Sunday, 30 December 2012

NATURAL WINE: a reply to @ Jamie Goode



I was interested to read your broad defence of Jamie’s position, even if it did fail to answer the specific points I raised in my post. Urging me, and for that matter Jamie, to come and float with you at wine’s discursive surface is, I’m afraid, harder than you make-out; it’s not that we can’t swim, I’m sure we both enjoy a lark in the shallows every bit as much as you, it’s just knowing that there is a world of explanations, causes and effects churning in the depths below makes some of us want to dive down deeper. When I use words like terroir and aldehydes, or consider the consequences of a lifetime spent drinking non-“natural” wines, I want to know exactly what I have committed myself to.


As critics, buyers and sellers of wine we come to the production process quite late on. Notwithstanding this, few of our customers share in the kind of privileged access we have to production – to the people, vineyards and landscapes – and it is incumbent upon us to represent them in an accurate and interesting way as we can. In choosing Paul Draper as an exemplar of everything that is worthy of adulation in the wine industry, I wasn’t making a cheap shot. When someone as coherent, respected and successful as Draper makes statements about typicité and terroir I find it hard to maintain objectivity, because the quality of the wines leaves little room for scepticism.


It’s worth reflecting on the success of Ridge Monte Bello ‘71 at the Judgement of Paris 30thAnniversary re-tasting. Producers like Draper are in many ways operating in the ugly, primordial stages of a wine’s life. Young, cloudy, CO2 saturated wine shows little congruence with the finished products that are sold to consumers or tasted by critics, yet it is during this period that most of the repercussive decisions about a wine’s future evolution are made. Rather like the Jesuit mantra which takes the boy at seven and returns the man, winemakers intervene at these early and confused stages of development to provide positive and predictable outcomes. In the case of Monte Bello, or the blending of vin clair in Champagne, the implications of these decisions are realised within an elongated temporal framework that is in a substantial way determined by the winemaking; the released bottle of Monte Bello or Blanc de Noirs is not like some capricious desert flower that blooms fitfully, rather its flowering is actively nurtured and sustained. When Paul Draper says that S02 addition is necessary for his wines to reveal their typicité, I suspect he is alluding to this very point. The ‘71 Monte Bello was as recognisable and representative of the limestone hills of Santa Cruz Mountains in 2006 as it was in 1976. Durability, it might be argued, is part of the vineyard’s intrinsic character.


The same nature/nurture argument can be made in a different way. Each year, candidates put themselves through the MW exam. Thirty-six wines are tasted blind, and every year candidates identify and differentiate claret from Napa Cabernet, Pauillac from Margaux, and one vintage year from another. When I took and passed the exam in 1998 I correctly identified 5 vintages of Cos d’Estournel, even though the most valuable bottle I had tasted in the six months prior to the exam had been a Château St Pierre, St Julien, 1989. There was no heavy hand of winemaking here, nor the obfuscation of origins; how could there be? Blind tasting is the ultimate test of typicité, and the Institute’s position on natural wines is that their inherent instability makes consistent identification impossible. In the year-long preamble of tastings that leads up to the exam, natural wines show too much variability; the students wouldn’t stand a chance: they are not considered a fair test of ability.  Nature alone only gets you so far, and it certainly won’t allow one to conclude that natural wines provide the best viewpoint from which to assay either typicité or terroir.

Terroir has always been one of the touchstones of the natural wine movement, and as I said at the start, it’s one of the topics that encourages me to dive through the discursive surface of wine descriptions. The late Peter A. Sichel once claimed that only a small fraction of Bordeaux’s vignoble properly had terroir, and he urged parsimony in the term’s attribution and use. For a long time he had the support of wine producing allies in the New World, who mockingly depicted terroir as either a pernicious European marketing stunt, or an apologists charter for unripe fruit and poor hygiene. But then, somewhere along the track these protagonists either gave-up on this line of attack or lost the argument, because today terroir is everywhere.


I have written extensively on the terroir of Burgundy, but Sichel’s home region of Bordeaux throws up some often alluded to but scarcely understood examples of terroir. The soil at Pétrus is predominantly clay, but incorporated into the clay is smectite, a volcanic mineral that dramatically changes the soil’s physical and chemical properties. Conditions within damp smectite clays are so anaerobic that new roots struggle to grow, while old roots die. Consequently, the vines' extraction of water is impeded, even though the clay can feel wet to the touch. The expansion is so dramatic that after 10mm of rainfall, the soil self-seals at its surface, so in a wet year like 1967, the vines can still be subjected to beneficial levels of water stress. Conversely, in dry years smectite clays shrink and crack, encouraging water and root penetration which, in turn, maintains a restricted but valuable flow of nutrients and water to the vine - invaluable in an anisohydric variety like merlot. This is an empirical account of how the soil at Pétrus regulates vine performance, but it’s not the full account of terroir, because it takes human intervention to shape the raw materials from the vineyard into a finished wine that contains all the identifiable tropes of Pétrus, which include homogeneity and stability, and the concomitant ability of the wines to age and plateau.

Accordingly, in Sichel’s historiographical account, we are better-off thinking of terroir from a qualitative perspective, as a tool that provides us with a means of differentiating between the quality of wines drawn from a small, circumscribed area (here, Pomerol), rather than a system of demarcation built upon regional taste. In other words, the pedological element of terroir is best applied qualitatively at the micro/vineyard level. The fruit that comes off the vine that grows up my house might yield a wine with a distinctive character, but this doesn’t mean it has terroir. Thus far, there is no differential, qualitative subdivision that needs adjudicating upon in Lyddington.


The meaning of terms changes over time, but terroir now seems so ubiquitous as to be rendered meaningless, which is a shame because people like Cornelius van Leeuwen at Bordeaux University are patiently building a detailed scientific account of the term as articulated by Peter Sichel. Like so much of science, huge efforts are required to move small distances, not that this discourages people like Van Leeuwen. Cheval Blanc took the decision to exclude certain vineyards traditionally incorporated into their Grand Vin as a result of Van Leeuwen’s survey of the property, which is a useful example of the way in which empirical analysis can help inform viticultural decision making for the better. The same point can be made about Paul Draper; I don’t know any winemaker who makes a more detailed study of tannin polymerisation, and while the results of these analyses don’t ultimately decide maceration lengths, racking intervals, or, indeed, SO2 additions, they do bring additional qualification to the scheduling of these procedures.


The global appropriation of terroir has lessons for the natural wine movement. It’s a logician’s slogan that there is “no entity without identity”, thus if you define yourself too loosely, anything goes. As far as I can work out, given that there appears to be no specific definition for what is allowed or prohibited in “natural” wine, the production of natural wine is compatible with a range of beliefs and practices whose adherents would normally be quite antagonistic towards each other, like genetic modification (GM promises disease-resistant, no-spray vines), organic production (“chemical-free” farming), or the sanctioned use of synthetic fungicides via Integrated Pest Management or so-called “sustainable” regimes (lutte raisonnée).


Re-joining you at the discursive surface again, it may surprise you to learn that I have bought, and will continue to buy wine from AA Pian, Cousin and Mazel; they are good wines, in fact, they are very good wines, and part of the 5% I identified in my original post. As I recall, I didn’t say all the wines were bad, I just pointed out that the natural wine movement has a long tail of unstable, acetic and, at its tip, quite horrid wine. I think it would be impossible for us to arbitrate between our respective opinions on some of these wines, although I am more than happy to concede that clumsy, heavy-handed oenology is just as capable of returning disappointing bottles.


My real difficulty however is with your invocation of terms like typicité, and terroir, used interchangably and as a defence of your position. You accused me of being a self-styled wine academic, but from my perspective you have misappropriated terms and then nominated yourself as the guardian of them. By countenancing instability as a price worth paying, you demean winemakers; and you deprive them their role in the remarkable aesthetic transformation that turns perishable fruit into, balanced, enduring, age-worthy wine. Ageing is a property of terroir but for you the temporal element of production risks complete evisceration. By minimizing man’s role in the terroir mix you posit a false dichotomy between winemaking and terroir. Yet terroir has always been a synergy between man and nature; without human sensibility, creativity and intervention it’s hard to see how we even get started along this dirt road in the first place.


Most conspicuously, the use of sulfur dioxide brings a degree of consistency to the product (as evinced by Draper), and allows blind tasters to successfully adjudicate on age, origins and grape varieties, yet this is not typicité as you construe it in your argument. You are like a painter who believes he’s done his job once the paints are mixed. From my side of the glass at least, nature is not a sufficient condition for art; terroir is qualitatively-driven; and the best test of typicité is via blind-tasting.


Wine is one of the more satisfying ways through which we view turbulent nature, so let’s agree to keep the chaos outside the bottle, not within it.

For Doug's response   -  

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