Low-cut wines

Tuesday, 20 January, 2004
Neil Pendock
'Thinking’ wine and ‘drinking’ wine
By Neil Pendock

No less an authority than Hugh Johnson calls Matt Kramer ‘an intellectual guerilla among wine writers’ on the dust jacket of Making Sense of Wine, a 2003 revised edition of the self-proclaimed ‘wine classic’ first published in 1989. After the savaging SA experienced earlier this year at the hands of this vinous Che Guevara in the Wine Spectator, with local producers denounced as lacking ‘palate calibration’ due the dearth of imported icons on local retail shelves on the evidence of a three-week infiltration of the Cape, I was looking forward to a hard-hitting review of the SA industry from the increasingly all-important US perspective.

Alas, in 240 pages of ‘revised and updated’ text, SA manages a scant single mention on page 92, in connection with the use of flor yeasts in the production of sherry – the kind of issue you’d have expected C. Louis Leipoldt to have been up on, sixty years ago.

Australia, by way of contrast, gets over a dozen mentions, but then Aussie exports have ballooned from $98.7 million in 1990 to $1.01 billion in 2001 – a ten-fold rise which is hailed as a ‘stunning’ success and roughly the same order of magnitude increase as experienced by Cape wine exports over the same period, by the way.

The book is divided into two halves, labeled ‘thinking wine’ and ‘drinking wine’ with the latter the usual puffery on starting your own cellar, how to serve wine (including the vexed issue of stemware) and matching food and wine with a few indulgent recipes (creamed potatoes Lapérouse, warm avocado with oeuf mollet, sauce Béarnaise) thrown in for good measure.

‘Thinking wine’ is the best bit and includes provocative essays on ‘the notion of connoisseurship’ and ‘appellation and authenticity’ which clears the decks for the new edition’s tour de force ‘21st century fine wine: the consequences of success’ which blows the lid off the romantic idea of global wine icons, brimming with terroir, vibrating softly with authenticity. Commencing with a quote from the appropriately named Calvin Trillin in The New Yorker that ‘wine is way beyond any other subject in inspiring… an urge to refute the notion of expertise’, MK takes an axe, George Washington-style, to the sacred vine of Fine Wine.

The ‘low-cut dress syndrome’ is unveiled: the ‘darkest, biggest, richest good wine with the greater accessibility always score highest’ among the ‘mega-validators’ such as Robert Parker and his own organ, the Wine Speccie, who determine taste at the top end of the market.

Wine makers, like Pavlov’s dog, understood the fashion statement and started making low-cut wines with the help of technology, pioneered by the Australians and Californians. Such as reverse osmosis machines that can remove water, alcohol and volatile acidity and an Australian invention, the spinning cone, which can remove alcohol – all the way down to zero, if required.

In the vineyards, grapes are left to become overripe, which creates intense flavours and high alcohols, a bit like pre-auction tastings of the Cape Winemakers Guild. These overripe wines are then pulled into shape in the cellar, with acid and tannin added and alcohols lowered and further focus achieved by vacuum concentrators.

MK reports that there are at least 60 reverse osmosis machines in Bordeaux, with at least two First Growths and five Second Growths, the discrete owners of vacuum concentrators. Vinovation and Cone-Tech, who spin Californian wine, have a customer list of 500 wineries with the next technological breakthrough expected, the use of genetically modified yeasts and vines.

Which puts accusations of manipulated wine in the Cape earlier this year, in a global context. Of course not everyone is in favour of this brave new concentrated wine world. Christian Moueix of Château Pétrus bluntly advises ‘don’t drink modern wine’ while UK authority Michael Broadbent notes that Bordeaux châteaux ‘are becoming more alike in style and the once stark differences between the various appellations are less distinguishable… we are being knocked off track by the outrageous, the obvious, the fashionable and the bland.’

MK ends his demolition derby on a cynical note, leaving the last word to Los Angeles’ most famous writer, Raymond Chandler, who noted ‘there are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.’ Calvin Trillin holds that modern art comes second to wine as endeavours where experts know nothing, confirming Broadbent’s point that in the land of the outrageous, the obvious, the fashionable, the producer with the largest marketing budget and the best technology, is king.