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Steven Spurrier March ’10 column: New discoveries, and Belgian linen

In a world where everything is forever changing, we need people who think differently.’ This was the rallying cry from Jean-Pierre Perrin of Château de Beaucastel at the 38th annual Symposium of the Academie Internationale du Vin (AIV, the now international think tank of 112 members founded by Swiss philosopher Constant Bourquin) in Geneva last December.

It was a more relaxed affair than usual, with a whole afternoon spent tasting the wines from many of the 54 member-growers whose passion is terroir, while the erudite papers presented the following day were in a reflective rather than a provocative vein.

It is fair to say that the tasting, based on the AIV credo of natural and noble wines, spoke louder than many of the heated discussions from previous meetings.

And while the classicism of Willi Bründlmayer’s Grüner Veltliner; Gerard Chave’s Hermitage; Jean-Philippe Delmas’ La Mission Haut-Brion; Paul Draper’s Ridge Monte Bello; the Rieslings of Colette Faller (Domaine Weinbach) and Jean Meyer (Josmeyer); the Dujac and Lafon Burgundies; Noel Pinguet’s (Domaine Huet) Vouvrays; Kurt Feiler’s rich Ruster Ausbruch – competing with Alexandre de Lur-Saluces’s Chateau de Fargues and Royal Tokaji’s 6 Puttonyos Betsek – was totally evident, it was the wines I hardly knew that made a bigger impression.

These included two whites from Switzerland’s Valais region: Raymond Paccot’s (Domaine La Colombe) smoky Amédée VI 2008 from the Savagnin grape and Jean Crettenand’s fresh pear Arvine 2008; Joseph Puig’s (Viñedos de Ithaca) Odysseus Priorats; Christian Imbert’s (Domaine de Torraccia)Corsican reds made with Nielluccio and Sciacarello; and especially the 2007 Colli Tortonesi from retiring AIV president Franco Martinetti – a honeyed white wine from the Timorasso grape that covered the region pre-phylloxera and now only remains on his estate.

Bruno Prats, having shown his Maipo and Malleco Valley, Stellenbosch and Douro wines, admitted that he had had ‘more fun’ in the past 10 years producing these (and more to come from southern Spain) than in 30 years at Cos d’Estournel. He opened the speeches on the new sense of the word ‘vigneron’. In 1865, the Larousse dictionary defined it as ‘a labourer cultivating vines’; by 1966, this had altered to ‘a person cultivating vines’, by 2005 to ‘a person…to make wine’and finally in 2009 to ‘a person…to make his own wine’. He noted that the definition of an effeuilleuse, the women who removes excess leaves in the summer, has not changed from the original ‘vine stripper’.

Next came Belgian collector Frans de Cock, who lectured on how to clean wine glasses, maintaining that only linen cloths should be used, as they absorb water better than cotton. He then distributed a fine Belgian linen cloth to us all, prompting Bruno Prats to ask how we should wash the cloth itself.

More seriously, recent member Alexander van Beek of Châteaux Giscours and du Tertre explained the role of the Dutch in the history of viticulture. During the 17th century, when they ruled the seas, this ranged from Simon Van Der Stel’s and Jan Van Riebeeck’s arrival in the Cape; the distillation of low-alcohol white wines to make ‘burnt wine’ or brandewijn, an idea that spread to Cognac and Armagnac; the invention of the sulphur match, that gave birth to wine’s ability to age in cask; their role in draining the salt marches of the Médoc and creation of the first technical soil analyses; the founding of H&O Beyermann, Bordeaux’s oldest négociant, as well as forays into the Douro (Van Zeller and Niepoort); and distillation in Spain’s La Mancha region, where such products are still known as los Hollandas.

Belgian gourmet-critic Jo Gryn then took us through menus of his forebears from the 19th century. Seldom less than a dozen wines were served at these banquets, often beginning with Madeira and ending with Champagne. An 1876 menu began with Vouvray 1824, passed through ‘La Fite’ 1846 and Bourgogne Grand Musigny (Comte de Vogüé) and ended with Port. By 1900, the choice had progressed to eau-de-vie de Russe Wodka to start, Pommery Americain halfway through and Clicquot Dry to finish. In these marathons, the notion of marrying the dishes with the wines was absent.

The final presentation was by Dr Anna Schneider of the University of Turin, on the authentic heritage of Piedmont grapes. In 2007, of the 240 varieties classified in France, 165 were of local origin. Italy, by comparison, not only has more varieties (412) but a greater proportion of them (344) are home grown. Schneider attributed this to geographical location; Italy being at the heart of the Mediterranean; ecological and political fragmentation; and the late arrival of phylloxera and lack of progress in fighting it. The trend reaches its zenith in Piedmont, where of the 53,000 hectares planted, 97% were born on the spot.

Written by Steven Spurrier

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