Time for Certainties?

Locked out of my house the night before I left for Bordeaux to taste en primeurs, I decided the best way to pass the time was to eat at my local Italian restaurant and read up on last year’s vintage conditions. I always wonder whether customers read vintage conditions. Are they only interesting to people who understand how a plant grows? The basic ideas: the sun increases sugar, too much rain causes mildew, different soil types can hold water to the roots differently – the same applies to any fruit, and grapes, after all, are a fruit. Perhaps if you listen to gardening programs on the radio this will be interesting. I am sure for a lot of people their eyes gloss over the vintage reports. If you can be bothered to read it then I recommend you do because it does unlock many mysteries of the wine.

It’s not all about the weather. This year it is also about the technology. The current taxation law in France encourages wineries to plough profits back into the infrastructure. After the big years of 2009 and 2010, this is quite evident in the number of cranes and scaffolds. And also the high technology adopted by many Chateaux.

Neal Martin makes an excellent and strong point in his introductory post on Bordeaux 2012 and notes this year, in particular, “optical sorting machines became part of the winery “furniture”. Instead of Sandrine sorting the grapes, there is a “dead eye” machine that scans for imperfections and removes the grapes. These are the same machines are used for other fruits, too. Again, grapes are a fruit. (I know I keep stating the obvious, but bear with me). It may be a first-growth fruit but it is still a fruit. The downside is that the grapes that remain post-machine are perfectly alike. And I have to say, my impressions of some wines that were very good was that they were also somewhat the same.

“I remain opposed to their introduction,” Neal states unequivocally (in bold).

The problem with perfection

If anyone has pushed the quality, and style, of Bordeaux over the decades it has been Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. So I can imagine the Chateaux owners throwing their hands up to the sky when they read Neal’s post, “Alors! What do you want from us? You, TWA, put us in a 100-point score system. Push us away from the rustic style and then criticize us for trying to be as perfect as we possibly can be.”

It is a tricky high-wire act for Neal to criticize the Chateaux attempts at perfection. Even though he has different scores than Robert Parker, he does use the same SAT High School style 100 point system. And despite many winemakers despising it, many also have a perfectionist streak – and perfectionists tend to have the neurotic need to compare themselves with others. So, in fact it must drive them mad on many levels. As the author of Pomerol – the most Burgundian commune of Bordeaux – perhaps Neal’s idea of perfection is closer to the hands-on approach found in Burgundy.

Now, I am not a perfectionist. As anyone who reads this blog will know I will often press ‘publish’ a little bit before I should because the moment feels right – real perfectionists become stuck. It is a blog, rolling over time, not a magazine with a team of editors. I always prefer truthful emotions rather than punctuation. The ink drips on the Zen calligraphy show the particular moment never again to be repeated. I would rather read @crimershow stories on twitter than a dry technical wine note that only makes me want to buy a fruit salad for lunch rather than have a night with my friends.

So I agree with Neal and feel uncomfortable about optical sorting machines and what they are doing to the idea of “vintage.” They say Bordeaux can “blend away” a vintage, but this is something else. I would prefer Sandrine to the dead eye machines. I prefer Le Crock to Troplong Mondot; Chasse Spleen to a modern Cos d’Estournel. These are real wines I could drink every damn day of the week. Even in the so-called “bad” vintages.

1945, 1961… 2012?

Back to the Italian restaurant I was sitting in, with a very flirtatious waiter I have to say*, and the story of the vintage conditions.

Weather is widely seen as A Problem in 2012. I do not envy the winemaker one bit: even in London, I remember all that rain last Summer. But it made me think, if 2012 was not perfect, then what does perfection look like in a vintage? So I looked up the vintage conditions for two great vintages of the twentieth century to see if I could find a skeleton key: 1945 and 1961.

What are the differences between these great vintages and 2012? Both have harvests in the middle of a perfectly dry September. In 2012, most of the Left Bank had a later harvest in a wet October. In a perfect vintage, the rain seems to have come at exactly when it was needed. In 2012, the rain came exactly when it was not needed. In 1945 August had perfect cold nights and hot days. I haven’t tasted both vintages at the same time but I am going to put all my chips on 1945 just looking at the weather conditions. Although the croupier may still rake in my chips. The weather can help with the average odds but it can not ever predict the freak lightening bolts like 1961 Palmer or 1945 Mouton.

There are some lightening bolts in 2012, too. And then there are plenty of impotent sheet lightening wines in all vintages – perhaps even in 1945 and 1961 at some level. Those vintages did not have the benefit of today’s technology and viticultural knowledge. One winemaker told me in Bordeaux that wines before 1995 have quite a different character for this reason.

All that is certain is that nature has its own score. We want great bottles of wine to drench us like a walk in an electrical storm as we hide under a steel umbrella. We can vainly guess what wines they will be in the future, but who really knows when they will strike us to our heart. Technology may simulate this but I hope our hearts do not become hardened by these little shocks of perfection when the lucky strike comes along.

* Yes, friends who work in restaurants will be embarrassed by this anecdote. There is nothing more annoying than customer service mistaken for anything else – I do know better. But still, is it wrong to hope against hope he may have thought I was a travelling genius with a notepad and a bowl of pasta. No chance. But it did brighten up my evening between starters and a mainI also enjoyed a very nice glass of Planeta La Segreta.


Image Emiliano Ponzi