To respect or disrespect the vintage?

Andrew Jefford's article entitled "The Truth Game" regarding vintage variation in wine in Decanter yesterday was interesting, but to be honest troubled me a little.  Perhaps particularly so since I had just posted a review of a 1993 Mouton Rothschild that was pleasant, but not particularly amazing and still very expensive.

Here are the parts of the article that piqued my interest:

"A crafted object, perhaps first and foremost. Fine wines are usually a snapshot of place, too, as well as being an interpretation of a varietal (or blended) ideal. They’re also a drinkable weather report: the summary of a season. But to what extent? ...

The fine-wine market is, I suspect, ready to embrace vintage differentiation in a way that it hasn’t been in the past. (This is, after all, one of the things which distinguishes it from inexpensive wine brands – where consistency is paramount.) ... The underlying assumption, though, must be that the wine will be a truthful account of the vintage.   Don’t strive to correct nature; select from it instead, so as to deliver the most limpid and resonant account of the year that you can. Otherwise … what’s the point?"

My first concern is that I don't generally like bad wine, even if the bad wine has a story behind it, such as being raised in a bad vintage.  Even more so if that bad wine happens to be "fine wine".  I am also somewhat concerned that a more cynical approach could prevail so that a "truthful account of a vintage" becomes "spin" to cover for what is actually just wine that is not particularly good.

My second concern is slightly harder to articulate.  I think it boils down to whether a wine in fact can be a truthful account of a vintage at all, or if so, to what extent.  Evidently, a particular vintage will have characteristics, and I can also see that grapes would be a direct product of that.  But grapes are not wine.  Wine itself, is not a natural product, and by definition involves a significant intervention to avert the grapes becoming, I understand, a type of brettanomyces vinegar, with numerous well known steps being undertaken to avoid that outcome and create wine.  Nature must in fact be corrected it seems for wine to exist at all.  Dan Buckle explains this point well here in his recent article on biodynamics.

It is here that, in my opinion, the grey area commences, and any descent into the specifics of what a truthful vintage might mean seems fraught.  Consider this: what practices and winemaking steps actually deny vintage truth?  Mr Jefford mentions selecting from nature as a permissible action.  But does that deny vintage truth too?   What does a truthful account of a vintage mean for the selection of grapes?  Is it all grapes, some grapes, only non-diseased grapes and/or only grapes that meet particular ripeness criteria?  Why is that particular choice truthful?  Is the truth "that vintage" or the "best of that vintage"?  And what does it mean for winemaking?  Winemaking involves numerous interventions, including additions of sulphur dioxide, exclusion of oxygen, additions of yeasts, acids (in warmer climates), sugar (in cooler ones), temperature control and oak treatments, and can involve fancier interventions such as reverse osmosis.   Which ones deny the truth of the vintage?  Could it be all of them?  Accepted wisdom is perhaps that some interventions are more egregious than others (eg reverse osmosis) in denying vintage truth and I, like many others, at least instinctively prefer a "minimalist intervention" approach.  It just sounds so appealing, natural and honest.  But whether that really results in a truthful reflection of a vintage, or just a faithful rendition of that particular kind of truth's subjective parameters, I don't know.  My guiding criteria I am afraid is going to remain for now a rather simpler and safer one, namely "do I like the wine?".
Wine Thoughts
March 8, 2011


Jeremy Pringle said…
An articulate critique of Jefford and, for that matter, many other idealogues who are abusing words like "natural" and "authentic" within the wine world.

I am more comfortable with the idea of each "truth" being determined by "subjective criteria" makes people own their aesthetics and resultant opinions.

Red said…
Nice post and agree with JP's comments.

I like vintage variation in wine, but only to a certain extent. I'm certainly not ready to embrace 2008 SA heat affected wines, nor 2009 smoke tainted victorian wines. In contrast I often admire wine makers who through careful vineyard management, and thoughtful winemaking are able to "beat" a poor vintage and produce a good wine.

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