By | August 12 2015
Quantify quality? (Have I mentioned this before?) I remain to be convinced. Take the scoring sheets for competitive tastings that try to dragoon the tasters into giving points for characteristics. As in three points for color. Does this mean amount (or depth) of color? Or appropriateness (paler for Pinot, darker for Cabernet)? Since certain winemakers started routinely using dyes it makes even less sense. Brilliance, yes. But the fact that a wine could win a trophy by getting 3 out of 3 for its color is a bit of a worry.
I won’t pursue the scoring issue, since scoring is something I’ve always felt unqualified to do myself. I bring it up here because one of the qualities or characteristics often mentioned is "typicity." If a Beaujolais is unmistakably a granitic Gamay, it gets, let’s say, 3 points. A shoutingly obvious Pomerol, an Amador Zin, or a Barossissima Shiraz gets the same- if not for quality, just for wearing its badge on its radiator.
You can argue, of course, that it is discipline that stimulates quality. A sonnet or a limerick is defined by its 14- or 5-line boundaries and its rhyme scheme. The craftsman working within the straitjacket does something he couldn’t have done without it. Can you argue this way for appellations contrôlées-or even for one-variety wines? Only maybe.
I can see that, from the taster’s point of view, an entry with an obvious identity has an advantage. It offers its own context; tasters can easily refer to their memory files and make comparisons. Is it a Spätlese or an Auslese, a Cornas or a Crozes? But on a more interesting level, is typicity something we should prize for itself? If it is, where does that leave originality?
Does anyone give points for originality? It seems an odd question, somehow. What form might it take? Is it original to blend, let’s say, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon? It certainly was, though I forget which South Australian first thought of it. Bringing old varieties back from nearextinction might well qualify, and why not planting vines where none has grown before? Certainly fermenting in amphorae, as Josko Gravner does. And what about spilling the beans, like Randall Grahm? I can’t imagine-can you?-the creation of an entire new category of wine: a style as different as Port or Sherry or Champagne. They were all, in their origins, adaptations to the exigencies of climate or trading conditions or the sheer cussedness of the fermenting fluid. Perhaps Madeira is the most peculiar case- a wine that only came good through extreme mistreatment, rolling around in the stinking bilges of a ship on the equator. The contrast to today’s firstclass accommodation in reefers could hardly be sharper.
No, today’s originality probably emerges from a test tube, or whatever kit they use in labs these days. You should read Postmodern Winemaking by Clark Smith, a magnificently selfconfident but nonetheless likable tour d’horizon of the techniques winemakers could or should be using to make the most of their grapes today. Smith is a writer who can charge way ahead of you (or rather, ahead of me) in scientific exposition yet keep you tagging breathlessly along, full of interest and bursting with questions. (Ions and cations, never mind the vicinal diphenol cascade, are way out of my league.) His drift remains clear, though. Science hurries along, taking all sorts of wrong turnings en route. Remember when UC Davis coldshouldered the whole idea of terroir not even mentioning soil in its obsession with degree-days? It’s not even 20 years ago. Yet the scientist’s understanding of the physical and chemical goings-on inside barrel and bottle has inescapable consequences. As I say, you must read the book. It throws up in the air most of the received wisdom of modern wine making. New barrels, for example, can be worse than a waste of money; they often waste (or at least spoil) good wine. But I mustn’t spoil it for you. And you must come to terms with microbullage.
An electric buzz
One chapter that grabbed me, incidentally, is Smith’s bold stab at defining and explaining the "minerality" that everyone talks about. He likens it to an electrical charge on the palate and accounts for it, tentatively, as "the flow of electrons released from various metallic elements. It’s plausible," he writes, "that specific mineral mixes can essentially constitute a multistage battery in a wine." As a poetic concept rather than an intellectual one, I see some sense in this. Minerality as "an electric buzz in the finish." Getting close, surely? Which brings me to my coups de coeur-recent wines with the electric buzz. They have been less frequent than you might expect, seeing how ubiquitous the word is these days in tasting notes and especially on back labels.
The Mosel is where I look for it most confidently, which is tricky, because the closely parallel sensation of acidity is obviously a powerful presence here as well. There is at least one vineyard where it seems inherent-I think not coincidentally the highest rated in the region, if not all of Germany. I mean, of course, Scharzhofberg. It is customary, if not indeed compulsory, to find extraordinary qualities in Egon Müller’s Auslesen and divinity in his Gold Capsule ones. Few wines on earth reward you more generously for long years in bottle. We drank a 1983 recently, and its satin glide through my mouth and throat is still vivid in my memory.
Satin is relatively easy; energy less so. But e=mc2. Einstein says energy and matter are the same thing. How many wines do you know that overflow with matter but have no energy (that is, energy detectable by your palate) at all? Many of us have tried to pin down the sensation of drinking great German Rieslings, often explaining it simply as the tension created by the opposing forces of sugar and acidity. I know that I’ve used the image of electricity more than once. Suppose it were true…
I found the same inherent liveliness the other day in an unsuspected, or at last unpublicized, place: in a vin gris from the Loire. I’m having a bit of a thing about vin gris. It isn’t rosé, because the real McCoy is made from gray grapes-that is, grapes that are neither black nor white. A very light rosé of Pinot Noir is also known as vin gris, but that’s not it. The Loire wine was a Pinot Gris from Reuilly -much more interesting than that commune’s Sauvignon Blanc.
Gewürztraminer is a pink grape capable of thrilling wine-if more golden than gray. Grenache Gris (used for vins doux naturels, Cannonau in Sardinia, and improbably known in Corsica as l’Elégante) is another. But Grenache Gris can be elegant- even minerally. Of all the unexpected pleasures I meet in Wales, one is the dry Maury of Grenache Gris from Domaine Kathy Jones, a Welshwoman transplanted to the Midi. It has the soft fatness you might expect so far south. But it tingles.
And there’s the Sauvignon Gris I used to grow in the Allier. Growers in the Graves, its native region, are rediscovering the virtues that gave it the synonym of Fié, "the faithful." At Château Smith Haut Lafitte they are apparently planting more and more "for its minerality."
Coups de coeur? The more bottles I open, in these days of enlightened winemaking, the more my heart goes out to the unexpected jewels. Some are genuinely original; most are rediscoveries or reinventions of three-quarters buried traditions embodied in marginal grape varieties. Sentimental, moi?