A sense of place. That’s what everyone says they’re looking for these days. Not balance. Not harmony. Not structure or strength or typicity or even mysterious beauty. We read phrases like “a wine that comes from somewhere.” It should be music to people who write wine-atlases. But do we actually know what it means?
The received wisdom is that vineyard wines and cellar wines are almost two distinct categories. Wines that are (or claim to be) “grown,” with the stress on the viticulture, are deemed to be superior, even morally superior, to wines that are “made,” with the stress on the cellar. Hence the importance of place: a particular vineyard cultivated with devotion. Any vineyard? Or is something more specific required?
We all know vineyard sites that stamp their wines with recognizable character. Scharzhofberg is the one that springs first to my mind. The extraordinary dimensions and depth of even the lightest Kabinett wine from that steep gray hill of slate seem to have no equivalent. You taste the wine: you picture the vines. The great climats of Burgundy can do the same. It is the extraordinary culture of the Côte d’Or that can guide the educated palate either to a village in general (this is Volnay, that is Pommard) or, with the greater intensity of a premier cru, to Les Santenots or Les Epenots within those villages. That is supposing the producer has been scrupulous and, of course, the taster has enough practice.
We can all make a list of wines whose tastes we ascribe to their origins – which surely means that they have a sense of place. We also drink wines that give us no such message. Is it because they don’t carry one, or that we don’t recognize it? How, after all, do you sense the place when you’ve never been there, have never heard of it, and are just thinking what a stonking good Syrah they’ve just poured you. Now where do you say this comes from? Yes, you may recognize it next time. But are we equating a sense of place with a good palate memory? After all, the original meaning of goût de terroir came into the same category of compliment as “interesting.” You could taste the place alright – but what a pity it tasted of mud.
And it depends on how broadly or narrowly you define “place.” Australia is a place alright, but it is hardly a matter of excitement or revelation that a wine is identifiably Australian – as their marketing gurus discovered just in time. They rediscovered Australia’s “places,” Coonawarra, Clare, Margaret River, the Hunter Valley… and the world woke up to what their country has to offer.
I think the desire for a sense of place, though, may come from deeper roots. I have just been reading a strange book, published a century ago, by an Icelandic gardener, of all unlikely things, who made a garden in the Cotswolds. His name was Jorn de Précy. His thesis is that modernity (already in 1912) has destroyed the particularity of different places. The ancients, he wrote, knew that each place had its minor god. Springs had their nymphs, woods their dryads. You rarely if ever saw them, but they were the spirit of the place and deserved respect. I dare say a native Australian or American Indian would agree with him.
Do you remember how our towns used to look, when the High Street displayed the names of the local traders, professionals, and craftsmen? Each shop was someone’s house, its fascia someone’s self-expression and pride. Then, it must have been 40 or 50 years ago, multiple stores and global brands moved in. Their glaring over-sized fascias, the ghastly blue of Boots or the red of Woolworths, destroyed at a stroke the architecture and taste, the originality and harmony of a culture, a tradition – or indeed of a place. Salisbury and Gloucester and York were obliterated under the new invention of nowhereness, just as Bond Street has become nothing but the land of Gucci and Armani.
De Précy’s book is about gardens. Good gardens, in his eye, are the only places left with their own spirits, their little deities; their sense of being an original place not interchangeable with others or obliterated by the roar of the modern world.
I don’t agree with him. I know rivers, ponds, hills, woods where the spirits are still up to their old tricks. But the most irrefutable evidence is in vineyards. They can stamp their originality on the juice they give us as precisely as a barcode and as indelibly as walnut juice.
How they do it – whether they transmit a message from the chemistry around their roots, or compose music from the wine and sunlight on their leaves – we don’t know. The infinite possible permutations of moisture and temperature, illumination and drainage, alkalinity and acidity that add up to “terroir” will never be analysed into correspondence with what our senses tell us. And aren’t we grateful that there is something left out of reach?
It wasn’t a grand cru, or a great rarity, that suddenly started me on this train of thought. It was a white wine from La Clape, that odd outcrop of limestone on the Mediterranean coast near Narbonne. The smell of it, a sort of seaside Sylvaner with almond kernels, a certain thickness and bitterness in the mouth, a stony smoothness and a long appetizing flow, brought up a picture of the vines sloping down to the sea. Yes, it was the unusual blend of Roussanne and Bourboulenc that I was tasting (and you don’t to my knowledge find it anywhere else). But, rightly or wrongly, it was the sense of place that struck me. I loved it. I wanted more. You could have offered me Montrachet at that minute and I’d have said, “Thanks. But later.”
Does the opposite occur: a wine of high pedigree that evokes plenty of abstract approval but not the sense that you are somewhere? It happens with Champagne, of course. Dom Pérignon and Cristal evoke a salon (or manager’s box) more than they do a chalky slope or even a chalky cellar. But that’s the idea. You go to Jacques Selosse (or Clos des Goisses) if you want a smack of terroir in your bubbles.
And there are certainly some producers who leave such a clear imprint on their wines that it’s the house you see first, then the vineyard. You might say this is true of Bordeaux’s classed growths; but it is also true of Domaine de la Romanée Conti, of Domaine Leflaive—and others, to some degree.
Is the imprint of individual vineyards stronger in more marginal climates? It would make sense, for example, in Germany, where a few more minutes of sunshine and sharper drainage can measurably increase the ripeness of the grapes. In Spain, by contrast, it is rarely the practice (up to now, at any rate) to distinguish parcels of land. Big ones, yes, as in Macharnudo or Carrascal in Jerez; but if the foibles of mini-plots of Sherry vines are known to their proprietors, they are not normally presented as USPs or revealed on the label. And Rioja’s approach has up to now been that of brands blended from wide swathes of the region. Will this change? What producer would not like to find a gem of a site to focus attention and put his wine in a higher price bracket?
So, has my heart not been smitten since I last wrote to you? Very often, both by rareties and bargains – and, I have to admit, my own wine. I’m never sure about the ethics of a critic (I prefer “commentator”) who has a vineyard boosting his own product. As a not-very-kind friend once said to me about a plant I was growing, and raving about: “Yes, when we start out all our geese are swans.”
Sadly this was a wine that never was bottled. It was the first or second time that we had made a dry Furmint (as opposed to sweet Aszú wines) from the grapes of Mézes Mály. MM is a south slope of loess in the village of Tarcal, a plot that has maintained a reputation since the 1500s as extraordinary even in Tokaji for the honeyed character and finesse of its wine. The dry wine was intended to form part of the 2005 Furmint bottled by the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, but when Ben Howkins and I tasted the three barrels from Mézes Mály I protested. “This is too good to blend,” I said. So the cellar-master bottled me some barrel-samples to take home – and that was that. The management put it in the blend.
Recently I opened one of my barrel samples, lurking in a corner of my cellar, and found out what the world had missed. If I ever swooned, this would have done it. There was brilliant life in this light-gold wine, the elusive note of flower-honey that makes its Aszú siblings unique, a flowing texture that was a pleasure in itself, and a sort of deep delicacy it is hard to describe, searching the palate and the throat, throwing off glints of fruits and spice long after I had swallowed – and all in an almost-dry wine as fresh as a hillside spring.
Four years later, in 2009, we made the decision to offer a dry MM Furmint to the world. But I shall have to wait another four years to see if it matches this revelation.
Why is it, I wonder, that the relatively rare white vineyards of Beaune are gathered, as they seem to be, down on the border of Pommard to the south? It is counter-intuitive that such fine whites should neighbor strong red-wine soil. Le Clos des Mouches, of course, is the most respected, but I drank a bottle of Les Aigrots Blanc from Domaine de Montille, the 2005, recently and was delighted to find it resembled, above all, those more austere Meursaults from the upper vineyards above the quarry south of the village, Les Tillets and Les Narvaux (which I am always tempted to spell Nerveux). Clos des Mouches, too, is a quite delicate wine; hardly a Pommard Blanc. Perhaps it is more a matter of cellar-style, though; the famous light de Montille touch. It certainly stirred me.
I have kept till last the wine that most recently had my heart thumping, a wine of limitless, ageless perfection that brought tears to my eyes. J-F Mugnier’s Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses starts, admittedly, with the most musical name in the Gotha of wines. Its life began in an airy situation, just below Le Musigny, inclined to the east and southeast with Clos de Vougeot on the slope below. The hillside here bows out to the east; there are views to north and south. Whoever said Les Amoureues was a wine more of air than of earth had seen the vine leaves rustling on a hot day.
The 1999 shows every sign of continuing for the rest of time in a state of perfect harmony. Its pale red shows no sign of age, its perfume is still almost simple in its perfection: pure sweet strawberries. Purity, freshness, clarity define its whole progress over the palate; the expected cherries are only a hint, and sous-bois maturity seems years away. Its faint sweetness, its moderate warmth and fresh acidity all seem understated, held in line in a cradle of crisp tannin. It could still be in this heavenly equilibrium in another ten years, still hold its persuasive sens·e of place. May I be here to drink it.