Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ode to insignificant vintages

Every year, impassioned, many wine lovers look forward to the vast ratings of the latest wine vintage. The questions on everyone's lips are: "What will it be this year?" "Good, very good or outstanding?" 'Bad' however, simply doesn't exist anymore. The average person feels that some pressure groups are trying to influence the score of certain important regions. This is big business! Anyway, it is plain to see that everyone needs some guidance these days, isn't it?

Wine magazine X rates Bordeaux as 'excellent' and wine guru Y pins it as the 'year of the century' in Rhône. During your visit in the region Z, you'll hear every wine maker boasting that it was an 'excellent year' and, at the same time, your wine importer will reassure you that the specific year of the wine in question has 'great aging potential'. You start to notice tables everywhere with points per region, and before you even have time to think, you succumb. After all, you are only human.. a consumer who fell for the fad. You'll try to convince your partner that this year you need to invest in Chateauneuf-du-pape because supposedly there will never be another year quite like it. (Looks like that new bathroom will have to wait!) Over the next couple of months the prices are increasing, and of course, this is an affirmation that all those wines are absolutely outstanding. You were right. But above all, you are now officially a wine connoisseur. Congratulations!!

What happens next? Well, you have someone who occasionally writes about food and wine. (Has no degree in either field mind you, as well as never drunk a Premier Cru Classé) and searches special abnormal expressions in wine. Et ce con, Monsieur, c'est moi!! Let me just say: I way prefer the 'insignificant' vintages. I'm not talking about the real shitty years where the grapes couldn't mature because of the cold and rain (remember 1991 in the whole of France.) No, I cherish the less hailed years that didn't receive any credit from most wine professionals. The forgotten years, if you will, depending of course on the different regions, but I have 2004 in Beaujolais and Loire in mind. The same applies to 2008, 2010 and 2011 - especially compared to the ‘magical’ 2009.

In preparation for this article, I have studied four different vintage charts and - forgive my naivety and frankness - but those charts are (according to yours truly) pure bullshit! There are years which have been clearly highlighted as being exceptional in most overviews, but very often there is a clear inconsistency between the different sources. Added to that, the difficulty of rating an entire region or country with one score: Germany 85 points – Spain 92 points – Iceland 99 points. Personally, I already have difficulties in rating ONE bottle of wine (most of the time: good or bad), so you can understand my skepticism for this kind of work. I also noticed that the so called 'less important' wine regions are discriminated. Bordeaux often receives a score for the left and right bank, including the two different colours, and sometimes even Saint-Julien. Then, Pauillac will get a different rating while a gigantic region like Loire only gets one point (regardless the dry white, the red or the sweet wines). It doesn’t surprise anyone anymore that the average score of Loire never exceeds that of the Bordeaux’s. Is this not a form of Apartheid?! Anyway, those marks are a much needed hook for so many wine consumers of the gigantic industry. Ouch, that hurts! Associating wine and the word 'industry' in one sentence…

Mankind wants to quantify everything, as long as no mathematical equation need be solved, with the exception of an average. We are the masters of averaging. Let’s not consider ourselves as mushrooms, shall we, (in the dark, and full of shit) the ratings are often purely based on the hours of sun, and therefore mainly based on the concentration of sugar/alcohol. Also, if it didn't rain much during the last period before the harvest, then we have a great year. Have I simplified things? I probably have, but this fact has been confirmed by the composers of those charts.


It does depend on what you are looking for in wine, of course. If you are indeed biased towards body and structure, then follow the recommendations. Truth is that those types of wine will have more aging potential, which is also a merit.
I truly do prefer the quality of freshness in a wine, as that allows the wine a digestive character. I’m looking for juiciness, and believe me, this you will find more easily in a lesser year, provided the wine has been made by a good wine maker. I search for something that was once described to me as "l'eau de source" - water from the source. You don’t have a clue what I am talking about? No worries, but try to discover it, even if it becomes an addiction.
The taste is difficult to describe, but it's really similar to the sensation you get in the mouth which, when swallowing, reminds you of that when you're drinking pure/fresh water. It's almost one in the same! "Is St Etienne on crack? If I want to taste water, I will drink a bottle of water!! Diluted wine, no thank you!!" Relax, it is not really diluted, it just makes you realize that more than 85% of wine is in actual fact, water. I do know a wine maker who is probably the only one on earth who waits for rain during the harvest. ‘You must be kidding?’ Nope, it's true. I guess his neighbour wine makers declared him to be totally insane a long time ago, which is not entirely true. But you can call him eccentric, nonchalant, stubborn and perhaps even cocky. Or simply, a genius.

Fact is that when tasting his wines, I am always amazed by the juiciness of them, and after every gulp, I have this lingering sensation of purity. According to me, those sensations are much more difficult to obtain during hot vintages. That being said, I also find tasteful acids essential in wine, the kind of oddballs which from beginning to end keep your mouth fresh, and are responsible for the sensation of precise ecstasy. I also want overwhelmingly new impressions after each glass rotation. I want minerality in the nose, but also in the mouth. I want character, I want to taste the wine maker in the wine, the clay from his the boots. I want a bit of everything and at the same time… not too much.
During warm years the alcohol quite often gets the upper hand above all the described sensations. There is a lack of freshness and the needed equilibrium is far away. I shudder from pinot noirs and gamay’s with the alcohol percentage above 14°, even if nature dictates it. A small sadistic part of my personality also knows that those smaller years require more labour than the big ones. Because of the increased intensity in labour during those more difficult years, the hand of the master is more recognizable. More risks are taken too, which leads to either brilliant or sometimes disastrous results. The skills of the wine maker will, without a doubt, come to the surface more evidently during those vintage.
I would like to finish with a statement that this is not a call for a 'U-turn' as only politicians, bankers and football coaches are qualified for this. But please continue to consult different sources, buy wine from top years to possibly store in your cellar, but above all: be open for the insignificant vintages. Do NOT exclude them. Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised by the level of those so-called brats. Discover, compare and seek for ‘l’eau de source’ in wine.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The forgotten wine grapes

I estimate that 80% of all wines in the world are made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin or Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Aside from those, you have 19,99% of the grape varieties that are notorious to certain wine regions or countries: Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Primitivo, Zinfandel, Pinotage, Malbec (Côt), Gamay, Pinot Gris, and let’s say Gewürztraminer. Eventually 10.000 grape kinds have been described in the literature (numerous clones and hybrids included.) So where are the other 9.900 varieties? Well, most of them are totally unsuited to produce wine, and stating that this article is about wine, we can forget about those for the time being. In France alone, there should be around 300 kinds of grapes to cultivate wine.

I would like to talk about the other 0.001% of wines made from the forgotten grapes which never made it into the final selection of supermarkets, aren't mentioned on the long wine lists of prestigious restaurants and are never served on Queen Elizabeth’s table. They are the wines made from grapes that have never been heard of by most sommeliers, and have also therefore, never been tasted by them. Those grapes are the black sheep or the inglorious bastards of a rich family. Quite often they are fragile creatures which have difficulties with extreme weather conditions and only flourish on very specific locations. A long time ago (around the 13th - 15th century) those species were planted by monks who observed them on specific locations over long periods of time. Those abbots had all the time in the world of course, and we welcome everything that takes TIME. For hundreds of years, wine agriculture was a continuous coalesce between man and nature, until in the 20th century when mankind forgot this sacred relationship due to economical interference.

After the phyloxera disaster at the end of the 19th century which destroyed the entire French wine production, our friends in the the minority were resurrected because due to low yields, or because the resulting wines weren't up to the people’s taste standards. There was clear financial reasoning to avoid replanting those forgotten sons and because of this, the possibility of their bright future vanished. It was much easier to switch to stronger and more productive competitors. As the phyloxera epidemic occurred in sync with the industrial revolution, the demand for wine increased. Most certainly in France, where men received a modest three litres daily, and women even more so, with 2 liters on top of their salary. This was regulated by law, as the quality of water was poor and sometimes even deadly. Three litres of wine seems like a lot, but if you browse into some historical literature you will find that mine workers, masons and obviously grape pickers easily consumed eight litres on particularly hot days. Don't forget that in those days the wines contained the average percentage of only around 7-10°, yet still you can imagine a lot of happy faces on the work floor. By the way - good thing there was milk available for the kids to drink up otherwise they'd have to switch to wine too!

We should embrace the fact that courageous wine makers have a new found vision of potential for those rare grapes and have started making wine with them again. Quite often those traditionalists have moments of lunacy, which, according to every honest shrink, is the most important condition to be in when exploring new paths to revolution. I am extremely happy that because of the limited amount of vineyards of those grapes as well as the enormous organoleptic potential, they have been planted once again.

For some strange reason, those apostates received beautiful names after their birth; Ploussard, Menu Pineau, Pineau d'Aunis, Romorantin, Oeillades, Fer-Servadou, Verdanel, Bourboulenc, Négret de Banhars (talk about a black sheep!), Enfariné, Ondenc, Pinotou d'Estaing, Portuguais Blue, Prunelard, Lledoner Pelut, Ribeyrenc ... just to mention a few examples in France. In Italy, their names sound even more exquisite; Refosco dal Peduncolo, Aglianico del Vulture, Coda di Volpe, Casavecchia, Pallagrello Bianco, Chiavennasca and Brugnola.

And of course in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria and Switzerland you can find names that are almost dead like: Godello, Listan Prieto, Cayetana Blanca, Sercial, Croatina, Gouais, Himbertscha, Lafnetscha, Rèze, Humagne, Rotgipfler, (there goes my beautiful name theory) Ortega, Trollinger, etc.

I don’t know all of those grapes, but the ones I do know, have something in common. Wines made by Ploussard, Menu Pineau, Pineau d'Aunis, Romorantin and Rousette all (upon reaching ripeness) contain a higher level of acidity than most of the other, more commonly known grapes. It is this balance that creates a nice tension in the glass and provides enormous drink joy. It is clear that due to their delicate character, those anonymous wines can’t cope with wood, and luckily there are talented wine makers who have realized this. The discovery of a good bottle of pure wine made from one of those forgotten grapes, with it's specific aromas and taste, should be something that every wine lover should strive for. I really do not understand that some wine freaks are obsessed with Cabernet and Merlot wines that are way over priced, that mainly smell like wood, have dried out in the finish, and due to an alcohol percentage of 14° are as interesting as Lance Armstrong trying to reassure us that he didn't take anything illegal during his whole career.
On the other hand, I would like to avoid the situation of all wine drinkers now turning their backs to industrial wines in search for the wines that I am looking for. Fuck a duck, I am no Saint like pope Joseph Alois Ratzinger. It won't be the first time, and it definitely won't be the last time that I conclude an article with the statement that our actual taste diversity is poor and that standardised mass production is responsible for a serious loss in our taste buds. So be it! But it is clear that the revaluation of this minority will increase their production, analogue as with forgotten vegetables. There will be more and more talented young wine makers who prefer the ‘road less traveledl’ than to take the much faster highway to the Carrefour or The Walmart super chain.

On a side note. Once in a while I am confronted with wine snobs who like to show their prestigious wine cellars, or at least talk about them. On those occasions I like to interrupt them immediately with a very simple question: "But do you also have aged wines made from Trousseau? No? Well that’s a shame!!"