Day 26: Great Wine, True Wine
Anthony Wilson is a LA based jazz guitarist and wine lover. But listen to his music, it’s better than a short biography could ever be,
1. Great Wine
“Everyone wants the best eye surgeon, the best babysitter, the best vehicle, the best prosthetic arm, and the best hat… People are afraid to explore their own peculiar taste for fear – that it would be uncool. Just like when you’re a teenager you don’t want to be caught with the wrong sports shirt, the wrong socks.” – Tom Waits
The table was festooned with bottles of wine. The guys at the table poured, swirled, sniffed, gurgled, spat, and ranked one wine after another. Somebody handed me a glass and said, better get moving if you want to try all of these. I accepted the challenge and entered the fray. Many of the wines were opaque, richly textured, and a bit sweet. Some others—saturated with the toasty flavor and fine-grained tannins imparted by new oak barriques—were difficult to recognize as being from any particular place or having any story to tell. The consensus was that 2007 Masseto and 2007 Ornellaia were the wines of the night. I was happy to have had the chance to taste them, but I can’t say they spoke to me.
Amid the chaos of clanging bottles, I found a wine I could imagine returning to throughout the evening. Its more understated but still ripe fruit was balanced by good acidity and it went well with the food on the table. It really was quite beautiful. I said I admired its elegance, which sparked discussion. “That’s because they over-produce and they’re lazy! In the early days they made Great Wine. Imagine the kind of wine it would be if they didn’t rest on their laurels!” Somebody added, “It’s not that it’s bad wine. In fact, it’s quite good. But it doesn’t have what the others have. It doesn’t have what it takes to be a Great Wine, and this estate should be making Great Wine.” It may not have been Great Wine, and it certainly wasn’t natural wine, but the relatively restrained 2007 Sassicaia would have to do. It was something I could actually drink.
If a wine is fresh, supple, transparent—or a little rough and rustic—and beautifully accompanies your meal, can’t it also be great? How, for example, do the mineral Muscadets of Marc Ollivier and graceful crus Beaujolais of Jean Foillard fit into a viewpoint of wine that most highly values power, concentration, opulence, lavishness, grandeur, extraction, density, and…oomph? Is a wine’s ultimate ambition to scratch its way relentlessly to the top of a rigidly stratified Quality hierarchy (not worth drinking=80 to 85; not worth being seen drinking in public=85 to 90; not an embarrassment to drink=90 to 95; worth murdering to drink=95 to 100+*) and never to tumble from that summit? Does the appreciation of wine solely involve the discernment of Quality via a matrix of officially sanctioned benchmarks, or can there be something else? Can’t there be something else?
I traveled to Tuscany to visit some vignaioli who work naturally. But natural wine per se was only discussed during one brief exchange. While Giovanna Morganti was showing me the newly built cantina at Le Boncie, her home and farm in San Felice, I asked her if she considered herself a “natural winemaker.” She immediately said, “Yes.” But then she paused, reflected, and clarified: “I don’t ‘consider it’ – I am.”
This resonated deeply with me. I am a jazz musician, and natural wine reminds me of jazz. Both capture the spontaneity, purity, vitality, and beauty of the moment of their creation and the raw materials (grapes, musical ideas) they are created from. And both also start fights, mostly regarding definitions, e.g. “what is jazz?” and “what should natural wine be?” These fights rarely go anywhere but in circles.
We’re stuck with the words. But it’s dangerous to get so caught up in the word that you miss the thing. Many musicians don’t want to box themselves in. I can appreciate that. And I understand the fuzziness and essential artificiality of borders between musical genres. But saying that I’m a jazz musician doesn’t threaten my creative freedom or shackle me to tradition. It’s more an ethos: the basic spirit of what I do. Giovanna’s strong, confident “I am” was similar. It was a declaration from a woman neither attached to, nor confined by, nor defensive about natural wine and all the debate surrounding it. For her, natural wine is not a subject to “consider,” apart from the thing itself. It is a reality, born in her responsibly farmed vineyard and traditional cantina where additions, corrections, and enhancements are not needed, so they are simply not used.
Giovanna Morganti’s “Le Trame” Chianti Classico comes from alberello-trained Sangiovese and Fogliatonda (a related, traditional variety named for its rounded leaves) grapes grown in stony, calcareous soil. The vineyard is plowed once in winter, then planted with a cover crop (wheat and broad beans) that is cut during flowering, carpeting the ground and creating a reserve of humidity in the soil for the roots of the plants. Hand-harvested grapes are fermented for about two weeks in small open-top wooden vats and transferred to 15-hectoliter botti or 500-liter tonneaux (both French) where they complete their élevage. New oak is brought in only when an older barrel or two must be retired. Now that the cellar has moved from the cramped main house to a separate cantina with more space, Giovanna hopes to acquire more of the larger containers, because when raised inside them “the wines age more gently and acquire greater finesse.” We opened a bottle of her 2008. It is classic, traditional Chianti Classico that will age beautifully. It is not hard-edged or aggressive and certainly doesn’t require the inclusion of international varieties to “round it out.” Nor would the toasty vanilla flavoring of new barrels make it better wine. The wine is pure and elegant, and reveals strong minerality, energy, and freshness.
Later that day I visited Montesecondo, Silvio Messana’s family home and azienda near Cerbaia. I showed up late, but Silvio welcomed me warmly and was incredibly generous with his time. Over coffee he told me about his years in New York and Boston, working as a musician as well as in wine sales with Michael Skurnik. He talked about meeting his wife Catalina, about their three sons, and about his ultimate decision to leave the states and make a go of it as a winegrower in Toscana upon inheriting his mother’s farm in 2000.
The property was conventionally farmed at the time. But Catalina was always concerned about healthy living, and their sons had attended Rudolf Steiner Waldorf schools, so she urged Silvio to convert to natural and biodynamic methods on the farm. Some time later, he attended a lecture by Nicolas Joly that really inspired him and strengthened his commitment to biodynamics. During the first vendemmia at the farm, he and his wife looked at each other and asked, “Do you know how to make wine?” Both answered “no,” and thus began their first decade of trial and error, of getting to know the farm and learn the necessary vinification skills.
As we chatted, Silvio never spoke about biodynamic preparations, the cycles of the moon, or dung-filled horns. He was not waving a flag for biodynamics. But the sense of life on his farm is obvious. His neighbor’s vineyard appears barren, almost utilitarian, in comparison. At Montesecondo, a layer of diverse growth thrives between the vine rows, and Silvio has begun the laborious process of converting to alberello training, as he feels that this better distributes the plant’s energy to where it’s needed the most. Silvio ferments in stainless steel in his small cantina, and the wines rest in used 500-liter French oak tonneaux in a naturally cool cellar underneath the house. The Montesecondo Rosso sees no wood and is bottled about 9 months after the vintage.
Three bottles were opened: 2007 Chianti Classico, 2009 Rosso del Rospo (Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot) and 2009 Montesecondo Rosso. Silvio, Catalina and I drank the wines sitting around the big wooden kitchen table. They were – all of them – wonderful. The Chianti Classico was structured and intense, yet very accessible now. The Tuscan voice of the more angular and tight Rosso del Rospo had not been drowned out, even though the wine was made from Bordeaux varieties. Silvio is considering the intriguing prospect of aging future vintages of this wine in amphora. And the 2009 Rosso was charming, alive, singing: an Italian analogue of, say, the lively Gamay/Pinots from Dard & Souhaut or the juicy Passetoutgrains from Michel Lafarge. It was less sweet than the 2008 bottling, and Silvio and I agreed that it is clearer and more focused. It is very refreshing. Silvio says that his wines are improving with every vintage, and that their increasing articulateness follows directly from his growing intimacy with the farm. He’s done something quite special at Montesecondo simply by respecting his land, and allowing the wine to let it speak.
3. Detractors and True Wine
Natural wine detractors will tell you that there’s no such thing as natural wine because all wine is natural. That “natural wine” is merely a marketing term, used by opportunists trying to cash in on the zeitgeist: there have always been producers who work naturally but don’t try to attract attention. They’ll say the wines are unclean—flawed, usually—and that you are probably attracted to the flaws. Sometimes these objections have merit. It’s neither useful nor intellectually serious to defend a yeasty Petri dish of a wine just because it was fermented “wild” from naturally farmed fruit and bottled with minimal sulfur. But it’s equally disingenuous to suggest (as I’ve seen done) that Chateau X is making vin naturel, just because they are now using a few biodynamic preparations on their farm, or eschewing herbicides and pesticides.
You can have an organic or biodynamic vineyard and still be screwed. Your site may be problematic. You may obliterate healthy diversity by trying to predict and plant “magic” clones. You may pick at too high brix and end up with sweet, flabby, high-alcohol wine that your enologist acidifies and then slathers with new oak in order to craft a product for the so-called “international palate.” These procedures – regardless of the farming – will not result in a natural wine.
In 2008, while in Vienne, France for the jazz festival, I had the pleasure of meeting Jean-Louis Chave, proprietor of the venerable Hermitage domaine of the same name. Over dinner, he talked about terroir in a way that really stayed with me. I’m quoting from memory, but the ‘rant’ went something like this: “Everybody talks about terroir. But you can’t talk about terroir if you are killing your vineyards with chemicals. You can’t talk about terroir if your vineyards are dependent on irrigation. And you can’t talk about terroir if your work in the cellar is full of techniques that don’t allow the grape to speak.”
Returning to Vienne last week, I had the opportunity to visit Chave in his cave, and again he bypassed bullshit to get to the heart of the matter: “These vineyards were here long before me, and their fruit will give wine long after I am gone. So the important issue is not quality, but truth. I am not looking to make a great wine, or a Chave-brand wine, or a great Syrah. “Chave” is not important; the grape variety is not important. Hermitage, the truth of Hermitage, is important. The grape is only a vehicle to translate the information of the soil, the site, and the specifics of the vintage into wine. We try to raise the wine so none of that information is lost. When this happens, you have a true wine. That is our goal.”
It is also the goal of the best natural vignerons. Beautiful, clean, beguiling natural wines do exist. And contrary to what detractors suggest, the passionate, meticulous people who make them, such as Giovanna Morganti and Silvio Messana, don’t run around with placards saying, “Look at me! I’m natural!” They simply go to great lengths, every step of the way, to farm responsibly, and to raise and bottle true wines, wines of purity, expressive of their origins. Their best efforts are thrilling, and always worth supporting.
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Up next: VLM; or; Seriously this post has a graph.