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PREMIUM

Matt Walls: ‘Since we can only consume a bottle once, it needs to be memorable’

The notion of quality is no longer enough. Wine has to be interesting.' Deep in the catacombs of Jean-Louis Chave’s cellars in the northern Rhône, we were discussing the characteristics of great wine.

And although firstly ‘good quality’ is what we all seek, it’s not that simple any more. For a growing contingent of wine lovers, finding a producer whose values chime with their own is a second key criterion. And there’s a third prerequisite that the best wines all share. They must have personality.

Fifty years ago, winemaking wasn’t so refined; faults that even us drinkers know all about today were dimly understood by many winemakers. With improved professional training and the proliferation of consultants and laboratories, quality is far more reliable now. Successive bad vintages, like those that France suffered in the early 1970s, feel like a distant memory. The quality baseline has risen dramatically.

More recently, the growth of organic, biodynamic and natural wines has seen quality rise even further. But this improvement in the bottle is often of secondary interest; many people choose these wines because they reflect their own principles and beliefs. Given the choice, most of us would prefer to drink wines that aren’t made from grapes sprayed with systemic chemicals, both for our health and the planet’s wellbeing.

Some might even choose an organic wine that scores 93 points over a ‘conventionally farmed’ (ie, sprayed with chemicals) wine that scores 94. When choosing a wine, values can trump quality. And while you can’t taste the fact that a wine is made by a small winery, the knowledge that you’re supporting a family rather than a corporation can further brighten our drinking experience.

If winemakers become dogmatic, however, they risk becoming permissive – or blind – to faults. Exploring natural wine can be thrilling, but I’m not the only one who’s been bitten by bad bottles along the way. And while these wines are often characterful, an insistence on process over place can end up obscuring a wine’s personality rather than accentuating it. Keeping one eye on quality remains essential for creating wines of pleasure.

Every year I taste good wines, organic or not, that are balanced and well made – but are plain and forgettable. That’s why the third factor – personality – is so important. A great wine needs to be distinctive and identifiable; it needs to have something to say. And, since we can only consume a bottle once, it needs to be memorable.

Personality can be channelled from a number of sources. A great terroir can be enough. Jean-Louis Chave is one of many producers to own a parcel of Les Bessards on the hill of Hermitage, and it’s impossible to imagine any of them making a boring wine from this magical place. But a great site is not a prerequisite. Emmanuel Reynaud’s Domaine des Tours hails from vineyards designated Vin de Pays, but these are fascinating, distinctive and complex wines that bear witness to his unfathomable skills.

In rare cases, an unusual grape variety can create wines of charisma. It’s thanks to Dominique Belluard that we can still enjoy the rare purity of the Haute-Savoie region grape Gringet; the new winery created after his tragic death in 2021, Domaine du Gringet, even heralds its name. Tradition can be another source of character. Amontillado Sherries are products of ancient methods refined over centuries to create complex wines you cannot ignore or forget.

Quality and personality are both desirable, but there can be tension between the two. Some wines exhibit high alcohol, low acidity or slightly unripe tannins – but still make for interesting bottles. Indeed, sometimes it’s these very blemishes, extremes or originalities that create a wine’s personality. Some wines are far from perfect, but should still be on everyone’s ‘must taste’ list. Château Musar, I’m looking at you.

In fact, given that wine quality is so consistent now, and that most of us can forgive a winery for spraying if the result is interesting enough, perhaps personality trumps the other criteria. Another comment of Monsieur Chave summed it up concisely: ‘What counts is character.’

In my glass this month

Great sites take time to emerge. A recent visit to McLaren Vale in South Australia has convinced me that Blewitt Springs now deserves to be recognised as such. While many producers make wine from these old Grenache vines, the results share a common refrain – a spellbinding florality. The new-release Ministry of Clouds, Spice Garden 2023 (aged in old French oak puncheons for seven months) combines the whipped silkiness of the grape with the aerial rose and spice that defines this sandy outcrop. A wine with personality.

Bottle of Ministry of Clouds, Spice Garden 2023


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