Sermon On The Rosemount

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.

I paraphrase:

We think wine is more than an industrial product it is a way of life for many people. It is the result of a sensitive alliance between man and nature. The vine itself is a living entity and the aim should be to bring its fruit to ripeness gently. Trying to force matters could endanger the vineyard and the quality of the wine. The soil nourishes the plant and should be nourished itself not drugged by repeated application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The vines will not surrender their treasures if we do not respect and understand them. We should be soft interpreters, not cold masters.

We identify with those who believe that one has to truly understand the soil, climate and local tradition to be able to produce decent, real wines. Science is not about abandoning tradition at all costs, but using and adapting, if necessary, knowledge gained over centuries of observation and experience. The quality in the vineyard should minimise the need for corrective technology, just as in cooking the excellence of raw ingredients should not be obfuscated by irrelevant (and potentially deleterious) over-elaboration. Knowledge then may be intuitive - the lore of the land and the cultivation of instinct passed down the generations - or it may be acquired through systematic observation.

We believe that it is a good thing that growers are unable to control all the parameters that go into the making of wine because it is precisely this element of uncertainty and imperfection 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. 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.

Naturally cultivated (and according to a biological culture) wine is the living expression of the soil, the character of which the wine maker tries to exalt during the process of vinification. When you open the bottle you should discover a drink full of vitality, original and singular, just like nature itself, just like the vine grower. We respect equally the value of technology and the scientific approach which helps us to understand why things happen, and we respect nature for providing the raw material.

The Great, The Not Bad and The Ugly

The alternative approach is a deterministic one and one which states that wines should be made in a certain way according to a notional formula of balance and stability. Supermarkets are understandably inclined to source these risk-free wines. This raises significant questions. Who determines the correct flavours? How confected can a wine be and still be wine under our definition of wine as the product of nature? Surely the forgeries will track our palates: winemaking will largely become by focus group and supermarket panel and guided by the marketing imperative.

The competition mentality further clouds the issue. Just as the French harp on about the complexity of terroir, Australians, for example, emphasize the wonderful quality of their fruit. In competition, the primary impressions are all-important. Qualities such as subtlety, finesse, and naturalness are rarely valued or distinguished. If growers feel the need to produce wine for international competition then the agenda to make uniformly correct wines is winning. And if big busty wines are what win prizes then big busty wines are what we’ll get. This is the nature of competitions. Even now in France a number of growers manufacture super cuvees from low yielding old vines, plonking the wine into new oak. Sometimes the result is spectacular, often it is forced and artificial to which I pose the question: if you were naturally beautiful, would you smother your face in make-up? Robert Parker highlights the danger of excessive interference pointing out how a particular traditional Chateauneuf-du-Pape has been restyled to the point of anonymity: it shows what modern day oenology can do (or undo) to great terroir. And yet, as a lover of luscious well-upholstered wine is he not inconsistent in exalting the primacy of terroir?

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 more interference the more one gets away from the genius of nature. You cannot, as the saying goes, make a silk purse out of sow’s ear. However, 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.

What is the wine about? Imagine a cathedral lit with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, a stave of oak, a punnet of blackcurrants and the gospel according to Robert Parker. (With apologies to HG Wells)

Hitherto the Australians have largely tended to approach the problem from a different perspective. Wine is drunk by consumers; ergo it has to be of a standard fit for consumption. Consistency, therefore, is a prerequisite and the same quality of product must be attained regardless of the vagaries of the vintage. Certain standards are established with price points in mind. Recognition is an important factor; the varietal is used as a commercial tool to disseminate information to the public, and terroir, although it exists, is still subservient to this.

Let the French grower taste the Australian wine and the Australian taste the French wine. The former says: I can’t drink this, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s all on the surface. The latter: Where’s the fruit? Are those dirty aromas meant to be there? The tannins are too austere. I caricature the positions, yet when we think of France or Australia, we have a clear idea of the archetypal wine produced in those respective countries, an idea borne of experience and of hearing opposing philosophies repeatedly articulated in the press. Of course, many of the distinctions are blurred. Ideas do not obey national boundaries, winemakers travel back and forth to refresh their views and even change them. Trends develop as people get bored with drinking a certain grape variety or wine style and gravitate towards something different. But one thing is astonishingly true in this most global of industries; that many intelligent winemakers remain wilfully oblivious to what is going on in other countries.

Thank heaven for diversity, for flag-waving faith, for scientific mumbo-jumbo, for unwavering adherence to tradition. Let each wine culture express itself and be not in thrall to the will of the market.

We should remember that for all the posturing that we are drinking liquid prejudice.

Posted by Doug on 14-Feb-2008. Permalink
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