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February 2017

Life

A MOST CURIOUS JOURNEY

Rover
Photo credit: www.classicandperformancecar.com

My grandfather Frank Egan was a wine merchant in London many years ago. It was a gentler time, so my mother would have me believe. A time where the answering of letters, dictating of future correspondence and tasting of wines would take place in the morning, thus leaving gentlemen free to enjoy a long lunch and retire to their clubs for the afternoon. Regular “breakage” would keep the house well stocked in vintage Champagne, which served nicely as a little apéritif to enjoy in the bath before supper.

The only wine regions that really mattered could be rattled off in short order: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, the Mosel Valley, Porto and Sherry. This narrow focus allowed educated tasters to become highly proficient in the myriad lieux-dits, individual producers and specific vintage traits of each area. Wines were assigned a personality rather than described with a laundry list of aromas. Frank liked to compare his wines to women or racehorses. To him, this visual imagery aptly conveyed the rounded, voluptuous charm of a warm vintage Vosne-Romanée or the taut, powerful muscle of a young Pauillac.

When visiting his growers, Frank would make two appointments a day, thus allowing for lunch with one and dinner with the other. He was driven by chauffeur so as to properly honour the excellent wines of his gracious hosts. Day time attire consisted of pin striped suits and a bowler hat when in the city, and evening events invariably called for black tie.

In today’s fast paced, global wine industry such a leisurely rhythm seems unfathomable. But what would Frank make of us were he suddenly catapulted sixty-odd years into the future?

Though I only knew him through stories and photos, I can imagine him sitting in some trendy wine bar, staring agape at the tattooed, beardy sommelier, repeating the words ‘Nerello Mascalese?’ with a puzzled air. I can just see him wandering the aisles of a big box store marvelling at the quantity of ‘SKUs’, at the labelling by grape variety, and the vast number of wine producing regions.  Fine wines in screw cap? From New Zealand?

The frenetic pace of wine retailing in this social media age would surely baffle him. And he might feel as though he had stepped into the pages of a sensationalist science fiction pulp, observing the use of GPS, sensors, probes and drones in the vineyards.

However, in terms of small-scale, fine winemaking, he would likely find himself back on familiar ground; much more so than if his time travelling Rover had dropped him in nineteen eighty. For the pendulum swung from tradition to innovation to such a violent degree with the embracing of mechanization, chemical weed and pesticide controls and so forth, that we are now seeing the inevitable counter movement.

Conscientious, quality-minded growers are increasingly organic (or in the process of conversion). They focus on canopy management techniques and decreasing irrigation frequency. In the cellar, spontaneous fermentation with indigenous yeasts, partial or whole cluster fermentation, and the absence of fining or filtration are all the rage for many a premium, artisanal winemaker. Were Frank to hear an estate manager proudly detail these exacting methods, he may scratch his head. He would likely think to himself, well yes, those are fairly standard procedures, what’s this chap so excited about?

If he were to taste the sought-after wines of today, fashioned in the post-Parker age of restraint, purity and freshness, he may not even find that his beloved Burgundies taste all that different. They are certainly a little riper and fleshier, potentially with silkier tannins, but recognizable all the same.

After the excitement of his incredible journey, it would be understandable if Frank hurried back to nineteen fifty to settle his nerves with a wee dram with his cronies. Yet perhaps I underestimate my progenitor… He may have been the kind of intrepid fellow that, once launched on the path of adventure, could not resist his curiosity. Turning the Rover’s dials to twenty eighty, what might he discover?

Touching down in Bordeaux mid-summer, he might feel the need to take off his blazer, and even roll up his sleeves. According to climate change focused researchers at the Institut de la science de la vigne et du vin, Bordeaux weather may more closely resemble that of coastal Portugal in as little as twenty to thirty years. Examining the back label of a fine claret, he might find the late ripening Tinto Cao grape listed along side Cabernet and Merlot.

Will Champagne make only red wines, and the finest bubblies hail from England and Tasmania? Will Frank find Napa and Barossa Valley vineyards all but abandoned? With the sheer size and massive ambition of China, the twenty eighty equivalent to supermarket shelves could well be dominated by the descendants of Great Wall and Changyu.

Perhaps he will stumble upon a post-apocalyptic scenario with massive swathes of vineyards lost to virulent parasite epidemics. By then, the disease resistant, cold hearty Regent hybrid and others of its ilk could conceivably be household names.

Alas, it is time to bring this time travel reverie to a close. Frank Egan must meekly step back into the black and white photos I cherish, nosing a selection of vintage Port. Though day dreams of him pushing on, increasingly poleward and higher in altitude, in search of the finest crus, will linger in my thoughts and drive me forward.

Frank Egan

Photo: Frank Egan & daughter Hazel, Guildhall tasting circa 1960.

 

Life

THE PURSUIT OF PURITY

Condrieu - glass & vineyard
Photo credit: Condrieu vineyards, Jasper Van Berkel

Purity. This simple six letter word conjures up profound connotations of flawless perfection. In recent years, it has become a buzzword for the natural wine movement. It is bandied about freely in winery literature, press articles and the like. In a recent Meininger’s article, Canberra-based natural winemaker Bryan Martin reckoned that his pét nat sparkling Riesling offers, ‘the most pure expression of Riesling that you can get’.  Isabelle Legeron asserts that, ‘natural wines have purer flavours…’ in the Basic Introduction to Natural Wine on her excellent website.

Let me start by saying that I am an enthusiastic supporter of growers that strive to create healthy, balanced vineyards free of chemical poisons. I actively seek out producers crafting singular wines that stand out from the crowd. I therefore applaud natural winemaking and its laudable principles. However, I take issue with the community’s appropriation of the notion of purity.  This act has tacit implications for other winemaking styles. It also calls into question the true motivation of its admirers.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, purity means ‘freedom from adulteration or contamination’. The majority of low interventionist wines are made without additives. In this sense, deeming them pure is a fair assessment. Wild yeasts are allowed to spur spontaneous fermentation, acid levels are not adjusted, commercial enzymes are eschewed and sulphur dioxide, if used at all, is kept to a strict minimum. In ideal conditions: impeccable winery hygiene, scrupulous oxygen management, precise temperature control from fermentation right through to the moment of consumption, these wines can be divine. The complexity, elegance and, indeed purity, of well-made natural wines is, to me, a given.

But ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life. Naturally occurring yeast colonies often struggle to complete fermentation as alcohol levels and temperatures rise. Stuck fermentations are common leaving the must at risk of exposure to all manners of yeasts and bacteria that can significantly alter aromatics and flavours. This isn’t always a bad thing. In certain cases, the result is a heightened complexity that gives the wine infinitely more appeal. Be this as it may, microbial infection is a form of contamination, rendering the affected wine impure if we are to take the dictionary definition literally.

…ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life.

This idea takes on additional significance if we consider the most common usage for this term. More often than not purity, as relates to wine, is a descriptor for the character of the fruit. In the glossary section of the Wine Cellar Insider, purity is likened to ‘tasting a sweet, ripe berry off the vine’. And yet, the heady raspberry bouquet of Grenache is muted in the presence of pungent Brettanomyces-induced barnyard aromas. The acrid pitch of high volatile acidity levels overshadows the fruity vibrancy of even the spriteliest Gamay. To me, wines protected from microbial and oxidative reactions, with precision and restraint, show far brighter, more expressive fruit.

The reputed natural wine advocate Pierre Jancou, speaking though his website MorethanOrganic.com, purports that natural wines have ‘purity and honesty of expression’, while wines made in a conventional way ‘taste of the same few manufactured flavours’. The term conventional is murky. For many adherents to the natural wine movement, any manipulation in the winery equates to conventional winemaking. Following that logic, the simple act of chaptalising, commonly practiced in most cool vintage for even top Burgundy estates, renders wines conventional. I don’t know of many fortunate enough to taste the exquisite wines of Domaine Leflaive that would claim they lack complexity or a true sense of terroir.

The notion of honesty of expression is also troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines. The insinuation is anything but subtle. Wines made with any form of vinification aides or antioxidants are dishonest; those that imbibe are being duped. So does the practice of egg white fining at Château Margaux make their wines less sincere? With the softening of the tannins, does the pure expression of this storied wine lessen?

The notion of honesty of expression is troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines.

American writer Calvin Trillin once said, ‘the price of purity is purists’. Time and again, I have found myself staring down zealous sommeliers who swears only by natural wines. They have an almost religious fervour about them, blithely filling their wine lists with offerings that only a handful of customers will actually enjoy. They condemn other wine styles and patronize those that dare to offer a differing opinion.

The thought that intrigues me is, deep down, do enthusiasts truly love the wines, or is it the idea of experiencing so-called purity that has them hooked? Every field has its share of purists. My musician brother told me of audiophiles that go to insane lengths and spend upwards of 50 000$ on sound systems in the pursuit of ‘the perfect sound’. Where does one draw the line between passion and obsession? And what is the virtue of purity for purity’s sake?

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not. Applying a strict set of doctrines to winemaking seems a step backward. I often hear natural wine advocates claim that the wines hearken back to the days before industrialization. And yet, I am quite sure that if our forefathers, who watched in dismay when their wine turned vinegary, could have flipped a switch to cool their tanks, or restarted fermentation with cultured yeasts, they would have. The winemakers I admire most embrace both tradition and innovation. They step back when they can and step in (with a gentle touch) when necessary to preserve wine from spoilage.

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not.

For all the well-crafted natural wines out there that truly embody a notion of purity, there are as many top class conventionally made wines that can justly make the same claim. The term cannot simply be brandished by one camp as a distinguishing feature of style.  Firstly, because the assertion is often inaccurate. Secondly, as applying the word to a specific winemaking philosophy carries the insinuation that wines not made in this manner are impure and therefore less worthy. This powerful implication could well be the reason that many wine lovers have become such die-hard fans. Perhaps it is time for natural wines to lay down the banner of purity and let drinkers decide for themselves?