Friday, May 24, 2013

After “somewhereness” comes “soulfullness” 

A few weeks back, I was speaking at a fund raiser and towards the end of my speech, I asked people to do two things when shopping for wines - give special attention to wines made with grapes that are grown organically, and to buy wines that come from “somewhere.”

Pushing organics is easy. The wine industry uses far more pesticides, fungicides and herbicides than they have to. So while I maintain that there is a qualitative difference between grapes grown “well” organically, and those which are raised on a diet of chemicals, from a purely environmental and vineyard worker’s health standpoint, organics make sense. I am aware that not every winery who grows organically puts that info on their label, but if more consumers demand it, then maybe more will certify.

My second point confused and one person confronted me afterwards and asked what I meant. 

“All wines come from somewhere, don’t they?” she asked. 

Of course they do. I explained that some wines don’t reflect where they come from, or are simply blends of grapes taken from anywhere and made into a wine which is designed to please a certain palate rather than reflect where they come from. When you are talking to over a hundred people, many of whom are just getting into wine, I figured not to get too complicated. So by making the beginner simply aware of appellation, or of “place,” is a good way to start.

“So how do I know if a wine reflects a place?” was her next question. 

Okay, not so easy to answer this one. All I could come up with was that until she had tasted enough wines from a particular place, she had to trust those who have. Those of us who taste a lot of wine, and travel to many of the world’s wine regions, begin to have certain expectations about the wines of a particular place. 

For example, when I taste a Chablis, I look for the wines to show a steely freshness, minerality and with just enough “fat” from the chardonnay grape to coat the mineral core. There must be a balance between the natural richness of the chardonnay grape and the acidity that one should find in a grape grown so far north. 

This quality in a wine, whether you call it “terroir driven,” or “somewhereness,” a term coined by Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer, happens when a wine shows a certain uniqueness, a certain accent that, even if you can’t place it, strikes you as being a texture, aroma or taste that you have never experienced before. 

But then I got hit with the inevitable questions, and the ones that are the most difficult to answer for any one who recommends a wine.

“So how do you decide which wines to recommend? Is it because some wines reflect a place more than others?”

Uggh. My immediate response was that some wines seem more authentic or genuine than others. I could see by her expression that this wasn’t cutting it and I was going to be asked what I meant by that. So I promised that I would think about it and get back to her. 

So here is your answer Miss. The wines that I recommend and enjoy drinking are those which I deem have “soul.” Now let me explain.

Four years ago, I held a tasting of Cru Beaujolais where my panel blind tasted wines from four different appellations - Morgon, Fleurie, Moulin A Vent and Brouilly. Our goal was to define, if possible, the “somewhereness” in each of these Beaujolais appellations.

We tasted wines over a number of different vintages, from the same producers, to see if we could find certain commonalities between wines of the same appellation. Some of these winemakers used conventional farming and wine making techniques, while others were from the school of  what are referred to as “natural” winemakers, those who use little sulphites and indigenous yeasts. In short, as few additives and manipulations as possible.  

The most striking result was that the winemaker became far more apparent than that of the appellation. And as I marked down my preferred wines from each flight, they tended to be from the same people, those who worked more naturally.

They were not always the “most perfect” wines. Some showed a number of small degrees of “faults,” which was a turn off for a few of the panel members. But those wines where I happily gulped back the rest of my glass, were, while challenging at times, showed that uniqueness and energy that I look for in a wine.

So do these more naturally made wines better reflect the land that they were grown, because they were less manipulated? Logic tells me yes, but maybe what I look for in a wine has more to do with winemaking practices and grape growing. Maybe by doing less, and allowing for the grapes of a place to make a wine that reflects all that is both good and bad about the vintage and the land, comes across as more genuine and authentic. 

I’ve said many times that “la beauté c’est dans le défaut,” that true beauty is found in imperfection, and not how close it comes to being perfect. That is as much a statement about people as it is about wine. If what separates wine from other beverages is that it is a reflection of a culture, of a place, of a time, then it should as well reflect all the imperfections that can be found in each. 
I remember tasting wines with Maurice Barthelmé, of Domaine Albert Mann in Alsace, and asking him how they always seem to make an interesting wine, even in tough vintages. His response was “if you are honest and listen, the land will always tell you what the wine will be.” Not all terroirs are created equal, not all places, every year, can produce wines of pure fruit and perfectly ripe tannins. Sometimes the wines have notes of green or rough tannins that require age to iron out. Sometimes when you allow grape juice to become a wine, the results are not exactly what you want or expect.

It is not easy quantifying “like,” which is why this is such a difficult question to answer. In a recent article, Kramer wrote that great wine is a product of winemakers who are willing to pursue ambiguity, to seek to make 2+2=5. That striving for perfection through manipulation and control can only get you so far. And while he doesn’t answer where that “extra 1” comes from, I would say that maybe, what separates the great from the good, might be allowing the innate imperfections of a time and place, which is maybe what “soul” is, to have it’s rightful place in the final wine.

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