by Tim Atkin

Cherishing the unpredictability of wine

The jazz singer Nina Simone was a notoriously moody performer. Catch her on a good night and she was sublime; hear her play on a bad one and she was terrible: grumpy, sullen and uninterested. Fans of Van Morrison and Elvis Costello will recognize the Simone syndrome, too. Both have beds with right and wrong sides.

Most people would regard such unpredictability as a bad thing – especially if they’ve paid a lot of money for a ticket – but aficionados see it differently. The great concerts stand out because they are the exceptions, rather than the norm. The lottery is what makes their live performance so exciting.

Stage actors will tell you the same thing. On some nights, theatrical magic crackles in the air. The performers and the audience combine to produce something unique. Unlike films, where the actors get to shoot the same scene as often as the budget permits, the play takes place once and in real time.

Unpredictability is the enemy of brands. We want our cereal, our jeans or our cup of milky coffee to be the same every time. This applies to wine brands, too. The consumers who buy Blossom Hill, First Cape or Hardy’s demand that their wine follows a recipe. They’re not interested in vintage variation or sudden changes of winemaking direction. They expect predictability in the glass.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s not the only way to produce or appreciate wine. The French make a slightly sniffy distinction between what they regard as “vins industriels” and true “vins de terroir”. In their thought-provoking new book ,“Authentic wine”, Sam Harrop MW and Jamie Goode make a similar point about wines that “are headed in the direction of homogenization” and wines “whose origins have their roots in terroir”.

The difference isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem, however. All too often terroir is used as an excuse for producing wines that are over-cropped, uninteresting or just downright faulty, while “industrial” wines can aspire to and even attain complexity. Producers like Torres, Concha y Toro, Dourthe, Brancott Estate (ex Montana) and Jacob’s Creek all make great commercial wines.

And yet no one would claim that they are unpredictable. I’m no talking about bottle variation here – the result of cork taint, random oxidation or bacterial spoilage – but about wines that reflect the growing conditions of a single, individual harvest. It’s no accident that Champagne, the most successful branded wine region in the world, specialises in blended, non-vintage wines.

Call me perverse, but I enjoy vintage variation. I don’t want a 2009 claret to taste like a 2008, or a 2005 red Burgundy to taste like a 2003. I may prefer one vintage over another – and it often varies from producer to producer – but I revel in the different aromas, flavours and above all structures of the wines.

I did a tasting of part of the Languedoc portfolio from the Les Caves de Pyrène recently and the vintage variations, like the shifts in terroir, grape variety (or varieties) and winemaking philosophy were plain to see. The wines reflected the growing conditions of a given year and were all the more expressive as a result.

Goode and Harrop quote the California winemaker Ted Lemon of Littorai in their book. He dismisses “natural winemaking” as an oxymoron, favouring the term “minimal-intervention winemaking” instead. His laudable aim is to “intervene in the fermentation and ageing process as little as possible”, which makes him question whether spinning cone and reverse osmosis machines can be deemed “acceptable” under such a winemaking regime.

You don’t have to be a natural wine fundamentalist to agree with him. Wines made using such techniques are industrial wines, too. Concentration (or the removal of water) is a way of circumventing the perceived shortcomings of a vintage. I have no problem with green harvests and sorting tables, both of which help to put ripe and healthy grapes in fermentation tanks, but reverse osmosis and spinning cones change the fundamental character of a wine.

The harvest hasn’t quite finished in parts of Europe, but it looks as if 2011 will be remembered as a tricky vintage in many wine regions, as it was in parts of the southern hemisphere earlier this year. I’m no climatologist, but what we seem to be experiencing is not so much global warming, as unpredictability. California has just experienced one of its coolest ever summers; Australia one of its wettest.

Anyone who loves wine should welcome this. To appreciate great vintages, we need to know what good, bad and mediocre ones look like. Winemakers should do everything they can to get the best out of their grapes, but they should do so by respecting Lemon’s philosophy of minimal intervention. A bit like Nina Simone, wine needs its off vintages, too.

Originally pubslished in Off Licence News

Leave a Reply