It was American essayist-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who first suggested that the mentality that rates order, uniformity, and predictability too highly is not to be trusted. ”A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” is how he memorably put it.
It’s true that a world where everything happens in just the same way every time would soon become unbearably tedious, but no less true that a world where everything is fresh each day would be an uncomfortable place to live. Routines swaddle us sweetly in the familiar but also turn us into sleepwalkers. We talk incessantly about what’s new, but cling tenaciously to tradition and habit. In the end is there any real difference between being in a groove and being in a rut?
We’re all a just little schizophrenic on this point, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise when we see the same sort of bi-polarity manifest itself in the world of wine: on the one hand a quiet, steady commitment to wine that is as consistent as possible from place to place and year to year; on the other joy in the spontaneous variability that springs endlessly from nature.
The poles in this case are Bordeaux and Burgundy, two wine regions that established themselves early in the Christian era but which gave birth to two radically divergent views of what wine should be.
History presents us with a matched set of points of view that between them bookend the world of wine as we know it.
From the beginning Bordeaux, sited along the French Atlantic coast within easy seagoing reach of lucrative English markets took an aggressively commercial approach to the making and marketing of wine. Anglo merchants set up on the Bordeaux wharves where they could collect the wine they bought from small holders in the high country upriver, quickly blend it into the generic light-bodied red wine the British knew as claret (better not to inquire too closely into their technique), barrel it up and ship it in the nick of time for Christmas.
Branded wine got its start here, with merchants blending wine from many sub-regions, vineyards, and even vintages, into a single wine identified with the broker’s name. Where the wine was sourced was not initially a matter of interest to anyone except the brokers themselves. We have no record of famous “cru” vineyards from the era. The aim was to make wine in a recognizable house style, as consistent from year to year as artful blending could achieve, while maintaining opacity with respect to sources.
Meanwhile, in Burgundy a culture of wine was taking shape at odds with the Bordeaux model. Here, vineyards had been established under the auspices of religious houses whose monk-inmates were under an obligation to offer up to God not just their prayers but their labor. The Church’s approach was what we would call today vertical integration: it owned the vineyards, put up the wine, and made big capital investments in research, infrastructure, and quality control. It kept careful records, had a long institutional memory, and enjoyed a loyal, wealthy clientele.
It seems that by the high middle ages pinot noir had become the standard for red wine making and chardonnay for white there. The Cote d’Or, Burgundy’s acknowledged sweet spot, had been thoroughly mapped and the individual sites we still know as grands crus were identified and marked off. At least in theory, the sources of the better sort of Burgundy wine were transparent to purchasers.
The Burgundian gold standard for winemaking involved a single grape variety cultivated in discrete, named plots each known to impart a special character to the wine made from its grapes; a character so distinctive that it seemed a crime to dilute its personality with fruit from other sources. Today we would call these wines vins de terroir – wines with a sense of place. After Church property was confiscated its lands devolved into the hands of thousands of small holders with a distinctly artisanal and anti-corporate bent.
The picture I’ve sketched is simpler and tidier than in reality, but it will have to serve. The point is that today history presents us with a matched set of points of view that between them bookend the world of wine as we know it. On the one hand, production that strives to produce an appealing, drinkable, stylistically consistent wine from year to year despite the vagaries of weather, yield, disease, vine age; on the other hand an approach that glories in particularity, diversity, variability, and the nuanced differences apparent only to experts.
It’s no accident that it’s the Bordeaux pole that larger-scale, more commercially-oriented producers are attracted to. After all, consistency is the very hallmark of the branded product whether we’re talking peanut butter or pinot grigio.
But let’s not lose sight of the fact that many very fine wines deploy blending and reasonable technology in support of a consistent style. One has only to think of top Bordeaux chateaux, and the Champagne, Port, and sherry houses.
In the same way it makes sense that small-holders and artisanal producers want to put the focus on their strong suits: individuation, a non-technical approach, an instinctive distaste for anything corporate.
Boston-based boutique importer Oscar Hernandez expressed his devotion to the artisan aesthetic when I interviewed him earlier this year: The producers I want to do business with make extremely personal wines, wines that change not just from vintage to vintage, but sometimes from bottle to bottle and glass to glass. These are natural wines, the kind that can only be made on a small scale. In this view, consistency – or at least a certain kind of consistency — isn’t just unimportant, it’s something to be avoided. The downside of this, of course, is the roller coaster ride that’s in store for the consumer when there’s no conscious effort made to ensure a degree of continuity in the product.
Consistency is the very hallmark of the branded product whether we’re talking peanut butter or pinot grigio.
But hold on a bit. If terroir consists of those durable features of a vineyard (site, soils, exposition, native yeasts, etc.) that give rise to particular aromas, flavors, and textures found in the wines that emanate from it, and if, as many insist, the purpose of wine is to express these features, then wouldn’t we expect and want such wines to display this identifiable character in every vintage?
In other words, doesn’t the very idea of a vin de terroir imply a certain continuity of character without which the notion of terroir as a durable reality is meaningless? It seems unreasonable to criticize those inclined to encourage consistency when Mother Nature appears to be playing a similar game, all the more charmingly for Her less than perfect performance.
I suppose the way out of this dilemma lies in what we mean by consistency in wine and by what means its desirable attributes are delivered to us. If it implies a level of precision uniformity that only mass-produced goods made on an industrial scale can provide, then consistency would doom us to a lifetime of wines with no more individual personality than a Stepford wife — a “foolish consistency” indeed.
But if consistency is interpreted as a reasoned effort to maintain a family-resemblance of the kind we see in nature everyday — a general similarity relieved here and there by minor deviations from the norm — then, it seems to me, we open the way to wines that both have a connection to place and the individual variability that keeps things interesting and our senses in gear.
Nothing foolish about that, Ralph Waldo.
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