Different philosophies of wine
There’s an important
philosophical distinction that underlies the branding debate, and it
surrounds the grapes. Are they just the raw materials for a
manufacturing process, or is there something special about them that
derives from where and how they are grown? Taking this a little
further, is there more to wine than just what is in the bottle?
The Guardian’s wine writer
Malcolm Gluck made a telling revelation last year when he was
interviewed on Andrew Jefford’s Liquid Companion BBC Radio 4
programme. Drawing a parallel with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, he
divides wine critics into two groups, the top-enders and
bottom-enders. ‘If you remember’, says Gluck, ‘the great war was
between those who wished to eat their eggs from the narrow side up,
and others who cracked their eggs from the round side up.
‘I think it is the same with the wine critics’, he continues.
‘I’m a critic who’s a top-ender – I look as wine as it comes
out of the bottle. I’m interested in rating it, seeing how it
compares with many other wines and recommending it on that basis.
There are other wine critics who are bottom enders, who look at the
sediment – who look at the bottom of the bottle and all the romance
that goes on; that has accumulated, if you like, in that sediment.
‘And there are wine critics who are less interested in
recommending bottles than talking to vineyard owners about the sort of
worms that they have in the vineyard, and the sort of grape varieties
and all that arcana and mysterious goings on which create the legend
of the wine.
‘As far as I am concerned’, he states, ‘legends count for
nothing; the real romance of the bottle is the liquid that comes out
of it. And that’s it.’
So, top-ender or bottom-ender? In wine appreciation, this is a
tremendously important philosophical distinction. If Gluck is right
– that wine is to be judged and appreciated solely on the basis of
what the liquid in the bottle is like – then all context is
irrelevant. We have to discard the very factors that make wine
interesting, most importantly the cultural and geographical elements
that help make wine such an enriched, diverse subject.
I am going to make an assumption. You, dear reader, are interested
in wine. I’m guessing this is the case, because you are motivated
enough to be visiting a wine website. So let me ask you this: what do
you find interesting about wine? Is it just what is in the bottle? Is
it simply that you like the flavour of certain wines? Or is it because
there is actually more to wine than just fermented grape juice?
For me, the interest in drinking wine stems not only from the fact
that it can taste nice, but also because of the ‘arcana’ of such
factors as grape varieties, vintage variations, regions, producers,
terroir, ageing curves and winemaking techniques. I’m interested in
where the grapes are grown, and even the lives of the people who make
it. It’s such a rich subject, and strip away this richness and all
you have is an alcoholic drink with little more interest to it than
lager, fruit juice or milk. I drink lager, fruit juice and milk, and
enjoy them, but I wouldn’t buy a book about them or go on a trip to
see where they were made. I’m labouring this point a little, but it’s
an important one.
I wouldn’t want to be a top-ender critic, like Gluck. If a wine
writer’s job consists solely of recommending bottles on the basis of
just what is in the bottle, then there is little interesting for that
individual to say. Strip down the complex subject of wine to the level
of the perceived interest of the ‘general reader’, and it ends up
being so mundane and dull that the general reader ends up wondering
why they ever bothered reading about it in the first place.
Of course, top-enders see nothing wrong at all with brands. As long
as the wine tastes OK, then who cares whether it was manufactured
using hi-tech winemaking trickery from grapes trucked in from which
ever mega-yielding irrigated vineyards happened to be producing them
at the right price that year? But while I join in with the top-enders
in celebrating the fact that the brands mean tasty wines are available
cheaply for the masses, the reality is that the current dominance of
the brands means a loss of diversity for everyone. The rarer, more
interesting wines can’t hope to compete in such a competitive
multiple-dominated marketplace, and have become an endangered species.
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