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Slow Wine

By |  March 3 2010

To be sure, a few regional leaders have practiced this for many years. The Wachau’s Nikolaihof bottles its Steiner Hund Riesling in its second year, and selected lots are left in cask until Nikolaus Saahs deems them ready-sometimes for a decade or more. They then dazzle from bottle for years. Pfälzer Bernd Philippi’s inimitable Koehler-Rupprecht Kallstadter Saumagen Rieslings aren’t released for four to six years. Few wines of their regions can touch these for haunting complexity, though oxidative development and risk are inherent.

Fundamental rethinking of the vintner’s role often accompanies slowwine regimens. Young Marsannay vigneron Laurent Fournier’s Version Originale is, he says, a result of "my intuition, or rather, my curiosity. It means bringing patience to bear, and having confidence in one’s grapes. Perhaps it comes close to the way the old-timers did things-except that they had little choice." For him, slowing down is an aspect of self-restraint, a protocol many growers honor only with words.

Take Südpfälzer Theo Minges’s Riesling Froschkönig (named for The Frog Prince). "I did it without thinking," he insists. Adding no yeasts or sulfur, nor anything else, Minges let nature hold sway for 18 months, believing that time optimizes potential. And whether or not this is rational, the wine was certainly his slowest, and perhaps his best, yet.

Roman Niewodniczanski (of Saar Weingut Van Volxem) dubs his slowest wine-from centenarian vines-"1900," calling it "a reversion to traditional craftsmanship. I’m firmly convinced," he opines, "that top-quality Saar wines in accordance with the historical paradigm require much more time in their cellar evolution, as well as in bottle. But unfortunately that entirely contradicts present-day marketing practices." A fellow rescuer of ancient vines and slate slopes, Reinhard Löwenstein didn’t bottle his superb 2007 Uhlen Roth Lay from the Mosel for 17 months and hopes to afford other cuvées the same leisure soon. "Afford" is, as he says, an important word: Time will tell how broadly this model is sustainable. But time is, he thinks, critical to a wine’s testimony to a place, and to awaiting-not trying to seize-the fortuitous, perhaps magic, moment in which-as he loftily writes- not the vintner, but rather Caerus, as "Chronos’s adversary […] the great magician of timelessness," intervenes.

When Michael Mossbrugger assumed direction of the Kamptal’s Schloss Gobelsburg, the works of his monastic pre-’60s predecessors were on his mind and in his cellar, inspiring his Cuvées Traditions. "The goal in that era," he says, "was ‘tutelage’ of wine, [a term chosen] with reference to the parallel in human development. Hence the notion that wine needs to ‘breathe,’ completely contrary to our modern conception whereby we must protect wine from, more than expose it to, oxygen." Élevage took place "according to the principle that for every wine there is an ideal, and it is the task of the vintner to lead the wine to [it]. Only [then] would wine be released for sale and enjoyment."

As savvy French wine watcher Jacqueline Friedrich cautions, those growers attempting to turn back the clock are often "ones whose viticultural roots go back no further than their own decision to become winemakers. And since Grandpa didn’t make wine, there’s often more imagination than history."

A widespread, self-proclaimed "natural wine" movement and concurrent phobia of sulfur intersects slow-wine interests, with many results that could well be named Le Roi Grenouille for the muddying, unsavory effects of that fairytale frog on well water.

Attempts at vinificatory reimagination fall prey to similar criticism as greeted bids to reconstruct "ancient" musical performance practice.3 The discontinuity separating just two or three wine-growing generations is arguably more profound than that between Bach and Beecham.

Still, forgetting the issue of fidelity to history, the question should be posed: What’s gained by methods undertaken in its name? Not just the practices customary for pre-19th-century repertoire in 21st-century halls, but the acoustical sensibilities of audiences to the whole classical corpus have been transformed by a movement that was derided a generation ago as anachronistic and delusional. Could this happen with wine? Wild yeasts, unbridled ferments, low sulfur, and slow cask conditioning may be no less tricky to master than low-tension gut strings, bent bows, and valveless horns-and the ensuing tones no less subject to assimilation than vibratofree strings, an organ’s "chiff," and the soft complaint of Baroque winds. All it takes, as Fournier rightly says, is patience and confidence.

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