Is There Such A Thing As A Philosophy Of Wine?
Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine is the title of a series of essays edited by Barry C. Smith which was published last year by the Oxford University Press. Randy Sheahan has already reviewed it in these pages, and as I largely agree with him that it is a load of pretentious rubbish, and not very elegantly or comprehensibly expressed at that, I shall not bore you any more with it.
But it set me thinking. Is there, or should there be, a philosophy of wine? I'm no philosopher, but, as it happens, one of my brothers is. I'm just a humble hack who used to be a humble wine-merchant. Do I need a philosophy? If, as this book might suggest, philosophers can't write about wine. Should I, as a wine writer, be concerning myself with wine philosophy? The more I thought about it, the more I realised there was no such thing. I could waffle on about taste (but it would be better if a qualified E.N.T. surgeon did: he or she would know vastly more about taste-buds than I). I could hold forth about the effects on the nervous system of alcohol (again better a professional: all I would be doing is generalising from the particular). I could even stray into the more airy-fairy fields of the 'enobling' quality of great bottles. But that would probably be pompous nonsense.
And yet, if not a 'philosophy', there is, lurking in the background, something which more prosaically but more honestly I will call the imperatives which govern how I go about my business of being a wine-writer. Call them guiding principles if you like. Or a modus vivendi. They can be summarised as follows: Love, Belief, Celebration and Transmission.
Love really means passion. A fascination with the historical background, the inexorability of terroir, the inevitable economic constraints, and the personalities and philosophies of the people responsible. In short an attempt to understand and explain to the reader the relationship between land, grape variety and wine-maker. It hardly needs to be said that all this arises from a deep love of wine and its constant complexity and variety. What could be more exciting than a new vintage to assess every year?
Belief boils down to self-belief; a confidence that after more than 40 years at the rock face one has begun to understand something. That with this experience one can differentiate nor only between the good and the elegant and the bad and the coarse; but one can separate the sincere from the false; the pretentious, the superficial and the manipulated from the honest, the pure and the true. From this should come a determination not to accept second best (there is nothing elitist about this!); not to succumb to fashion; and to have the courage to point out that from time to time the emperor is not wearing any clothes.
Celebrate! Go out and spread the gospel! From the least to the greatest, wine is, or should be, the most delicious and food-friendly beverage of all as well as a great aperitif and digestif. It doesn't have to cost a bomb. One doesn't have to wallow in wall-to-wall Petrus. Those who only drink first growths because it is beneath their dignity to drink anything else – and perhaps are also some of those who consume only diet Coke between Monday and Friday – are idiots, and should be lined up and shot. So, go forth and enthuse the public. Be entertaining while you are about it. There is nothing more turning off than being boring. Persuade people to be adventurous, to drink wine more regularly, and to have the courage of their own convictions.
Transmission is a duty. When Anthony Barton thanked his uncle Roland from having bestowed responsibility for Langoa and Léoville on him, Roland immediately pointed out that Anthony only had the properties in trust for the next generation. Those of us who know a little about wine have inevitably been taught by others, and it is our duty to pass this knowledge and experience on to the next generation. We are today's mentors. So we must be generous with our time and old bottles. We must be patient. In this case we do suffer fools gladly. Sadly there are those out there who will never get it. But it is immensly rewarding to come acoss a young man or woman – and it doesn't matter if they are professional or amateut - who you realise, instincively almost, do have the 'knack' with wine. These people should be encouraged fifty times over.
But, enough of this, I hear you say. And, yes, you are right. Go and cook a nice meal, open a bottle of good wine. And enjoy it. That's what au fond it's all about.
1985 Red Burgundy - The 1985 vintage represents a watershed in the vinous history of Burgundy.
Prior to this date, by and large, growers made wine, merchants bought it, assembled several parcels, where appropriate, and sold it. Subsequently, more and more domaines started to mature, bottle and market the wines themselves. Meanwhile many merchants had seized the opportunity to increase their own estates, so that, particularly at the top end, they were more or less self-sufficient. Back in the 1970s, and earlier, there were barely a couple of dozen growers or so – one thinks of Rousseau, Dujac, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Gouges, Lafarge and Leflaive - who did not sell in bulk. Many of today's super-stars only bottled a token quantity, and were unknown even to the most perspicacious merchant or journalist.
The emergence of these new domaines transformed Burgundy. Within a very short space of time almost everyone who had grand cru and many who had good premier cru was bottling as much as they could themselves. There was the question of cash-flow of course. If you sold to a merchant you were paid in full by the time of the subsequent vintage. If you sold in bottle you did not receive the money until some two and a half years later, after bottling 18 months after the harvest and eventual shipping in the winter after that. So one could not, unless otherwise financed, move from selling in bulk to selling in bottle over-night. I remember the late, lamented Philippe Engel explaining to me that the transformation chez lui had taken ten years.
The process was encouraged by the locals on the spot. Burgundy is a generous wine region. Most growers are on very good terms with their neighbours and only too happy to help out if there is a problem. Naturally, the very best have a queue of potential buyers waiting to step in if one of the regular customers falls by the way-side. What could be more natural for the much-solicited important domaine proprietor than to recommend a hitherto unknown young neighbour who was looking for business. If he or she was a cousin or an in-law so much the better.
Moreover, quality was improving, and by leaps and bounds. The best growers had been to the Viti in Beaune and subsequently to the University at Dijon. Many went off to do a stage in California or Australia, or somewhere else in France. Tasting each others' wines with your neighbours became common-place. Firstly the fact of selling your wine under your own label compelled you not to cut corners, which you might have been tempted to do if you were merely selling off in bulk. Tasting your wine alongside those of your friends and reading a critique of it in some wine review would soon teach you if you were producing top quality or not. Secondly techniques of viticulture and viniculture had become more and more sophisticated. There was a return to ploughing and the elimination of herbicides and pesticides. There was rather more consideration to the size of the crop. And lastly the introduction of the sorting table: the greatest contribution to the rise of quality of all. Today everyone has aa sorting table. The first I saw was a the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti when I was making a video in 1987. Finally, after a disappointing run of vintages in the 1970s and early 1980s, 1985 ushered in a series of high quality years which has continued to this day. Burgundy has not had a bad vintage since 1984. Thirty years.
The consequence of all this is that it is increasingly difficult for everyone, not just the outside journalist, to keep pace. Every year there are new domaines, worthy of investigation, and waiting to be discovered. In 1985 I visited some six domaines in Gevry, four in Morey and Chambolle and perhaps eight in Vosne. Today I'd have to visit 25 in Gevrey, and so on. A marathon I no longer have the energy for. I am very lucky to have been on the spot at the time and to have lived through what was an exciting time in Burgundy. Now, with some relief, I am more or less retired.
But back to 1985. The 1985 growing season began with a bout of really savage frost. Fears were raised, particularly in Chablis, that the crop would be negligible as a result. Happily these proved groundless (in fact Chablis produced more in 1985 than in 1984). There was nevertheless some damage, and in Gevrey and other villages of the Côte d'Or as well as in Chablis, ensuring that in some cases several premiers crus would eventually have to be vinified together as there was not enough potential wine for them to be attended to separately.
Following the cold winter the spring and early summer passed without mishap. The flowering was a little late, but on those vines not affected by the frost a perfectly satisfactory crop of flowers set into fruit. May, June and july were avearge, but then from the beginning of August a perfect fin de saison set in. August and September were almost entirely dry, and if the earlier month was only averagely warm, the latter month was really quite hot. This transformed the vintage from something uneven, behind-hand and unpromising to something ripe, uniform, healthy and concentrated.
The collection of the fruit began in the last week of September. It was an easy harvest: no rain, no vinification problems, and no lack, it seemed, of either bunches of fruit or juice. At the Domaine Armand Rousseau in Gevrey-Chambertin 25 pickers were employed for six days. In 1986 it would requite 50 for 12. Despite the fears at the beginning of the year, the size of the crop turned out quite substantial: 220,000 hectolitres in the Côte d'Or (excluding generics); similar to 1983, less than the prolific 1982, but much more than the short 1984.
Tasting the 1985s during the course of 1986 was a pleasurable and not too exhausting experience. The wines had good colour, there was plenty of volume without any aggressive tannins, and engaging fruit, finely balanced by the acidity. I enjoyed myself.
But as my tasting sessions continued one doubt started to nag at the back of my mind. Were the wines too easy? Was there enough backbone to ensure that they would last? It was obvious that in some cases there had been an excess crop. And as a result these wines lacked concentration. But these were rarities. It was the overall picture which raised the question of how well the 1985s would hold up.
However, as time went on, and I sampled the 1985s in bottle – at three years old and at my ten year on tasting, particularly - it became clear that the majority of the best 1985s, especially at premier, let alone at grand cru level, were equal to the demand that they should last. One professional colleague, prior to the ten year on stint, said that in his view the worst had cracked up already and the best were by no means ready. This was indeed the case, but the more forward examples, village wines for the most part, were delicious nevertheless.
Today the vintage is thirty years old. It would be unfair to demand that they had all held up. But on the basis on the tasting whose notes follow, a surprising number still show a lot of vigour. And, moreover, the quality is very high. I would not suggest you looking for these wines at auction, for in most cases one has no idea how they have been stored. But should you be fortunate to still have some bottles – or if you have generous and well-endowed friends – you are in for a treat.
The following wines were sampled at a Wine Workshop in Manhattan in March 2015.
Pommard, Clos Platière, Domaine Prince Florent de MérodeNow-2020
Medium colour. No undue age.The nose is ripe, sturdy and quite classy for a vineyard which is not a premier cru. Fullish body. Succulent, good volume and quite concentrated. Vigorous at the end. Very good.
Pommard, Pezerolles, Domaine de MontilleNow-2020 plus
Full, youthful colour. Rich, spicy and concentrated on the nose. Some evidence of the stems. Fullish body. Ripe and meaty. Lots of class. This is a lovely vigorous example which will last well. Fine.
Echézeaux, Domaine de la Romanée-ContiNow-2020 plus
Fullish, fresh colour. Rich, ripe, fresh, complex, DRC nose. This is impressive for an Echézeaux. Full body. Complex. Very youthful. Concentrated and balanced and delicious. A lovely wine with plenty of life ahead of it.
Grands-Echézeaux, Domaine du Clos Frantin (Albert Bichot)Drink soon
Medium-full colour. Good vigour. A rich, fullish, quite concentrated, meaty wine on the nose. Fullish on the palate. A touch astringent at he end. Good fruit but a little four-square. It lacks real flair. Good at best.
Clos de Vougeot, Domaine Joseph DrouhinNow-2020
Medium to medium-full colour. Good vigour. Classy nose. Discreet, elegant and harmonious. Lots of dimension. Medium-full body. Balanced, long and complex. Delicious. Very fine.
Clos de Vougeot, Domaine Mongeard-MugneretNow-2020
Medium to medium-full colour. No undue age. Rich and vigorous but at the same time rather clumsy on the nose. Medium to medium-full body. Ripe. A little sweet. Finishes better than it starts. But essentially not of grand cru quality. Good at best.
Clos de Vougeot, Domaine du Château de la TourDrink Up
Medium colour. No undue age. Quite ripe but rather weak on the nose. Quite developed. Light and feeble on the palate. Quite decent fruit but no depth. A poor result. This is the sort of wine which gave Guy Accad such a bad name.
Romanée-Saint-Vivantn Domaine de la Romanée-ContiNow-2020 plus
Good vigorous colour. Lovely nose. Quite different from their Echézeaux. The stems are not evident. Rarified, flowery, complex and subtle. Medium full body. Very lovely fruit. Long, lingering finish. This is excellent.
Bonnes-Mares, Domaine Georges RoumierNow-2020 plus
Good vigorous colour. Rich, full, concentrated nose. Lots of wine here. Lots of depth. Full body. Very vigorous. Still very youthful. This is a profound, very classy wine with a splendid finish. Excellent.
Clos de la Roche, Domaine Georges LignierDrink soon
Medium to medium-full colour. The nose is reasonably full, but it lacks class and depth. Medium to meium-full body. Ripe and soft, but still fresh and with decent balance. Good but lacks flair.
Charmes-Chambertin, Maison LeroyNow-2020 plus
Fullish coour. Still youthful. Rich, classy, full and concentrated on the nose. Very promising. Fully ready on the palate. Fullish body. Mellow, sweet and succulent. More advanced on the palate than on the nose. Very fine indeed.
Chambertin, Domaine Joseph DrouhinNow-2020 plus
Fine, full, vigorous colour. Quietly concentrated, discreet and very classy on the nose. Full body. Lots of energy. Very fine almost chocolaty fruit on the palate. Very good grip. Lots of finess. Very long, very lovely and almost as good as the Rousseau. My second favorite.
Chambertin, Domaine Armand RousseauNow-2020 plus
Very full, youthful colour. Excellent nose. Very concentrated. Marvelous fruit. Very fresh. Full body. Very vigorous. Ample, rich and backward. Lovely finish. Excellent. Generally agreed as the wine of the tasting.