The death of the Nouvelle Vague film director Claude Chabrol earlier this week has prompted a spate of national mourning in France, with president Sarkozy comparing the great man to Balzac and Rabelais, no less. The French revere their film directors in a way that’s always seemed a little excessive to me. Talk to anyone who works in the industry and they’ll tell you that movies are a collaborative effort that includes the writer, the producer and the cinematographer among others. The director is part of a team.
Contrast the hero worship of men like Chabrol with the Gallic attitude to winemakers of equal brilliance. Ask a Frenchman who ferments the grapes at Louis Roederer , Château Latour or the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and he wouldn’t have a clue. The reason is simple. To the French, it’s not the winemaker that matters; it’s the vineyard, or what they call the “terroir”. Nature or, if you prefer, God determines the quality of the stuff in the bottle.
Most French winemakers are very low-key. Charles Chevalier of Château Lafite, who crafts what is arguably the most sought after wine in the world, could walk down the Champs Elysée without being recognized once. Even the globe-trotting Michel Rolland, France’s most famous “oenologue”, is better known in Argentina, California and South Africa than he is in his native country.
The names of winemakers may appear on labels in regions such as Burgundy, Alsace and the Rhône, but that tends to be because they run family businesses. One generation of Rousseaus, Zind-Humbrechts or Chaves passes the pipette to the next. “I’m just a custodian of land that has been in my family for centuries,” the legendary Gérard Chave once told me. The same thing generally applies in Spain, Portugal, Germany and Italy.
Egos are considerably larger in the New World, as are the salaries they command. “That’s enough about me,” one self-important Australian winemaker once told me over working lunch, “what do you think of my wines?” Here, it’s normally the winemakers, rather than the vineyards, that are the stars.
The leading New World names are regarded as mini celebrities, capable of attracting hordes of wine-loving groupies to their cellars and tutored tastings. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon in California, to take only one example, has nearly 400,000 followers on Twitter and has published a best-selling collection of his essays, musing and winery newsletters. He’s the Stephen Fry of wine.
The cult of the winemaker is not quite as excessive as it was in the 1980s, when one New World winery owner stupidly declared that “soil was dirt”, implying that it was what happened in the cellar that really mattered. His view was that a winemaker could turn the equivalent of base metal (mediocre grapes) into bottled gold. Nowadays, nearly everyone accepts that great raw material is essential to make world-class wine.
So do winemakers matter? The truth lies somewhere between the French and New World positions. Talented cellar masters are like chefs — they need decent ingredients, but they are brilliant at tasting and combining flavours. To illustrate the point, I’ve chosen half a dozen bottles from some of my favourite winemakers, all of whom deserve to be better known. Something to drink while you’re watching a Chabrol film on DVD perhaps?
2009 Jacques Lurton Sauvignon Blanc, Vin de Pays du Val de la Loire (£4.99, 11.5%, Sainsbury’s)
Bordeaux-based Lurton has a delicate touch with sauvignon, exemplified by this fresh, mouth-watering, wet stone-scented dry white.
2009 Miguel Torres San Medin Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé, Central Valley (£7.29, 13.5%, Waitrose)
Torres is usually associated with Spain, but this Chilean rosé is delicious, too: light and grassy, with bright acidity and a hint of sweetness.
2009 Laurent Miquel Nord/Sud Viognier, Pays d’Oc (£7.99 each for two, 13.5%, Majestic)
Is there a better value viognier on UK shelves? Not in my opinion. Creamy and textured with notes of peach and aniseed and a touch of oak.
2008 Tim Adams Riesling, Clare Valley (£9.49, 11.5%, Tesco)
Tim Adams makes some of my favourite Aussie whites. This one is a classic: dry and refreshing with tangy, lemon and lime fruit.
Graham Beck Rhona Rosé NV (£12.99, 11.5%, selected Marks & Spencer stores)
A fitting tribute to the late winery owner Graham Beck. A delicate, salmon pink fizz with citrus and raspberry notes and a tapering finish.
2008 Christophe Cordier Pouilly-Fuissé, Vieilles Vignes (£16.99, 13.5%, Laithwaites)
Christophe Cordier’s white Burgundy is bold and flavoursome with lovely vanilla oak and flavours of honey, buttered toast and citrus fruit.
Originally published in The Times