I overheard the comment at one of my favourite spring wine tastings, and it set my teeth on edge. “Yes, it’s a really smart wine,” said a young man, who I presume was a buyer for this excellent retailing operation. I have no idea what wine he was referring to, but my mind had already set off on a mad March hare-chase.
We already have smart phones (which are driving us all mad), smart or Smart cars (I never know exactly what’s smart about them anyway, apart from the fact that they fit sideways into a parking slot, and their owners seem exceedingly smug), smart TVs and even supposedly smart politicians, or at least ones in exceedingly smart suits, rather tight, with strangely truncated trouser legs. Do we need smart wines? And what would a smart wine look or taste like, if you found one at home?
To me smart, apart from well-tailored, above all conveys the sense of knowing. A smart person might even give you a wink, to suggest that they and you are in the know together. Smart sounds a little bit like sharp – smart-suited and sharp-suited are almost synonymous – and is also a rather divisive word. If some people are smart, or sharp, that implies that others must be dull or dim.
I’m not arguing in favour of dull or dim wines. I can even see that smartness might have its uses in the world of winemaking, especially when it comes to large-scale blending. But knowingness in wines does not seem to be entirely a desideratum.
When people talk about smart wines I imagine they mean wines which have been very consciously, deliberately crafted to achieve a certain predesired effect. What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Before we head into abstruse philosophical debate, about the Being of beings, “releasement towards things” and so on, I’ll give an example.
One of the wines on show at the aforementioned tasting was a Palo Cortado sherry from Sánchez Romate, appropriately named Escondido, meaning hidden. Palo Cortado is the rarest, most mysterious and, in the words of Peter Liem and Jesús Barquín, most “ambiguous” type of sherry, somehow partaking of the characteristics both of Oloroso and of old Amontillado – in this case the richness and generosity of Oloroso combined with the finesse and dryness of Amontillado.
Technically this should be impossible, as Olorosos and Amontillados go down completely different paths in the solera systems of the bodega. Amontillados start off life as Finos, under flor, and with age become more and more intense and piquant; Olorosos never see flor. But – at least according to the traditionally told story – certain casks in the Fino solera which develop an unusually rich, generous body, characteristic of Oloroso, are marked with the sign of a “cut stick” (Palo Cortado) and then fortified and moved to a separate solera.
As Liem and Barquín explain, “the classical method of obtaining Palo Cortado relied on the style ‘occurring’ rather than deliberately being made”. It was a matter of the cellarmaster or capataz keeping a close eye on each cask, seeing how it developed, without prejudgement. How much this classical method is still employed is another question which I won’t go into here. But one can say that both Spanish and French have terms, crianza and élévage, for the careful maturing of wines in oak which evoke the raising and educating of children. As we know, each child is an individual, whose education should be a watchful allowing to reach potential rather than a violent forcing into a mould. I hope that something of that philosophy still holds good, in certain bodegas and cellars, but it is certainly not the norm.
Another wine shown at that tasting which set me smiling, rather than grimacing, was a 2010 Blaufränkisch from Burgenland in Austria, made by Gerhard and Brigitte Pittnauer from the Ungerberg vineyard. There was nothing smart about it at all, as far as I could see. Some might have said it was fraying at the edges, but in such a memorable and wonderful way. The colour showed a lot of maturity, brick-brown at the rim; and fruit aromas were being overlaid by an indescribable scent of autumn woodland; subtlety and finesse and freshness through the maturity, with a certain wildness, were the hallmarks.
I knew nothing about this wine or its producers when I tasted it; but research revealed that Gerhard and Brigitte farm along biodynamic principles and rely on ambient yeasts. Much discussion of biodynamics focuses on arcane preparations, cowhorns stuffed with manure and so on; maybe more important is what biodynamics eschews. Biodynamics gives up chemical pesticides and fertilisers and thus relinquishes a great deal of the control which 20th century technology so proudly achieved. Relying on ambient yeasts is another major relinquishing of control.
Smart wines, like smart people, strike me as being pretty controlled. Controlled people can also be rather controlling. “Behind the smile, smart suits and ‘reasonable solutions’ lies Rishi Sunak the authoritarian” ran the headline to one recent article on our undeniably smart Prime Minister. Of course I couldn’t possibly comment on that. But this is where we may re-enter the realm of philosophical debate, and in particular that notion of “releasement towards things” which was dear to the philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger argued for the vital importance of meditative thinking, in addition to the calculative thinking – smart thinking, you could call it – which dominates our age. Meditative thinking, according to the philosopher Barbara Dalle Pezze, means “to observe, to ponder, to awaken an awareness of what is actually taking place around us and in us.” Or as Heidegger put it, it must “be able to bide its time, to await, as does the farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen.” Or to allow the fermentation to happen, in its own time, the cask to develop, the bottle to mature. A wine made according to these principles may not be smart, but it might just possibly communicate what Lear called “the mystery of things”, which lies beyond all smartness.
Photo by Matt Artz and Unsplash