Wine is grape juice. Every drop of liquid filling so many bottles has been drawn out of the ground by the roots of a vine. All these different drinks have at one time been sap in a stick. It is the first of many strange and some – despite modern research – mysterious circumstances which go to make wine not only the most delicious, but the most fascinating, drink in the world.
It would not be so fascinating if there were not so many different kinds. Although there are people who do not care for it, and who think it is no more than a nuisance that a wine list has so many names on it, the whole reason that wine is worth study is its variety.
From crushed grapes come an infinite number of scents and flavors, to some extent predictable controllable – to some extent neither. The kind of vines, where they are planted, how they are pruned, when they are picked, how they are pressed, and how long they are aged all bear on the eventual taste. And behind each of these factors, there is a tradition or argument or set of reasons why it should be done this way rather than that, and a wonderful variety of ideas about the ideal in view.
Wine is the pleasantest subject in the world to discuss. All its associations are with occasions when people are at their best; with relaxation, contentment, leisurely meals, and the free flow of ideas. The scope of the subject of wine is never-ending.
To me, its fascination is that so many other subjects lie within its boundaries. Without geography and topography, it is incomprehensible; without history it is colorless; without taste it is meaningless; without travel, it remains unreal.
It embraces botany, chemistry, agriculture, carpentry, economics – and any number of sciences whose names I do not even know. It leads you up paths of knowledge and byways of expertise you would never glimpse without it. Best of all, it brings you into friendly contact with some of the most skillful and devoted craftsmen, the most generous and entertaining hosts you will find anywhere.
Wine has the most precious quality that art has: it makes ideas, people, incidents, places, sensations seem larger than life. It is, in Bernard Berenson’s awkward but irreplaceable phrase, life-enhancing.
Unfortunately, one of the things that wine can make larger than life is a bore. A wine bore is a serious menace. Worse still is a wine snob. But boredom and snobbery lurk in every calling and every subject. They are no monopoly of wine. To me, a car bore is far worse than a wine bore. I find even in an old droner’s reminiscences about cobwebbed bottles a possible source of illumination.
There is, as I have already said, no end to what you can learn about wine. I know perfectly well that I have only just begun. Everybody will find some hole in this book. Some will find more holes than substances. But if this is the case I hope they will at least, like the holes in the lace, make a pattern.
WHAT IS “GREAT” WINE?
Anyone who has high claims for his wine, then, tends to be as specific as possible about it. He uses whatever cover the law of his country allows him – the mos specific appellation he is entitled to. He often goes further and bottles it himself, adding his personal guarantee.
If these precautions seem over-elaborate, consider what danger there is in more generalized naming. It is the same with food. The statement “Yorkshire pudding is delicious” is very limited value. The important thing is who cooks it.
The daily drink of real wine-drinking countries – not those for whom wine is a luxury – is ordinary wine. In France vin ordinaire has a definite connotation. It is not a vague term for anything which is not very exciting. Its price depends on its strength – nothing else. It is almost always red. In Germany it is called Konsumwein, in Spain vino Corriente (“current”, or running, wine), in Portugal consumo. We have no real term of our own for it in English. Ordinaire is the word most commonly used. In America, particularly, “ordinary” sounds more or less insulting.
Vin de pays:
Vin de pays – wine of the country – is a cut above ordinary. Though the wine in itself maybe not be better it has one added dignity; you know where it comes from. Ordinaire is completely anonymous. It is often a blend of the wine of France, Spain, North America, Italy, or anywhere where the price per degree of alcohol is low at the time. Vin de pays at its worst is simply ordinary with a birth certificate. At its best, on the other hand, it can be one of those excellent regional specialties that are always referred to in a patronizing way as “little”. A good hotel almost anywhere in the southern half of France should have quite a good vin du pays (switched from de to du because it is referring to the particular bit of pays in question). The patron gets it by knowing the grower. There is not enough to become a widespread marketable proposition, but it is none of the worse for that.
With “good” wine we are on the trickier ground. What does a dealer mean when he says that a picture is good? What do you mean when you say that a dish is good? They are not quite the same thing. “Good” must be allowed to cover all wine from just plain well-made upwards to the top. But at the same time, it has a field of its own, between ordinary and fine. Whereas ordinary is not worth tasting with any attention, has no scent or characteristics of its own, good wine begins to be worth thinking about. It is well made and has its own character, its own variation on the general character, its own variation on the general character of its region. In this class come most of the wines of Bordeaux, for example, which is not Classed Growths and, come to that, a few that are; the wines of Burgundy which are known by their village-names alone, not the names of their individual vineyards; the blended German wines such as Liebfraumilch; the Chiantis and Orvietos of Italy – all the wines which carry the name of their type, when that name is one of the world’s great wine regions.
There is no general agreement on what is meant by the word “fine”, often though it comes into discussions about wine. I would narrow it down to the field above Good and below Great. All wines which tell their full story – their vintage year, the particular vineyard, and not just the village where they were grown, often the name the owner – on their labels should come into this class. Most – though not all – estate-bottled wines deserve to be called fine wines. In France, the annual production of fine wines (in the broadest sense) in a typical year is in the region of one-seventh of the total (178 million Imperial gallons in a total of 1,170 million in 1971).
Great wine is a different matter. There is no vineyard in the world that always produces great wine, however great and famous its name is. Great wine is a rare and exquisite result of perfect conditions in a perfect vineyard, perfectly handled by the grower and carefully matured afterward. Where the line comes between fine and great is always a matter of debate. But the word should not be used lightly. Great wine is a work of art, capable of providing aesthetic pleasure of the highest order to anyone who will be attentive. As an everyday drink, it is as fitting as Hamlet is for a cabaret in a nightclub. Only five or six districts in the whole world have shown themselves to be capable of producing wine like this with any regularity. They are Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhine and Moselle, the Douro river in Portugal, and Jerez in Spain. At various times great wine has been made in Hungary, Italy, South Africa, California, Australia, central Portugal and maybe elsewhere. But it remains rare and grows more and more expensive as more and more people want to taste it. Even a convinced ordinary-wine drinker should taste great wine sometimes. It is easy to get into a rut with wine and to wonder what all the fuss is about when anyone mentions the glory of the best growths. I hope nobody drinks them every day, because it is partly by comparison that their superlative qualities stand out.
It is hard to put a finger on the quality of greatness in wine. To me, there is always something faintly sweet, but sweet in the sense of sweet-natured rather than sugary, about one. There is a definite tendency to reach the quintessential taste of fresh grapes, as even really fine cognac does although it has been distilled. But this they all have in common, whether they are clarets, delicate fine sherries, champagne or hock or burgundy: they provoke discussion. To drink a great wine alone is almost painful. There must be somebody to share the experience with, for it is an experience, and it needs discussing, analyzing, and gloating over just as a great play does; or, to put it more precisely, a great picture, for it is not dramatic - it is beautiful.