by Harry Eyres

Deconstructing Wine Descriptions

Near the beginning of the heroically rambling recollections of a lifetime’s passion for wine which he assembled and published as Notes on a Cellar Book, the Victorian literary critic George Saintsbury devotes several pages to a wine he considered “one of the three or four most remarkable” he ever tasted. It’s a northern Rhône wine, a Hermitage from the 1846 vintage, harvested the year after he was born; it showed “no mark or presage of enfeeblement” when the last bottle was consumed 40 years later, and he considered it “the manliest French wine I ever drank”.

The emphasis is Saintsbury’s own, so whatever he meant by this epithet he meant in spades. It certainly stuck; 20 years after Saintsbury published Notes on a Cellar Book, the gifted Irish barrister and writer Maurice Healy repeated it in his own wartime paean to wine, Stay Me With Flagons. Hermitage for him is a “clanking warrior” striding into a dining-hall, “the manliest wine that can be drunk.” And even now, when surely such gendered descriptions are not in fashion, a quick Google search of Hermitage reveals endless variations on this theme, “manly”, “masculine” repeated ad infinitum.

What I’m attempting here is not to rap the venerable professor Saintsbury on the knuckles for using inappropriately gendered descriptions of wine, nor to defend such descriptions, but rather to deconstruct, with a nod to Jacques Derrida, what such descriptions could have meant, could still mean, what they might reveal or hide, in what ways they might help or hinder us in understanding the subject.

One might imagine (again avoiding value judgements) that “manly” for Saintsbury connoted qualities such as strength, robustness, unyielding firmness, and so on. We can remember the undeniable fact that Hermitage in the 19th century was used to beef up certain over-weedy and pallid vintages of Bordeaux, Lafite included. The military connotations are made more explicit by Healy with his talk of Hermitage resembling “Napoleon’s cuirassiers trying to tread a measure with the vivacious ladies of Vienna.” But maybe there Healy is revealing more than he means to. Deconstruction teaches us that all meaning is relational and oppositional, not absolute and singular.

Whatever may be said about the oppositions between male and female, masculine and feminine, and without entering into contemporary gender debates, it must surely be acknowledged that such oppositions structure not just much discourse but even the workings of language itself. Healy is implicitly acknowledging that “manly” on its own doesn’t mean all that much; of what interest or charm are the Napoleonic cuirassiers without the vivacious Viennese ladies? His image – a rather wonderful one – is of a dance, a dance in which opposites combine and intertwine, and are possibly transformed in the process. More on that later.

Here, finally, we can start discussing how we understand, or sometimes misunderstand, and appreciate (red) Hermitage, that wine made predominantly from Syrah grapes on a big round hill above the Rhône, looking across from Tain l’Hermitage towards Tournon. One question to ask is whether the Hermitages Saintsbury and Healy rhapsodised about were at all like the ones we enjoy today.

I think it’s pretty certain that macerations were longer – perhaps the custom was (as a traditional producer in Bordeaux explained it to me years ago) to leave the crushed grapes with their skins macerating and fermenting in a semi-closed vat for several weeks while the vigneron went off hunting. So the wines would have been deeper, darker, more tannic and unyielding in their youth, longer-lasting.

At least that would have been the general rule. But then another opposition needs to be considered, that between red and white. It is often forgotten that red Hermitage can still include up to 15% of the white grapes Marsanne and Roussanne (in the same way that Côte Rôtie can include up to 20% Viognier). And wouldn’t that militate against “manliness”, in Saintsbury’s and Healy’s sense?  Here we can bring in another old-school wine writer, Charles Walter Berry. Berry’s In Search of Wine (1935) is an infectiously high-spirited wine travelogue that includes a surprising amount of technical information and some of the tersest tasting notes ever written (“good”, “very good” etc). Berry tasted a lot of wines chez Chapoutier, then as now one of the leading producers of Hermitage, and I am particularly struck by one tasting note on a 1929 l’Hermitage red: “little dry, but good and rather elegant.” Not manly, you notice.

And so finally to some of my own recent experiences of this great but misunderstood wine. I was lucky enough recently to taste two mature vintages of red Hermitage from the most acclaimed current producer, Domaine J.L. Chave (both made under the direction of Gérard Chave). The Chave Hermitage 1980, generously offered by Yapp at their recent London tasting, was showing some earthiness but was also, in my note, “fine and floral.” Then the 1995 version of the same wine, brought round to dinner by a friend who loves only the very best, was again “beautifully and freshly aromatic, with wild herbs and red fruits, a lovely core of ripe red berry fruit, with an almost Côte Rôtie-esque elegance and finesse. Such a graceful wine” The “m” words are again absent. In his book on Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache, Giles MacDonogh calls the Chave 1976 Hermitage “superbly elegant” and uses the adjectives “reserved” and “well-mannered” to describe both Gérard Chave and his wines.

If Hermitage currently lags behind Côte Rôtie in fashionability and dynamism, as Jancis Robinson for one believes it does, could that be partly because the red wine has been lumbered with this often misleading identification as a clanking, unyielding “warrior”, a wine clad in armour not flowing robes? Did Saintsbury and Healy do a disservice to the wine they loved by calling it the “manliest” of them all? And isn’t wine always a dance, in which opposite principles combine? The Chinese, wiser in this as in many things, have always known there is no yang without yin.

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash