The Diversity of Wine
Last week i was contemplating, over a glass of Francois Cazin’s Cour-Cheverny, i was contemplating, of all things, romorantin. Once widely grown in the Loire valley, romorantin has largely been relegated to making Cour-Cheverny in which it is the only variety allowed. That it still exists at all in the face of more popular and marketable grapes such as sauvignon blanc and chardonnay is a testament to the dedication of a handful of growers who still believe in a grape that almost no one has ever heard of.
A few days ago, while discussing some Loire valley wines on the old Winedisorder SFJoe, fresh off a trip to the Loire, said something intriguing. He spoke about a problem that has long troubled the AOC system in France, the dictating of rules based on purely economic or marketing concerns instead of long term decisions that attempt to derive benefit from France’s astounding diversity in both varieties and terroirs:
It’s kind of amazing–the powers that be are considering limiting the white Touraine AOC to Sauvignon Blanc. Some attempt at clarity of global branding against the kiwis or something equally idiotic. Rather than trying to celebrate their amazingly diverse patrimony.
Upon reading this i reflected back on the romorantin, a grape that could have easily gone the way of many other grapes that have been banned by various governing bodies over the years, or torn up in favor of fashionable grapes from recognizable regions. “What does Cabernet have to do with Tuscany?” to channel a question asked by a friend.
This is a foothold for grape diversity in a world that has become increasingly homogenized. Some of this is due to the tremendous loss post-phylloxera, but much of it can be blamed on the increasingly generic demands of marketing “brands” (be those brands a label, a grape, or a growing area) that insist on simplicity rather than diversity. One needs to only look at Rioja to see what is happening. Classic varieties are slowly being edged out by branded French (really international at this point) grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. In other parts of Spain traditional varieties like sumoll are not even allowed in the controlled wines from the region (Linda Violago wrote about this problem HERE last year). Is Rioja still Rioja if sauvignon blanc is allowed? Would Clos Ste. Hune still be Clos Ste. Hune if chardonnay was grown there? What if Emmanuel Reynaud planted merlot? Would we still have Rayas?
There is a flattening effect going on. This has been said time and time again, but it bears (at least in my mind) repeating. When i was contemplating this post i thought of the great EO Wilson and The Diversity of Life. This book is one that i can reasonably say, with a few others, changed my life for the better. In the book Dr. Wilson, who is a professor specializing in myrmecology, or the study of ants (the same root as that favorite word of mine, myrmidon), puts down an elegant argument for the protection of the planet’s biodiversity in the face of increasing modernization. It is a passionate, eloquent work that straddles the line perfectly between science and literature. Wilson’s argument, stated in my very un-EO Wilson manner, was that the beauty and health of the world is dependent on the continuing diversity of life, that things will begin to fall apart the more pieces we remove.
Perhaps the same can be said of culture, to make an argument i am not equipped to make. The more things we remove the less the whole is interesting and unique, and the less it will work. And since my particular point is wine, that is what i’m interested in as a tree amongst the forest. What will happen to the grand Chardonnays of the world without the humble aligote? Do we lose a sense of Rayas without someone bottling counoise? While we have erased much of the ugliest side of provincialism we have lost something in the race towards modernization. there is a balance to be struck that will take people smarter than i to make.
Of course, i must point out here, that some economic realities are too much to stand on principle. feeding families is more important than making sure your wine is traditional. Time marches on. Muscadet wasn’t always melon de bourgogne, things sometimes change whether we like or not.
A point and laugh moment happened in the wine world this week when it was discoved that E&J Gallo had been duped into buying (and then selling) 460 oil tankers worth of pinot noir from the Languedoc that was not anything remotely resembling pinot noir (full story here). What is instructive about this story isn’t the fraud, large scale wine fraud is common, but rather that no one seemed to notice that the wine wasn’t pinot noir. The image of “French” and “pinot noir” were more important than the actual taste of the wine. And why not? When a line in a movie can doom merlot to the bargain bin should we be surpised at this story?
Last year i had a chance to sit down for lunch with Australian vigneron Dave Powell from Torbreck. Dave is, to put it bluntly, a very blunt person. i can’t imagine anyone coming away from a converstion without a strong opinion of him, and neither love nor hate would surpise me. i for one enjoyed him. There was no bullshit or pretense. He answered every question i posed to him honestly and forthrightly, and didn’t seem to want to market anything to me. One thing we discussed was the fact that Australia was fast becoming the laughing stock for the serious wine world. Associations with cheap critter label mega-brands and ridiculous export policing were choking off the industry, and Australia was losing even it’s tenuous hold its own wine making traditions. To hear a new world wine producer from Australia lament the fact that he is seeing old growth mouvedre torn up for cabernet was eye opening to me. The same thing happened in California with old growth carignane, something that is highly prized now by a new generation of vignerons who are slowly rejecting the flattening pull of fashionable varieties.
The amazing old vines at Do Ferreiro in Spain
There is hope, however, for saving wine as a celebration of diversity of terroir and culture. the wonders of modernism are winding down. people are beginning to realize that progress for progress sake was misguided in many areas. There are still growers like Francois Cazin, making the old styles. People like Joel Gigou and Jacy Prey who have labored to save these old varities and once again get them accepted. People like the Foucault brothers and Lopez de Heredia who are making wines the way they know how because that’s how they have always been made. People like Thierry Puzelat who have never met a grape they don’t think can make a good wine regardless of the “brand” recognition. People like the vignerons in the Mosel desperately trying to save the terraced vineyards so vital to their wines. There are people in America and Australia and elsewhere in the new world who are trying to start making American and Australian wine again, instead of international wines. People like Alice Feiring and Levi Dalton and Joe Dressner and my employers at Terroir and the guys at the Ten Bells who have made it a mission to celebrate this diversity. People like me, i suppose, who enjoy these wines, this difference, this mind bending array of flavors from so many interesting wines from so many interesting cultures.
i guess my blog didn’t really need a statement of purpose, but if this is it i don’t mind.