Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Wine classification: do we really need it?

My initial reaction to reading Matthew Jukes and Tyson Stelzer's (3rd) classification of New Zealand Pinot Noir was akin to that of watching your 15 year-old brother being dragged out of school to go and work in the mills. Why does such an interesting and growing wine country need a classification that only implies stasis?

Well the first answer is probably that the classification is revised yearly, so no stasis is implied. The problem with yearly revisions (similar to St Emilion's abortive attempts at a 10-year classification) merely hints that classification as such is impossible.

As a potential guide to the current darlings of the region, that's fine. But set in stone? I doubt it. It's simply Jukes and Stelzer's 'favourite wines so far'. So why call it a classification?

Wine writing is merely the attempt to make the ephemeral concrete. Just because a critic doesn't smell or write down 'the aroma of camphor' or 'my granddad's aftershave' doesn't mean it isn't there. But that doesn't mean the wine writer won't give it a go. So the same with classifications.

Faced with such a vast array of wines, I believe there is a desire to pin down the best. And to do it in a league table? Perfect: it's like Polo rankings and booze combined. You can talk about it until the cows decide they've had enough wandering in other paddocks and prefer the comforts of the hearth.

I believe that part of the desire to classify wines also serves no other purpose than pure bragging. It is the perpetuation of the notion that the likes of Jukes, or Langton's (which classifies Australian wine), is 'supposed to know' more than the rest of us. If he did not believe he was the authority on New Zealand Pinot Noir, would Jukes say: 'Three years ago I had a bit of a rant and told producers they weren't as good as they thought they were'?

The point, I think, is that wine cannot and should not be classified. The ultimate classification, the 1855 in Bordeaux, is so distanced from reality I believe that its perpetuation is due to the desire to keep five châteaux at the top of the pile with a few other potential investment opportunities below. Imagine a Dow Jones or a FTSE where five companies were always at the top and could be guaranteed as such. Haut-Brion, Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Mouton are those five companies.

Perhaps we should all draw our inspiration from Pomerol and leave aside a classification.

  • Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we should physically force all wine critics nail their flags to the mast and classify each region according to their taste? In fact, I would love to see that.

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