What We Talk About When We Talk About Wine
It’s a deep-breath topic to bring up with any oenophile: what constitutes real wine. You have the free-market libertarian definition, which states that whatever derives from fermented grapes and gives you pleasure is wine. Proponents of this view, I find, are often defensive anti-sophisticates wearing knuckledusters, or representatives of large liquor distribution companies (or both). Then you have scions of shipping magnates who drink nothing but first growth Bordeaux by the caseload. You have a third, by now quite significant faction, who argue that true wine must spring from the land unguided, with zero intervention and above all no sulfites, like a mythical beanstalk leading straight to heaven.
Three straw men. I’m going to knock them down, and then propose another one, more durable, in my opinion.
Wine is not whatever sells itself as wine. We are now at such a point in the technological arc of our civilization that almost anything can be more cheaply fabricated as an impression of itself, wine included. Oak chips for tannins and vanilla, chaptalisation for greater alcoholic strength, extended maceration and the addition of foreign grape varietals for greater color concentration, and so on until you may as well be designing a car. I’m not knee-jerk opposed to interventionist techniques in winemaking, but I do believe they generally come at the expense of, for lack of a better term, soul in a wine. For a concrete example of what I’m referring to, recall any wine you have ever purchased at a supermarket. (Here in Paris this would mean Monoprix, Carrefour, or, if you’re truly desperate, Franprix.) These are acceptable wines for making punch, but they’ll never teach you anything more – nothing about the surrounding winemaking culture, nor the character of the vintage, nor how a fussy grape like Pinot Noir really tastes. There’s a simple logic behind this: supermarkets cater to great swaths of the population, and they do this by presenting consistent products. (Imagine you run a supermarket, and then imagine the headache of one out of every four customers returning because a wine left sediment in the glass. Quelle horreur.) I’m getting around to saying that wine, by my definition, can never be a consistent product.
Wine is not limited to the big hallowed names of wine. Bordeaux Burgundy Barolo Brunello Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cote Rotie and whatever Super-Tuscan cocktail Robert Parker just stained his gums with. While it’s true that regions with substantially longer histories of winemaking (e.g. Burgundy) will often have more restrictive and quality-conscious laws surrounding the production of wine, this alone is no guarantor of quality. And, conversely, you are significantly less likely to find any kind of bargain when buying wines from these regions, since due to the resonance of their appellation names they can charge a sad minimum for whatever juice they turn out. See Chianti.
Wine, however, does not just make itself wherever there are well-intentioned vignerons around. The world organic does not in itself connote any quality standard. The obvious reason is that corporate and governmental (e.g. EU) interests have, in the name of democracy, wholeheartedly adopted the term as their own, carving whatever legal exceptions need be carved so that ostensibly honest organic wines can be available for 4.99eu at your nearest supermarket. This is vaguely well-intentioned so I’ll let it drop. The other reason is, perversely, even more obvious. It takes skill to do things well. Anyone who has ever, say, hosted a party knows there is more to it than simply letting things happen, and yet much less to it than telling everyone what to do. The right elements have to interact, at the right times. I myself am a steady supporter of biodynamic viticulture, despite some of its more colorful bell / whistle traditions, which include burying rams’ horns full of some kind of exotic tea mixture. I’m in favor of it simply because the proof is very often in the glass: the wines taste gritty and real, like characters in a well-wrought novel. But some of most dogmatic adherents to organic and biodynamic strictures refuse even to use sulfites in their wines, which, to over-reach a little, is kind of like those people who refuse to vaccinate their children. Sulfites, when employed judiciously, are a harmless preservative, and no more unnatural than a boiled egg. (A side note: French wines without sulfites will often taste superb here in France. One of the perks of living here. Exporting them is probably a real adventure.)
When, in the course of posting on this here blog, I describe a wine as real, I mean the following. It is somewhere between the three positions above, I hope.
It honestly reflects the circumstances of its growth. A 2008 Beaujolais, for instance, should taste, at best, a little cool and flat, like a New Jersey autumn, because hail played hell with a lot of folks' harvests. Some of it is wan and lifeless; the best is quietly profound, like Yo La Tengo. (This caveat is why real wine can in fact never be a consistent product. Life, the seasons, the years: nothing is consistent.)
It transmits the personality of the vigneron. I mean rather than reflecting the needs of the large-scale vender. A true wine will display, in a manner subordinate to (1), a kind of house style. Imagine the way you recognize the work of Giacometti, or Comme des Garçons, or Tom Waits. It’s a matter of voice.
It speaks of its region. This is the reason I find rich inky Burgundies abominable: Burgundy should be neither rich nor inky (not even Pommard). It’s tricky to argue, since you start to sound a bit conservative, insisting that things only ever taste the way their precedents tasted. Even more tricky, since by this reckoning you risk discounting all new-world wine regions, which have no tradition to speak of. But it’s worth insisting nonetheless, since winemaking traditions develop in concert with corresponding culinary traditions; which is to say that Savoyard reds are fine and piercing because they need to be, to cut the richness of fondue, and Muscadet must be straw-like and pebbley, to better suit Bretonne seaside cuisine. Anything else is a manufactured novelty.
After all these heavy edicts, here’s some good news: real wine is often inexpensive, because the vigneron has dispensed with the cost of appellation certification, or ventured beyond outdated cru borders. The names and bottle labels are often more amusing, because engaged vignerons seem to like puns. Honest wine will never give you a headache, unless you’re a shrinking wimp. In fact, it will prolong your life! (certain studies imply.) The only problem is you need to know where to go for it. I’ll compare it to literature: you don’t buy it from a convenience store, nor do you expect to. You get tipped off by trustworthy contacts, tastemakers, other enthusiasts. That’s how it goes.