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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  • Wednesday, 17 February 2010

    Gallo, Red Bicyclette, Pinot Noir and reality

    A wine label is a world of signs. All words and images upon it confer a meaning that is beyond what is in the bottle. 'E&J Gallo', for instance, indicates the security and confidence of a brand (more significant that the 'E &J' implies a family business); 'Red Bicyclette' singifies a pastoral French lifestyle, a better world, without cars, where Bernadette can prop her bike up against a tree and run down to Gérard on the riverbank; and 'Pinot Noir' is the fashionable grape of finesse, of the cinema, of the moment, and it seems no-one at Gallo - or any one of the thousands of people who bought their bottles - know what it tastes like.

    Because at all levels of wine I would posit that none of us actually take it for what it is. We all, to greater or lesser extents, rely on the complex formulae of signs on the label. What we taste is not wine but the accumulation of previous understanding. I would also add that we are complicit in this obfuscation of the grape. We require a label, a form, something other than pure wine.

    Why? Because we buy it. There is, again, a parallel in literature. It is no coincidence that, as the renaissance took hold of Europe, as the mercantile class emerged, so the importance of who wrote the book became paramount. Previously, authors were relatively unimportant because they did not rely on the sale of their work.

    So the same is true of the wine and its label. It performs that amazing function that, in forcing us to provide a mythical space around the wine, we both identify with it and forgive its faults.

    I'm not saying we should return to the age of the Medicis but I am saying that within this 'Red bicyclette' scandal, there are no innocent parties (including us).

    [Although I do feel sorry for the actual grapes which, were I given to anthropomorphism, I would say have been treated like an ugly rent boy forced to wear a George Clooney mask. And no-one spotted his duplicity until someone checked the pimp's accounts...]

    But it doesn't just stop there. As I've pointed out, the semiotics (signs) of a wine label evoke just about everything but the wine. They are, if I want to be controversial, the very definition of 'Terroir'.

    'Château Latour, Grand Cru Classé, Pauillac, Bordeaux' evokes feudal splendour, heritage, the earth, the region, the pedigree of the estate - even the symbolic nature of Bordeaux as a region - and everything (even the understanding of the grapes that are part of this 'terroir') is swallowed by our minds before we taste the wine.

    This notion even stretches to having an all-natural wine or a Demeter stamp somewhere on the label.

    Now I'm not making an argument for clearskin bottles, all I am saying is that our desire to evoke this quasi-mystical space around the wine has to be treated and analysed in a similar fashion to the wine itself.

  • NB: It is perhaps interesting that Masters of Wine tasting exams and many blind tastings are the reverse of this process. For instance, in the MW tasting candidates have to show their method of deduction to reach the conclusion that identifies the wine. Thus one takes the pure wine and tries to reconstruct the appropriate mythology. According to the Institute, one must 'Identify the most relevant criteria, and provide a concise summary of the evidence' [emphasis is mine].

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  • Saturday, 12 September 2009

    Let's grow cabbage in a desert

    Well, here's a good idea: plant Pinot Noir in La Mancha. Yes, the world's favourite cool climate red grape in one of the hottest wine growing region's around. Even better, they're also allowing white wine producers to grow Riesling there. Brilliant.

    While there are areas of altitude, of cooler microclimate, in La Mancha, it's a bit like Champagne allowing Malbec in the blend. Ah, if only it were fashionable. I'm tempted to hold judgement on the possible La Mancha Rieslings but I won't. We all know they're going to be pants.

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