Monday, October 21, 2013

A wine manifesto - and a personal response.


I thought that you'd like what I like. Sorry, my dear."
(Stephen Sondheim - Send in the Clowns)

Jamie Goode, the highly respected brains behind wineanorak.com has published a manifesto which I have taken the liberty of reprinting and responding to here.

Manifestos, by their very nature, are statements of belief that invite argument. In my experience, they also rarely stand up to the acid test of reality.

I agree with many of Goode's points, and on occasion my response involves diabolical advocacy as much as my own. On the other hand, I would say that his general message, which can be taken as a defence of the old ways of Europe and a rebuttal of New World commerciality, does indeed founder on the rocks of the real world. French consumers are turning away from their traditional wines (which represent the majority of what they are offered) in their droves. A growing 38% of the population is now officially classed as non wine-drinkers and the figure for French women is 50%. The fastest-growing sectors are of artificially fruit-flavoured wines and Vins de France, both of which are explicitly or implicitly criticised in the manifesto. Also growing in France is the market for sweet(ened) and oaked wines. Meanwhile, in the US, the world's most valuable wine market, the boom is in precisely the oaky, sweet "tricked" up wines Goode so evidently despises.
Poster in French holiday village, advertising
"doux" - sweet - and "boisé - oaky - white wines -
at premium prices.



One of the many promotions of fruit-flavoured
wine to be seen in almost every French supermarket
this summer.



I may not choose to drink these wines myself, but I defend the right of the people who enjoy them to go on doing so without being treated as though they are lesser beings.


Manifestos also tend to be very much of their time. Thankfully, and despite the efforts of bodies like France’s Institut National des Appellations Contrôlées (INAO), wine, like cooking, is in a constant process of evolution. Turn the clock back far enough and there was no Champagne, no port or sherry, no late-harvest Sauternes. In more recent times, Bordeaux was made with Syrah, and adding Algerian wine to French was considered normal – as was consumption of a couple of litres per day. There are tendencies today that Goode may regret; time will tell whether they survive or not. Bonny babies will doubtless be thrown out with the bathwater, but equally pretty ones will be born to replace them.


1 The heart of authenticity
Authentic wine is rooted in a place and time
Is non-vintage Krug not “authentic”? And what about a Vin de France that tastes French or a South East Australian wine that tastes Australian. How tightly are you defining “place"?. And if a "best of a bad job" 2013 Bordeaux is authentic, is that necessarily preferable to a more palatable blend of 2012, 2013 and 2014?

2 The skill of winegrowing.
Sensitive, intelligent winegrowing produces wines that capture the location and the vintage.
And what of innovative winegrowers? People who capture a different version of the vintage to their neighbours – such as Didier Dagueneau’s “Maudit” late harvest Sancerre and Jean Thevenet’s Bongran Macon. Did Sassicaia “capture the location” when it was first produced?

3 The art of interpretation
There can be a number of different interpretations of a particular terroir. It’s wrong to think that there can just be one wine made from each site. Consider the site as a musical score. You can have bad, good or even great renditions. Among the good ones there may be differences.
Ah, so you’ve addressed the concern voiced in my response to your Point 2.

4 Soils matter
The ceiling for wine quality is determined by the soil. Great wines can only be made from privileged terroirs, no matter how skilled the winegrower and how perfect the climate.

A note on language.
Language is important. It shapes our perception. Careful use of language reminds us of important issues. For this reason, we should stop using the term ‘winemaker’. My preference is for ‘winegrower’. It better reflects the role of human agency in the production of wines, which at its heart is a microbiological transformation.
It all depends on the scale of production. In a small domaine, I agree that the person whose name appears on the label is indeed the winegrower as well as the winemaker. But in larger operations, which still offer great wines, there is no way for the responsibilities to be combined. Bordeaux producers may not traditionally have referred to the vinificateur but they did have the maître de chai -  the cellarmaster.

Besides, while I would hate to belittle the importance of the way the vines are tended - there is no great wine without great grapes - to focus on what happens in the vineyard is to underrate the long list of decisions made following the harvest. Goode is, for example, a supporter of Qvevri - amphora - wines made by leaving the grapes on their skins. Producing wine in this way is a choice, as is the decision the how any wine is to be fermented, matured and quite possibly blended. All of these skills have more in common with those of a cook than of a horticulturist. Most of the worst wines I have tasted - whatever their style - owe their poor quality to the failings of the "cook" rather than that of the grower.

5  Some wines are just wine
Of many wines there is nothing to be said. They are just wine. It’s foolish to say anything more about them, but still some people try.
That’s true of books, movies, restaurants and wine. Curiously, music and movie and TV critics think it worth reviewing a wide range of what’s on offer. You could just as easily say that a hamburger is a hamburger, and not bother to consider the respective merits of different chains. Or, alternatively, you could follow the example of fashion writers who are as ready to talk about cheap Primark and Top Shop t shirts as the ones bearing Armani labels.

6 A mystical transformation
Wine is made by microbes, but so often we forget about the importance of yeasts and bacteria in this mystical transformation. That’s an error on our part.
That’s true of cheese and yoghurt and beer and bread and vinegar. So what?

7 The wine is a whole
Reductive approaches to understanding wine – breaking it up into its various components – have a place and some utility. But this utility is limited. If we want to understand wine properly we need to take a holistic approach.

8 Express the vintage
Vintage variation isn’t a problem to be ironed out. By all means combat the challenges of each vintage with gusto. But consider the vintage in dealing with the wine in the cellar. Vintage variation adds interest when handled well.
To whom? To the relatively tiny proportion of consumers with an interest in wine certainly, and to (some) others when buying more premium wines. But to most consumers? Did the French consumers who drank 160 litres per adult per year in 1965, and bought it in recyclable glass litre-bottles by the alcoholic degree care?
Does anyone today who’s buying wines such as basic Chilean Merlot, South East Australian Shiraz, Côtes du Rhône, Pinot Grigio, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or white Zinfandel (ie the vast majority of wine drinkers) give a damn about the difference between the 2013 and 2012 vintages of those wines? Or do they want a bottle of wine that tastes like the last one they bought and enjoyed? Wine has always been seen as a partner for bread: how many French boulangerie customers rejoice in variations in their daily baguettes?

Are buyers of even quite serious Bordeaux really currently on the edge of their seats waiting to find out how the chateau owners are going to get out of the rotten mess of their 2013 vintage? Or are they going to buy the 2010 or 2009 in the greater confidence of getting a decent drink for their money? Do I go to a Michelin-starred restaurant to experience the skills of a great chef in dealing with substandard meat? Or would I rather hear the waiter say that Chef regrets that the beef at the market was not up to his standards? It is no accident that one of the main criteria for Michelin stardom is consistency of quality: few restaurant goers get excited at innovations the chef has introduced to their favourite dish. Port and Champagne producers understand this - and do themselves and their customers a favour by not declaring vintages every year.

9 Monsters aren’t serious
There’s a place for monster, ripe, bad ass wines. It’s just that they aren’t serious.  But so often the people who make them want them to be taken seriously, which instantly makes them joke wines.
Who’s defining the joke? Was Marcel Duchamp’s urinal a joke? Are Damien Hirst’s spot paintings jokes? Is John Cage’s Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds (of silence) a joke? Is Turley 17% Zinfandel a joke? To you maybe, and to those who share your views (and I may be among them), but the people who are paying high prices for all of those “jokes” would beg to disagree. History will be our judge. (Could you afford to buy the Duchamp joke? Or a bottle of Screaming Eagle?)

 10 The evil of overripeness
Overripeness in red wines is a grave sin that has to be covered up with acidification and oak. The sadness: often it is avoidable.
I notice that you don’t mention the “grave sin” of weedy underripe wine that “has to be covered up with” chaptalisation.  It’s far more rarely encountered these days than in the past (read the first, 1980s, edition of Anthony Hanson’s Burgundy) but far from unknown, especially in basic Bordeaux. And I’ll bet that more consumers will prefer the overripe stuff to the weedy.

11 Wine: be yourself

There’s nothing wrong with commercial wines. The world needs good, cheap wine. But cheap wine doesn't have to try to mimic more serious wine by winemaking trickery. Honest wines are better than ‘better’ wines.
By this logic,  the poor shouldn’t have fake-leather handbags or costume jewelry, and chefs shouldn’t use truffle oil instead of real truffles. On a personal level, I find excessive use of truffle oil as objectionable as overuse of toasty oak chips in wine. But subtle use of either can improve the flavour of a dish or a glass. It’s all about pleasure. If a wine that has been subject to “winemaking trickery” gives more pleasure to the person buying it for $5-10 than your concept of an “honest” wine, should we decry it?

12 The sadness of spoofulation
There aren’t all that many special places to grow wine grapes. It’s a tragedy when a privileged terroir is used to make sweet, oaky, international-styled red wines.
I admire your certainty over the style of wine that should be made anywhere – bearing in mind that Pomerol was once a place for white wine, Pouilly Fumé was full of Chasselas and Barolo used to be sweet and fizzy. Tragedy is a big word. I've been guilty of this level of hyperbole myself (including on an occasion when we were both on the same panel) but I'd suggest that there are more tragic situations in the world today than the fact that some people  happen to enjoy Riojan or St Emillionais “sweet, oaky, international-styled red wines” whose style you dislike.

13 The taste is not in the wine
The taste of wine is not a property of the wine, but is a property of our interaction with the wine. We bring a lot to the wine tasting experience.


14 Wine as an aesthetic system
Wine appreciation doesn’t exist in isolation, but is part of a wider aesthetic system. We decide together what is great about wine, through our interactions, our discussions, and our learning.
Who is “we”? Robert Parker thinks that Pavie is great. Jancis Robinson doesn’t. Opinions differ over the “greatness” of Damien Hirst. Ultimately, it’s subjective and will always be, and any suggestion to the contrary smacks of intellectual fascism.

 5 Too many commercial palates
The wine trade is chock full of talented tasters, but too many have commercial palates. They are skilled at differentiating among commercial wines, and even very good wines, but can’t differentiate top quality commercial wines from truly serious wines. They often take offence when you suggest there’s a difference.
What is the opposite of a “commercial” palate? An “uncommercial” one, presumably. And what does “commercial” mean? Something that someone will buy. “Truly serious” wines have to find buyers, just as much as the cheapest wines on the shelf. Winemaking is not an academic exercise. Every bottle represents investment of human time, effort and money; heaping praise on a wine that no one is going to purchase (at a viable price) is like talking up a play that no one is going to want to buy a ticket to attend. Intellectual onanism.

16 Don’t expect others to pick up your tab
The wine business – and especially vineyards – must be sustainable. You can’t expect the next generation to pick up your tab.
This is a fine and admirably stated concept, but sustainability can mean different things to different people. Californians who are using Central Valley grapes to make “commercial” wines using “winemaking trickery”  that they sell at relatively high prices are arguably working more sustainably than Europeans who are making traditional wines that they sell for little or no profit. The Americans have a good incentive to go on growing those grapes; the Europeans don’t.

17 True to origins
If you stick the name of a place on a wine label, the wine should taste of that place.
And you’ve defined that taste, I presume. Just remember that the taste of Pouilly Fumé in 1813 would have been of Chasselas.

18 No new clothes
If you hate overripeness and obvious new oak (as you should), take care lest you end up praising a wine for the mere absence of these faults. It happens.
This is more than a little dictatorial. Some people like wines that taste of noble rot; some like the raisiny and possibly volatile character or Recioto. There's nothing new about relishing the flavour of oak: Spanish wine fans were talking about it in the 1970s.

19 Wine resists the proud
Be humble in the face of wine. It’s an endlessly complex subject that changes each year. It’s beyond any single human’s ability to understand to any serious degree. We see in part. That’s OK.
A very good point, very well made.


 20 Bright side story
There’s lots of bad wine, but I’m not going to worry too much about it. I’ll just spend time chasing the good ones. There are plenty to keep me going.
Fair enough. But we might differ over our definitions of “bad”. After scarily many years of tasting, I’m very certain that the proportion of “bad” wine – by which I mean wine that is unfit for its purpose, and is undrinkable by most consumers – is smaller than it has ever been. The proportion of “ordinary, mediocre wine, however, is correspondingly larger. (As it is in restaurant food)

 21 There is always another wine
Supply and demand imbalances mean that every now and again, old favourite wines become no longer affordable. Still, there are lots of new ones to discover. Friends move on; you make new friends.
Very true.

22 Buildings, people, fabrics
We have an impoverished vocabulary for tastes and smells, so describing wine ends up a challenge. Figurative language is the best way of capturing the personality of wine in words. Shopping lists of ingredients are so inadequate.
 Sadly, we have yet to find a way of describing wines that reflects the way consumers see it. (Judging by the language they use themselves).

23 Beer is better than wine
Many commercial wines are so deeply dull, dishonest and tricked about with that I’d rather drink beer. Many in the wine trade are so disillusioned because they know that they are peddling crap, that they lose their love for wine. Beware!
Is “commercial” beer “honest” and not “tricked about with” I think the good folk at Brewdog would beg to differ, as this blog reveals. Is Budweiser, with its 40% rice content really a less “honest” product that Yellow Tail with its residual sugar

 24 Escape the small oak rut
Too many winegrowers are obsessed by small oak. Small oak – barrels and  barriques – doesn’t suit all that many wines. But it seems the default vessel of élevage. It’s a mistake.

25 Mouthfeel matters
It’s in the mouth that we really get to understand a wine. Texture, mouthfeel, elegance, finesse – they’re all underrated.


14 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:00 pm

    Perspective-shifting stuff, Robert. Welcome back.

    Tyrone: @winesonlyadrink

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  2. Well said, Robert. Wonder why so many people still don't know that terroir is a cultural concept and has nothing to do with soil.

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  3. 'And you’ve defined that taste, I presume. Just remember that the taste of Pouilly Fumé in 1813 would have been of Chasselas.'

    If the AC had existed it would have been and still is Pouilly-sur-Loire, although most of the Chasselas would have been consumed as a table grape. Doesn't, however, invalidate the point that wine tastes change.

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    1. My point Jim, unless I'm mistaken, is that the wine I'd have been given if I'd asked for a glass of white in Pouilly would more likely to have been made from Chasselas than Sauvignon Blanc. Just as the Pomerol might have been white.

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  4. Terroir has nothing to do with soil???

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  5. Terroir has nothing to do with soil???Nothing!???

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    1. Where do you get the idea that I suggested any such thing? I lived in Burgundy for 6 years and believe in soil and terroir. But it's relevance varies according to the bottle in your hand. I don't look for terroir in a Californian white Zin for example. And I happily accept that the terroir in most Champagne might reflect a wide range of vineyards.

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  6. Terroir as it's been defined by the OIV :
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    Vitivinicultural “terroir” is a concept which refers to an area in which collective knowledge of the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment and applied vitivinicultural practices develops, providing distinctive characteristics for the products originating from this area.

    “Terroir” includes specific soil, topography, climate, landscape characteristics and biodiversity features.
    -----
    So soil isn't everything, but just part of the interaction.
    Do we agree with this definition ?

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  7. Yes, Arnaud, I agree that the OIV defines terroir in this way. However, I question whether this is what always happens in reality. Just taste a range of St Emilions - or read the Decanter magazine report on the tasting they recently ran - and you'll see a lot of very dfferent interpretations. This is even more true of regions like Rioja where there is little resemblance between the €3 examples in the supermarkets and efforts like Lopez de Heredia's traditional Gran Reservas and Roda's more modern wines.

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    1. I agree ! People tend to mix the concept of terroir with the concept of "typicity" (which itself is difficult to define...)

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