jamie goode's wine blog: two more cheeses

Saturday, January 06, 2007

two more cheeses

A non-wine digression... Long-time readers will probably recall that I'm developing a bit of a nerdy interest in cheese, after never eating it at all until a couple of years ago. I'm no expert, though - although it's fun exploring the rather bewildering variety of cheeses out there.
Had two cheeses for the first time in recent days. First, Appenzeller, which is a rather spicy, tangy mountain cheese that's moderately hard. Quite nice. Then, a little more to my tastes, another cheese called Ossau Iraty. This is a semi-hard sheep's cheese from the French Pyrenees, and it tastes a bit like Manchego, although it's a little softer and creamier. It's really nice.
Cheese raises for me the issue of typicity. When you buy a particular cheese you want it to taste the way it should, because it is labelled by its 'appellation'. If a wine is labelled by an appellation, by labelling it thus the winemaker is entering into a sort of contract with the consumer that this wine should taste of where it comes from. The question is, who decides what a wine from a particular place should taste like?



At 5:59 PM, Anonymous Doug said...

I think this is a complex issue. The notion of appellation was originally a charter, often a royal seal of approval. Appellation or "naming the wine" gave it an official legitimacy. The word has since - in many people's views - moved away from expressing the need to protect regional identity and to promote authenticity as well as supporting good practice towards more negative associations such as died-in-the-wool protectionism, restrictive and inflexible practice and bureaucratic authoritarianism.

Appellation was never intended to stamp a homogeous identity on wine and winegrowers. It was meant to encourage wine growers to improve their working practices and inform consumers as to how such methods affect the way an appellation speaks though its wines. Typicity and diversity are not mutually exclusive; within each appellation there are myriad terroirs. Wine is a soft interpreter of the grape variety, the microclimate (the aspect, the soil, the vegetation, the sun, the heat and so forth) not to mention the technique in the winery - there are as many wines as there are variables in a given year. Diversity is therefore, by definition, a fact of nature. But a vigneron looking to preserve the subtlety and unique character of a specific place, to capture the essence of terroir, will never try to modify or homogenise his or her wine by driving out nature with a pitchfork.

Typicity and terroir mean simply this; that wine duly reflects where it comes from and changes according to the unique variables of each vintage, but the wine has an inherent identity, a singularity, that tells us that it is a natural product from a "specific" place.

It is interesting finally to note that the quality charters of La Renaissance des Appellations and Slow Food France are based on philosophical and ethical convictions as to what constitutes terroir and good farming practice and are not legal frameworks. This highlights the problem with so many things in our world: people are bluntly told they can't do such-and-such when it should be explained instead why it would be a morally good idea for them to pursue a particular course of action.

Ideally, and from a consumer's viewpoint appellation should be inextricably connected to quality. Quality can be determined by pinpointing origin of product and methodology or farming practice - these are objective measures - in conjunction with the subjective evaluation of tasting panels.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger billn said...

When I come over at the start of Feb. I'll have to try and bring you some Sbrinz. The swiss say that it predates and was even the model for parmigiano - lovely nutty stuff with a great slightly crunch texture - particularly if you can find some aged (4 years) examples.

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Doug, that's a fantastic comment. It's hard to know where to start in unpacking it - indeed, it would require a semi-thesis like response to do it justice.

I feel typicity is a better term than terroir - it is less 'loaded', and carries with it the acknowledgement that a sense of place can be dictated by common winemaking practices as much as by the physical characteristics shared by vineyards in a region, as well as the imprint of grape variety.

Typicity/terroir is a delicate creature, and can be lost by poor viticulture and heavy handed winemaking. I think it would be helpful if we acknowledged that winegrowers should be free to make whatever style wines they choose, but that if they want to label them with the name of a place, they should reflect the rough consensus of what wines from this place should taste from, just as we want out comte to taste like comte, even though we recognize that some comtes are better than others.

The problem with the implementation of appellation rules is that they work by proscribing production criteria, rather than acting as a quality control step at the end of production. The notion is that if you work a certain way in the vineyard and to a lesser extent the cellar, that the wines will bear the character of the appellation. It doesn't work. Instead, the rules should be guidelines, and the real step in deciding whether a wine should bear the appellation should come from a panel of independent and gifted tasters. But there should be no stigma attached to wines that don't make the appellation.

At 10:59 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Bill, I look forward to it!


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