Okay, I admit that very few readers are going to know this reference (it’s a song by Swedish melodic death metallers, Amon Amarth), but the Vikings, aside from the plunder and pillage reputation, were great explorers of the edges of the world, as well as being pretty edgy characters for the time as well. So it’s not a completely specious image for a piece about why we should explore the outer edges of wine, and why there is pleasure to be found in these wines on a level, if different, to the pleasure to be found in the established greats. It’s all down to perfection versus personality. That we might get equal pleasure from cheaper wines considered lower down a quality scale could appear ridiculous to some. To see what I mean let’s look at a few examples.
Grower Champagne has become the darling of some quarters of the wine press (and, I admit, for me too). But it’s amazing the vitriol some defenders of the Grande Marques, from both inside the industry and the press too, have meted out to them. Remember, there are a lot of “growers” and not all of them approach even a hint of greatness. But it’s hard to deny that it’s a growing quality sector, being taken seriously by even the most traditional wine merchants now.
The “grower problem”, as their detractors would have it, is their limited vineyards coupled with their lack of reserve wines. It is suggested that this means they have less material to blend, especially in poorer years, and that every release is a vintage wine tied to the problems of any given single year and plot of ground. In essence, in Champagne “terroir” is a bad thing and quality comes from a certain homogeneity.
To an extent this is true, some of the region’s true greats are careful blends. But many growers nevertheless seem to overcome such theoretical problems. It’s rare to taste a poor wine from the likes of Vilmart, Peters, Bereche, Agrapart et al. They also provide the wine lover with a production model more Burgundian than Champenois, where it’s not a wine blended to perfection they seek (as with the old time Burgundian negoce, although perfection wasn’t always on the agenda back then), but one which expresses a place. No coincidence that the big boys are increasingly looking to emulate this with highly successful single vineyard Champagnes. Indeed, Philipponnat are about to take things to another level of micro-terroir delineation when later this year they release a wine from the very heart of their single vineyard, Clos des Goisses (Clos des Goisses Les Cintres 2006).
What the growers have done is experiment. Biodynamics, horses, perpetual reserves, wines of greater vinosity and the hot topic, Brut Zero and low dosage wines – how many of these will be controversial in a decade and how many will have been forgotten is a moot point, but I think we should be grateful that these and other avenues have been pursued. Experimentation doesn’t always work, but it usually leads to innovation and progress. After all, it’s a primary argument for private enterprise over state control, which the Grandes Marques I think are finally realising.
Natural Wines are a topic far too big to do more than gloss over here. The drinker of classic wines alone will be sniggering off their seat right now. Bearded hippies making cider is their besuited jibe, yet wines without intervention are wines without dangerous chemical residues and without secret additives and manipulations (mega purple, must concentration and pesticides harmful to insects useful for preserving the vineyard ecosystem) to those who make them. A telling comment I once read came from a farmer in Italy’s Emilia region back in the 1990s – “I stopped using chemicals because I live here, as do my wife and children, and I don’t want them breathing stuff that might harm them or worse”.
Sulphur is the burning issue with this method of viticulture. Do you want a sulphur free wine, pure yet at risk from the time between the producer and consumer when it is transported, stored and stuck on a retailer’s spot-lit shelf? Or do you prefer a little bit as a modicum of insurance? The wines actually tend to be more robust than we think, but not always, and the admonition that the wine “should be kept at under 14 degrees” is not something to ignore blithely.
Yet when they work, natural wines show a freshness, soul, and sheer “life” like few wines made in a more (so-called) traditional manner. When they work they are eye opening and life affirming as few wines are. To ignore them, or to give up after one or two bad bottles, is to miss out on a fundamentally different wine experience. My analogy is with red Burgundy in the 1980s. If I’d given up then following bottle after disappointing bottle of wine from even the highest appellations I’d have missed out on some of the greatest wines I’m pulling out of the cellar today. Yet I know many who dismissed red Burgundy as just too unreliable, which I don’t believe to be the case today.
Trending Regions/Countries are another bane of the old time wine critic – I’m thinking in particular here of Robert Parker’s much quoted comments about trendy young Somms stuffing their equally trendy New York or San Francisco wine lists with wines from “obscure” (sic) places like Savoie, Jura or Beaujolais, pushing off the list a (what’s wrong with a) 15%+ Saint-Emilion of abundant new oak and sweet, pulsating fruit in favour of a weedy 12% worth of lean bone, a pauper’s broth compared to the rich man’s juicy, fat fowl (okay, that’s categorically not what he said, merely my wholly skewed and doubtless flawed interpretation of its gist).
Well, the truth is, and I have years of experience to go on, many of these new age Bordeaux wines taste pretty much the same as each other now. It’s not always the case, and not all wines conform to stereotype. Last year I had a Chateau Fombrauge 2000, a wine many see as an archetype of the lush, modern style, yet it was very good indeed, delicious. But there’s no denying that a certain lushness and polish takes away the rough edges which give a wine its personality, and the very best wines of any type must (and do) have personality.
Take Jura. I’ve loved this region since my first visit in the 1980s, but the wines were never something I thought would gain any real commercial success. Yet how wrong could I be! In fact, if you want personality in a wine Jura seems so obviously the place to go. They have so much personality that, for many a traditionally minded individual, they are just either too weird or obscure in their smells and flavour. Some people don’t get them at all, and that’s fine. Just don’t look for a Latour or a Bonnes-Mares. They’re not dentists, surgeons, or High Court Judges, but artistic craftsmen. They may not always be well groomed and polite but they’ll provide excellent company with real friends and a hastily put together hospitable feast. What they are not are wines you will forget lightly. The best of them will remain, like that ’59 or ’64 Musar, deeply embedded in your memory forever.
Beaujolais, along with Muscadet, must be France’s least reputed senior wine region – no, don’t discuss. These words which might have been broadly true two years ago are just so outdated. It’s possibly the most exciting region in France right now. The best of the old timers are still going strong, but are giving way to a larger raft of offspring and newcomers who have grabbed the land of Nouveau by the scruff of the neck. Their route to success has, ironically, not been all that different to the one taken by their predecessors. They hand sold their wines to the new wine bars of Paris, and the success of these establishments selling wine with snacks and small plats was partly built on wines like Beaujolais, light and quaffable, just as Beaujolais was originally a jug wine in the cafés of that city long before the Nouveau craze took over.
What the Gamay grape has is, in one word, joy. It’s something missing in a lot of serious wine, and that’s why I find myself drinking a lot of it these days. Not just from Beaujolais – from the Loire, Australia (a little) and California too. As for California, I wonder whether Jon Bonné, with his book “The New California Wine” has driven a final nail into the coffin of the so-called Parkerian view of wine as lush, powerful and big. The New California is merely the pendulum swinging back, the new conformity being wines we can enjoy rather than ought to admire. The wines Bonné has written about, and so ably promoted in the UK last year, are not merely pale imitations of the Napa norm. They have also shown that there’s a wider California of wonderful yet unappreciated old vine stock, carefully tended by old timers who knew right from wrong, and discovered by young winemakers with a different vision to the wealthy post-industrialists who have sunk their fortunes into a dream in the Valley.
In truth, I am categorically not knocking the wines we consider traditional greats (and I’m also not knocking Robert Parker who has done so much to encourage quality in wine). That would merely be sour grapes (and these types of wines are surely never sour, even if their current collector-fuelled prices leave a certain bitterness on the back of the palate). They are, I admit, wines I can rarely afford to buy now, even if a few remain in the cellar from better times past. I’m merely advocating a wider view of what’s worthy of our appreciation. That, by way of contrast to the perfection of a top Bordeaux Cru Classé, or a top Montrachet, there are other things to explore for anyone who truly wishes to appreciate wine. Just as the finest dishes are best appreciated in moderation lest our senses get sated, exploring the great breadth of pleasurable wine makes for a greater and more rounded appreciation of everything the world of wine has to offer.
As for what’s going to be trending this year or next – well, we all know that’s Turkey, which incidentally Viking soldiers and traders knew very well during the era of Byzantium, long before the idea of exporting vinifera wines was dreamt up by some export department in Ankara. We’ll have to see whether the Turkish wine industry has both the quality and momentum to really take off, in a lasting way. Unfortunately we saw a failure to inspire lasting loyalty for Greek wine, despite a valiant attempt by Oddbins and others to promote the country some years ago (though see my last post – some signs of a revival showing). Turkey has a lot to offer, something different in her local grape varieties, so I hope they do succeed. After that, surely Muscadet’s time will (deservedly) come. I’m not really sure why it hasn’t already, such is the quality in the region despite the pitiful prices obtained by the top producers. As to the future, well with global warming our children will doubtless be looking to Norway and Sweden, both with nascent wine industries of a sort. It’s those Vikings, you see…;) .