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Jefford on Monday: The Institution of Delicacy

The hushed season of ice and snowflakes is as good a time as any to consider the issue of delicacy in wine. Southern hemisphere readers may be contemplating another day of roaring heat, of course, but stay with us; we’re all in this together, and the seasonal carousel will spin around soon enough.

Mosel snow

Delicacy is a precious quality in wine. It’s often rhapsodised by those who have been lucky enough to drink some of the great wines of the past, bringing those bottles their refreshment value and helping create the overall sense of harmony which enabled them to endure in time. Its absence, by contrast, is frequently lamented in today’s wine benchmarks. If the wine world had a ‘topic of the year’, this might usefully serve for 2013. How, perhaps, might delicacy play a renewed part in the declension of most classic wine styles, rather than being restricted to a diminishing few?

If delicacy has an escutcheon, it would be German Kabinett: that dewy cobweb of a wine which seems to billow or float through the mouth, refracting orchard sunlight as it does so, rather than sluicing or sliding across the palate, as grosser wines are obliged to do.  A great, classic Kabinett, with its invisible alcohol, limpid fruit and pristine sugar/acid balance, seems to be ingested by the soul rather than the stomach.  Even ‘Kabinett’, though, no longer guarantees delicacy, as close observers such as David Schildknecht, Stephan Reinhardt and Terry Theise have observed at some length (for a thorough summary of this debate, see here).

What are the enemies of delicacy? A warming climate is one. There are many others, though, including viticultural improvements, ever-more-efficient yeasts, lowered vineyard yields, changed consumer expectations and critical scoring systems in which concentration, power and density of flavour (the virtues of accumulation) harvest more points than balance, grace and drinkability (the virtues of disposition).  

Hence, for example, the fact that many German Kabinett wines today are dry, alcoholically ample wines whose original must weight would have won them an Auslese prädikat. Hence the residual sugar in many ostensibly dry Alsace wines. Hence classed-growth Bordeaux at 14% and Châteauneuf-du-Pape at 16%. Hence the fact that any Brut Champagne with a dosage of 10 g/l nowadays tends to taste sweet, while Extra Brut or un-dosed Champagne has the same impact on the palate that Brut used to.

Beware, though, of simple conclusions. The change-drivers outlined above are mostly to be welcomed. We’ve simply forgotten the ocean of execrably thin, unripe, joyless wines which were common back in those years when ‘great’ wines seemed more delicate. No one would want those back.  

Delicacy, too, is not a universal desideratum; there are some very beautiful wines which are not delicate at all.  Alcohol itself is not the enemy; fine old tawny ports, for example, can be masterfully delicate. Racy acidity may be one of the marks of an ethereal Kabinett, but delicacy itself has a thousand expressions and prominent acidity is not essential in all of them. Early-picking is no panacea: with unripeness comes inarticulacy and rigidity. By all means move towards the entry point of the ripeness cusp rather than its exit, but no unripe wine can ever be a resonant one. (Or at least not without the investment of long cellar years, as Hunter Valley Semillon and Madeira variously prove.)  Most obviously of all, the use of adjuncts and ‘ameliorations’, especially copious acid, will annihilate delicacy rather than salvage it. Dilution and de-alcoholisation are other fallibly desperate measures. Delicacy must lie hidden in the raw materials, waiting for the vintner’s revelation; it can’t be whistled up from catalogue or manual.

If delicacy is under challenge in 2013, I would suggest there are three main remedies, though it may require growers to re-think their range hierarchy. (This assumes that a grower has done everything he or she can think of with existing vineyard and canopy arrangements, and has no possibility of planting at higher elevations.)  

The first would be to increase yields again, as Olivier Humbrecht did in order to make his reliably dry Riesling: you can have too much concentration, as well as not enough.  

The second is to take the historic German example, and find intelligent ways to separate the harvest into different components meriting different cellar approaches. I can’t see any theoretical reason, for example, why any great red-wine vineyard should not also produce a good rosé wine, and delicacy is the only ideal worth pursuing when you make pink wine. As the wine-consuming world extends rapidly out of its temperate heartland and into sub-tropical and tropical zones, the time may now be right for those.  

The third, of course, is to replant with later ripening varieties, even if you have a fine stock of old-vine versions of a variety which is looking increasingly uncomfortable where it is. Better a well-adapted young vine than an ancient misfit.       



Jefford on Monday

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