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Jefford on Monday: Look to the Table

Wine quality is complex. Like most things in life, the creation of fine wine has elements which are easy to quantify, and others which are intangible. One of these intangibles has been nagging at me for a year or two; it became impossible to ignore as I was sitting in a busy Buenos Aires restaurant a few months ago. More of that in a moment.

Decanter in Argentina

Let’s though, start with what we can measure. Most people would say that the wine quality equation has two main terms.  The vineyard itself is one; viticulture and winemaking is the other. The vineyard represents potential wine quality (perhaps, in mathematical terms, an ‘unknown’).  Viticulture and winemaking are the ‘known’ or discoverable qualities through which that potential is realised and the unknown comes to be known.  

Even the greatest winemaker can never exceed the potential of the vineyard; slapdash viticulture and crass winemaking, by contrast, can obscure that potential. Climate (the long-term weather pattern) and weather itself (the meteorological events of a vintage) are further variables which need to be fed into the equation.

Each of our terms, too, is capable of complex dissection. Finding the right variety or varieties for a site, for example, has both a physical and a cultural dimension. Physically, Counoise may be the perfect variety for a particular site in Paso Robles; culturally, though, the owner may prefer to plant Cabernet. Much the same is true of most of the thousands of decisions a winemaker is faced with each year. Few winemakers, in truth, have the economic or cultural liberty to do exactly as they please. Perfection, thus, usually has to wait for next year.

Now back to that restaurant. It was an unflashy, neighbourhood eatery; there were no Ferraris lined up outside. It was though, bustling; you could see by the way the diners and staff interacted that the restaurant was a familiar, well-loved instrument of great benefit to both. As anyone who has visited Argentina will know, this is a common sight throughout the country. Argentina has a settled, demotic food culture rare elsewhere in the southern hemisphere (though wherever there is wealth, of course, you will find great restaurants for the wealthy).  

I have long puzzled over why Argentinian reds seem to have an extractive depth and a textural dimension which it is hard to find amongst its southern neighbours. I’m not sure that this is necessarily to do with any uniqueness of terroir, nor is it the result of conscious winemaking traditions. I now suspect that the main reason may be gastronomic.  

Argentinians eat well. They have some of the best beef in the world. Wine is meant for food. Their red wines have developed in that way in order to play an effective role at table. The strength and familiarity of that highly carnivorous gastronomic tradition has helped shape wine quality. And it’s a food culture which exists from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.  

This is not true to the same extent in Chile, nor is it yet true in Australia or New Zealand. That’s why there are Argentine restaurants in many of the world’s great cities, but not yet many Australian or New Zealand ones. The ghastly legacy of British culinary insouciance takes a lot of eroding. The process is well-underway in cities in Australia and New Zealand, thanks to southern European and Asian immigration. Eat out in ordinary country towns, though, and you’ll find the demotic base depressingly unreconstructed. Much the same is true in the USA, though for different reasons.

The relationship between wine flavour and what we could broadly describe as ‘the national palate’, in other words, is perhaps the supreme intangible in terms of wine quality. I suspect it is far more important that we acknowledge in terms of creating what we might call the ‘messy’, dabbling and gastronomic qualities of European wine (in contrast to the ‘clean’, bright though sometimes hollow qualities you find in the wines of nations where wine is often consumed in isolation, without food).  

Consumers like both, to be fair, and the measurable elements remain the most important route to great wine. But if you are interested in the quiet backdrop to these matters, look to the table.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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