How strange to divide wine writers into a wine left or right. It will help you to enjoy the early chapters of this book if you have a soft left interpretation of the world wine industry, and enjoy railing against the globalisation of wine, the sameness of taste, the industrialisation of wine and a future driven by world wide brands. This book takes the proposition that the true way to make wine comes from those who bond with the ground, who work the vineyard night and day, break their backs, and by so doing achieve in almost a religious sense a bonding with the earth, the place and the wine produced.
Not far into the introduction we are told; “What has not been bought back to France so far is the worst lesson of New World wine making: that it can be a brand-driven industry like any other. That vineyards are just a home for venture capital: that wine making is no more than applied chemistry; that the purpose of wine production is shareholder value; and that marketing strategies are more important than scent and flavour in selling wine”. That’s an interesting proposition and come to think of it is quite a good description of the wine making and marketing genius that made Champagne.
There is more; “…since fashion and the economic power of capitalism have succeeded in gulling individual human beings…. into putting a high value on mass-marketed products which leave them both physically and spiritually unsatisfied.” Well at least you know where the author stands as he pours scorn on all those who thought they were enjoying well made and good value wine, not realising that if it is made by big companies it will taste sour.
We are told that; “…France’s wine culture, moreover, of which the appellation system is the coded abstract, is not only a national treasure but also a precious human achievement”. Before being plunged back into; “Free market capitalism often has a corrosive effect on cultural wealth of this sort, since it privileges economic success over the broader human value systems on which cultures are founded”. Which made us wonder whether this free market capitalism was the same one that has made the famous Chateaux owners of Bordeaux fabulously wealthy and is certainly doing a lot to preserve the way of life of many a Burgundian farmer?
There is a fine discussion of French wine laws that can be summarised as a debate of how they preserve regional taste character and it is worth observing how this has inadvertently allowed new world wine makers to drive forward by promoting varietal labelling. It is argued that the system of regulation (appellation controlee or AOC) that divides France into numerous defined regions, such as Chablis, are not brands as they belong to a collective, but the widespread use, until recently, of these terms in places like Australia, is strong evidence that they are indeed brands. And this discussion reminded us of the problem of the fishing industry where when no one has ownership of the common domain there are always those who overexploit which suggests what is the real weakness of the French classification system.
The title, The New France, sums up the message of this book; that there are an increasing number of French vineyard owners-winemakers who are handcrafting wines that are true to the terroir and these offer the way forward and the true direction of wine. And many of these growers embrace organic and bio-dynamic viticulture. Now this seems like a good idea but whether it makes better wines is not so easily explained and whether it is possible to divide wines into either fruity style wines or terroir style wines, as is suggested, makes no sense at all.
The author has been writing about wine for many years, in a number of consumer journals so we can assume that he well knows that there are two wine industries. That which supplies the world with tasty, affordable wines made on a large scale at a price point that will appeal to the vast number of consumers, and the one he prefers which is the artisinal wine industry of hard working men and woman that makes interesting wine which by its nature, is small scale, low yielding, labour intensive and produces expensive wines. Why then set up the bogey man of the global, branded wine industry that delivers wines people want and can afford? If the wines from this side of the industry do not have a nice taste no one will buy them.
The chapter explaining terroir starts with the following; “Consistency, varietal character, depth of fruit, oak integration: these are qualities of absolute irrelevance to French AOC wine. Instead, its aim and its reason for being is to lend a sensual print to rock, stone, slope and sky.” But it is acknowledged that not all terroir’s are equal and many described in this book are not exceptional and no matter what the AOC system may say can never produce wine above ordinary quality. And you can also take your pick as to whether wines made off this plot of ground, the essence of terroir, should for some reason be better than blends from many plots of ground. As is acknowledged few of the great Bordeaux Chateaux actually have contiguous vineyards.
Also, early on we are told; “France does have a weakness, of course, and a very great one, which is that it has failed to communicate the beauty and worth of its complex` and fragmented wine culture”. Well something is wrong here as no other country gets so much free wine press. This book is another example of wine writer’s obsessive love with France. If after one hundred years of outpourings on the beauty of French wine by English writers means that the French have failed to communicate this worth perhaps we should look elsewhere and suggest that taste is a problem or the wine buying public are just not influenced by these wordy tomes.
While the author only hints that he agrees with a comment from one of the New France’s most ardent disciples, Nicholas Joly, of the Loire Valley winery Coulee de Serrant, it does sum up the tone of the book; “an unpleasing true wine is morally better than a pleasing untrue wine”. Gee, this is a statement that is hard to take seriously. Whatever dollars I have to buy wine with I elect to take the later and the reason is wine is not religion it’s just a drink.
The author has some wonderful descriptions of the landscapes and understands the geology of each region very well, and this is necessary if you are trying to promote the individuality of each region and how the taste relates to the soil and rocks as this book does. Thus we come across comments like; “I have been lucky enough to drink wine for thirty years now. There is no doubt in my mind that the most profound satisfaction that wine can bring is based on the scents and tastes of stones, earth and minerals in wine’.
And later in discussing Beaujolais; “Both Cote de Brouilly and Cote Roti are born in quartz, in schist, in granite; they have a glinting, acidic hardness to them”. Then a story from a famous maker of Chablis, Vincent Dauvissat continues the theme; “So I went and got a hammer and knocked a bit off. And at the point at which it broke, it gave off truly the same smell that we’d just found in the bottle of old wine, that same note of smoke and stone. They were astounded”.
Throughout the book there is a strong desire to relate each region to the earth but alas you cannot taste earth and stones and minerals. There is the desire to find things that do not exist and as much as we would like to be believers we cannot. A lot of the comments about taste relate back to earth but this is just overextending the taste in the mouth to poetry in the head and while it is all good fun and good marketing it is not true.
With that said the book is a significant achievement. Anyone who can write yet another book about the wines of France and make it sing, as this book does deserve praise. The thumb nail sketches of the new wine makers at the end of the review of each region are informative and the bringing alive of such areas as the Savoie, the Jura and the Southwest brings you closer to areas that most of us will never visit.
Also we wondered if it is possible to come up with a definition to show that a particular vineyard is expressing terroir. We know that quality comes from low yields, good vineyard practices, good sites and non-interventionist wine making. It shouldn’t be too hard to quantify this in terms of terroir although I’m dammed if I can answer this just now.