Although on a much lower score than Michael Broadbent, still at the crease on 397 (see p21), this is my 200th column for Decanter. Time for some reflection. My 100th column, in February 2002, described the tasting held by Louis Jadot at the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune in 2001 to celebrate Jacques Lardière’s 30 years of winemaking and the magnificent Corton 1911 served at dinner. Since then, Jadot has taken me back to 1865 with another Corton, but what stays with me is Lardière’s statement that ‘wines should always surprise you, for without this capacity they are dead’. Note that he didn’t say ‘pleasantly surprise you’, which is just nearing or possibly exceeding expectations, but ‘surprise you’ – give you something you weren’t expecting.
Such a view is the prerogative of an artist like Lardière, but the reverse is even more valid – that mediocrity is the enemy of wine. The Decanter 20-point scale starts at 10 points for bad, 11 for poor, then 12 for mediocre. The first two are dismissed as faulty or barely drinkable, but the third carries disappointment, which I feel is worse. While ‘adequate’ at 13 points shows need for improvement, mediocre is just plain depressing.
For Decanter’s 21st anniversary issue in September 1996 I was asked for 21 tips to improve your drinking pleasure. Tip 19 was ‘Never persevere with a wine that bores or disappoints: open something else’. My first tip, ‘Always carry a corkscrew or travel with someone who does’, has lost some of its value due to the vast choice of screwcapped wines, but I hold more and more to tip 18, which was ‘Drink wines to suit your mood, rather than to match the food’.
This advice runs through Jeannie Cho Lee MW’s book Asian Palate. The first Asian Master of Wine (and my co-consultant for Singapore Airlines, alongside Australia’s first MW Michael Hill Smith), she comes to the conclusion, across 10 cities in Asia, that food is ‘place driven’.
So is wine, but in Asia food comes first, and since many dishes are served at the same time and shared, it is impossible to find the right match. Cho Lee advises, therefore, not to have exaggerated expectations, but drink what you feel like. My thoughts entirely.
However impressive their labels might be, the wines from my own cellar that I tend seldom to feel like drinking (and certainly not for lunch) are those above 14% alcohol. Lardière thinks that wines should be surprising, but I think they should, for the most part, be refreshing, leaving the palate ready for another mouthful.
Broadbent still uses a phrase from a 1960s’ advertisement for vacuum cleaners to describe claret: ‘It beats as it sweeps as it cleans’. The wine enlivens the senses, sweeps up the flavours of, say, a lamb chop, and leaves the palate clean, in the way a 16%abv Zinfandel never can. If a wine is going to dominate a dish, not harmonise, then it’s better drunk on its own.
Many winemakers maintain that the high alcohols today are the result of the extra phenolic ripeness thanks to warmer weather, so that the fruit is better expressed. As my nanny used to say, when I disagreed with her, that’s as maybe, but I prefer the opinion of Paul Draper, who has 40 vintages under his belt at Ridge Vineyards in California: ‘High alcohol is the choice of the proprietor. It is not dictated by global warming.’
Global warming is not a bad thing for wine, but globalisation seems to have been. Conglomerates have entered the industry in the past decade, buying up brands that have generally been created over time by a family or an individual, understanding more the value of the brand than the reasons for such value, abandoning the ex-owner’s philosophy, losing direction, losing clients, losing money and, in many cases, exiting, having created damage all round.
I suggested to Hill Smith, who runs Shaw & Smith with his cousin Martin Shaw in the Adelaide Hills, that perhaps family businesses are still the best wine-producing model, but he thinks regionality is more important: ‘The way ahead for Australia is small to medium wineries focusing on fine, regional wines. We have the wines, the producers and the will.’ Big may not necessarily be bad, small not necessarily beautiful. The key is independence.
A glance at wine families around the world, both big and small, will show that they own their own vineyards, control their own vinification and manage their own brands from top to bottom. If their names instil confidence it is because, for them, regionality and originality come first. Being their own masters, they are not looking for short-term results – and producing wine is anything but short term. Independence permits long-term planning and investment in quality at all levels, and it is the consumer who benefits. The future of wine is bright – as long as it remains independent.
Written by Steven Spurrier