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The story of wine: Inspiring after all these years

The story of wine: Inspiring after all these years

To truly understand the world of wine and indeed the liquid itself, it helps to develop an expertise in world geography, geology, climatology, environmental science as well as world history, politics, economics, marketing and current affairs; sciences including plant biology, microbiology and chemistry; and last but not least the art, or is it the craft of tasting wine. This endless study probably explains why I am still interested and occasionally inspired after 30 years of working in the world of wine.

We are so lucky to work in our industry. There I was on the last weekend in September, getting filthy and sticky, picking grapes in bright sunlight. We weren’t working that hard, I confess, as we were on a press/trade visit to Gérard Bertrand’s estates in the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region; British wine writer and TV presenter Oz Clarke was one of the invitees. I’ve known Oz for years having worked behind the scenes on several of his books, but he has a somewhat higher profile than me to say the least. Yet, there he was getting stuck in with the rest of us carrying a yellow grape hopper on his back, getting heavier by the minute as the pickers tipped in their Syrah grapes. Every time he got a chance, Oz was asking the boss and owner Gérard, technical questions about biodynamic growing and the finer points of harvest. “You’re just like me, aren’t you, still interested, after, what, 30-odd years?” I questioned. “Yup, always things to learn,” he agreed and we concurred there were many, many worse jobs than ours.

At present, I am spending so much time learning about internet technology and marketing in order to progress Wine Travel Guides as a business, that it’s hard to make time for furthering my wine knowledge too, but it is so worth it when I do. Here are some unusual facts I’ve learnt and experiences I’ve had at recent events and visits, just to prove there’s always something more to discover in the world of wine.

Chilean wine industry and the environment: Food for thought
Before the London Wines of Chile tasting there was a seminar on environmental issues affecting the Chilean wine industry. The first speaker discussed Green Wine Industry Challenges, saying that programmes being put in place were created on the basis of wine production needing to be a) socially equitable b) environmentally friendly and c) economically viable. Nicely put, professor. The second speaker was discussing the nitty gritty of energy efficiency, climate change and the carbon footprint. She told us that in Chile the wine industry consumes only 0.5% of the energy consumed by the mining industry, but since wine does of course have a carbon footprint, we still need to take care of it. Good one.

Burgundy Grands Crus: A reminder
In the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy I latched on briefly to a visit with the Association of Wine Educators when the group was taken to look at the Grand Cru vineyards above Vosne Romanée. Having walked across a piece of grubbed up grand cru flatland that in hushed tones our guide Jean-Pierre Renard told us was the Grand Cru Romanée Saint Vivant, lying fallow to regenerate for a year before re-planting, we arrived at the low stone wall at the bottom of the hallowed Romanée-Conti vineyard. I got my newly acquired video out too late to record Jean-Pierre point out each of the other five Grands Crus in turn: Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Richebourg, La Grande Rue and finally, the little vineyard La Romanée. The latter is a monopole (i.e. has one sole owner like Romanée-Conti) and is planted with vines across the slope rather than up and down like the others, but for no obvious reason. But, what was interesting was the reminder that La Romanée at 0.84 hectares (about 2 acres) is the smallest single appellation in France. Now, wait just a minute, I hear you cry, isn’t that the famed Château-Grillet in the Northern Rhône Valley? Well, no it isn’t (don’t believe all you read in wine text books or indeed on websites, many have wrong facts, I assure you). The vagaries of the appellation rules declare that each grand cru in Burgundy is an appellation in its own right in other words they do not need and indeed don’t use the name of the village attached as with the premiers crus for example.

Grape families and mutations: Definitions and semantics
José Vouillamoz is a Swiss ampelographer (he studies grape varieties) based at the University of Neuchâtel. He has done lots of work on Alpine grape varieties using recent DNA testing methods to determine the origins of different varieties and I wrote about some of his findings in Wine Report 2009. At a recent seminar on Alpine wines held in Chambéry, where he was speaking to laymen on the subject (to my relief, in simple terms), he talked about how we use the words ‘grape family’ so often incorrectly. So, for example, whereas it’s true that the wines from Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are of course completely different from each other, the grapes are actually natural mutations of one another and thus, it is incorrect to describe them as being from the same family. The same goes for Jura’s Savagnin grape, which I have always described as being from the Traminer family – it actually is a mutation of Traminer, thus technically the same grape.

Searching for lower alcohol levels: Biodynamic methods may help
These days, with better growing methods and clones, as well as climate change, we have more and more wines with high alcohol levels because producers leave the bunches to hang after they are sugar-ripe to pick at a time when grapes are physiologically ripe (when the skins are ripe and the grape flavours more developed), by which time the grapes’ sugar levels are often pretty high. At a recent seminar run by Caves de Pyrène, British importers of mainly organic or naturally farmed wines, in passing we discussed the problem of high alcohol levels. Recently, it has been discovered, though not proven, by growers farming biodynamically (in brief, using organic methods, working the soil manually and using homeopathic-type treatments on the vines as well as working to a calendar using moon phases to determine when to do what) that physiological ripeness of the grapes occurs earlier for them than with conventionally farmed grapes. A biodynamic grower I know in the Savoie region, Dominique Belluard, confirmed it too.

So why does any of this matter to Oz Clarke or to me or indeed to you, dear reader (am sure there can’t be more than one of you reading this by now)? Well, some of it doesn’t matter at all – grape families versus mutations, or knowing what the smallest appellation is only concerns wine pedants like me. But, the environmental issues effecting wine production in Chile and the possibility that biodynamic growing might aid in reducing alcohol levels certainly do matter, and as with all study, much of what you learn isn’t necessarily crucial, but it helps paint the whole picture. To make sense of the plethora of wines available to us, some study into what makes those wines what they are, is rewarding. In the end, for me at any rate, this wealth of knowledge enhances the taste of each wine I drink.