Friday, June 24, 2005


I’ve been reading a book by Michael Sanders, “Families of the Vine.” Sanders spent part of 2003 (the year of the heat wave) with three vineyards around Cahors, a pretty, old-fashioned town southeast of Bordeaux. Sanders wanted to put wine in an “ordinary, unthreatening, everyday context,” so he chose Cahors, an ancient but not famous wine made from an uncommon grape, the malbec, which he describes as “like the local people who grow it . . . small, thick-skinned, and sometimes hard to cultivate.” I enjoyed the people he talks about in the first half of the book but my interest waned as the author waxed increasingly philosophical about terroir and the threat of global capitalism. A chapter near the end, however, about the sommelier in Cahors’ best restaurant, was worth the price of the book. To deal with my failing attention, I decided to replace passive learning with active learning, bought three different bottles of Cahors for twelve to nineteen dollars each and invited my daughter over for a grilled leg of lamb. (She is a big fan of the malbec in its more familiar appearance as the major wine of Argentina.) Here is our impression of the wines:
(1) Clos la Coutale, 2001. The wine was a youthful purple, with a shy bouquet (of blueberries, like all the wines), creamy texture, and pleasant to drink.
(2) Château du Cèdre, 2001. The wine was an entrancing deep purple, about the color of Batman’s cape at night. The bouquet was sweet fruit, smelling of mint after thirty minutes. We both found this wine, with its velvet texture, the most “delicious” in our before-dinner sampling.
(3) Clos de Gamot, 1996. When I first decanted this wine, it smelled fusty and seemed a little thin in the mouth. An hour later, it was singing a different tune, a complex assembly of fruit, herbs, flowers, game, and an earthy mushroom note. The wine seemed to lift the lamb to a higher plane as well.
The Gamot is made by the Jaffreau family, who have been making it in the traditional way for centuries. The other wines are more modern and “international” in style – which typically makes them drinkable earlier and more popular or “hedonistic.” In many ways, our impressions seemed to confirm Sanders’ paean to traditional wine-making. As he writes, complaining fashionably of the “insidious” global influence of Robert Parker: “Though Parker may have only a tangential influence on the world of Cahors wine, he is important nevertheless as a harbinger of that ever-encroaching trend called globalization, a trend whose merest ripples can be ascertained on the fringes of that bastion of traditional winemaking, the family-owned, family-run vineyard. Cahors, so far only lightly touched, represents to me almost a ‘before’ snapshot . . . ” Here’s the funny thing: Parker rates the traditional, family-made Gamot highly, describing it as “the finest example of Cahors I have ever tasted.” The so-called Parkerized Coutale is rated lower, captured by the adjective “attractive.” The Gamot is a more complex wine than we were expecting and Robert Parker himself is also a good deal more complex than Sanders seems to have taken the trouble to discover.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

De gustibus

There are many reasons to drink wine: it is intoxicating, delicious, and probably healthful. There are fewer reasons to write about it. For me, one of the reasons to write and read about it is that wine is a form of esthetic experience I understand personally. Much as I love music, I can quickly get lost in a serious conversation about its higher forms and nothing can spoil a good day at the art museum faster for me than someone who assumes that I noticed the brush strokes. Of course wine making is not art so much as an advanced form of agriculture and pretentious discussions of wine are even more off-putting than pedantry about sculpture. Still, the debates in the wine world about, say, the importance of terroir, track debates in esthetics pretty closely. Much of this debate has been fired up by the documentary Mondovino, which is dedicated to showing how global capitalism is leading to an homogenization of wine styles, destroying the uniqueness and diversity of the wine pool and extending the American empire through agents like Robert Mondavi and Robert Parker. Not surprisingly, the movie is praised by opponents of the World Trade Organization and trashed by much of the American wine establishment, in very heated discussions that quickly involve Iraq, fast food, the European Constitution, and about everything except a recognition of how much this duplicates discussions in other esthetic fields. This debate hit me recently as I was lucky enough in the past week to compare two different wines recently given me by friends. One was a simple cabernet sauvignon from Washington, the Chateau Ste. Michelle 2000 – a delightful straightforward expression of pretty fruit in a medium body, with refreshing tartness. The other was a blockbuster in the international style from California, a 2001 St. Clement Oroppas (80% cabernet sauvignon plus merlot and cabernet franc) – which I found full of many loud flavors, confusing, overpowering, almost a stew of oak and sweet spice and dark fruits. This second wine is rated 93 by Robert Parker, is difficult for ordinary people to buy, and costs four times as much as the first, which is given a nice bourgeois 88 points by Parker. They are both made with skill and vision by knowledgeable and respected winemakers. But the vision behind them is very different. The Ste. Michelle is meant to brighten the end of a normal day and the St. Clement is meant to be a big deal, the difference between a pretty country church and a wedding-cake cathedral in a big Italian city. Stephen Tanzer recently observed in his “International Wine Cellar” (May/June 05): “California winemaking consultant George Vierra has proposed establishing a new category for these big boys, which are always above 14% alcohol, the traditional ceiling for so-called table wines. He calls them ‘social wines,’ because they are successful at wine tastings, and as topics for conversation, but far less suitable at the dinner table.” If you want to see the future Mondovino is against, the St. Clement would show you. But if you’re having dinner, I recommend the Ste. Michelle, which is widely available and doesn’t require connections to score.