Okay… Today’s tricky wine question is:
Over the last three decades, the sage of Monkton, in common with other US critics, has been accused of fostering the market for, and the production of, ripe (some would say over-ripe), sweetly vanilla-oaky and alcoholic, immediately-appealing, young wine. Many of today’s generation of wine drinkers have rarely if ever experienced older bottles and do not like it much when they do so. I can think of several tastings and dinners I have run at which the majority of people present greatly preferred vintages such as the 2005 and 2000 to the 1982 and 1990. Where, they asked, was the fruit in those older wines? It is hardly coincidental that recent vintages command higher prices than old ones.
Now, at first sight, the fans of “natural”, low-SO2 wines seem unlikely bedfellows for Parker, Suckling et al. After all, they would rather go thirsty than drink some of the latter group’s 100-point young Napa Cabs. But the naturalistas, in their own way represent even more of a challenge to those of us who, at least occasionally, relish the flavour of wine that’s 20 or 30 years old. (And I’m not necessarily talking about great wine here).
The notion that wine was stuff to “lay down” partly – I might say largely – stems from the days when drinkable vintages were the exception to the rule, and when entire crops were often lost to disease, pests or bad weather. As recently as 50 years ago, Bordeaux drinkers could expect little joy from 1963, 1965, 1967, 1968 or 1969. Holding onto some 1960, 1961 or 1962 made a lot of sense if you wanted to be sure of having something vaguely acceptable in your glass. And what was true then, was even more so in the 19th century and earlier.
As they drank the wine they had stored, our forebears (often monks) naturally discovered that the wine changed – just as cheese changed – with time. It developed layers of flavours it did not previously possess. Sometimes these flavours were pleasant; sometimes they weren’t. The ones that scored most frequently helped to gain a reputation, both for the plot of land where they were produced and the year in which they were made.
“Natural” wines are produced in some of those same pieces of wine, but their potential to age is questionable. As I have mentioned in a previous post, Doug Wregg of Caves de la Pyrene, UK Mecca of “natural” wine, has said
“60-80% of natural wines fall apart [after the first year]… They’re meant for wine bars rather than cellars”.
When I asked Alice Feiring, one of the leading lights of the “natural” wine movement how she felt about this lack of longevity, she glibly responded with a “Who cares?”, pointing me in the direction of Chateau Musar as an exemplar of the way some of her more favoured wines can stand the test of time. (I’ll talk about Musar on another occasion, but would simply say that when choosing from a wine list of old bottles from across the world, my finger would pass across that particular Lebanese effort quite quickly).
That “Who cares?” was echoed last night by a Canadian sommelier who suggested that tastes and times have changed and that maybe paying hommage to mature wines is an outmoded concept.
Inwardly, part of me applauded her comment. I’ve been served too many old bottles whose only role would have been to satisfy the perverted tastes of vinous necrophiliacs. And I recalled an occasion when I was filming an interview with Lalou Bize Leroy who was renowned for her love of old Burgundy. The session was not going easily and in an attempt to create some empathy with Madame Leroy, the director talked about an interview she had filmed with Michael Broadbent in which he had described tasting an 18th century claret. Broadbent had said that, at first, it was as though the wine was an old man asleep in a chair. Then he woke up, said a few words and went back to sleep. The director told the story well and smiled in expectation of at least a nod of appreciation. Instead, she got a brusque “I have no time of old men – or old wines – with nothing to say!”
But then I remembered the ethereal quality of all the old Burgundies (including examples from Leroy), Rhones, German Rieslings and, yes, Australian Shirazes and Semillons that I’ve ever been lucky enough to drink. It will be something of a tragedy if a combination of the Parker-Feiring Axis and the lack of experience and enthusiasm of a new generation of sommeliers should turn those wines into even more of an endangered species.