GETTING SAVVY - Tough Love for Chenin
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? Can one reconcile these views? Who is right and what is right and by whose normative standards are we judging? Do we criticise a sunset for not being romantic enough; do we mark trees out of ten; does a disfigured person have less of a soul than a perfectly formed one? Chagall once observed: “one cannot be precise and still pure”. When I have drunk great Savennieres (and these are great Savennieres), I have rarely experienced such purity and depth of flavour in a white wine, for my imagination has been engaged and my senses enraptured. And, like the living thing it was, the wine changed in the glass: the aromas multiplied, became richer and more complex. Generically, Savennieres wines are not easy; they resist facile comparison, but are true to themselves and to the vintage. We believe that it is a good thing that growers are occasionally unable to control all the parameters that go into the making of wine because it is precisely this element of uncertainty and imperfection and surprise that helps to forge the character of the wine. We are not aiming to discover a good, but standardized wine, which with the help of certain chemicals would be the same year in, year out. I refer elsewhere to Tennyson’s description of Maud “faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null” as a good definition of the orthodoxy of homogeneity. Rather, we are looking for a wine that reflects the context in which in it was grown. Each year brings a lot of uncertainties and it would be useless to try to ignore them. Indeed we should try to learn from the whims of weather to understand that with a bit of enthusiasm and by acquiring knowledge we can stand out in a market that is increasingly standardised due to globalisation.
A French winemaker once told me: I understand deacidification, reacidification, oak chips. I have seen it done and I understand why it is done. But that is not my choice. Wine is made in the vineyard. We do not call him or her “the winemaker” but rather “the vigneron”, the conductor not the creator. There is a subtle difference. We also say that wine is le sang des pays, the blood of the earth. It is a romantic notion that wine makes itself or that the winemaker is benignly neglecting his or her vines. You have to work hard to achieve purity, an unmediated expression of character. Nature presents the choices; the vignerons have to act accordingly.
Without the vigneron there would be no wine, but one might argue, the greater the interference the more one gets away from the genius of nature. If the sole purpose of wine is to transform blocks of grape juice into a chemically stable product, then aesthetic criteria are fundamentally irrelevant. Character is irrelevant. Provenance is irrelevant. The test tube can effectively replace the womb. The wines from Domaine aux Moines are truly singular. In a brand-driven, supermarket-dominated world let us celebrate their funky quirkiness (yes, I know that’s a tautology!).