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Muddled Thinking

By |  March 10 2009

As part of a regionwide day of mourning, drapes will be placed over the nameplates of world-famous, much-loved towns and villages that have become pariahs in their own land. Back in Paris, meanwhile, our minister for agriculture has behaved with the same unfailing pusillanimity as a certain predecessor of his-a man who used to sublet his tied accommodation and always refused to discuss his mandate (that is, the future of French farming) with France’s leading wine magazine, La Revue du Vin de France. The present incumbent has suddenly canceled his official visit to St-Emilion, preferring to rat on a long-standing engagement than fall foul of the health minister or our famously teetotal president.

Should we be surprised? Not really: This is a man who would rather fly out at the state’s expense to commiserate with the money problems of deep-sea fishermen. Also in Paris, a rabid judge recently condemned the French daily newspaper Le Parisien for making Champagne sound too attractive; this is the latest in a string of cases brought against the fourth estate by the national anti-alcohol lobby, the ANPAA. In a searing attack on the system called "In Vinos Satanas," Revue du Vin de France editor Denis Saverot notes that the ANPAA is a 1,400-strong organization with a budget of ¤66 million. In addition to the French press, the ANPAA is now going after the Internet, whose misfortune it is that the iniquitous Evin Law was passed in 1991, before the Internet really got started.

Since then, the country with Marianne as its emblem has banned pretty girls from grand cru advertising and allows footballers to display nothing more than sparkling-water bubbles on their shirts. Apparently, our anti-alcohol fanatics have at least dropped the idea of forcing websites to advertise in working hours only, as is the rule for American liquor stores. It seems that someone pointed out that websites cross borders…

No more black and white

Further demonstration of today’s hopelessly muddled thinking comes from top French sommelier Gérard Margeon. Wine buyer for all the Alain Ducasse restaurants, Margeon informs me that he has been offered unlimited quantities of the 2005 Bordeaux first growths at half price-we are talking about the most widely acclaimed wine in living history, unobtainable just six months ago. Bad news indeed for people who paid the earth for them a while back, and unlikely to restore consumer affection for the most famous French wines ever made. Hopefully, the current financial crisis (which is only just beginning) will at least put paid to all the stupid speculation that has gradually reduced Château Latour and Château Margaux to virtual labels with an uncertain price tag-changing hands as the market rises and falls, without the bottles ever leaving the wine merchant’s cellars. Until, that is, they are eventually bought by the millionaire village idiot, who pays the price of being last in line…

And yet the performance from these crus has never been better. The 2008 vintage was low in yield but definitely very promising. My recent tour of the harvests was ample proof of the efforts made by wine growers all over France to select only the healthiest, ripest, very best grapes. Flowering marked the start of a battle between man and nature that continued right through to the harvest, fighting off every disease imaginable and taking extraordinary pains to eliminate unwanted or contaminated fruit. Eventually, each plot was harvested separately and every batch was sorted to the point of exhaustion. Procedures this year were particularly strict (though looking back, perhaps they should have been stricter in the past). It’s a year that is bound to change the behavior and preconceived opinions of connoisseurs.

Until now, your connoisseur was someone qualified to make lofty forecasts about vintages-from great wines to buy at any price, to vintages that you wouldn’t want as a gift.

However, that black-and-white way of seeing things is going to have to change, because the real difference between a great and a not-so-great vintage is just that the former contains hardly any bad grapes and the latter contains hardly any good ones. If good grapes are all that remain after thorough sorting, then you have the makings of a very respectable wine, even though the quantity may be limited. On those terms, any vintage can be a proper expression of its terroir, the fullness and eloquence of that expression depending only on the producer’s ability to find it. The honest drinker, meanwhile, has the pleasure of detecting those subtle nuances that distinguish one growing season from another, of savoring those infinite variations in body, flavor, and texture that come from all the fluctuations in temperature, rainfall, wind, and exposure to sunlight. It is the wine grower’s privileged responsibility to capture those differences in his wine, delivering up a few fleeting moments of gracious refinement to an absurd and brutally cynical world.

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