Stuff these ideas into a cow horn, bury it in the autumn, take it out in the spring, dilute, stir them one way then the other, and spray willy-nilly into the blogosphere....
A first in a series about biodynamics…
Centuries ago great satirists such as Jonathan Swift or Alexander Pope penned extensive critiques excoriating the smallmindedness of men. Today, we have social commentators like Richard Littlejohn. No, you couldn’t make that up. As far as a lot of people are concerned all is very much for the best in the hospitality industry; no-one in the trade wants to be seen to be rocking the boat, and talking down the business that feeds them. Maybe one should bite the hand more often, otherwise one is complicit in the bad practice that goes on. For years I have associated the wine trade with friendship and respect, but, recently, my image of it has been somewhat tarnished by witnessing the unfettered desire to win business at all costs and by a large number of restaurateurs who seemingly have no love for their suppliers and customers alike. It may be, of course, the case that such is the desire for survival that recessions naturally bring to the surface the basest instincts of humanity, for they also the purgative effect of shaking out the weakest operators, who long since bankrupted their good will..
Such musings were prompted by the effect of the publication of our latest list and the price rises contained therein…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. When push comes to crunch you see people for who they really are…
I’ve said it before - less is definitely more…
Another in the series of observations about coping with the recession…
Blend a Saint-Julien from a good vintage with a balmy Hebridean night and a firmament of shooting stars and what’s not to like?
Some ideas for restaurateurs to mull over…
Emily O’Hare tastes a transcendent (or should that be transgressive) Barolo to the sunny sound of the Kinks…
Let’s kill all the lawyers, said Dick the Butcher in Henry VI (Part 2 since you ask). I have a better wheeze: Let’s marginalise all the f & b drones whose fantastical margins are the product of a rip-off culture - they are only even-handed in that they cheat their customers and suppliers with equal insolence…
Many’s the time I’ve been enjoined, like the sullen and notched scrivener like that I am, to pick up my goose quill and etch - with quivering hand - my picaresque adventures in the wine trade. It would be a tale and a half told by an idiot full of the sound of carousing and the fury of eating. Never was a business so evidently bathed in such comity surely, in ostentatious revelry – here were funds of jolly anecdotes and much as I would like to recount “Five Go Mad In Madiran” (I will, I will) I have to admit that business is business and that the prosaic financial scrunch gnaws many dreary hours of my day as I seem to be forever entangled in number-juggling shenanigans with beady-eyed bean-counters.
There are two types of pretentious wine list: one which pretends to be a wine list and one which tries its darnedest to impress you. Both styles of list, however, default to the tried and trusted; it is as if wine-buyers and sommeliers are fearful of omitting certain wines. The result of playing it safe is the increasing standardisation of wine lists at all levels, a kind of levelling down of expectation.
I am one of those guys who reads the latest puff about some super-wine, goes beetroot in the face, harrumphs, tuts and pshaws with vehemence and then cudgels his cranium to the consistency of loblolly with a heavily dented Oxford Companion to Wine.
Reports of wine intelligence are greatly exaggerated. Perhaps I am a contrarian inclined to disbelieve six highly possible things before breakfast, but I reckon that wine intelligence, like its military equivalent, is somewhat of an oxymoron. The world of wine has become an excuse for navel-gazing, voodoo science, claims and counterclaims, self-important surveys, sermonising and proselytising and impoverished writing bereft of imagination and joy. Now that I have got that out of my system I can breathe again!
Stephen Potter neatly highlighted the pretensions of people who wish to claim that they know what they are talking about: “Say the bouquet is better than the taste, and vice versa.” Tasting wine is beset by a fear of committing oneself to the wrong opinion, the humility of perceived fallibility.
Modesty in wine, manifesting itself as decorous restraint, should always be considered a virtue. Wine writers still speak and write of the quality of elegance, a term which is now somewhat frowned upon because it apparently lacks precision and is even somewhat anthropomorphic, nevertheless it still represents the combined notions of balance and harmony. Our archetypal modest wine is never obvious or vulgar and is certainly quite delicious, another adjective that initially seems to be meaningless, but actually encapsulates the sensuous immediacy of pure drinkability and gratifying moreishness.
We’ve probably endured enough whimsical articles about “la vie en rose” and how we should be “tickled pink” by surprisingly drinkable rose wines, but that’s not going to stop this miniature pink peroration. Perhaps it’s global warming, perhaps the adoption of an al fresco lifestyle, wherein at the first watery glimmer of the sun, tables are hurled willy-nilly onto pavements and all the coffee chains start serving frappacinos, or the fact that Mediterranean cuisine has become so popular both in restaurants and in our homes, or perhaps praise Ryanair and Easyjet for transporting us at the drop of a penny (plus taxes) to sunnier climes where any blushing wine (usually consumed in an impossibly picturesque location) forever trills the romance of abroad, a romance that only rose can reignite in our veins........
The Grape-Grail: Nature and Gentle Nurture
Are these my reward for my fertility, my limitless bounty,
My tireless production?
For foddering fat beasts,
For plumping the milky grain that suckles man,
For concocting the essences and rich herbs
That smoke on your altars?
What is wine? Take two: what should wine be? Pause a moment before you answer. Understanding the approach of certain French vignerons might help us tease a path through this minefield of philosophical ideal and commercial consideration.
Names are compressed histories. Everyone’s walking around with a history of his or her culture and character. They are a set of codes, which tell us what we share, and what’s different about us. They’re filled with complexity and meaning.
You are in a shop, perhaps a local shop run by local people, looking at the precious wines on the shelves. You wish to purchase a bottle to take to a dinner party being given by some friends who fancy themselves quite the wine experts. Or perhaps it’s Christmas, the tinsel is in your tonsils and you’re full of existential holly, after all if the turkey isn’t cooked your goose certainly will be, and with only a bottle of measly vin scrouge warming its butt near the radiator, the spirits are hardly likely to be festive. Unfortunately, you have forgotten your Hugh Johnson pocket guide and the shop assistant is not exactly full of gorm. How do you decipher the information on the labels and tell what’s rot and what’s not?
Kramer is on a double date with a vertically challenged friend and is in his usual state of barely suppressed paranoia. All the people around the table are being non-committal, the small talk is excruciating and Kramer is one Quixote short of a fully tilted windmill. A waiter comes up to take their drinks order.
KRAMER: I like Merlot. Is Merlot good for you?
Girl 1: I love Merlot
Girl 2: I adore Merlot
Other guy: Merlot is my absolute favourite
WAITER: Sorry, we have no Merlot.
Kramer involuntarily sweeps a wine glass off the table
TERROIR - The Soil & The Soul. Two Vignerons Explain
Tell me where is terroir bred
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourish’d?
In a recent paper Randall Grahm wrote: ”Terroir is a composite of many physical factors - soil structure and composition, topography, exposition, micro-climate as well as more intangible cultural factors”. Matt Kramer once very poetically defined terroir as “somewhere-ness,” and this I think is the nub of the issue. I believe that “somewhereness” is absolutely linked to beauty and that beauty reposes in the particulars; we love and admire individuals in a way that we can never love classes of people or things. Beauty must relate to some sort of internal harmony; the harmony of a great terroir derives, I believe, from the exchange of information between the vine-plant and its milieu over generations. The plant and the soil have learned to speak each other’s language, and that is why a particularly great terroir wine seems to speak with so much elegance.
What actually is terroir? Scientific definitions abound about the various liaisons between microclimate and soil composition, but they can only scratch the surface of the philosophy. One basic formulation is articulated by Bruno Prats in his article “The Terroir is Important” (Decanter 1983): “When a French wine grower speaks of a terroir, he means something quite different from the chemical composition of the soil - The terroir is the coming together of the climate, the soil and the landscape.” Even this definition seems conservative.
Snobbery & The Philosophy of Taste
No Brillat-Savarins were consulted or harmed in the making of this polemic
It is a dangerous and serious presumption and argues an absurd temerity, to condemn what we do not understand.
Michel de Montaigne - Essais 1850
There are moments in our life when we accord a kind of love and touching respect to nature in plants, minerals, the countryside, as well as the human nature in children, in the customs of country folk and the primitive world, not because it is beneficial for our senses, and not because it satisfies our understanding of taste either, but simply because it is nature.
Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller - On Naive and Sentimental Poetry
Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.
Let the base taste vulgar trash; to me golden-haired Apollo shall serve goblets filled from the Castalian spring.
(Amores - Ovid)
To have knowledge is a fine thing: to flaunt it, is vulgar. As Madame Leroi said: “L’amor? Je le fais souvent, mais je n’en parle jamais”. The true love of food and wine comes not from the casual discernment of the epicene gourmet nor the Rabelaisian excesses of the gourmand; it stems from the impulse of generosity.
Without wishing to delve too deeply into current breast-beating debates about appellation controllee it is worth looking at the manifesto of a group of French growers who are questioning the concepts and practices of the AOC and wish to contribute to a debate inaugurated by a steering committee set up by the French government a few years ago. Part of a proposed “new dynamic of French wine for 2010” was “to become leader in practices that are respectful of the environment”.
Although they could probably write exhaustive monographs on the respective merits of two breeds of pig to make bacon, restaurant critics appear unable to assemble two words on wine in their columns which leads one to the conclusion that 1) either they don’t drink wine or 2) drink it and know nothing about it or 3) don;t think it;s worthy of a mention. Last weekend I scoured the restaurant reviews of seven national newspapers - I had a lot of time on my hands - there was not a single reference to wine.
There is currently much debate about the point of competitive blind tastings and whether the results should not be taken with a considerable pinch of sediment. In view of recent declamatory pronouncements about what is good, what is better and what is best perhaps we should thought we should wade in with our groat’s worth of homespun.
The fact is classic wines are routinely trounced by so-called ringers in tasting competitions; buxom New World beauts repeatedly walk all over Olde Worlde crusties and that excites baying controversy amongst critics and consumers alike. Should we be bovvered? Should we give a fudge for a fudge? Do critical tongues start clacking because a wine with a theoretically humbler reputation is graded higher than the seigneurial one, or because the tasters cannot tell the difference between the two wines in a blind tasting? A further conundrum rests in the hypothetical question: Would you score a wine differently if you knew its exact provenance? If answer is yes then we must admit that an important part of tasting is an a priori knowledge of what it is the bottle. If the answer is no then the marking system is purely dependent on the relative strengths and the weaknesses of the tasters, themselves a bundle of prejudices and preferences, their palates conditioned by certain received wisdoms about what is correct or what is good. Thus, whilst such tastings are interesting exercises, the results are essentially meaningless because the truth is, as usual, far more complex that the headlines indicate.
It is surprising that a positive philosophy that should connect people divides on so many levels. We believe - as do many of the growers on our list - in the relationship between terroir and organic viticulture, in agricultural sustainability, in sensible and sympathetic farming practices, in nurturing the soil and protecting the environment. Sounds fine and dandy, but there are a group of certified growers and journalists who strongly believe that the use of the word “organic” (now sanctified in legislation) is heretical unless appropriate certification is produced. Given that the growers have submitted to a regime of inspection one can understand that they might feel aggrieved if people started bandying around the term willy-nilly, but I think they are being over-defensive for a variety of reasons and damaging the reputation of organic wines.
“I had that Bertrand Russell in the back of my cab once. So I asked him, “Well, Mr Russell, what’s it all about?” And do you know - he couldn’t tell me!”
A cab driver funnily enough asked me what I thought about wine, and, lacking a pat ontological response, I went puffing in many directions simultaneously. Wine as a subject is out there; it is part of mass culture now, yet equally it is about formulating individual opinions and developing a personal sense of taste. Wine elicits in some a strong philosophical inclination; in others, conversely, it exposes an anti-philosophical, pontifical side; it seems that many must hold deep opinions even if they are about shallow subjects. Meanwhile, the omphalic wine press focuses increasingly on the folderol and gimmickry of a trade fascinated by the tarnished lustre of pr campaigns, endlessly regurgitated surveys, the fripperies of branding, trite packaging, the meagre frivolity of awards, and, most of all, the deadly buzz of what’s considered new and groovy. The wine trade reinvents itself constantly in order to track trends, but, in reality, it’s just changing one set of the emperor’s new clothes for another. Novelty, as Pierre Brasseur observes in Les Enfants du Paradis, is as old as the world itself.
During the last year we had several sensuous epiphanies in Italy. Imagine wallowing in a heated spa swimming pool toasting a snow-capped Mont Blanc with a glass of sparkling Blanc de Morgex, or tasting 1961 Barolo in the Borgogno winery, or eating almonds under the pergola vines in Sankt Magdalener.
Thou hast shewed thy people hard
Things: thou hast made us to drink
The wine of astonishment
(Psalm 60,3 Authorized Version)
Some wines are so naughty they deserve to be put in honorary detention. Take our Gamay from the Auvergne (take it, I say), superlatively cloudy, reductive, oozing zum zuyder aromas of fermenting apples. Wild thing/You make my heart sing. The murky wine, vitally raw, prickles and dances, nettles the furthest outposts of your tongue with lancing acidity. 95% of the drinking populace would pucker up on acquaintance with this rude fluid, for it prompts the question: is the wine meant to taste like that?
Taste these wines. One might describe them without too much fancy as an invigorating blend of fermenting apples, soil, mulch, wild honey, almonds and dry sherry marked by perfect incisive acidity carrying the wild flavours across the palate; wines of tremendous length and brio and seigniorial rusticity. You might equally say that they taste oxidised and faulty. Well, how do you like them apples?
Is there a point in getting the wine? Understanding something is necessarily constrained by the very limited linguistic frameworks within which we operate. I do a lot of tutored tastings and I realise that although we may all use the same words in describing a wine we may mean quite different things by them. Language is an impure form of description: in tasting notes we use ten words where one will do and we never get close to the heart of the wine.
It is a fact universally accepted that nothing is what it seems and so our list is not a simple catalogue, a digest of wines and prices, but a succession of anfractuous diversions and distractions. As one of Sterne’s characters remarks in Tristram Shandy “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; they are the life, the soul of reading” - Rather a picaresque digression surely than the humdrum hawking of product after product, for, in our view, the liquid in the bottle - in every bottle - has the potential to be the starting point for many narrative journeys. There may be a scientific purpose to the expedition, or the narrative voyage may be sentimental, fanciful, argumentative or philosophical but the intention is always to arrive by some means at some sort of chaotic truth: to get under the skin of the grape/dive into the ferment (faites vos metaphores, mesdames et messieurs) by unpacking the many and varied impressions and sensations that wines unveil to us and revealing our own very personal responses, whilst at the same time examining the objective criteria that make a particular wine what it is, such as the personality of the grower, the methods employed in the winery and vineyard, the history, topography and climatic conditions of a region and finally the local gastronomy and culture. The truth, as Wilde remarked, is rarely pure and never simple (but then he never tasted branded wines).
Although novelty may be as old as the world itself every one in the wine trade is constantly aware of the importance of reinvention and relabelling. Wine, as a business, is less concerned with what goes on inside the bottle and more with the notion of pushing product. The notion of terroir, for example, has been hijacked by many people who wish to give credibility to their product. Producers, regions, even countries are highly conscious of image and the necessity to talk up individuality in a competitive global market. In Australia, for example, there is a move away from the well-trodden, well-marketed varietal path towards the notion of promoting regionality, the glimmerings of a foundation of an appellation controllee, encouraging quality wines.
Biodynamics goes a step further than organic farming although it shares many of the practical approaches. It assumes philosophical holism, articulating almost animistic and Gaian values and allies to it its own scientific analysis and observation. I think science is too often confused with technology: its applications might be represented in the metaphor of a pill. What the pill contains is a chemical solution to a problem that tends, by definition, to be a short term one. There may be alternative therapies such as acupuncture or homeopathic remedies which may achieve the same effect as the pill. Faith-healing and hypnosis can alleviate certain illnesses because they can stimulate the brain to send out signals to create antibodies. Biodynamics starts from a different perspective and posits a unified methodology insofar as it is not treating the vine as a patient but creating a healthy environment for the vine to exist in. Rather than being a reactive form of farming, it is prescient, intuitive and intelligent.
Many dozens of books have fully explored the mechanics of taste, its fixities and definites, and there are numerous systems to codify or judge these. Sometimes I wonder if this is not a case of "we murder to dissect". I would like to propose an alternative romantic notion…
Few people are aware that Jonathan Swift turned his satirical gaze onto the shenanigans of the wine trade. I unearthed the following diatribe in the British Library within a lesser-thumbed copy of ‘The Complete Bile of Swift: Divers Maledictions, Contumely and Lampoons.’ This is one of his briefer squibs (known in critical circles as ‘a swift one’) where he anathematises the wine trade (’a most noble endeavour’) with his customary punctilio.