Star wine writer Jancis Robinson’s latest FT column is worth a read. You can find it here.
She is focusing on the quest for novelty in the wine world, and whether it comes at the expense of quality. The article was prompted by the recent rant by Robert Parker, which Jancis quotes:
What we also have from this group of absolutists is a near-complete rejection of some of the finest grapes and the wines they produce. Instead they espouse, with enormous gusto and noise, grapes and wines that are virtually unknown. That’s their number one criteria – not how good it is, but how obscure it is… they would have you believe some godforsaken grapes that, in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc, have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest (such as Trousseau, Savagnin, Grand Noir, Negrette, Lignan Blanc, Peloursin, Auban, Calet, Fongoneu [sic] and Blaufrankisch) can produce wines (in truth, rarely palatable unless lost in a larger blend) that consumers should be beating a path to buy and drink.
To me, the FT piece seems a slightly odd article in which Jancis sort of agrees with Parker’s main thesis, but doesn’t really. After all, she’s a champion of unusual varieties. Also, she seems more than a little concerned with correcting his spelling. This aside, let’s examine the question at hand.
Both Jancis and Bob have a problem with the sorts of wine lists now commonly found in high-end restaurants in the UK and the USA, and in particular with the way sommeliers seem to be drawn to non-mainstream wines. I quote Jancis:
Diners on both sides of the Atlantic may search for classic Bordeaux or full-blooded California Chardonnay in vain. They are more likely to be presented with offerings from the furthest byways of Europe or perhaps one from the latest convert to “natural wine” operating out of an alpine cowshed.
The specific wines she cites among those that may be overlooked in favour of more obscure offerings are (for Chardonnay) DRC Montrachet, (for Merlot) Petrus, and (for Cabernet Sauvignon) Sassacaia, Ornellaia and San Leonardo. She also suggests inexpensive Bordeaux and Australian Chardonnay as mainstream offerings that are passed over in favour of unusual wines, along with Californian Zinfandel.
So are sommeliers losing sight of quality in their quest for novelty? I don’t think so. Parker is wrong to argue that lesser known regions and obscure varieties aren’t worth attention, because if they were of merit they would have been celebrated in the past. There are many great terroirs and worthy grape varieties that until recently were overlooked or considered second rate for reasons other than wine quality.
I am one of those who has been guilty of championing novel or obscure wines. But I don’t think I – or the sommeliers under attack here – are seduced by novelty at the expense of quality. When I write up alternative wine regions or varieties, it is because I’m enthusiastic about them. If I plug a wine, it’s because I think it is really good, whether it is made from Pinot Noir or Prokupac. Of course, not everything that is novel or unusual is interesting or great. But some of them are. And the good news is that I can usually afford to buy them.
What do you want when you go to a restaurant? Some people want familiarity. They want cooking that they are comfortable with. No nasty surprises. That’s fine. It’s not my thing, but I won’t criticise anyone who decides this is for them. Some wine lists are like this, replete with the classics; the usual suspects. You know what you are going to get and you can order with confidence.
But most of the time I like to go to a restaurant where I am going to be surprised. Where the food is creative, taking me out of my comfort zone and delivering a fresh experience. I want to encounter a wine list that does the same: where I find new delights as well as a few old friends. Where a sommelier has made the list their own and can guide you to try something different. If we want our chefs to be creative and innovative in their cooking, can’t we allow sommeliers to do the same in their wine sourcing?
The exciting thing about the world of wine at the moment is that there has been an explosion of new, high quality wines from previously obscure regions, many of which are made using indigenous varieties. The world of wine has been turned on its head. The fine wine scene is in a state of flux. With all this change, you can respond two ways. You can decide that this is where the excitement is, and immerse yourself in the midst of this dynamic movement. Or you can retreat to the safe and familiar.
One of the great things about the new-wave obscurist wines is that normal people who enjoy wine can afford them when they are eating out. With restaurant mark-ups, and the recent rapid price rises for the established fine wines, the classics are affordable only to the wealthy. If you are shopping in the £30-£50 bracket on a wine list, decent Bordeaux and Burgundy is pretty much out of the question. That’s a shame, but there are just so many great wines out there that are interesting and food friendly, if you are prepared to leave familiar ground and explore more adventurous wine lists.
And what of the likes of Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon? The Supertuscans that Jancis cites are just blah, and they are expensive. Merlot is rarely interesting. And I don’t subscribe to the notion that there’s lots of really compelling, inexpensive Bordeaux out there. Zinfandel? It mostly sucks. The adventurous new generation of sommeliers, with their lists full of unfamiliar names, have got it right, I am afraid.