"" What's She Eating Now?: Understanding French Wine

Monday, November 30, 2009

Understanding French Wine

Enjoy this guest post by friend of the site, Keith Levenberg. If Keith had a superhero mobile it would be a flying wine fridge which would help him race to the rescue of people about to drink bad wine. Here is what he has to say about France.

Most overviews of French wine break it down by region or grape variety—not a bad place to start, but a little like trying to understand Western classical music by studying the difference between a violin and a viola. Or like the way Casey Stengel explained baseball to the 1962 Mets: “Them are the bases.” The way I see it, understanding the wines of France isn’t really about grasping the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy. It has more to do with a handful of more abstract concepts.

Terroir. — There isn’t a close translation for the word terroir in any other language, because the concept is distinctively French. Taken literally, terroir refers to the influence of site—the soil, the climate, the light, and all of the other factors that make wine from one patch of land taste different from the wine from another patch, even if they are right next to each other. But I think the true essence of the concept is in those definitions that are less technical. The film Mondovino has a scene in which wine importer Neal Rosenthal drives director Jonathan Nossiter through the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up. Pointing to the city streets teeming with Hassidim—imagery that could be from any time, but could never be from any place except Brooklyn—Rosenthal remarks, “This is terroir.”

Regardless whether you favor the technical definition or a more spiritual one, some working understanding of the concept is essential to understanding French wine, because it’s how the French themselves understand it. Terroir has been the animating philosophy of French vignerons at least as far back as the Middle Ages. The GrapeRadio podcast records a lecture by Burgundy critic Allen Meadows offering one intriguing theory why (from 08:30):

If you were a Burgundian one thousand years ago, what might you have been like? You would have been, for one thing, exceptionally attentive to your surroundings: the changes of the seasons, birds, animals. . . . And there was another aspect. You were probably, if you were growing wine, at least any significant quantity of wine, a monk. And that is important from a couple of different perspectives. One is that you didn’t have to make a living; in other words, you could shoot for the very highest quality, and you could also pay very close attention to the nuances between wine coming from this vineyard versus wine coming from that vineyard. Why is that important, why is that interesting? The reason is that, being a monk, you would have viewed those differences as a message from God.

And viewing those differences as something holy, the monks aimed to preserve them. To this day, the maps of Burgundy resemble mosaics of the hundreds of sites the monks discovered, and the labels tell you the place, but not the grape. The same holds true through most of France. You don’t drink merlot, you drink Pomerol. You don’t drink syrah, you drink Hermitage. The idea is that the grape variety is supposed to be merely incidental to the expression of the site.

Classification. — Once the French discovered their terroirs, the next thing they became obsessed with was the rather less spiritual pursuit of classifying them. Most famously, in 1855 the Emperor Napoleon III demanded a ranking of the best wines of Bordeaux, resulting in a classification in which the best wines of the Médoc peninsula (plus nearby Haut-Brion, Bordeaux’s most esteemed wine at that time) were ranked in five tiers. Most of those “Grand Cru Classé” chateaux still boast it on their labels. In Burgundy, the vineyards were classified in a slightly less hierarchical scale ranging from Grand Cru vineyards at the top to Premier Cru vineyards just below and then to village- or regional-level wines. Grand Cru sites are also designated in Alsace and Champagne. (Interestingly, it’s generally the small Champagne growers, not the bling-bling brands like Dom Pérignon, whose wines come from Grand Cru land and indicate as much on the label.)

These classifications are still a big deal and there is an enormous official bureaucracy charged with overseeing them, as if the French government doesn’t have more important things to worry about. But the thing is, most of the classifications, even the 154-year-old one in Bordeaux, remain a fairly reliable guide to potential quality. The term Grand Cru isn’t just marketing puffery; usually, it really means something. Even so, there is a special joy of discovery in finding the exceptions to the rule, like in this YouTube documentary of a blind tasting in which a group of experienced tasters ranked a lowly unclassified $20 Bordeaux ahead of all of the first growths costing upwards of a thousand dollars a bottle. Of course, sometimes there is a catch....

Spoofulation. — Sometimes it’s the diamonds in the rough that upset the expectations associated with terroir and classification. But sometimes it’s the cubic zirconium. And the wine that awes the senses on first impression is revealed to be a fraud, doctored in the winery to make an impact but ultimately offering none of the satisfaction of the real thing. Those are the wines of spoofulation. Typical techniques include letting the grapes hang on the vine to the point of shriveling (so the resulting juice tastes thick and jammy), using reverse osmosis or a spinning cone to remove the inevitable excess alcohol or to concentrate even further by removing water, and relying on new, toasty barrels to add a sweet mocha flavor—a non-sequitur of a taste that can always be counted on to create the illusion of complexity. The essences of spoofulation are artifice and exaggeration. The difference between real wine and spoofy wine is precisely analogous to the difference between Audrey Hepburn and Pamela Anderson, or between Let it Be...Naked and the original version Phil Spector abused with his “Wall of Sound” production. Spicy tuna rolls are spoof sushi. Barry Bonds is a spoof hitter. Star Wars Episodes 1, 2, and 3 and the so-called “Special Editions” are spoof movies.

Spoofulation has spread like a cancer through some of France’s most famous regions. Over the last decade in Bordeaux, classically made wines have become the exception to the rule—and like a junkie who keeps needing more and more to satisfy his fix, wines that once were only subtly manipulated are now cartoonishly so. But there are reassuring signs that the pendulum is beginning to swing in the other direction. The excommunication of Robert Parker from Burgundy and the emergence of Meadows as the most influential critical authority on the region has resulted in a virtual renaissance of classic, old-school winemaking there. Specialty importers like Rosenthal, Louis/Dressner, and Jenny & François continue to expand their portfolios of natural wines from places spoofulation never touched, like the Loire Valley and the Jura. You can visit shops like Chambers Street Wines (the wine equivalent of the record store in High Fidelity), tell them you’ve had it with spoofy wines, and with a wink and a nod they will show you the real France.

Keith Levenberg blogs about wine and food whenever the mood strikes at http://pickyeaters.blogspot.com. 

1 comment:

  1. This is a great article! Thank you for pointing out the Loire and Jura, as I think Americans tend to overlook these wines.