Wed 26 Mar 2014
The phrase “Wine and Memory” may evoke for readers the memories we carry within ourselves of the great vintages of wine we have consumed or the wonderful times we spent with others, in some trattoria in Tuscany, next to a canal in Venice, on a wind-swept plain in Extremadura, high in the hillsides of the Douro region, in sight on the Andes in Mendoza, or among the lush vineyards of Napa Valley, always with the perfect bottle of wine, be it rare and costly or a simple everyday luncheon quaff, all bound by the congenial cords of friendship and landscape and pleasure.
Those evocative images, however, are not what I intend by writing “wine and memory.” What I mean is the memory of the wine itself, of wine as an evanescent record of the verities of soil and weather and location, the factors that merge to create the character of the wine, along with, of course, the nature of the grape itself. The reverse scenario also applies; wine can be stripped of its memory, rendered forgetful and inchoate.
First, then, from The Situationist City (MIT Press, 1998), in which Simon Sadler, speaking of the anti-modernist situationist architects and designers of the 1960s and ’70s, writes: ” … they deplored modernism’s tabula rasa approach to the city, one that would effectively leave the city without a memory.” And he mentions “the authority of narrative,” by which he means the deep accumulated history of cities that in its layers and diversity create a unique complexion and identification. You may wonder why those ideas reminded me of wine and winemaking, but if you don’t catch the drift, have a little patience.
Let me juxtapose that quotation with two from a book that should be essential (though difficult) reading for anyone connected with making, selling or writing about wine, Robert E. White’s Soils for Fine Wine (Oxford University Press, 2003). Much of the material in this volume is highly technical, algebraic and meticulous, but White, a professor of soil management at the University of Melbourne, makes clear, in his examination of the soils of St. Emilion, the Medoc, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Napa Valley and Australia’s Coonawarra region that there is “a significant influence of soil on wine character for particular grape varieties” grown in those areas. In addition, “the distinctive character of this wine will depend on the terroir (soil and climate), provided this influence is not obscured by extraneous factors in the vineyard or the winery.”
My point in aligning quotations from these disparate volumes is my sense that as in the city decimated by the rationalist and utopian methodology of modern architects, urban designers and sociologists, so it may occur in the vineyard and the winery, where producers have the ability to tailor wines to their own and their customers’ expectations rather than allowing the cogent features of geography, landscape, soil and microclimate — which White narrowly defines as the conditions that maintain in the vine canopy down through the roots — to shape the final product.
Now I am neither so naive nor so romantic that I would advocate for what is called “natural wine,” the current buzz-concept, nor would I assert that wine should “make itself.” For wine to be totally “natural” and “make itself,” it would have to be the product of ripe grapes that fell off the vine and fermented because of native yeasts on the broken skins, an elixir for the beetles and worms that burrow in the dark earth. Making wine calls for dozens if not hundreds of crucial decisions in the vineyard and the winery, most of which don’t involve mechanics as much as instinct, knowledge and experience. On the other hand, there’s virtue in simplicity, and while many so-called New World winemakers bristle — or become downright vituperative — at terms like “nonintervention” and “nonmanipulative,” it’s my feeling that the best wines result from a balance of sensibilities and techniques that concentrate on the benefits to the integrity of the wine.
What, for example, is the use of bottling single-vineyard chardonnays and pinot noirs if whatever qualities those vineyards might embody are obscured by an aggressive oak regimen? I frequently receive samples from wineries that take pride in a series that involves a separate and increasingly limited bottling for, say, a region, a valley, a vineyard, a block within that vineyard; the implication is that the sequence of these releases will provide a more accurate and profound expression of a particular place. How tragic, then, that the hoped-for eloquence is muted or disrupted or actually negated by the sweetness of high alcohol or tediously ripe flavors or a toasty overlay of new wood.
As you learned in Philosophy 101, tabula rasa is Latin for “blank slate,” a concept most familiar from John Locke’s idea that the human mind is a tabula rasa upon which the world imprints its impressions and effects. A few years ago, a very well-known winemaker for a venerable producer in Napa Valley said to me, “You know what I love about chardonnay? It’s a blank slate. You can do anything you want to with it.” That must explain why I could not drink this winemaker’s stridently spicy, toasty, cloyingly tropical chardonnays.
A grape variety is not a blank slate, My Readers, nor should winemaking devolve to an exercise in ego and dictatorial principles. If you’re not in the business of making fine wine because you revere a place and the grapes you work with and will not through thoughtful nurturing allow that place and those grapes complete expression, why bother? There’s history in the vineyard, geology in the vines and a narrative in the bottle that satisfies a deep longing for connection and gratification on many levels. It should be a privilege to husband that character to ultimate realization.