The meaning of place. Liam Steevenson MW

I have always been drawn to vocabulary. Spoken or written, the ability to use words, descriptive and linked together eloquently with rhythm is a gift I find real beauty in. New words, like creatures in the insect kingdom can be found daily if looked for, yet seldom cross our path as we become repetitive in our narrative and phrasing.  Cultural and language differences of course present linguistic newness, and in Wellington, New Zealand the word Turangawaewae was repeated by Maoris and those that work alongside them with enough frequency to need to understand its meaning, even if pronunciation would always escape me.

Turangawaewae’s literal translation is ‘Standing Place’, a concept that refers to the area of the earth you belong, you come from, that is yours.   Like when Nelson Mandela in ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ discussed the importance of ending your life within a short distance of where you began it, the Maoris in the word Turangawaewae demonstrate an association with ‘home’ that defines and to some degree defends their society.

When I was eighteen, with recently scraped C Grade GSCE French still in my peripheral vision, I leapt on a ferry to France and hitch-hiked around the wine regions of the country alone for two months, interested if immersion would draw me to the industry that my family had raised me in. Conversations were brief and limited and I learnt quickly that a shared cigarette ‘sans filtre’ was the easiest way to enjoy company without the concern of words.

With a thumb out on the Avenue Saint Jean just outside of La Rochelle, I stood stranded for longer than I had hoped, waiting for a friendly face to lift me south towards Bordeaux.   When it did stop, the car I describe was as unrealistic to step down into as the words themselves sound now.   

A Citroen DS is lower than it looks, and this one, black with a heavy interior was driven by a large man, seventy-five years plus, who made the car seem smaller than it was and un-inviting with his lack of smile or ‘Bonjour’.   Attempts at conversation were not responded to as the car picked up pace and I felt its hydropneumatic suspension float me round the corners out of town.  The driver lit a cigarette and in not offering me one left me sitting in silence staring out of the window where the lack of interesting countryside gave me time examine the interior of this extra-ordinary car.  Cobwebs hung from the back window, the back seats as covered in dust as the dashboard, whose dials you could not see apart from for the fuel gauge, which a finger had drawn a line across earlier that day. This car had not be driven for years, this was not a man that travelled far, certainly not according to this vehicle.

An hour and a half is a long time not to talk, to converse, to make eye-contact, and as we pulled off left into the dark mould covered limestone village of Cognac, I could not wait to step out and find my own space again.  I pointed to the signpost for ‘Camping’, a route he headed to, before within sight of canvas he frustratingly turned left and drew into the central town square.

I felt uncomfortable when we pulled outside the local Cafe Bar and he guided me in.  This man of silence, a human seemingly so un-interested sat me at the bar, seated himself next to me and ordered three Cognacs, VS, VSOP and XO. We sat and sipped.   He pointed at the ‘Wine Regions of France’ on the top of my rucksack and smiled. Watching me closely now, he made sure the order in which I swallowed the three glasses was measured and correct. On finishing, and on refusing to accept my French Francs we climbed back into his car and drove to the campsite, where I shook his hand and offered a weak ‘au revoir’.

Sitting on the grass bank where he dropped me, I pulled a soft-pack of Gitanes from my pocket and thought about the last few hours, collecting thoughts of the wordless incident that subconsciously drew me into the world of wine. The final moments of an uncomfortable journey in which I met a man, who with great pride and feeling used a drink to show me his home, his standing place.

Thoughts on English Wine. Liam Steevenson MW

At forty-three years of age, I don't feel that I have grown up in a wine producing country.  I visited them as a child, trips with my parents to Bordeaux and Tuscany gave me that, and of course as an adult, but the nations were Italy, France, Spain, not the country that I was born in.   Today, around the lunch table I asked my children 'where does wine come from?', England was the third nation they mentioned.  Somewhere, somehow things have changed.

Given the rapid rise in reputation over the last few decades, I have questioned whether we should consider England an old-world country or a new-world one.  In the end, and not because of the 46 vineyards recorded in the Domesday Book  I feel our positioning in Europe (even post next March) locates us in the old-world, however I would guess that most of the global wine audience would consider wine from England a newer concept than that from Australia, South Africa or north America.

Personally, I don't attribute the change in quality and attitude to a climatically warming world. Instead, a period of wise decision making has taken the industry away from hobbyist vineyard owners, working poorly chosen sites with ill-fitting varietals to one based on soil mapping, thermal imagery and huge viticultural investment. High quality fruit and financial backing has attracted winemaking talent such that now I have no problem in claiming English Wine to be one of the most exciting developments in the international wine scene.

As the Chair of the Independent English Wine Awards (IEWA), I have spent the last two years getting closer to our production than before, perhaps maturing along the way into a judge of intrinsic quality that one that simply compare one wine with others, and found a depth of quality and range of style that in truth I had not realised was there. Not limited to the counties that lip the southern coast, wine is made successfully as far north as Leicester.

International acclaim so far has largely come from our sparkling wines, which benefit from a climate and frequently soil type close to Champagne, and allows England to get closer to France’s most famous sparkling wine region than any one else globally. Producers, like their Champenois friends across the water enjoy the right to celebrate their ownership of land constrained by poor soils and meagre sunlight, in the most delicate and elegant sparkling manner. 

Last week,  i took up an opportunity to carry out a dosage and disgorgement session at Lyme Bay, a winery that I have come to know as one of the most dependable sources of sparkling wine in the country. Finishing the work done by their coincidently named winemaker ‘Liam’, we blended a wine for the retail chain Borough Wines in London.  It was a  fascinating process;  aromatic vin-clair, incrementally adjusted with varying amounts of sugar, barrel elements and even brandy until we found a recipe that felt right.

Driving home from the winery, having finally made our decisions and bottled it I was reminded of that feeling that I have had so many times before. Despite true faith in everything you taste along the way,  at some point in the winemaking process, you have to stop and put a cork in it. From there on in, the decision making is left with the customer.   Luckily for now, the world falling in love with English sparkling wine, let’s hope that ‘Maison 54’ from Lyme Bay continues to make people smile.

Understanding Taste; thoughts from my childhood. LIAM STEEVENSON MW

My childhood holidays were spent on the idyllic island of Jersey, the British protectorate just off the French coast, from where much of its personality originated.   My grandparents, had time that my parents did not over those long summers, and they treated me to sun-filled weeks, where my ever patient grandfather taught me to cast a fly, swing a golf club and catch a wave.

My grandmother was Jersey born.  My grandfather moved with his family as a child, and therefore shared a rich history with this island, emotionally focussed around the German occupation in the Second World War.  If my affection for the drinks trade were to be attributed to genetics, a trace would run back to my grandmother’s father who managed the brewery on the island for over twenty years. 

Perhaps because they were financially able, but certainly also because it was a priority to them, it was my grandparents that introduced me to fine food and then to wine.  Once a week, I would dress up (as would they) and be taken to one of the many restaurants on the island for lunch and occasionally dinner.   Perhaps strangely for a boy my age, never once did I complain about changing from shorts into chinos and leaving the beach below their house, for it was always my favourite few hours. 

Thirty-five years ago now, I remember the formality of the restaurants clearly. Table clothed dining rooms looked out across the Atlantic.  Impeccably dressed waiters (they were always male and largely Portuguese), silver-served us, presenting dish after dish of incredible food from the kitchens, all of my senses responded.

The service brigade, my grandparents, and the tables around us would warm to my appetite for the unusual.  Unaware of cost I indulged in Oysters, Welks, Crab, Lobster, learning as I ate where the fish was sourced, the importance of season, how recently the lobster had been taken from the sea. The waiters, and sometimes the Chefs, would explain classic cooking, talk of ‘Escoffier’ and reduction as I dipped fingers into the sauce-pans.  These were extraordinary meals, that combined flavour experiences that I remember to this day and lengthy conversations with two wonderfully engaging people.

My grandmother Fayette was a talented dancer as a girl, which left her with wonderful posture that she held throughout her life.  Incredibly elegant, she would enjoy my ambitious menu choices, but herself eat much more simple dishes, Plaice being her staple favourite, ordered with a request for fine, dry-white wine. I  would listen whilst the Sommelier explained the importance of pairing light, elegant, mineral white.  Words like Chablis, Muscadet, Pouilly Fuisse entered my vocabulary. I was taught to sip, to savour the flavours on the tongue, to consider the length that the elements I was experiencing.

Neither of my Grandparents were wine experts, and to some who knew them, the idea that they set me on my wine journey might amuse them.  However, I feel blessed that early in my life they bought the dining table into it, created the understanding of the importance of the space to share great food and wine and discuss the nuances, structure, texture of what we shared together. That decade of my childhood, in restaurants perched above the sandy beaches of Jersey, I was to understand that there is more to food than eating, and more to wine than drinking.

India, The New Frontier of Wine. Liam Steevenson MW

It doesn't matter how many books you have read, films you have watched, accounts you have listened to, a visit to India is one of the most personal experiences that a person can have.  An assault on every sense, India's reputation for colour is found far deeper than in just the visual.  As somewhat of an experience obsessive, it comes as no surprise to me that India has drawn me back, time and time again.

From a wine perspective India is fascinating. With a population curve unmatched, a rapidly growing middle class and a younger generation moving away from the dark spirits that their parents before them enjoyed, it is a market the world is watching.  Taxation, supported by a conservative government and a statute of laws built around prohibition, means that imports are curtailed, but only in the short term; this is a market with a fascinating future that every producing county, working within a shrinking global market, should be paying close attention to.

Encouraged perhaps by the window of opportunity that an enforced limit of imported goods creates; India is producing, and producing well.   I have spent the last two years exploring...

The vineyards of India are centred around the town of Nashik, close to Mumbai.  There are producers elsewhere but this is is where the volume is, and arguably the quality.    Climatically it is tricky.  The region is by definition too hot, humid and most importantly non seasonal.  This semi-tropical condition allows no winter, no dormancy in the vine and harvest happens twice a year, albeit the summer one (swamped by the monsoon) yields no wine.

Financially well resourced, the cellars are impressive. Modern equipment fills the best wineries, every technical advancement employed to temper the grapes that come from the vineyards wild and warm.    The vineyard is undoubtably where the difficulties lie; virus issues and a hot sun that ripens grape sugars faster than it can phenolics are the key areas that need addressing; but the end result is good.  In some cases really good.

I consult on a wine project with York Winery and produce a top end Syrah, aged in French Oak barrels.  We call it YAATRA as it represents our 'journey' and the reviews internationally have been incredibly flattering.   India is a Journey for all that visit, and for the wine industry itself, and the world is starting to notice.

Small is Beautiful, by Liam Steevenson MW

For many, success in business is built around scale.  We normally measure success numerically; making accountants and shareholders happy with upwards movements on a graph focussed on metrics; turnover, profit, capital.   With scale comes the economic benefits we learn about at school;  falling relative costs, increased profits  and revenue increase achieved through competitive pricing. 

The business of wine developed quickly from a local sustainable one to mass industrialisation at the same time as export markets rapidly expanded in the 80s and 90s.   As a beverage, wine found itself in previously unconsidered homes whilst, at the same time, domestic- producing markets began to consume less than their 'long-lunch' parents did before them.   To 'grow' a business successfully you needed scale, and the ability to understand that wine is a global commodity.

As with the industrialisation of any industry, machines replaced humans in production and , in the offices, computers replaced minds. It could easily be argued that we witnessed mathematics and science replacing heart and soul.   Globally the wine shelves expanded, prices fell, consumption rose; the industry grew.   However, It would not be wrong to generalise that with scale we lost quality and story. We lost the intrinsic strengths that wine has over the rest of the drinks industry, that complicated depth that confuses as much as it fascinates.

As the wine industry now struggles to find growth and sees other drink categories steal its share, where is its salvation? In my opinion, strangely enough I believe it will find it in the ‘small’, those fragments of the industry that remain unchanged through the growth revolution and, in their own way, continue to make wines reflective of their place, of their family and of their history.  More than ever, the industry needs to find its voice again, and tell a story of 'terroir', a story of personality, origin and craft.   The wine industry may be a global industry but its future, more than ever, lies in the hands of the small.

Wine with Altitude; Liam Steevenson MW

Wine has fascinated me for almost all my life. The son of a wine merchant, I grew up with winemakers sitting round our kitchen table; foreign voices contemplating tastes and aromas. Holidays were not to the beach or the mountains, but instead were spent in vineyards and cellars, tasting rooms and restaurants. It was not until adulthood that I picked up a book on the subject but by that point I already had a deep understanding of scents, flavours, textures, how they related to where wines came from and how they were made. 

Passing the Master of Wine exam was the last hurdle in my education, a point where I was supposed to feel in control of the subject, that I finally understood it all. Instead, all I felt was that while I knew more than I knew before, the subject was too big and developing at a too fast a rate; it was impossible to keep up. Does this bother me? Not in the slightest, because for me the allure of wine is found somewhere in the confusion, and in the conversations that confusion creates. Being both an art and a science, wine allows room for everyone to have a valid opinion. 

As consumers, we are strangely entranced by the unknown element of wine and, to some degree, by its unpredictability. With the contents locked away under a cork, we spend large sums of money on bottles we won't be certain we will enjoy, relying on the press, advice or past experiences to make decisions. If wine is, as it so often is compared, like art, then buying it can be likened to choosing art whilst wearing a blindfold. 

Perhaps the greatest fascination, as well as frustration, with wine is its ability to change taste every time we pull the cork. The global branding giants have forever struggled to create the coca cola of the wine industry, with complete consistency being its Holy Grail, but consistency is the one characteristic that wine can never truly deliver. 

The inevitable variations between vintages, with their complex constituents that evolve in the bottle over time; subtle fluctuations during productions; the cork seal that often imparts its own flavours-even if all the "other things" are equal (ceteris paribus and all that), wines we think we know well frequently surprise on taste. 

The "other things" that affect flavours have long been taken into account by tasters; temperature, the shape of the glass, mood and the relationship with food. But there seem to be factors, more complex to understand, that are no less influential in how a wine shows itself. Consensus across the industry is hard to find, but humidity, atmospheric pressure and even the phases of the moon are now being considered as having an influence on what hits the palate.  

Growing up a merchant's son, a merchant I became as soon as I left university. My twenties were spent trawling the vineyards of Europe, tasting every wine that money or opportunity would allow. Fascinating it has been, but glamorous it is not-cellars are dank and uncomfortable places; vineyards are generally either too hot or too cold. However, an appointment as the buyer for Silverjet, the now-infamous first-class-only airline, changed all that. Suddenly, the flights were more exotic, the hotels more comfortable and the suits much sharper, but living the high life did not come without its own unique challenges. 

We shipped wines from all over the world for the delights of our passengers. A brilliant winemaker in Central Otago bottled the most bright and concentrated pinot noir; in Spain, it was almost Impossible to believe that a dazzling young winemaker we found had created a verdejo so alive and vibrant in such a hot country; an old friend in Cairanne wowed all who tasted his wine, proof that the Rhone valley is still France's best source of great-value, quality wine. Our press tastings were hugely successful, winning international awards for business-class wine selections, and we were on a high. Unfortunately, none of this really mattered to me because I was becoming increasingly aware of an issue that seemed to be going unnoticed. In the air, where these wines were being drunk, there was a serious problem; they really did not taste that great. 

Sitting on a plane to New York, I joined the other passengers drinking champagne as we settled into the flight. While they seemed to be satisfied, I was concerned, and confused. The businessman next to me must have thought he was in for an entertaining flight when I ordered every wine on the list and worked my way through them. These were not the wines I had liked so much on the ground. The tannins and acidity were more pronounced, and the mid-palate weight was considerably lessened. The aromas were almost undetectable, the flavours seriously reduced. In simple terms, these were not the wines I thought I knew. 

On the ground, I needed to address the situation urgently and the airlines connections gave me one of the worlds greatest's palates to work with. Thomas Keller from The French Laundry was also working with airlines and suffered the same frustrations- his dishes needed accentuated flavours in order to retain their character. We both agreed that to make decisions for an airline, you have to make them in the air. 

On the flight from Dubai we started pulling corks as the plane climbed slowly to 30,000 feet. Twelve hours earlier we had tasted the same eight wines and I'd taken detailed tasting notes to remind me of their various qualities. We tasted one hour into the flight and again after four. 

Sixty minutes from the ground and the wines had already changed. Where had the fruit gone? Why were soft and easy wines now tasting angular and downright thin? By the second tasting, four hours later, the aromas and fruit flavours on the palate were becoming incredibly difficult to identify. There was no doubt about it; these wines had changed since we left the ground and were changing even more the longer we were in the air. 

Rising out of my seat to return the bottles to the long-suffering cabin crew, I squeezed my swollen feet back into my shoes. I looked at the skin on my hands and noticed it was dry, and that my mouth seemed short of saliva. Was it the wines that were changing, or were we? Had our tasting ability been compromised? I looked around and took a deep breathe. A confined space full of people, yet I could hardly smell anything. Had my nose simply become used to its surrounds, or had the continuous highly-filtered air circulation sucked the living daylights out of any available aromas along with the humidity? Either way, this really was a horrendous place to sample wine. 

How we selected wines changed after that flight. Fruit was central to every buying decision. If mid-palate weight was reduced in the air, then having plenty of it to start with was vital and we deliberately avoided white wines with too much acidity, focusing our attention on wines with as much lifted aroma as possible. Did the customers notice? I can't be sure. Labels. Names and stories still sway customers more than belief in their own palates- it's interesting that so many airlines persist in serving red wines from Bordeaux when they are so clearly unsuited to being drunk in the air. But at least we knew we were serving wines that stood up for themselves in the grueling conditions of the cabin. 

Rising oil prices and a deepening recession put an end to the airline and thus to my wine adventures in the air. It was great fun and I learnt a lot, not lest that there are myriad factors that influence how we taste, as well as those that affect what wine tastes like. It’s a subtle but important distinction. Wine is a tricky beast that frustrates as much as it enthralls; fails to deliver as often as it captivates. Whenever I pull a cork for myself or for a customer, there is always a certain sense of the unknown. Do I mind? Not a bit. If there was a Coca Cola of wine would I buy it? Not a chance. 

Winemaking sustainably; Liam Steevenson, MW

As we burst into the new millennium with world wide celebration, fire-worked skies became clouded as the human impact on the planet we inhabit became increasingly apparent.  Today, the inescapable truth of global warming and pollution of both land and sea requires us all to consider the effect the choices we make have on our environment.

Organic and Biodynamic viticulture has taken steps to address the effects of viticulture; realising the importance of bio-diversity and self-sufficient ecosystems. It has put man-hours back outside, physically connecting hands and soil to positive effect. Vineyard practices are however only part of the story; the wine industry as a whole is far from the green, eco-friendly one it has the potential to be.  Collectively; global Carbon impact, pollution of the land, air and water, and human mistreatment suggest that we head in a direction with multiple crisis points for the business and the natural world.  A consumer level image of green vineyards and traditional, family wineries is out of touch with the high intensity farming reality, and an industry that is in need of a world-wide sustainable plan.

‘Sustainable Winegrowing’ is more than just a pair of words, it is a comprehensive set of practices that are environmentally sound, socially equitable and economically viable.  Sustainable vineyard and winery practices conserve energy, maintain healthy soil, protect air and water quality, enhance relations with communities, preserve local ecosystems, and improve the economic vitality of vineyards and wineries. 

Defining sustainability is complicated because of the unique environmental stresses of different wine regions. That said the above key areas apply globally albeit separately certified.  The EMS (Environmental Management System (ISO 14001 / ISO 14004)) provides and excellent international baseline with regards to reduction of environmental.  In California the Certified California Sustainable Vineyard and Winery (CCSW), includes metrics of over a hundred criteria which are ranked from 1–4 in water use, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and nitrogen use. Adherence in the state is impressive; by 2019, the entire Sonoma wine region will be sustainable.

Sustainability in South Africa means vineyards and wineries have health and safety requirements for their workers, reduced usage of chemicals and pesticides, use natural predators to combat pests, and reduction in water usage and creation of waste water systems. Wines of South Africa intends to support this sustainability measure across 100% of their wines and, in 2011, 85% had passed the minimum compliance. 

Wineries and vineyards in New Zealand can expect an audit every 3 years for Sustainable Winegrowing NZ. This program focuses on a wide range of factors including crop biodiversity, soil, water and air standards, energy use, chemical use, vineyard and winery waste, social impact, and sustainable business practices. Almost 100% of all NZ vineyards are now SWNZ certified.

Whatever the body, the umbrella term of ‘Sustainability’, allows wineries and grape growers to collaborate together, share knowledge, organization and talent to drive key initiatives through.

The consumer is being increasingly bought into the argument, trade conferences such as Millésime Bio or IWA Specialized Conference on Sustainable Viticulture, Winery Waste & Agri-industrial Wastewater Management, have kick started Consumer events such as the RAW wine fair, which showcases wine-makers products in the low-intervention organic, biodynamic and natural wine community, and on shelf labelling are starting to dictate buying choices of both distributors and the end consumers alike.

Change is being driven by the younger generation, aware of the need to not only protect out natural work, but to start to repair the delicate spider-web we have torn holes into over previous decades. The Millennial, far less blinded by brands and corporate power, is returning to buying local, understanding source, and making ethical choices. With a much more independent mindset than the generation that went before they are increasingly aware of what they consume.  

Pressure is growing for an industry wide reaction. Growing in importance in peoples minds as climate change continues to become a reality, Journalists and Trade bodies are winding up the pressure; consumers starting to show the power of their wallet.  Sustainability deserves to be the most important wine related topic of our moment.  Questioning the practices that wineries have in place asked of every one visited, every bottle sold.  Now is the time, for the Wine Industry to see the benefit of implementing ever tightening set of rules and parameters; put in place to ensure that the global wine industry has a positive impact of the world that we live in.

Guest Blog from John Atkinsion MW: The Tyranny of Rocks: Terroir and Trompe l'Oeil

The walls of Burgundy’s vineyards match the pyramids for mass, but not elevation. Giza memorializes God-Kings where the shallow blockwork of the Côte d’Or recoils from the burden of the sublime. The Cistercians could find no way out of God’s maze and left us a labyrinthine vineyard  puzzle as a keepsake.

Instrumental science eventually got the world out from under God’s feet. Only at the end of the 17th Century was curiosity no longer considered a sin, but “the mark of a finite being with infinite pretension” (Blumenberg). Copernicus’s heliocentric universe was big, measurable and predictable.

The medieval world had drawn a sharp distinction between God’s infallibility and human frailty and capriciousness. In the post-Enlightenment world human culpability persists, though the contrast is made with a secularized nature that can’t perjure itself rather than a God whose perfection was taken for granted. Commenting on William Buckland’s cross-examination of history by geology, John Forrester concludes: “Rocks don’t lie!” Buckland provides sound reasons to doubt the veracity of our storytelling, whilst Forrester inadvertently sloganizes terroir for us.

The Enlightenment cleared a new space for mankind in the world, but inherited misgivings about human frailties continued to undermine self-affirmation. In Burgundy, Cistercian submissiveness was displaced from God to nature. The magnitudes of influence remained unchanged even if they were articulated through an amalgam of aspect, climate and geology rather than the actions of a transcendental deity. Human agency was limited to spectating a non-human creation. Burgundy producers who feel pressured to play down the impact of their daily exertions toe a deeply scored line.

There isn’t a conspiracy at work here; rather, within Burgundy the limits of knowledge are set by a past that discouraged curiosity and downplayed human expressivity beyond the elaboration of the divine. If, today, we follow our (E)nlightened instincts and use science to disentangle the individual threads of terroir from one another, we find our investigations quickly jam against a knot. In the same way that the Cistercians had imagined God’s creation to be irreducible, so terroir is presented as causative, immanent and totalizing. Roland Barthes wrote that faced with the world we vacillate between two possibilities: we can analyze and measure what is before us, or we can admit its obduracy and poeticize the “otherness” that deep-down alienates us from things.  Coupling the aesthetic with the analytic isn’t straightforward when romanticism and theory share the same object.

Terroir is depicted as a window on the world, yet the more we polish the smeary glass pane in front of us, the more sharply our reflection is returned. Writing about fashion, Jean Duvignaud observes that in societies where nakedness was customary the introduction of clothing eroticized women: “Nudity is only attractive when culture creates it”, he concludes. The desire to be side-by-side with nature, to experience things stripped bare – “as they really are” - is a persistent theme among wine critics. When I planted my vineyard I chastened myself with hand-hoeing, biodynamics and geological maps. Ten years later, and I now accept my time is best spent removing leaves and manipulating shoots. Back in 2005, the rock-strewn soil we planted looked like a stretch of wilderness, but through the repetition of tasks and my own inventiveness and toil, I now see industry and production where once I’d imagined Eden. That it even occurred to me that biodynamics might ultimately decide the success (or failure) of my start-up only illustrates the extent to which I was held captive by a seductive version of creationism.

Of course, it’s possible to imagine a time, a few centuries from now, when everything in the vineyard will be done through force of habit: the wisdom of past vintages will concertina into routines; production decisions will become second nature, so much so that the only nature that gets mentioned will be that of sun, rain and rock. The endless experimentation, failed trials and tweaks for posterity will all be forgotten as my heirs direct curious listeners toward a hidden world of geological strata that provides them with the blueprint for their activities.

Alternatively, these farmers of the future might look back at our time with bemusement, just as we now look back upon the complacent astronomers of the Middles Ages who saw measurement and skepticism as sinful. Religious dogmatism sustained the cramped dimensions of the Ptolemaic Universe, and future generations of wine drinkers might diagnose a similar malaise amongst predecessors who thought wine quality and the expression of environmental causes approximated to the same thing. They might well point out to one another that the evidence for a wider sphere of influence was with us all the time. From their perspective, every family, village and region develops its own culture of production through time, and this helps explain the inter-regional differences between Champagne and Sherry, as well as the intra-vineyard disparities between Coche-Dury and Lafon at the point where geological and climatic explanations fail. For them, our faith in environmental predestination was just nostalgia; we couldn’t quite free ourselves from inherited magnitudes of influence - medieval sentiments - that with the benefit of their hindsight seemed to stifle our accounts of our activities more than it inhibited the activities themselves.

This last point feeds into the error I made when planting my vineyard: that of taking terroir too literally, and trying to force old imaginings into an earnest work schedule.

Feuerbach drew a useful distinction between knowledge and curiosity. Curiosity operates with few constraints, hence Blumenberg’s allusion to our being “finite beings with infinite pretensions”.  The Enlightenment led to an outburst of curiosity and conjecture, as though rationality needs the impetus of imagination to properly reset its boundaries. Human intellect doesn’t like a void, and curiosity fills empty space with its own hybridized speculations forged out of old and new beliefs. Curiosity got the better of me when I splashed out on a hoe and geological maps in the same day, but it might also explain how Jancis Robinson can neglect the immanence of human activity to millennia of production and extol wine as “Geography in a glass.”  

My hope is that my bemused farmers of the future will both acknowledge the debt they owe their forebears - all the know-how and expertise that the past has shaped and gifted them - and better understand the relationship between vine physiology and the environment. Having rid themselves of the residues of medieval prejudice they will talk openly and confidently about their own creativity and contributions, and how these entangle productively and aesthetically with nature; their words will match-up with their deeds. They will look back at early 21st Century wrangles about terroir and natural wines as being well-intentioned, but mistaken. They won’t argue about whether Coche or Lafon captures Meursault in the highest vinous resolution because they realize nature doesn’t offer us any means of deciding between the two. The reason why we felt there was a decision to be made was because we never properly broke with the Cistercian suspicion that we were trusted observers and flawed creators.

From my perspective, our understanding of the evolution of wine style, at both regional and domain level, is enriched if we yoke the environment and man together. Just as biology has taught us that the egg came before the chicken, so, analogously, primitive production necessarily preceded any discussions of geology and climate. If we believe we can peel back centuries of doing and making and reverse the order of events so as to expose some kind of primordial purity, we are, to use Duvignaud’s insight, confusing “nakedness” with “nudity”.  I’m happy to accept natural wines on my terms, but not the rhetoric that’s served up with them.

Wittgenstein warned us against becoming “bewitched” by language. On our chilly Island, there is a long history of wine criticism and a very short history of wine production. My hunch is that with little to counterbalance our curiosity, we’ve all too readily taken Burgundian producers at their word and failed to recognize the fact that when we’ve asked How things are? we’ve instinctively been told how things were; - their answers are infused with medievalisms. Attributing everything to terroir, or sayingyou do nothing are just ways of clambering back under God’s feet.

Ultimately, if what producers do matters more than what they say, then no damage has been done; the wines will speak for them in their absence. Notwithstanding this, at a recent natural wine dinner the French importer told me that most of the early adopters in France didn’t have wine backgrounds, but were drawn into changing careers by rhetoric. Like me, they’d idealized terroir and then become seduced by their own creation. I lost faith when I realized that behind the hard work there was only more hard work. There was no unveiling of essence; though, unarguably, recognising my earlier ideas as trompe l’oeilmust count as some sort of revelation.

As wine critics we have a duty to be self-critical. Not only should we expose the anachronisms of others, but we must be wary of projecting our own ill-founded prejudices onto our loosely jointed industry. If I don’t see any difference between replacing indigenous varieties with Cabernet and unravelling Champagne blends into climats, it’s because I see vine roots extending into the cultural soil of Aÿ and Jerez, and not just reaching into the static chalk strata below. Rocks don’t lie, but neither do they tell the truth.

Posted by John Atkinson MW