picture is!

  8. Thanks for posting this. I never get tired of this issue. I am agree with this part of Mike Steinberger’s piece that that, as you say, “the polarization has been overplayed–too bad since it could really do well in a Broadway adaptation, perhaps besting the Sharks vs Jets! Further, there’s a vast gray area between these two poles.” It seems to me that much extremism that goes on in the wine (critic) world is just to make a point and have an angle. I also think there is some merit to his argument that “the rise of modern wines has actually been largely beneficial by getting the traditionalists to clean up their cellars and pay more attention to their vineyards.” That said, I don’t think the modernists will disappear nor that traditionalists will hold sway always. I think this is an issue which will be debated ad infinitum. Thanks for your great post.

  9. The traditional media as well as the internet just can’t seem to get past the shopworn narrative of a two-sided conflict: the good guys/white hats vs. the bad guys/black hats – no matter how much of an oversimplification this might be. A month ago Jamie Goode posted a sensible bit where he talked about a “continuum of naturalness, ranging from the most industrial of wines towards the most extreme of natural wines.”

    We do have polarization in the industry: at one end of the spectrum we have the ultra-naturalists loudly accusing the rest of us of greenwashing and hiding unsavory, un-natural practices from consumers (hi, Hardy 😉 – just busting on you a bit – you certainly aren’t alone) while skewed heavily at the other end of the spectrum we have the big industrial producers quietly making all the money.

  10. The only fly in the ointment (the ointment being the traditional movement), as I see it, is the consumer. The general consumer doesn’t really care how their wine is made as long as it is inexpensive and tastes good to them. The largest category by volume and dollars is still the grocery wines.

    This suits me just fine. I would hate for the more traditional wines to catch on and have to pay more than I already do, for the wines that I prefer to drink. This is a double edged sword of course. There has to be enough wine geeks out there to convince traditionalists to continue with what they are doing, but not too many clamoring for these wines, so the prices remain stable.

    I vote for balance and no hysteria.

  11. I know it stirs the pot, but I get weary of this debate. I am sick unto death of authenticity. There is only wine you like and wine you don’t like.

  12. I’ll have to read the article, esp. since Steinberger wrote it, but one thing that I find interesting is how confusing the terms are.
    Modern architecture (which is now nearly 100 years old) stripped out the non-essential, mostly decorative, elements of a building in attempt to make something pure. Modern wines, on the other hand seem to embellish/decorate wines with increased fruitiness and oak.
    But in the sense that modern architecture was an international style, that a building should look the same regardless of if it was a house, factory or office or where in the world it was built, modern wines are very much like modern architecture.
    One puzzling thing about Spanish wine making is how Lopez de Heredia is universally revered by Spanish winemakers but practically no one follows their practice of traditional wine making. They instead follow the palate of Jay Miller who may have the most advanced modern palate in the world and could indeed be a Krell.

  13. Although I usually prefer non-processed wines myself, I think that moderation would be a great outcome of this ongoing debate. Moderation with oak, with alcohol levels, with additives in the cellar. This does not have to be a black and white issue. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the ‘traditionalists’ and the ‘modernists’ each adopted the best of the others’ methods?

  14. I am reminded of a great phrase by a good friend and old-time wine pro.

    What do people want?

    They want the best possible quality for the absolute cheapest price, delivered to their door, by Halle Barry, in a bikini.

    Most consumers don’t give a hoot about some of the details that we, in the biz, care about.

    And I agree, there is plenty of “grey area” in this debate.

  15. Great comments here.

    Just a quick one from me to let you know that the article is now available online at The World of Fine Wine website. Also, they are extending a 20% discount to the readers of this site; enter WFW5 into the subscription form ( receives no compensation).

    The picture looks like the cellars at lopez de Heredia in Rioja

  17. “Whatever the reason—or reasons—the pendulum is swinging back toward wines that have generally been categorized as ‘tradtional.'” Journalistically, Steinberger has no empirical evidence or documentation to back that claim up! No hard data. Otherwise an interesting read.


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