Andrew Jefford May 2011 column

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  • Friday 15 April 2011

My joy in wine is predicted on its origin, vintage and variety

Andrew Jefford

It’s natural to hoard. Perhaps it’s instinctual? Twenty thousand years ago, the decision to stow a mammoth haunch or two in the snowdrifts outside the cave rather than scoffing the lot with your mates in a week-long blow-out might have meant the difference between survival and death over a hard ice-age winter.

It is our happy fate to replace those haunches in the snow with cases of Pichon-Baron in the cellar, but the principle is the same: provision against later scarcity.  The 2010s look good, but it may rain throughout September in Bordeaux for the next seven years.

Most collectors accumulate their favourite wines, though a modern, speculative variant on the theme is to accumulate the favourite wines of others. The man I am going to refer to as The Collector, though, is different. His cellar is full of wines which he knows may taste awful.

He didn’t buy them on The Wine Society website or by chatting to a nice young man at Tanners; he bought them in dingy corner stores in Portugal or Greece, or from dyspeptic, underpaid employees at struggling Eastern European airports.  His quest is certainly not for profit, and barely for pleasure: knowledge and discovery is all.

The Collector collects wine made from the world’s obscurest grape varieties. ‘When you’re next in London,’ he said, with the kindness proper to disinterested scholarship, ‘come round and we’ll open a few.’

Which is how, one sunny morning this spring, I came to sample my first Dutch Johanniter, a Georgian Mtsvane and the Swiss Gwäss I’ve wanted to wrap my lips around for so long.

My friend Brian Croser, Australian winemaker and 2004 Decanter Man of the Year, once confessed to me that he was a varietal elitist: there are the great varieties, and then there are the rest, and the rest may be good when grown in a few key locations, or they may not be much good at all.

His point was that as a winemaker, you simply don’t get enough time in one life to squander on anything but the best. Brian’s a hard man to disagree with, but I felt I had to try.

My joy in wine is predicated on its complex multiplicity. Origin, vintage and variety are the chief sources of that. I’m reluctant to abandon the third.

Indeed encouraging greater varietal diversity in non-European vineyards seems to me to be an evolutionary imperative just now. I don’t believe that the world’s greatest winegrowing locations will reveal all their splendours via a mere half-dozen varieties.

Some of the 25 wines I tasted with The Collector made Brian’s elitism seem like common sense. I’d give blood never to have to retaste a wine like the Greek Vostilidi we tried; there were a few dreadful Italian Tai (Tocai) Rossi; and I wasn’t keen to swallow the herbaceous, spiky Chinese Cabernet Gernischt.

But this may not have been the fault of the grapes themselves, but rather of careless hands at the winemaking tiller. The Vostilidi was both dirty and heavily oxidised: tavern wine from the Dark Ages. One of the Tai Rossi was more like pink cider than wine.

The best, by contrast, were discoveries. The 2008 Diego Seco from Bodega Bermejo in Lanzarote was profoundly mineral, both graceful and refreshing: an Atlantic cousin to the great Assyrtiko of Santorini. The white Georgian Mtsvane (non-vintage, from Marani), meanwhile, tasted like Furmint’s aunt, full of vinous thrust.

Not for the first time, I warmed to an uncompromising Kakhetian Saperavi (Telavi’s 2006 Satrapezi): challengingly deep and wild, another dense, explosively mineral wine. I loved the fresh, crunchy Persan from Savoie (the 2009 of Domaine Grisard): a mountain sylph.

Italy is full of treats: the white Nascetta from Langhe (2007 Anas-Cëtta from Cogno) would have been great for lunch, as would the beautiful 2007 Calabrian Mantonico (from Statti), which tasted like apricots dusted with powdered marble. The Dutch Johanniter was light, clean and pleasantly off dry (the 2008 from Colonjes), though low on personality.

The Gwäss, though, intrigued me most of all: you have to respect the mother (Pinot is Dad) of Chardonnay, Aligoté, Melon and Gamay. It’s known in France as Gouais Blanc.

Like many of the whites in The Collector’s tasting, this wine (the 2006 from Chanton Visp in the Valais) had neutral fruit, but made up for it by its bready, mealy, chewy palate: a food vocation for sure. The whites of Meursault and Montrachet are famously rich and structured. That mid-palate texture surely comes from Mum.

Nothing in this tasting rocked the established foundations of the wine world, but it still struck me as important research. We shake off any form of genetic diversity at our peril, especially given the climatic uncertainties which lie ahead. My own aesthetic boundaries, moreover, have changed with time.

As a drinker, I no longer want to recognise familiarity or be overwhelmed by intensity; I prefer the gentle interrogation of the subtly strange, and revere those unshowy, stealthily beautiful wines which reward repeated sipping over the course of a meal.

Given all that, I wonder if, somewhere in the depths of The Collector’s cellar, the perfect wine may be lurking? I’ll have to request another look.

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