Tasting great wines is a privilege. They gather light and warmth into the mouth, as well as offering a sensorial synopsis of distant places on earth; they mean time spent with beauty.
Johannes Brahms’s last words, after having drunk (in two long sips, and despite chronic jaundice related to his terminal liver cancer) a glass of ‘old Rhine wine’ from the Duke of Meiningen’s cellar, were “Ja, das ist schön” – ‘yes, that is beautiful’. I hope I can emulate him one day. (My last, obviously.)
All of that said, I still think the greatest privilege of a wine-writing life is the chance to meet wine creators: those who work with nature to grow great grapes and craft fine wines from them. Not because I’m in awe or envy of the activity as such. It is, rather, because their bond with both the earth and the seasons gives growers a sense of perspective often missing in the more hysterical professions (like journalism or investment banking). The engagement with craft, and the possibility of travelling the world in order to communicate a physical rootedness in place and an aesthetic expression of place, are further intangible assets. Wine-growers are often intensely thoughtful individuals.
At this hinge between years and seasons, I thought I’d offer you a taste of the philosophy of one of the most articulate growers I spent time with last year: Olivier Jullien of Mas Jullien, in the Terrasses du Larzac. I first met Jullien 20 years ago, when he was a young 26-year-old; he was one of the pioneer wine-growers in his area. He was lanky, slim, bright-eyed and given to remarks whose intensity could take you aback. (As the laughter subsided after a joke, for example, he’d point out that “laughter is the mask of despair”.) He’s 46 now, but he’s still lanky, and his eyes still have the same disarming clarity to them.
He’s the only wine-grower I have ever met who cited ‘injustice’ as a motive in planting vines. “You’re looking, “ he said to me when we first met, “at someone whose grandfather was humiliated by the world of wine and whose father was humiliated by the world of wine.” He left the cooperative world which, he felt, made these injustices easy to perpetrate, driven by a sense of ‘revolt’ and the desire to right historical wrongs. “I didn’t feel I had any choice.”
Twenty-seven harvests and a global reputation later, he has made his point, though the journey hasn’t been a straightforward one. “In order to keep doing the same thing, we’ve had to change a lot.” He jokes that Mas Jullien has been an STF – a sans terroir fixe. The vineyards have changed (he felt he had to get rid of his Grenache parcels as “I couldn’t make anything good with it under 15%”); the wines have changed (two soil-based cuvees became a grand vin blend called Mas Jullien and a simpler, more crowd-pleasing wine called Etats d’Ame); even the basic varieties have changed (Grenache out, Syrah reduced; the core of Mas Jullien’s red is now Carignan and Mourvèdre). The changes came about because Jullien never stopped questioning what he was doing.
But he also talks as much nowadays of love and devotion as of injustice and revolt. His love for the Languedoc was, he now thinks, the ‘most powerful fuel’ in his decision to strike out alone; he deliberately decided not to make his domain any bigger in order to work with maximum respect for the land, to maximise the sense of being “in the sphere of living things”.
At the same time, he rejects simple notions of proprietorship. “The land belongs not to those who own it, but to those who work it. The previous generation kept it all going; that’s why we mustn’t let it slip. I hired a man for a year to rebuild dry stone walls. When you rebuild walls and the old people see that, it means a lot. It gives their existence meaning again. For 30 years, they were told it was useless, worthless work. It’s important, politically and morally.”
On the Mas Jullien office wall, there’s a quote from the Lebanese-American Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet (unattributed – the source perhaps doesn’t matter): ‘Le travail est l’amour rendu visible’ (work is love made visible). The sentiment is far from universally held in France, and I doubt you’ll find it tacked to many union or civil-service walls, but the quotation obviously means a lot to Jullien.
“There’s a star in the sky,” he says, “and there’s a line, a wire which extends from you towards that star. All work is a reaching out along that wire, towards that star, that ideal.” Faced with the economic challenges which confront us all in 2012, it seems an image worth cherishing.
Written by Andrew Jefford