Although I have been banging this drum a bit, it’s hard not to. It’s like a mid-life crisis as all the certainties in wine I believed in seem to be getting replaced by a wholly different philosophy, or at least to a degree. Not that this is bad. Indeed, it’s really exciting.
My thoughts here are occasioned by a piece in World of Fine Wine 49, written by New York Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier MS (more about her in a moment). It struck a chord, and it confirms that I’m far from the only person developing a new philosophy of wine quality.
When we as individuals measure quality in wine we do it incrementally. What I mean is that we start at the so-called bottom and work our way up. This may begin with wine as a mere alcoholic beverage which we drink at parties for inebriation, and which we may then come to appreciate as an accompaniment for food. Once we take notice of wine for its potential qualities other than the alcohol, we start to explore up a chain which, if we are lucky enough to be moderately well off, in money or friends, might lead us to the established peaks of wine appreciation. Grand Cru Burgundy and Bordeaux, Champagne’s luxury cuvées, perhaps Napa, Brunello, Barolo and Rioja in their finest forms.
If we show a certain spirit of adventure we might explore the best wines of Priorat, Alsace’s Clos St-Hune, Huet’s sweet delights, or perhaps, for the really adventurous the finest wines of Germany via Prüm, Keller and Egon Müller. And for some people, that’s the journey’s end. Satisfied to be home, they happily drink these wines for the rest of their lives. That’s absolutely fine. I’m not knocking it. If I had some Haut-Brion in my cellar I’d be very pleased. But for a few people it’s not the getting there that matters, but the journey…and perhaps this can lead to the discovery that there are other, wider, ways of enjoying the juice we love.
This weekend Marina O’Loughlin, one of the best restaurant critics writing today, published a supplement in the Guardian Newspaper listing her favourite 50 restaurants (although the cover said “Top 50” she did make it clear it was her favourite fifty, something critics failed to take account of). It’s a personal selection, subjectivity at its best rather than cold objective assessment. I wondered about my Top 50 Wines. I could fill such a list with vintages of top Bordeaux alone, but I wouldn’t, and even then something like Chateau Talbot 1978 would make the cut where other more famous names wouldn’t. It’s because a time or a place mean more than clinical analysis, like those old Carpenters’ hits I love because my parents played them endlessly on the car stereo when we drove off on our holidays. The old cliché is true: there are no great wines, only great bottles.
As I’ve said before on this blog, I don’t want to drink the same thing every night. Just as I might prefer to see Luigi Rossi’s Orpheus at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre (as I will later this week) rather than Aïda at the arena in Verona, I might just want to drink something from Burgenland for a change.
But you have to be careful. Drinking widely makes you look at wine in a different way. You look at a wine’s intrinsic qualities and you start to notice a different set standing out rather than those which merely excite high critical scores from the established professionals. Things like purity, freshness and excitement, and even that much abused term sure to bring down ridicule, “honesty”. Thankfully there are others who have come to the same conclusion, and if you are as lucky as I am you find them and become friends. If some of them are wine merchants you have a source for these (often new) wines/producers. And that’s the thing – whole new wine communities are being born which almost completely bypass the old ones.
Back to Pascaline Lepeltier. If you don’t know her name, you may know that of the restaurant where she made it, Rouge Tomate in New York. Rouge Tomate got a name for innovation at the highest level. I’m guessing that some people might stop here and think “ah, yes, he’s going to talk about one of those young New York Somms who have filled their lists with trendy wines from Jura, or unripe Californians”?
Pascaline, as her name might suggest, is French and grew up on the outskirts of Angers. She studied philosophy and, as we all know how conservative these things are in France, was supposed to become a philosophy teacher. Well, to a degree, she did, but in order to teach a different philosophy she had to return to school as a 24-year-old, in a classroom with 16-year-olds, and then fly away to America. That takes a particular dedication and determination.
And what is this philosophy? It’s one of biodiversity and ecology, that great wine is made in the vineyard. Also, that great wine needs not just an understanding of chemistry, biology and economics, but also critical thinking. That critical thinking led to an understanding that the wines she liked best were those which saw the least manipulation. It’s refreshing in a world where fine wine is getting ever more expensive that Pascaline says she found the “wines I felt close to were also very affordable…were made to be drunk among friends, not to be speculated in for financial gain”.
Pascaline moved to America in large part because ten years ago it was clear that France was just not ready for the idea of a female Sommelier (though I think we were a little more open in the UK where some excellent female Somms were already working in London). In New York Rouge Tomate founder Emmanuel Verstraeten gave Pascaline the opportunity she needed, seeing in her the potential to become one of the world’s finest in her trade. Not that there weren’t setbacks – I really can picture the white middle class men telling her to wear makeup and high shoes as feedback when she entered the Best French Sommelier Competition. But working at the red tomato, and with the team working on the Health Through Food Programme, she found a place for the philosophy of wine she’d begun to develop. Wine began to reflect the philosophy behind the food. Her mission was to eliminate the disconnect behind eating sustainable food, and the restaurant’s wine list. Wine can reflect something other than pure economics, often the economics of big business – there can be a connection with place, culture, history too.
What we are talking about here is drinking wines with a story worth listening to. Wines rooted in “place”, made by passionate people. Wines which want to promote personality and individuality above sameness – wines not merely trying to be a better (sic) version of their neighbour’s. This poses a danger. These stories are a marketing man’s bread and butter. It’s very easy to peddle a false tale which portrays a mass-produced wine, available in many thousands of bottles, as the product of the small artisan’s hand, and there are people out there who do just that. They won’t fool the wine obsessive, but they may fool the mildly curious.
That aside, we are beginning to see a parallel universe in wine appreciation. There are those who have deep pockets, or deep cellars, who continue to appreciate old classics, and who cannot see why these young whippersnappers have suddenly made stuff like Natural Wines, Amphora Wines, Californian Trousseau and Catalan Sumoll as fashionable as a beard in Hoxton. But for people who don’t have that sort of wealth or cellar, they are understanding that wine can still be exciting, and what is more, it can be more in tune with a healthy and ecologically aware lifestyle which younger people are increasingly following.
What is interesting for some of us who grew up in that old world of fine wine certainty is that we are also finding that the excitement in all these new wines, made by artisans who have a passion for both their wines, and for the place they grow the grapes, is actually greater than the staid certainties of what we knew before. That doesn’t mean that there are no innovators in the classic regions, far from it with most of them. It just means that after more than thirty years of enjoying wine, people like me can feel young again, enjoying the same kind of excitement as when we tasted our first Australian Chardonnay, or our first bottle of Domaine Dujac.
The explosion of the new is something akin to when Punk Rock burst into our lives in the 1970s. It’s surely no coincidence that so many of the new breed of winemakers express a “punk” ethos and attitude. Punk met with resistance at first but became embedded in the mainstream. It became watered down, yet its finest practitioners are now as firmly set in music history as those who we later, and unfairly, deemed dinosaurs, again slavishly following the fashion of the day. In music I enjoy The Clash and King Crimson, Handel and Berio, and in wine I’m the same, open to what’s good whatever it looks like.
What the producers who follow the philosophies outlined above will achieve will, I think, redefine our perceptions of quality, of what is fine wine. The Periodical in which Pascaline Lepeltier’s article appears may seem a bastion of conservative wine values, but this is very far from the truth. Her article may be preceded by photos from a black tie Penfolds Dinner, but you will also find articles in WFW49 on Arnot-Roberts, “Modest Revolutionaries” (as the heading proclaims) in California, and on one of Galicia’s regions of the moment, Ribeiro, with a photo of the cult producer Emilio Rojo (who would even have heard of this tiny, if exceptional, producer a few years ago?).
No, it’s not just a band of metropolitan wine geeks from Paris to San Francisco who are getting excited by the real “new world” of wine. It’s seeping into the mainstream, like punk on the BBC. There’s no stopping it. Wine did not die when en primeur got stupid. That merely helped us to realise that you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle of wine, but you do have a choice of literally hundreds of bottles which will give you no less enjoyment than those expensive classics. So no need to learn your 1855 Classification any more, just get out there and learn who is truly committed to making the best wine possible from their patch of this planet, in a sustainable way so that we can enjoy it, and our children also.
WHY IS ALL THIS IMPORTANT? Because at the end of the day if there is nothing else besides the classics we can no longer afford, then fine wine appreciation dies along with people like me, for all but a few wealthy collectors. The fact that there is evidently far more to fine wine than the 1855 and the cadastral maps of the Côte d’Or gives us hope that wine will have the capacity to fascinate our children, and perhaps their children, for many decades to come.
The article Sommelier in New York by Pascaline Lepeltier appears in the current edition of World of Fine Wine, WFW49, 2015 Q3 – see www.worldoffinewine.com for details on how to subscribe.
Marina O’Loughlin‘s favourite 50 restaurants in the UK appeared in The Guardian, 24 October 2015. I love the very personal nature of her choices, and in any case, anyone who appreciates the Quality Chop House on London’s Farringdon Road deserves my admiration.
The photos throughout this piece are some of my own favourite wines…but are categorically not intended to mean that they are “The Best”.