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Jefford on Monday: The Existential Winegrower

Back in October, I took a Chinese friend to meet one of wine’s pioneers in my part of the Languedoc. Jean Orliac was, in his earlier years, a keen climber. As he looked down (back in the late 1970s) from footholds on the crags of Hortus and of Pic St Loup, he saw potential in the limestone rubble which lay beneath the branches of cade, holly oak and Aleppo pine.

Hortus vineyards

The vineyards of Domaine de l’Hortus (Image credit: Andrew Jefford)

Domaine de l’Hortus was in part cleared from the garrigue -- that scrubby, scratchy, scented Mediterranean cousin of the Australian bush, the South African fynbos and the Californian and New Mexican chaparral. Next to the vineyard we talked in, his son François had cleaned the forest under-storey and thinned the cover, to duplicate the lighter, airier conditions which prevailed when it was shepherds and their sheep, rather than winegrowers, who were the principal interlocutors of the land.

“The 1950s were the turning point,” Orliac pointed out. “The shepherds were here until then, but they were all bachelors without children and their way of life collapsed after that. Now the native forest has come back. It looks lovely, but it has three major disadvantages. The first is that it can catch fire easily. The second is that it is full of acorns, which means wild boar – we have to fence many of our parcels prior to harvest. And the third is that it’s less bio-diverse than it once was when the sheep grazed it.”

Orliac is a master of the quiet, counter-intuitive observation. His vineyards were evidently well-tended, yet he says he is opposed to biodynamics (“a serious step back from intelligence”) and, while the Hortus viticulture is close to organic, he has always resisted certification “because it has too many rules and regulations. We don’t like rules and regulations. For us, agriculture is an art modeste, needing lots of experience and reflection.” He paused, as if to reflect. “The role of the winegrower is to be in some sense a free man.”

That phrase haunts me. Forget, just for now, issues of biodynamics and organic certification; consider the existential dimension.

It’s true, I think, that a small-scale, independent winegrower in almost any country on earth is an unusually free individual -- meaning that, once debt is repaid, they are economically beholden only to themselves, and that their work involves making decisions (key to existential notions of freedom) rather than conforming to a pattern of behaviour acquired from or imposed by others.

How many big-company or government workers can say this? Wine-producers have to find their way down so many paths – farming with its inherent frustrations, the subtle and complex craft of wine-making, label-design, packaging, communication, the often daunting labour of sales. This polyvalence of effort (and the loneliness of the track) seems to me almost terrifying: I admire not just those who do it well, but those who do it at all. The famous ‘condition of anxiety’ imposed by existential freedom of choice is surely familiar around most winegrowers’ kitchen tables.

Moreover it doesn’t seem fanciful to suggest that what we like in the taste of wine is the taste of this freedom. Wine is so compelling because of its multi-faceted diversity, evident to us via every sense whenever we set about half-a-dozen good bottles. Where does this diversity come from? From terroir, certainly, but never only that. Meshing with terroir is the end result of the exercise of freedom, of a torrent of individual decision-making. Making good wine is a free act of self-definition; your neighbour (though he or she may make good wine too) will always have done everything differently.

You could further argue that choosing wine is a rare existential pleasure – provided, that is, you have abstracted yourself from the inauthenticity of the propelled purchase (those supermarket offers), and not swallowed the responsibility-absolving analgesic of big brands. The choice involved in researching and selecting from the vast range of authentic wines produced by winegrowers who have accepted that existence precedes essence is one of the few things in life which does not leave me anxious. And drinking a little of their wine helps set anxiety aside.

Which is what, I trust, we are all about to do. Happy Christmas!

Jefford on Monday

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

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