There’s a partnership in the production of wine, a partnership between God (who does most of the work) and man (who finishes things off). You could say that a winemaker is a bit like a chef: nature provides the pig and the potatoes, man comes up with the bangers and mash. And as we all know, some chefs are better than others… You can take this further: quality of ingredients, simplicity and love.
As with many things, winemaking is both art and science, and some winemakers are artists, some scientists. The best are generally a combination of the two.
Passion is a much over-used word. It means suffering, as in the Passion of the Christ. “Passionate about wine” means you love it so much it hurts. It’s rare, but it does exist.
The first winemaker I met with genuine passion for what he did was Dirk Niepoort from the synonymous Port house. This was a few years back, and at the time he struck me as a dutch Michael Hutchence. What really struck me though, as we tasted our way through the component parts of his 1997, was the man’s love of what we were tasting, of what he and nature had colluded to produce. His wines were his children (and they are very, very good).
Since then I’ve always reckoned that you can tell if a man’s wines are any good without even tasting them. It’s hard in Bordeaux as they’re all salesmen, but I’ve met Francois Mitjaville of Ch. Tertre-Roteboeuf just the once and I did get the impression that he knew every one of his vines by name. In Burgundy it gets easier. Get either of the Liger-Belair cousins taking about their wines and you’ll soon realise that they’re not in it for the money. Hear one of Jacques-Frederic Mugnier’s rare pearls: “Il ya quelque chose de parfait la dedans; il faut attendre pour voir s’il va prender du charactere” on the perfection that is his 2005 Musigny and you’ll see that this quiet man understands his juice. Watching Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle of Bodegas Artadi caress his vines in Rioja Alavesa or feeling his love as he opens a bottle is perhaps the most impressive of the lot (you can pick this guy’s vineyards out from a couple of hundred yards away: they’re the ones with charisma…).
And this passion translates. The dynamis flows from the ground, through the winemaker, through the cellar, into the bottle, into the glass. This is the difference between a wine that has you thinking about your place on the planet and a wine that just complements the bangers quite well. I think you can tell when you’re drinking wine that is made with love.
1) At the Niepoort tasting, an MW that I know well successfully divined which of the component parts of the blend had been foot-trodden. Now that is impressive (or maybe lucky) blind tasting.
2) “All You Need is Love” is Lennon, not McCartney (though credited to them both). This is important. Lennon would have been the better winemaker.