It’s now over a year since I last left the UK, and almost eighteen months since I stood in a vineyard. The craving for wine travel, within the context of realising how very lucky I am, of course, grows every week and like many I have been finding ways to assuage that thirst. I don’t know if I’m unusual, but the initial hit of the Zoom event, spending time with a winemaker, often gazing on the vista of their vine clad slopes over their shoulder, ceased to give me that hit after a while. I think after a day staring at a screen it became almost exhausting to catch up with friends and family, and then to strain to see and hear a winemaker in a far-off place.
One way I’ve found to lose myself in wine without, that is, merely staring into the bottom of a glass, has been through wine books. You may have noticed the increase in the number of reviews I’ve written, a sure sign I’ve been reading more about wine and less about my other interests as the year has progressed. Reading Matt Walls’s book on the Rhône caused me to dip into Robin Yapp’s “Drilling for Wine” autobiography, which naturally led me to a classic of the wine travel genre, Adventures on the Wine Route by American importer Kermit Lynch.
Lynch first published Adventures in 1988, but it covers his travels from a young and inexperienced wine buyer to a man with a considerable palate over the later 1970s and into the 1980s. It overlaps quite a lot with the travels described by Yapp (also, by coincidence, published 1988) in that he spends quite a bit of time in the Loire, Rhône and Provence (the three Yapp specialisms back in the day). Lynch’s travels, however, range wider, into Bordeaux, the Languedoc, and northward through Beaujolais, Mâcon/Chalons, the Côte d’Or and Chablis.
Lynch and Yapp both built up a strong relationship with many of the same producers, none more so than Gérard Chave at Mauves. In fact, I have an idea that Gérard became the godfather to Robin Yapp’s son, although Kermit Lynch was eventually to have a falling out with Chave, or at least he alludes to that in the book. Nevertheless, facing the Title Page of Adventures on the Wine Route there is an old photograph which truly sets you up for the journey within its pages. We are deep within a musty barrel cellar underground. Lynch stands among three vignerons, who are named below. They are Raymond Trollat, Père Trollat, and Gérard Chave. Chave looks relatively youthful, and it’s possibly the youngest I’ve seen him in any photograph. One picture is a window on another age.
But here it gets interesting. This book is far from being merely a nostalgic saunter through a different age of viticulture and winemaking. It is true that life was tougher back then in terms of the income you could make and the hard work you had to put into your few hectares of vines. The importance of this book is that it reminds us that there is nothing new in wine. In a time before Parker Points, new oak, high alcohol and widespread synthetic chemical inputs, it is a reminder that most winemakers in France could not afford any of these things (except, perhaps, a truckload of sugar to chaptalize the alcohol a few degrees upward).
Lynch uses a word to describe wine in a way which might surprise modern readers. That word is “natural”. Yes, natural wine. What he describes may not have exactly the same meaning as when used by, for example, Isabelle Legeron MW, today, but the concept is the same. Wine without significant adulteration, certainly without fining and filtration (we shall come to sulphur in due course). This is what Kermit Lynch seeks out.
In many ways, in describing a time before the wholesale mechanisation of wine and its yielding to white coat scientists, he walks the same path of those nature writers who have done the same for our English countryside and farming, such as WH Hudson, Edward Thomas and James Rebanks. As we follow the narrative there is a lot to be learned for the attentive reader.
I came across Kermit Lynch again not that long ago on a Zoom chat and his wisdom is obvious. I read an article about him this week which made a striking observation about the quality of the French wine domaines he unearthed and brought back to North America. It went along the lines that if Lynch were a music A&R man, it was as if he had discovered The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and Pink Floyd all on his own. Because, of course, these now famous name producers he visits, and often befriends, were far from famous back then. Some were even unknown prophets in their own land.
That Zoom event helped me to draw into focus a deep affinity I share with Lynch. I followed in his footsteps a little later as I made my first travels around viticultural France, and the year after his book was published, I made my first extended viticultural tour of the country. Although I’d already visited the Loire, Provence, Bordeaux and Burgundy, it was the year of my first visit to the Rhône. The closest I got to Gérard Chave, at that time very definitely my favourite wine producer, was a sheepish glance at his roadside front door in Mauves, and a picnic above some of his vines on the Hermitage hill (though as I’ve mentioned before, I was blessed with a morning spent with Georges Vernay the following day). But I feel that I just caught the end of the era which Lynch describes, and that has stuck with me.
There is a sense among many wine drinkers who grew up in the Parker era that the old timers were lacking in knowledge. After all, they had rarely been blessed with the kind of wine education their children may have been given, whether at Bordeaux University or Dijon, or for those further afield, at Geisenheim, Roseworthy or Davis California. When the old timers looked at the rigid and controlled perfection of the results made by the students of these institutions, they said that the wines lacked soul. For their pains they were called anachronisms.
Some of their beliefs may be difficult to comprehend in terms of “science”, but they often hold the kernel of an idea which we should pursue. An early example in the book is where Lynch is talking with René Loyau, a Burgundian old timer even then, who recounts a visit to another grower in his cellars in Gevrey-Chambertin. Loyau comments that the wines from one vineyard always exhibited a strong scent of wild currants, which had disappeared from recent vintages. Loyau asks (merely intuitively) when the grower had torn out his wild currant bushes. Well, as it turns out it was actually his neighbour over the wall who had done so, coinciding with the loss of the scent in the wine.
Loyau postulates that the scent in the wine came from the pollen being transferred by the local bee population. Now it has been pointed out to me that vines are not pollenated by bees, but there is no reason to suspect that bees might not alight on the flowers of the neighbouring vines after having visited the wild currants, or perhaps that pollen had been carried by other insects or even on the wind. There are many cases of the transfer of scent from a local plant to wine, the classic example perhaps being eucalyptus in Australia. At least there the pungency of the oil from the eucalyptus leaves are a good candidate for transfer.
We tend to think of winemakers back then as being predominantly men, and that the rise of female winemakers is something new. Of course, back in the 70s and 80s there were plenty of women making wine. Often, however, it was a case of needs must rather than a free career choice, when their husband or father was injured (broken limbs from falling off ladders resting against vats being horribly common), or had tragically died prematurely with no “son” yet ready to take over. One such winemaker was Madame de Lacaussade, proprietor of Château de L’Hôspital in the Graves. Her story is perhaps a sad one, in that her children apparently had no interest at all in continuing the family tradition (nor indeed in country life itself).
Perhaps typically of a woman forced to be strong by circumstances, she always made a point of recommending other winemakers to Lynch, who always, without exception, turned out to be vigneronnes. She also, typically of her time, even for Bordeaux, had “a horror of certain modern vinification techniques like chemical fertilizers and asbestos filter plaques” and weedkillers.
I don’t follow this property today. It was bought by a couple called Batistella in 2012 and converted to organics. They professed a desire to restore the Château and vineyards to their “days of past glory”, though one English importer describes a recent vintage (2016) of the red as “almost New World style”. I remember when I was cutting my teeth on Bordeaux in the mid-1980s and Château L’Hôspital often came up in conversation, almost without fail, as a very traditional and extremely good value Graves, a wine which back then always had a large part of the blend made up from Cabernet Franc. I notice that the 2016 vintage is comprised 65% Merlot with almost all of the rest comprising Cabernet Sauvignon. Sic transit gloria mundi, at least in the eyes of those who favour the so-called lesser Cabernet off the gravels south of Bordeaux.
The subject of modern vinification practices comes up a lot in the book, and none more so than filtration. Lynch always tries to get his wines bottled without what he sees as a process which strips the life from the wine. The producers generally quibble on the grounds that like sulphur, filtration adds stability to the wine, adding that customers always complain about sediment. Lynch takes pains to cool-ship his wine, using refrigerated “reefers”. He must have been one of the very first to do this to North America. Today, every wine lover should pay attention to how and when their wine is shipped, filtration or not. Most merchants paid scant regard to such matters back then…and some still don’t today.
So, the book has plenty of examples of the comparison between filtered and unfiltered bottlings of the same wine. Lynch is always surprised that the winemakers don’t undertake this experiment of their own volition. Whether at Domaine Vieux-Télégraph with the Bruniers or at Domaine Tempier with the Peyraud family, everyone always agrees, to Kermit’s great satisfaction, that there is no contest. Unfiltered always wins hands down. There’s a moment later in the book where at Domaine Tempier an old bottle is brought out and, although filtered, has thrown just as much deposit over time as an unfiltered bottle. Why bother? Sediment in wine has to be one of the first things to educate consumers about.
Another thing that comes through in Adventures is how, price aside, it is relatively easier to get hold of examples of some of the appellations he visits today. Nevertheless, some of these are extremely small vineyards. Giving figures in his original edition in acres (not hectares), the author makes some comparisons. 300 acres of Hermitage compared to 7,900 at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 130 at Cornas compared to 2,600 at Gigondas. He mentions that Vieux-Télégraph, which he imports, is itself as large as Cornas. However, he does go on to point a finger at a trend in the Northern Rhône which continues, if more slowly today than in the 1980s and 1990s, the planting of flat land either down near the river or up on the plateau above.
Saint-Joseph has been the most widely publicised victim of over-planting in this way. But Lynch is quite warm towards this often-maligned appellation. He’s always one for making a wine suit the occasion, and clearly the occasion does not often warrant opening a Chave Hermitage. He likens St-Jo to Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, seductively distracting to the Don despite not matching the emotional dimension of Donna Elvira (personally I excuse any imagery which crops up which would surprise some younger readers…it was of a time and perhaps only rarely does the author become overtly sexist in this book).
But I do like his summing up on modern Northern Rhône, when he asks “Which deity handed down the law that serious, heavy wines are better than gay, playful wines? It certainly was not Bacchus. Was it America’s Puritan God, who refuses to accept that wine can be pure unadulterated fun?”
One wonders who the puritan god of wine was that he had in mind? Perhaps we can find a clue later in the same chapter when he talks about some modern Côte-Rôtie wines, drenched in oak (okay, going back to 1980s sexism, perhaps avoid the middle para on page 178 if you don’t want an analogy of big wines with female physique).
“I cannot begin to communicate how profoundly the critics’ embrace of such freak wines depresses me” is at least an assertion with which most of my readership will doubtless agree, perhaps especially in relation to Côte-Rôtie, which I know should be elegant and perfumed.
Kermit Lynch was perhaps the very first wine merchant to suss out what was new in the Beaujolais, and he did so by sussing out what in fact was old, via the group of winemakers which he dubbed the Gang of Four (which forever after has stuck). In his introduction to the Chapter on the Beaujolais he says that when a client is planning a wine trip to France, he always recommends they go to Alsace, or to this region.
Lynch’s love for Beaujolais began with a leading Parisian wine merchant, Jean-Baptiste Chaudet. Chaudet describes Beaujolais as a pale red, with a touch of greenness, rarely above 11% abv, and a wine without chaptalization (sugar added to raise the alcohol level). He contrasts Chaudet’s 1970s description with that from Robert Parker’s 1987 Wine Buyer’s Guide (soft, lush, silky, full, fleshy, rich, supple…all these adjectives are used to describe the wine a decade later). As Lynch says, “Mr Parker is correct. His adjectives perfectly describe today’s overchaptalized, overalcoholic, Beaujolais”.
Chaudet in his autobiography “Marchand de Vin” mentions a near namesake, Jules Chauvet, so Lynch seeks him out. He enters another world, tasting simple, wholly unadulterated wines, wine even without the addition of sulphur dioxide. I could go on at length about where this all leads the author, though it certainly leads him to Lapierre, Foillard et al. These guys crop up again in the more recently added epilogue to the 2013 “25th Anniversary Edition” I have been reading.
What everyone forgets in the story of Jules Chauvet is that he was a great scientist. Indeed, his background in biochemistry led him to work with a Nobel Prize-winning team. But he also remembered what old-style Beaujolais had tasted like, in the days before the Second World War. As a scientist he observed and recorded everything. It shows that he was far from being totally laissez-faire, as many natural wine makers are accused of being, and it was by constant observation that he came to be able to more or less guarantee that his zero added sulphur wines would remain stable, at least so long as they didn’t get too warm.
Chaudet wrote in his autobiography “The day the consumer demands a more natural product, the winemakers will be obliged to take up the methods of their ancestors”. I think what has happened is actually that many winemakers got fed up with soulless wines stripped of flavour, that flavour being replaced with alcohol and oak. So, they have created a sizeable, growing, market for natural wines and consumers are following.
One person whose wine I have never tasted is the late, great, Burgundian winemaker, Henri Jayer. But few truly enamoured with wine would not wish to bask in the romance of Jayer’s wines, even vicariously. I think Lynch must have visited some time in the mid-1980s, when Jayer was in his sixties, during the episodes he relates in the book, but it is obvious they have known each other longer. Jayer was another supposedly “paysan” winemaker, yet as Lynch says, “he’s one of wine’s most lucid intellects”.
Farmers learn far more from long experience than most scientists will learn from five years at University and another four or five in research. I think Jayer hits the proverbial nail on the head when he says “fewer and fewer winemakers are willing to take the risks it requires to make wine in the traditional way” and as Lynch repeats, “he warns that enology is replacing the artistic side of winemaking”.
Is there a key difference in wine appreciation here? Do some of us look at wine as a crafted product which satisfies a need, whilst others look to wine to transcend that, to thrill, excite and transport us who knows where? Of course, wine is probably not art in the same sense as a Picasso painting, a poem by Byron, a novel by Stendhal or a Mozart opera. But it can have elements of art within it based on what its maker is setting out to achieve.
You don’t know what you don’t know, and younger drinkers are obviously unable to process a recollection of something they’ve never had the chance to drink. But what worries me is that I know some older drinkers of a conservative bent who have had plenty of opportunity to sample and to cellar wines from the old timers in some of these once less well known but now classic wine regions (take Cornas as an example). They worship at the feet of the old guys, but yet will not countenance any of the new “natural wine”. You cannot call Jayer anything but the master, just like Aubert de Villaine or perhaps Jean-François Coche. Yet his wisdom is perhaps ignored by his acolytes in the world of wine collecting, the mere name being enough.
I think that my understanding of wine has altered a great deal over the decades in which I have grown to love it in all its forms (well, so long as Macvin and Ratafia are more occasional, er, treats). Wine changed when scores became all important. Or when, as Lynch says, “American wine critics were sounding the intellectual shallows, passionately debating numerical ratings for wine”. He loathes points like I do and suggest that such ratings actually cloud our appreciation of wine. Spot on they do.
I hope the author doesn’t mind me pinching his two best quotations in the book, but I think they sum up my own feelings pretty damned well. Colette tells us “wine makes the true savour of the earth tangible to man” and I would add like no other food we know. But Nikos Kazantzakis, the creator of Zorba, takes it to another level. A level to which not all of us would admit to travelling, but I’m certainly in that place. “When you drank it, you felt as if you were in communion with the blood of the earth itself”. If you are reading this and you say you haven’t been there, then I suggest you were merely too drunk to remember.
My edition, the 25th Anniversary version, as I mentioned, comes with an epilogue which for me is an important addition to the book. It details the “where are they now” for some participants, a number of whom are sadly departed. Lynch also updates us in a few wider areas of interest. Foremost of these is probably “natural wine”. He is thrilled to have been proved wrong and that today there is more interest in unadulterated wine than he had dreamed possible. He doesn’t blow his own trumpet to remind us the part he played in that. Yet he does remind us why this is important, not just aesthetically but for health.
“In Europe today, fifty-nine additives are permitted [in wine], and in the United States a couple of dozen more”…not to mention those that are not permitted! Lynch makes no bones about why he believes additive free wine is healthier for us. He cites a letter from Marcel Lapierre outlining why he believed natural wine was better for us, and I often wonder why so many people think it’s all rubbish. It is truly amazing what people will readily believe, as we have discovered pretty much for the whole of the past five-or-six years, politically speaking. Wine additives are primarily sold for profit and as the wine business is huge, so are those potential profits.
As Kermit Lynch says, “…natural [wine] is alive. Death is stable. Living wines…present a risk and I’ve noticed that even those who demand a natural wine will be back with the bottle if the living wine goes haywire. It would be nice if the risks are shared”. I agree with this, even as a consumer. I have never returned such a wine. One takes a risk buying the bottle, as one may take a risk on a record one hasn’t heard, or on a new and unusual dish in a restaurant. We should try to accept that sometimes we will sense the meaning of life in our Zalto, and occasionally we will experience a volatile or oxidised mess.
As an advocate for living wines, Kermit Lynch was one of the first. His influence has been monumental in his native North America, and few wine obsessives anywhere will be unaware of his name. Life is always full of coincidences and yesterday I discovered that a New Zealand winemaker/estate owner of my acquaintance has been reading the very same book, and discovering what a wonderful read it is.
For some wine lovers it is the one classic wine travel book they will cite, and I can’t recommend it enough for both those like me who through its pages can travel back to their youth, and to younger wine lovers whose lives revolve around today’s natural wine movement. In the pages of this book, they will see the very roots of what, for health and excitement, they drink with such pleasure today. For all readers it offers a different perspective, from the time when the pendulum was swinging towards a certain type of “modern” wine, but perhaps that pendulum is now beginning to swing back.
Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch is published in its 25th Anniversary Edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG Books), this edn 2013 at $19. My copy came from Blackwells online and cost just £12.41 with free (if slow) postage. My only criticism of this paperback edition is that by the time I had read around half of the book some of the pages came loose on account of the glue in the binding. That said, the epilogue of just over thirty additional pages in this 2013 soft cover is, in my view, an essential addition which definitely enhances our appreciation.
For those interested in more wine travel, Drilling for Wine by Robin Yapp was published by Faber & Faber in 1988. It will probably be a second-hand copy if you want to read it, but available quite cheaply (Blackwells Online suggest there’s one for £0.77), although Yapp Brothers wine merchants in Mere, Wiltshire, might still have new copies.