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Wine and Prejudice: Spanish Wine dismissed on JamesSuckling.com

Editor’s Note: In a recent blog post about Spanish wines on James Suckling‘s website/blog, the Danish Barcelona resident, Marie von Ahm wrote an article that seemed to show a lack of understanding about modern Spanish wines. We invite you to read for context prior to continuing with this article.

Catavino’s excited to announce our newest contributor, well-known Spanish wine journalist and taster, Antonio Casado, who has provided us a very comprehensive response to Maria’s rather perplexing article.

The first time I met Marie von Ahm was in Madrid of last summer at an Italian tasting she organized alongside Gambero Rosso. She is a lovely and perfectly all-right person, but the fact they had named the event “Boutique Italian Wineries” made me uneasy right from the start, for I have never been much of a “fashionite” and I believe wine should steer well away from that sort of label. In any case, the quality of the wines were above average, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Now, a year later, Barcelona resident Marie is back with a guest post on James Suckling’s blog titled “The New Elegant Spain”, which I think is a perfect example of the ultimate and most vacuous trait of the global wine industry. Simply put, a producer bottles their wine, hires a top PR consultant to help them appear in every fancy magazine and web page available; and suddenly, it becomes a “trendy” product without –in many cases– having ever been tasted, or adequately tasted, by trained palates. The result, in my opinion, is that the product is devoid of any true quality or passion, which should be the most basic element in any winemaking or wine writing.

I have several objections to this seemingly nice and “elegant” blog post that is part of a contemporary marketing trend that I call “shop-window fallacy”, packaging and showcasing only the latest trendy fads. Firstly, in wine writing, the star should always be the wine, not the writer, and Marie fails at that when she appears to dismiss every Spanish wine whose taste and character do not suit her palate.

“I have never been a great fan of Spanish wines. Most have been too heavy, flabby and jammy for my taste, but I must say that things are changing. Guess I need to seriously reconsider my opinion of Spanish wines. I have been tasting many extraordinarily good wines in the last half year, wines very different from the style that always made me chose something more “northern” with my dinner, if possible.”

Where do I start? Top Cava producers, the likes of Recaredo, Gramona, Castell Sant Antoni, Raventós I Blanc and both Torellós have turned my head many times in the last decade for their exceptional quality, and Marie, living just 50 kilometers from them, has somehow not been able to fathom their potential. Are their wines also flabby, when even with longer ageing time they manage to show true freshness and greatness? Is it “flab” or is it “fad” you mean? We’ve got the sun, we’ve got heat, but “flabby” should not be the word.

The article’s second sin is prejudice. I simply cannot accept her accusation of “heavy-flabby-jamminess”. Given that we are a Southern country, we are fully aware that we stray to the hot side of things (hellish, at times), and winemakers have understood the role of acidity in a way our “northern” colleagues, who battle (and ‘correct’) for ripeness, have not. There will always be examples of overripe wines in Spain, just as there are plenty of these occurring across the Pyrenees and around the world.

Thirdly, Marie von Ahm, in her tepid attempt to describe the relevance of some contemporary Spanish winemaking prowess, dismisses the whole of traditional winemaking in some of Spain’s most significant regions.

What has she been drinking all this time? Is it “flabby” the best word to describe the amazing freshness and fruit-driven brilliance of Spain’s own “northern” wines, such as the Txakolis from the Basque Country or the Albariños from Rias Baixas, the latter capable of showing a lively nature and quality even after long spells on-the-lees?

And even out of that Cantabric lineage, von Ahm has forgotten the great Godellos from Monterrei and Valdeorras, the whites from Rueda (a recent discovery, Codonal Vinum Nobile, an old-vine verdejo of true terroir and singularity) or the rosé jewels from Tierra de León, made from prieto picudo and simply the best rosé examples this side of the Pyrenees. Even in the South, Huerta de Albalá is achieving a great level of quality in red and rosé wines in the province of Cádiz!! And Ronda has managed great red renderings right in the highlands of Málaga (i.e. altitude! possibly the only one thing I agree of the whole discourse).

I hope you understand by now that “elegant” is a seven-letter word that gives me the creeps every time it is mentioned, just as “old vines” does. The real wines of Spain, though, seem to have no room in Marie von Ahm’s view of the country. I don’t mean that the wines she is mentioned are bad, but the mere “listing” or “roll call” of them the way she’s done cannot convey the passion and true commitment of many fine producers that are left in the shadows. Nor do I mean that she should list them all in a 500 word narrative, but neither should she dismiss them. I have been tasting almost 3,000 Spanish wines a year for the last decade, and I can assure you there is little or no flabbiness in the majority of them. Instead, a few minor wines became “trendy” when they were pushed into the limelight by PR specialists.

This isn’t even a “new wave of winemakers”, either. Mariano García has been at it for a long time. He spent the first 30 years of his career making wines for Vega Sicilia, and founded Mauro winery back in 1980! As for Raül Bobet, even Marie presents him as a “long-serving technical director” for Torres. So much much for her claim to novelty for “the new elegant Spain”.

Understanding wine is definitely a matter of perspective: there is voodoo and there is acupuncture. The first one is designed to inflict pain upon you (and not only to your soul) and the second one is designed to cure you. Marie has attempted with her writing to achieve the second, but has only managed to realize the first one.

  • Louis

    Did I get this right…von Ahm is a wine professional, lives in Spain, but doesn’t like the wine?
    Huh?
    That’s just silly.

    Antonio, nice rebuttal and round up on the interesting of Spain.
    btw your ‘elegant and ‘old vines’ is very much my ‘passionate’ – a word used way too much and passively

  • http://www.facebook.com/wendy.vallaster Wendy Vallaster

    Well said Antonio! Far too much bs in wine writing these days… opinions without the knowledge or experience to back them up.

     

    • Stephen Bonner

      Your rebuttal article is bang on. Looks like the Suckling article forgot all about the real gems of Spain. Where does Sherry rank? Or is that too oxidized :-)

  • Imbacchus

    Oh come on guys… That is as GREAT Photoshop job if I have ever seen.
    That picture of “Marie von Ahm” is CLEARLY a James Suckling in DRAG!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/wendy.vallaster Wendy Vallaster

    Well said Antonio! Far too much bs in wine writing these days… opinions without the knowledge or experience to back them up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=610631387 Arto Koskelo

    Is it just me or was this a 1078 words long ad hominem enhanced with some straw men? Though making some really good points about Spanish wines it seems to include strange insecurity in an amount bigger than I can usually handle. Thick skin and impulse control might work better than a chauvinistic ‘you lady don’t know shit’ rebuttal article using all the tricks in the book. Bottom line: It’s cool to be flaming mad, but it shouldn’t be personal if someone doesn’t prefer Spanish wines…

    • http://www.catavino.net Ryan Opaz

      I don’t think there is anything chauvinistic about this(having reread it many times). She is a woman, but that was never brought up as a plot point in the article. Why do you see it as chauvinistic? 
      I know the question of attacking the writer came up, but we felt that the original article itself was an attack on Spanish wine, that was coming from a person(m or f) who clearly was not looking at the big picture. I personally dont’ have a problem with not liking Spanish wine, but the original article was presented not as “this is my opinion” but rather as ” this is how it it”. If you want to talk about your personal preferences don’t present them as fact.All that said, thanks for chiming in. All your points were raised many times in our editing sessions!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=610631387 Arto Koskelo

        With chauvinistic I was referring to this original meaning, patriotism, nationalistic pride that sometimes blurs ones judgement to the point of being obnoxious. Overreaction in criticism, whether well based or not, is not good PR to anyone, since it makes one feel the subject is very touchy. Just my personal standing, open contempt should be tried to be withheld unless the grudge is of serious personal nature or the matter grave, which I found did not happen in this piece which is why I found the condescending tone of voice somewhat more disrespectful than would have been needed to put the point across that she doesn’t know her shit.

        Who knows, cultural differences, open contempt aimed at a person (ad hominem) is less common in Scandinavia than in Spain (in my experience). Anyway, as you know, I appreciate what you are doing and am sure Antonio is also a great guy since he is with Catavino.

        • http://www.catavino.net Ryan Opaz

          Arto, I get your point now. But I still think there is a difference from nationalistic pride for prides sake and defending ones culture. The original article was a slam on a countries wines as a category. Somewhat clumsily and Antonio being someone who does taste thousands of wines in Spain each year is a good person to defend Spain against this wholesale dismissal. 

          Just wondering what you think the line is between a defense of your country and blind pride that is in my opinion dangerous.

          Feels good to be back debating on Catavino after a long break! :) 

    • Gabriella Opaz

      To be clear Arto, I (as a female) came across the article and really didn’t like it. To Ryan’s point, it could have been a hermaphrodite that wrote it and I still would have had my jaw hit the ground. In my personal opinion, it’s poorly written article, period, and we felt there was no better person to tackle it than Antonio, as he is clearly more informed on Spanish wine than we are. 

    • Lenn Thompson

      Chauvinistic? Really? I don’t think there is any basis for that comment. At all.

  • Alder Yarrow

    Couldn’t agree more.  The worst part of the article, though, is just how abysmal the writing is. It’s hard to believe James Suckling would want to implicitly endorse such lousy writing. But judging by the size of the author photo on the article, maybe the idea is that she makes up for it with a pretty face?

    • Lenn Thompson

      I’m glad that I’m not the only one who noticed the mediocre writing. Geez.

  • andrew

    To me the original article is just flippant. Take an idea, mention it, list the latest samples, link back to the original idea as a wrap up and finish. Can’t believe someone who lives in Spain can write such dismissive stuff. Exactly how much non-spanish wine is available in barcelona… not much in my experience…

  • Dom

    If Ms. Marie von Ahm has just started to notice that out of the thousands of wines in Spain that they are not all the same style that she doesn’t like I would find this extremely worrying as she is claiming to be wine expert and lives in Spain. 
    Does she only drink Italian wine when she is in Spain? 

    I honestly feel sorry for her for thinking in such a narrow minded way and then actually putting it to paper. This will probably haunt her for the rest of her professional career. Talk about shooting yourself in foot. 

    Honestly I don’t understand how anybody can take a whole country the size of Spain and with the diversity of Spain and think that all the Spanish wines are a certain style that you don’t like. I could maybe just maybe accept that opinion for a D.O. even though that would be still a very narrow minded way of thinking in my personal opinion.

    Mr. James Suckling don’t make the same mistake as Mr.Parker and let somebody taste and write about Spanish wine that has no idea about it. You as your blog are supposed to be professional then please have professionals and experts write in your blog otherwise you will loose creditability. Don’t let Ms. Marie von Ahm shoot your foot as well ;)

  • Michel Smith

    Marie, malheureusement, nous montre que les connaissances superficielles cèdent trop souvent la place au marketing triomphant. Elle a, comme Antonio le souligne, raison sur un point : la recherche de l’altitude, mais cela n’a rien de nouveau… Le constat est plutôt triste.