The first duty of the wine blogger is to accuracy. The second is to truth. And yet, the most important thing a blogger can be is interesting. This is a fundamental and occasionally unresolvable tension, but it must be confronted with every post.
A tutored tasting of Gordon & MacPhail Scotch, with Michael Urquhart.
The firm of Gordon & MacPhail isn’t a Scotch producer, principally (though they do produce a little), but instead buys unfinished or partially-finished spirits, then ages and bottles them to their own specifications; not unlike some of the old-guard négociants of Burgundy. One trigger for this sort of production model was – as with so many matters alcohol-related – Prohibition, from which many distilleries never recovered. Since then, even more of the famous old names have closed up shop (80 remain), but given the aging profile of single-malt Scotch, just because a distillery shutters doesn’t mean that there’s no whisky to sell. And that’s where Gordon & MacPhail comes in…though they their own versions of still-operating distilleries’ production.
One barrier to the U.S. market remains, and that’s our insistence on the 75 cl bottle; much Scotch comes in 70 cl form, which is illegal in the States for reasons that would only make sense to bureaucrats.
Urquhart prefaces the tasting with a brief rundown the characteristics of two kinds of Scotch barrels, about which much is made in modern Scotch-making circles: bourbon casks bring toffee and caramel characteristics, while Sherry casks enhance fruit.
And then, with few other preliminaries (it’s late in the day, and everyone’s tired from a full weekend of wine tasting) we’re on to the whisky. Prices are approximate.
Rosebank (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 16 Year Old (Lowland) – Refilled Sherry casks, triple-distilled, 46% alcohol, $70-80. Apple flowers, light and fuzzy, with a clean, simple nose. The palate introduces tropical fruit and apricot skin, but remains simple and clean. Just OK. (2/08)
Benromach (Gordon & MacPhail) 21 Year Old (Speyside) – First-refill Sherry casks, $110. Paper and old furniture turned to ash, toffee, espresso dust, and raw wood, with a finish of apple that hints at cider. Long and lingering, with hints of bitter chocolate at the very end. Complex. (2/08)
Glen Grant (Gordon & MacPhail) 21 Year Old (Highland) – Sherry casks, $110. Coconut and rough wood, baking spices (nutmeg and clove), and while it’s harsh without the mellowing effect of a little water, it eventually turns beautiful and rather supple, showing mixed chocolates, hints of fruit, and toffee cream. Very nice. (2/08)
Glen Grant (Gordon & MacPhail) 1965 (Highland) – Sherry casks, $175-200. Sour peat, humid wood, and summer leaves. Then there’s lemongrass, full-bodied spice and chocolate, followed by a finish of smooth apricot and orange. Round and full, with intensity, complexity, and passion. Stunning. (2/08)
Caol Ila (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 1982 (Islay) – Sherry casks, 46% alcohol, $150. Peat smoke, iodine, dried meat and the leather that used to enclose it, with exotic flowers and confiture (mostly Mirabelle plum, but there’s Rainer cherry and peach as well). Unbelievably good, and for me the star of the tasting, though a very strong argument could be made for the Glen Grant 1965 as well. (2/08)
Lochside (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 1991 (Highland) – Refilled bourbon casks, 43% alcohol, $65-70. Pastry with coffee residue, like the last dregs of a morning stop in a Parisian café, then espresso, stale toffee, almonds, hazelnut, and the drying, slightly acrid smell of flor. Flor? Yes, flor. A very dry style. Weird. (2/08)
Benromach (Gordon & MacPhail) “Organic” (Speyside) – One of the first organic whiskies. $55-60, 43% alcohol. Toffee-coated apples dipped in maple syrup, pinapple, banana, and lush milk-chocolate sweetness, with orange-chocolate candies on the finish. This is too simple-minded for me. (2/08)
My responsiblity is to myself and to my readers. Not to producers, importers, distributors, retailers, restauranteurs, PR agencies, or marketing entities.
I just got back from a trip to Norway and Denmark, and other than a fun night with some wine geeks in Bergen, wine was only occasionally on the menu. Not that it wasn’t available. In fact, many of the restaurants at which I dined had wine lists astonishing for their breadth and depth. Unfortunately, there was another astonishing thing about them: price.
The way wine is monopolized and, more importantly, taxed in the Scandinavian countries means that “everyday wine” doesn’t really exist as a category. Sure, the wines that would fit the bill elsewhere are technically available, but at shocking markups. $85 for Trimbach’s yellow-label riesling. $82 for the Hugel “Gentil.” And so forth. Naturally, the weak dollar doesn’t help, but even a strong dollar wouldn’t put much of a dent in these prices, and neither country is exactly cheap to begin with.
There’s a pair of silver linings on the edge of this gilt cloud, however, and one is that more expensive wines are not priced by demand, as they are in most competitive markets. Thus, the $75 Burgundy that shoots up to $300 in the States after a high score from some critic not only stays at its release price (albeit one higher than $75), but isn’t impossible to source, either. (Though there are limits to this; even in the monopoly systems, there are favored customers and “off-list” wines that end up in the hands of a chosen few.) The other is that restaurants seem fairly willing to cellar wines for a time, which means that while a 2005 version of a $20 wine may be a ridiculous $110 on a wine list, the 1990 version of that same wine may be only a few dollars more, making it commensurate – or even a value – compared to a similar wine on an American wine list.
The Bergen winos’ response to all this was to claim, only half-jokingly, that they “can’t afford to drink anything but the best.” I lived there, I’d be forced to do the same; anything else would be economically foolhardy. And it’s not like drinking really good wines is something to be upset about.
But I admit that I would miss the other kind of wine. The kind of everyday, non-intellectualized stuff that has, historically, formed the foundation of traditional wine-drinking cultures. I’m not just talking about the increasingly anecdotal jugs of local Côtes-du-Rhône that lubricated the equally anecdotal French peasantry, but about the wines both artisanal and industrial that form the bulk of what most people buy and drink on a daily basis.
I would miss this sort of wine because a daily glass (or two…or sometimes three) is, for me, a fundamental part of my enjoyment of a meal. Not all food embraces wine, and not all meals allow consumption, but its presence is always to be preferred to its absence.
Perhaps more importantly, I would miss these wines because I firmly believe they put the better bottles in their proper context. Yes, it’s possible to drink only great wines, and I know people outside Norway who do. In fact, I know people who refuse to drink anything other than the best of the best. I can’t fault them for doing so, but this behavior just isn’t for me. Not only do I enjoy the simple pleasures of humble food and wine in their proper context, but I find that I appreciate the qualities of better wine more keenly when those experiences have a broad and deep foundational perspective. The components and interweavings that make great wines great are all the more obvious when the alternatives have been internalized. And those who drink only the superstars can, occasionally, lose perspective on what they drink, fixating on the niggling details but losing sight of the fact that they are quibbling over degrees of greatness.
I don’t know if there’s much impetus to change, as both countries seem to have well-entrenched beer cultures that satisfy the needs of the lower end (and in Denmark, at least, some really extraordinary things are happening with that beer; watch this space, eventually, for information on one of them). But I do know that I was happy to uncork a bottle of something uncomplicated and moderately priced when I returned home. I’d actually drank better wines on the rare occasions I’d imbibed in Scandinavia. But there’s such a thing as comfort wine, you know.
I am not a quote-generating machine for the wine industry.
A tasting of grüner veltliners from the Terry Theise portfolio, hosted by the ever-quotable importer himself. A few of his nearly-endless bons mots are interspersed amongst the tasting notes.
“It never matters how much a wine tastes, it matters how it tastes.”
Nigl 2006 Kremser Freiheit Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From loess. Showing the barest pérlance, and very pale. Celery, grass, yellow melon, bright golden summer squash, and raw green beans; this is the full vegetable garden writ drinkable, with a buzz and fizz to it. Excellent, somewhat forward fruit gets cleaner as the finish progresses, and though it ends up tasting fairly basic, it’s a fine representative for the grape, and a very nice value. (2/08)
“Flies like a Nigl.” Pause for laughter. Instead, there’s one small groan (from me). “No?”
Jamek 2005 Achleiten Grüner Veltliner Federspeil (Wachau) – Corked. (2/08)
“If it stinks up your house when you cook it, [grüner] is what you drink with it.”
Jamek 2005 Achleiten Grüner Veltliner Federspeil (Wachau) – From microschist and granite with a heavy topsoil. Theise calls this “a pensive introvert,” and he’s dead-on. The merest suggestion of a light straw color, the aromas are difficult to perceive…perhaps there’s a little salted, raw celery, but that’s about all. The palate is vegetal (that’s not a negative), dense, and sticky, with a long, dry, floral finish redolent of apple blossoms. Acid and a light, tannin-esque element emerge late, along with a grated – and slightly grating – pepper note, but this wine is slightly imbalanced in favor of fruit over structure. Better integration and form emerge with air, so perhaps all it really needs is time. Based on its current performance, however, I’m not positive that time will do it unmitigated good. (2/08)
“If sauvignon blanc and viognier had a filthy weekend, and their evil spawn was loosed upon the world, [grüner would be the result].”
Bründlmayer 2005 Loiser Berg Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From schist, microschist, and slate. A few bubbles form on the rim. Light yellow, with the color of hay and straw. The nose is particular (asparagus, zucchini, melon skin), somewhat fruity and lush, but directed, though there’s a faint petroleum note. Despite size and lushness of its own, the palate is beautifully balanced, though there’s a warm character deep into the finish, which melts like smooth liquid pear. In the wine’s immediate aftermath, this turns to clear, clean, dry water with a bit of skin tannin. Very promising, and clearly a wine equipped for its future. (2/08)
“Sometimes, [wine terminology] crosses a rickety suspension bridge between reality and metaphor.”
Schloss Gobelsburg 2005 Steinsetz Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From tertiary gravel (with large rocks) topped by loess. Colored the deepest yellow, with a tinge of greenish-gold, and smelling of grass, cactus, and white peppercorns, backlit by throbbing green and yellow light strobes. The palate is huge and slightly hot, delivering a wallop of strawberries and lentils ground into a powdery texture. Is there a bit of residual sugar? The finish is long and writhing, and bursts with yellow pepper. Weird, but good. (2/08)
“‘Great’ is reserved for riesling.”
Alzinger 2005 Steinertal Grüner Veltliner (Wachau) – From gneiss. Light gold with tinges of green. Coriander, cedar, and a vague sort of bell pepper dominate the nose, but the palate veers off in a different direction, retaining the spice but adding a good deal of freshly-cut peach. Thick and incredibly dense, with a balanced heat on the finish (it reminds me of Bas-Armagnac in the way it warms the wine), and a suggestion of long, slightly sweet melon lingering later on. I’m slightly concerned by the early impression of heat, but otherwise the wine is in fine form. (2/08)
“In 2006 everything received a two-class upgrade.”
Schloss Gobelsburg 2006 Lamm Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From a loam/sandstone/gneiss vineyard that Theise calls “the Montrachet of grüner veltliner,” carrying 14% alcohol and 3-4 grams of residual sugar. Visually solid, with a faint greenness intruding on a medium-deep yellow core. Aromatically breathtaking, bringing together creamy vanilla, smoky charcoal, and a rich, autumnal iron character. The palate is similarly creamy (both texturally and with the actual impression of fresh cream) and thick, with makrut lime and lemon curd that brace and churn all that density, yet add only complexity rather than dissension. The finish is lush and flawlessly balanced, even with the clear influence of softening residual sugar. Majestic. (2/08)
“Grüner veltliner is great…for a business with a piss-poor business sense.”
Christoph Künzli of Le Piane doesn’t sound like an Italian winemaker. In one sense, he isn’t – he’s from Switzerland – but in the more important sense, he is. Some forty minutes north of Milan’s Malpensa airport, Künzli makes wines from an appellation only the most dedicated oenophiles have heard of (Colline Novaresi), and one that’s even less-known to anyone who doesn’t live there: Boca.
No, it’s not a retirement community in Florida.
One among a string of nearly-forgotten appellations along the northern limits of Piedmontese viticulture (the best-known of which – barely – is Gattinara, but that also includes Lessona and Bramaterra), Boca is a nebbiolo-dominated area that was both famous and one of Italy’s largest in the 19th century, but has since fallen into oblivion as the region’s workers left wine for the factories of Torino.
A chance meeting with an old local winemaker led to Künzli taking over an acre of land, which took three years to work into shape (machines doesn’t work on Boca’s difficult terrain, and many of Künzli’s older vineyards are still planted with the maggiorina training method, making hand-harvesting a necessity). Since then, other plots have been added. Some are old vineyards in need of similar resurrection, while others are new plantings on old, abandoned sites. In the end, around fifty plots (many of them small) were sold, and now form the core of Le Piane’s vineyards, though many of them are quite a few years from being able to supply grapes.
The soil is volcanic rock, over which there’s a layer of gravel, and while the subsoils abound with the sort of complex minerals that vines love, there’s no chalk (which is common elsewhere in the Piedmont, especially where nebbiolo is grown).
Commercial yeasts are used for the Colline Novaresi wines (“vespolina goes volatile with indigenous yeasts,” insists Künzli).
Le Piane 2004 Colline Novaresi “la maggiorina” (Piedmont) – Old vines, 50% nebbiolo, 35% croatina, uva rara, and vespolina, in stainless steel. Mineral-driven to such an extent that I feel like I’m drinking a red riesling. Very dry. Full of dark fruit dust and tart acidity. Very masculine and hard, with a long finish. A striking wine. (3/08)
Le Piane 2003 Colline Novaresi (Piedmont) – From 100-year old pre-phylloxera vines, and a blend of 70% croatina and 30% nebbiolo. Lush orange blossom and stone fruit, balanced except for the vintage’s signature tannin, but dried out on the finish by that same tannin. (3/08)
Le Piane 2004 Colline Novaresi (Piedmont) – Showing (or perhaps revealing) more dirt than the 2003, with a little bit of well-ridden horse, but not what anyone but the most averse would call bretty; the overall impression is more like that of iron-rich blood. Very interesting floral aromatics, with great balance and a longer finish finely delineated by acidity. Very promising. (3/08)
Le Piane’s Boca wines are around 85% nebbiolo and 15% vespolina, grown between 1200 and 1500 feet (the highest nebbiolo vines in the already altitudinous Piedmont). Yeasts are indigenous, though why the volatility noted in the Colline Novaresi wines doesn’t affect the vespolina in Boca goes unexplained. Thirty days of skin maceration in open tanks, with hand punchdowns, are followed by three years in Slavonian oak (none of it new), then another eight months in bottle.
There are nine parcels under production in Boca, mostly young vines, with another ten acres on the way. Vines are propagated by a mixture of massale, selection from Künzli’s own vineyards, and some clones from the university. Künzli is hesitant about some of the older clones from his oldest vineyards (though he does get some older material from Valtellina), believing that his new vine material is superior, meaning that it’s “the qualitative equivalent” to the old vines despite a lack of maturity.
Le Piane 2000 Boca (Piedmont) – Beautifully aromatic, with flowers (rose-dominated) and a pretty finish. Just starting to soften, but there’s plenty of life ahead. (3/08)
Le Piane 2001 Boca (Piedmont) – Tighter than the 2000, with its floral aspects glimpsed through the gauze of a semi-closed stage. Tart cherries and massive minerality form the foundation and core of this wine, with graphite-textured tannin. Really terrific, and promising many, many years until maturity. (3/08)
Le Piane 2003 Boca (Piedmont) – The fruit of the ’00 and ’01 takes on a sweeter, more strawberry-like character here, with big tannin and a dense, somewhat shortened finish. I don’t think this will live up to the promise of more balanced vintages, but it might have an earlier appeal. (3/08)
For now, Künzli is pretty much a one-man show in Boca, at least in terms of non-local attention, though he expects this to change in the future. Though the vineyards employed by Sella (in Lessona and Bramaterra) never fell so out of favor as those of Boca, the projects strike me as having some similarities: one dedicated producer out to rebuild the reputation of forgotten land on the strength of their unique expressions of some of the world’s most aromatically and structurally fascinating grapes.
The wines are represented by Adonna Imports of Waltham, Massachusetts. Prices range from the low teens for “la maggiorina,” to around $40 for the Colline Novaresi and $50+ for the Boca.
Disclosure: wines provided by producer and importer, some food provided by importer (who also owns the restaurant in which this tasting occurred).
In some quarters, the long-running closure debate rages on. It shouldn’t. It’s almost over.
How can I make this claim? Do I have access to some new research that no one else has seen? No. Here’s the deal: the screwcap is almost universally acknowledged to work flawlessly (or very, very nearly so) over the short term. Most wine is produced for, and consumed in, the short term. Thus, there is no logical reason for any wine made for near-term consumption to be closed with anything but a screwcap. The only resistance remains adherence to tradition (though this must include the wonderful “tradition” of a taint rate that runs between 2 and 8%, depending on the sample) and fear of the market, especially in Europe. Both understandable reasons, despite the science, but the tide is turning even on Old World shores, and more and more short-term wines are being shipped under screwcap, especially for export markets.
Thus, the entirety of the unanswered question rests on the shoulders of long-aging wines. And here, one can forgive any producer for being confused. There’s an ever-growing body of evidence (most of it from Australia, though that’s changing) that white wines age beautifully under screwcap. And, in fact, where one sees adoption of the technology in the Old World, it’s mostly for longer-aging whites: rieslings, white Burgundies, etc. (One wonders if the market-killing premature-oxidation problem among white Burgundies might be solved in a stroke by the adoption of a different closure. It certainly couldn’t hurt, at this point.) For red wines, the anecdotal evidence is thinner, and certainly more long-term studies would be extremely valuable.
But there’s also a pair of unanswered questions: how much oxygen does a wine need to age, and when does it need it? (It’s useful to define our term here: “age” would, to most people, mean “age in a way similar to that of the best cork-finished wines to which we’re accustomed.” If screwcaps allow 10-year wines to go 40 years before they achieve a similar end-state, that’s to the credit of the closure, but less useful to the consumer without a multi-generational cellar from which to draw.) The problem for winemakers is that the research on this point is cloudy and contradictory.
It has long been believed, by some, that corks allow a gradual transfer of oxygen. “Not so,” said cork manufacturers in the past, when they wanted to assure people of the efficacy of their products despite persistently unmanageable cork taint. And “not so,” said the inventors of synthetic corks, who – after research – determined that the “perfect” seal was what they wanted to emulate (though it’s worth noting that all synthetic corks fail over the short- or medium-term, breaking their seal and allowing oxygen to enter the bottle). More recently, a groundbreaking Australian study came up with an answer of “not exactly,” demonstrating that while some corks did indeed prevent the transfer of oxygen, others allowed it at greatly varying rates. And most recently, a study in Bordeaux found that corks do allow oxygen ingress, at a much less variable rate than found in the Australian study.
The Bordeaux study was funded by a cork producer, and thus its conclusions need to be viewed with mistrust until verified by independent study. The safe conclusion is that there’s no actual conclusion, as yet, from the research. But I think we can do better than that by simple thought experiments, while we wait for the research to achieve surety.
We absolutely know one thing about oxygen: a lot of it is very bad for a wine. Open a bottle, pour half of it into a wide-bottomed decanter, and let it sit. How does it taste after a day? A week? A year? Twenty years? That’s a bottled wine in the presence of a lot of oxygen.
And we know one more thing about oxygen: very little of it does very little. “Do you want to open the bottle and let it breathe?” is, as most wine folk know, a useless question: the dime-shaped portion of wine exposed to air in the neck of an uncorked bottle does nothing to change the wine in the times usually under consideration. This is why young wines are sometimes decanted: to accelerate the effect of oxygenation.
Or consider old bottles. Which are, at auction, the most valuable, controlling for vintage, producer, and cellaring conditions? The ones with the least ullage (the space between the bottom of the cork and the top of the wine). It is believed, and supported by nearly all the tasting evidence available to us over the decades, that low-ullage bottles (that is, those that are closest to their original fill) are the best-preserved; there are occasional exceptions, but they’re rare. High-end producers, though not with closures on their mind, support this notion during their periodic forays into bottle reconditioning, wherein an old wine is quickly uncorked, refilled with a quantity of that wine from their cellar or other bottles of the same wine (or, in some cases, a younger wine), and then sealed with a fresh cork. What purpose to this practice other than to reduce the nefarious influence of excess oxygen, and to replace a closure with a high rate of physical failure before that failure becomes catastrophic?
Moreover, if there’s ullage in a bottle, then something is getting out. And not just oxygen. This is physical evidence that some corks are massively permeable (or allow transfer between their surface and the interior of the bottle; an important difference if you’re a cork producer, but a completely unimportant difference if you’re the producer or owner of the bottle in question; either way, the closure has failed to preserve the wine).
So we know a lot of oxygen is bad, and a tiny bit of oxygen is meaningless over the short term. The questions, then, are: what about a tiny bit of oxygen over the long term, and what about no oxygen at all?
Some wine chemists have long argued that aging is an anaerobic process, that wine doesn’t need oxygen to do most of what it’s going to do. Newer thinking on this question is a little less certain, and suggests that the tiny amount of oxygen trapped in three places: 1) the wine, post-bottling, 2) the headspace (the gap between the wine and the bottom of the closure) [edit: it’s worth noting that this oxygen is usually forced out; a process known as sparging], and 3) the cells of the cork itself, might be all the oxygen a wine needs to age. In practice, steps are taken to remove much of this oxygen in question at bottling, but some remains. However, if the cork is shedding oxygen into the bottle, then a cork really doesn’t provide a barrier against oxygen; if oxygen can move across (say) 35% percent of the cork, what’s to stop it from moving across 100% of the cork, other than the vagaries of the cork’s cellular structure? (I don’t want to dismiss this last point too easily. Cork is from a tree, not a lab, and as such will always exhibit variation; the “natural” quality touted by producers is also the principal source of its physical variability.)
But what about no oxygen at all? Can wine age in a hermetically-sealed container? How about one in which an amount of oxygen similar to that of a cork-finished wine is provided? We just don’t know yet, but early evidence suggests not. We do have some evidence that closures that permit absolutely no oxygen transfer (screwcaps with certain types of liners, for example) can lead to reductive wines, the eventual fate of which we don’t yet know. This problem seems to be preventable by changing a few minor aspects of bottling chemistry (that is to say…and with no little irony…modifying techniques that were designed to protect a newly-bottled wine from the effects of excess oxygen). But this can happen to cork-finished wines as well, and that it doesn’t do so 100% of the time is yet more evidence that corks are variable in their ability to move oxygen around.
We also know that, despite the claims of the Bordeaux study, corks can vary a lot in their ability to let stuff in and out, based again on the evidence of variable ullage in old bottles. Whether or not that study was funded by cork producers and tainted (no pun intended) as a result, the simple fact of the matter is that it only covered three, not thirty or more, years of aging. Minor variations in oxygen transfer can and, sometimes, do become major ones over long periods of time. And as I’ve already noted, the effectiveness and qualitative supremacy of screwcaps over the short term is well-established, so it’s really only these long-aging wines about which we’re currently concerned.
So if we don’t know, but suspect, that an absence of oxygen is no good, at least we do know that as little oxygen as possible seems to be ideal…based, as noted before, on the ullage in old bottles. The choice before us is this: a little oxygen at bottling plus a little oxygen over a long period, or a little oxygen at bottling plus no oxygen at all over a long period.
Given this, isn’t the only question the one asked earlier? How much oxygen does a wine need to age, and when does it need it? Once this is known, and given the continued existence of both cork taint and physical cork failure and/or variability, what reason – other than tradition and fear – is there to continue to use “natural” cork? For – and this is a major point – screwcap liners can be selected for permeability. Once we know “the number” (which may be different for different types of wine), we can tailor closures for that result; something that we’re unlikely to be able to do with corks, unless they cease to be a natural product.
There’s no blame to be assigned to a winery who wants to wait for the evidence before making a switch. Were I making a pricey wine with a reputation to preserve, I’d probably do the same, despite the large number of New World producer’s who’ve made the change already, and are betting their futures on the screwcap. But the evidence will eventually come, despite a several-decade interim period…a period in which we will continue to suffer cork taint, physical cork failure, and cork variability. At some point, this question will be decided, and the screwcap – though by that stage it could just as easily be another alternative closure with similar properties – will emerge the scientific victor.
Cork & screwcap photos used under the terms of a Wikimedia Commons license.
Carlsberg “Jacobsen” Saaz Blonde (Denmark) – A Belgian-style blonde ale with Czech Saaz hops. And in fact, there’s a slightly spicy, zingy edge to the usual Belgian ale smoothness (with its own measure of spice), yet the overall impression is one of light and refreshment. It doesn’t have the complexity of great Belgian ale, but it’s a good beer. (5/08)
When the oft-benighted INAO denied Jean-Paul Brun the appellation for his 2007 Beaujolais “l’Ancien” (story here, follow-up here, and in French here), it didn’t come as much of a surprise. The lowest-quality French appellations – those that produce oceans of mediocrity – are notorious for this sort of thing, in which low-quality producers (often, but not always, cooperatives) punish their leading lights in order to preserve the notion that their own insipid products represent the “status quo.” Such actions, alongside inexplicably silly lawsuits against those who dare to tell the truth about the appellation, don’t exactly slow the steep decline in the region’s reputation.
Of course, there is an ever-increasing list of very high-quality producers in Beaujolais, names like Lapierre, Coudert, Tête, Foillard, Desvignes…and yes, Brun…that are well-known to enthusiasts. Will they be next under the INAO’s guillotine? It seems likely. The difficulty in France is that unlike Italy, where marketable alternatives for wines that fall outside the DOC system have long existed (and in fact, have been strengthened by updated laws), the loss of a French appellation makes a wine virtually unsaleable. A certain measure of salvation comes from the export markets that know and love these wines, and a little bit more from the ultra-naturalist wine bars and shops that are so currently trendy in France (most of the leading lights of the appellation practice highly traditional viticulture and/or low-manipulation winemaking), but there’s no getting around the fact that this is a hard blow to farmers, most of whom are not exactly bathing in liquid diamonds.
While producers can and do run afoul of the INAO for actual violations of the appellation’s technical rules (grape type and source, alcohol level, residual sugar, etc.), cases like Brun’s are due to the most subjective step in the agrément (the granting of the appellation), the committee of a winery’s alleged peers that tastes wines to see if they conform to the appellation’s norms. One can immediately see the problem here: personal bias cannot help but enter the equation. Petty jealousies matter, especially between penny-scraping defenders of mindless tradition and successful quality producers, few of whom are known for tempered opinions regarding the former group. And especially in France, the showy, somewhat internationalized market in which a “star” winemaker plays often breeds resentment in those struggling to sell their grapes to the local cooperative at ever-decreasing prices. It’s a foolproof recipe for exactly what’s happened to Brun and so many others before him, and it’s somewhat of a surprise that it doesn’t happen more often.
It’s easy, and correct, to call such events a failure of the overly-restrictive theory behind the legally-defined appellation as practiced in France. Some think that the solution is to strip appellations of all non-geographic restrictions. Thus, a Beaujolais could be any wine that came from within the confines of Beaujolais, no matter the grape, color, or form. This would bring French wine law into accord with most New World laws, and let the market rule the future. Others favor less extreme measures, but still advocate the elimination of many restrictions and prescriptions in appellation law.
I think this is a mistake.
The problem is that many, perhaps most, people have the wrong idea about the purpose of a legally-defined appellation. Blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of generations of French winemakers who have promoted it as the top element in a hierarchy, or as a guarantor of quality. It is neither of those things (which makes Italy’s codification of this notion in their allegedly superior DOCG designation – the “G” stands for “garantita,” or “guaranteed,” – preposterous on its face).
A legally-defined appellation has nothing whatsoever to do with quality, and the only thing it guarantees is identity; that is, a product that carries an appellation must have the properties defined by that appellation, whether it be wine (Vosne-Romanée), cheese (Roquefort), or chicken (poulet de Bresse). The granting of a Bordeaux AOC does not mean that a given wine is good, it means that it satisfies a certain set of objective criteria that have nothing to do with subjective quality. It also does not mean that the wine is better than a vin de table, but worse than a Bordeaux Supérieur or a Pauillac. Yet that is what many people have been led to believe.
Narrowly-defined appellation law could, and perhaps should, restrict itself to scientifically-measurable, objective criteria. Grapes, minimum (or maximum) alcohol, color, form (still/sparkling/sweet), harvest date, soil type, approved and disapproved viticultural and cellar techniques, etc….and eliminate the tasting panel. But would this solve the problem?
Yes and no. It would prevent inexplicable decisions like the one capriciously denying Burn the appellation for a sample of a wine already granted the very same appellation several times. But it is still a restriction, and a harsh one, on what Burn may or may not do. The question must be asked: why is it necessary to limit Burn’s freedom in any fashion whatsoever?
Libertarians and free-thinking New World winemakers are no doubt shouting “yes!” Here’s a counter-argument: because defined appellations have great value. Not so much for the producer, but for the consumer.
The proper way to think of an appellation is as an indication of typicity. That is, the way in which a wine satisfies expectations as to its character. There is nothing to criticize, and everything to praise, in a labeling system that gives the consumer information about the wine within. Of course, no labeling system is perfect, nor can this information be useful without a context of knowledge, but it’s certainly useful to know that, between a Muscadet and a Margaux, one is much more likely to be appreciated with oysters than the other. Or that, given a red Hermitage of recent vintage, there are consequences to opening the wine before it has matured, consequences (decanting, the right food to combat tannin) that must be dealt with to achieve the maximum possible enjoyment.
An appellation as an indicator of character is as clarifying as the knowledge of the consumer allows it to be. The novice may well find that the Muscadet/Margaux differentiation is enough for their satisfaction, while the aficionado may enjoy the fine-grained differences between Chiroubles and Régnié, or Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. If the appellation is stripped of restriction and meaning, however, such indications cannot be. A Margaux that is, today, a blend of (mostly) cabernet sauvignon and merlot cannot tomorrow be a sparkling viognier, and after that a late-harvest gewürztraminer, without hopelessly confusing customers. Just look at the minor chaos created by simpler confusions, like the level of residual sugar in “dry” Alsatian wines, and multiply that confusion a hundred-fold.
Further, appellations preserve diversity. It is true that not all appellation-preserved wines can currently be assessed as worthy of preservation, but it’s important to remember that things change. As they have, for example, in Beaujolais. The dedicated French supermarket shopper may despair of finding anything worth saving from the region, but the savvy oenophile knows that there’s quality to spare if one knows where to look. That upsurge in quality is, for the most part, a fairly recent occurrence. But had the authorities given up on Beaujolais, no matter how justifiably, and demoted it to vin de pays or worse, would we know the names of the qualitative revolutionaries? Almost certainly not.
In a trend-chasing wine world, appellations codify tradition (which is, after all, what typicity attempts to express). They don’t necessarily preserve quality tradition, but that’s situational; in regions where quality is the tradition, Brun-style problems don’t occur. Appellations mandate the use of grapes that would, in the face of the pure market, be ripped up for ever more endless acres of cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, pinot noir, and the few other well-known, seemingly infinitely-saleable grape varieties that already litter our shelves. They preserve the sharp brine of Muscadet, the delirious spice of Furstentum gewürztraminer, the rocky heights of the Scharzhofberg, the fierce brood of Taurasi, and the rustic smile of Bugey Cerdon, without all of which our world of wine is diminished
So, appellations must be preserved, just as they preserve that which we would otherwise lose. But what they must not be – and this is the critical point – is the final appeal. The crime against Brun is not that he made a wine that the INAO (rightly or wrongly) found atypical, it’s that this finding damaged him. Brun should be allowed to “opt out” of the appellation system and its implied promises of authenticity and identity without suffering economic harm. Current French law doesn’t allow him to do that, but it should. In an ideal world, Brun may choose to make wines within the appellation system, and thus benefit from the information that those designations provide to the consumer, but may also choose to make wines outside that system…wines that are merely Beaujolais by another name, or wines that are as fanciful as his imagination allows (and Brun has quite an imagination). Thus, Brun gains immunity from the jealousy and petulance that would do him economic harm.
One might ask: why a potentially confusing dual system, rather than simply scrapping the most problematic aspect of the agrément, the tasting panel? The argument for the panel’s preservation is that for appellations to have value along the lines that I’ve indicated, they must actually identify typicity. And I don’t know of any way to assess typicity besides tasting. The potential for problems could be greatly mitigated by ensuring that tasting panels are not composed of one’s immediate peers; for example, no one who makes Beaujolais should sit on the Beaujolais panel. This will require some means of assessing qualifications, but certainly France and other countries that grant similar appellations have enough qualified tasters to suffice.
The appellation system has both good and bad aspects. Scrapping it (or hobbling it) is an enticing course of action, but benefits producers (who gain freedom) at the expense of consumers (who lose coherence). And fixing it, in a country as conservative about its traditions as France, seems a venture doomed to failure…or, worse, repair that exacerbates the problem (look at Germany’s attempts to update its own wine law, for example). Instead, why not a minor tweak to the foundation, plus the addition of a worthy counterpart that does not in any way damage the unquestioned marketing power of the AOC? One which heightens the value of the appellation to the consumer and preserves tradition, but which sets the producer free to benefit from both tradition and unfettered experimentation? Everyone benefits. And our world of wine is enhanced.