Reason’s Critique Of Pure Riesling

Lynne Kiesling

Kerry Howley’s essay on the documentary Mondovino at Reason is a very enjoyable read that captures some of both the economics and culture of winemaking. I also like its witty title!

Howley discusses the main contrast in the film, between anti-globalism winemaker Aimé Guibert and global entrepreneur Robert Mondavi. Howley’s conclusion piques my interest in the film:

Mondovino starts as a mournful elegy for fine wine, but it’s too smart, or perhaps too honest, a film to end that way. Instead, wine emerges as an experience open to invention and reinvention, a nebulous pleasure that can be captured only fleetingly in the strained metaphor of a critic or the romance of an Italian estate before it is reconceived as something wholly different. Connoisseur Lawrence Osborne claims wine is “99 percent psychological, a creation of where you are and with whom.” That’s a profoundly empowering concept for a beverage once thought to be the province of elites, whether they be crass American businessmen or cranky European farmers.

I like the idea of “experience open to invention and reinvention.”

I would only quibble with the characterization of terroir:

Terroir, a central tenet of wine’s mystique, dictates that a great wine expresses its place of origin. Napa is too new for even the pretense of terroir. Its wines are the product of technology and experimentation, not centuries of careful cultivation. Its techniques aren’t family secrets or lessons culled from the land, but scientific innovations pumped out of UC Davis in the 1960s. So Napa had to create its own mythology—one of person, not of place.

I don’t think that’s right at all. Even within Napa Valley you can get variation according to vineyard, although Howley is correct to say that in general, New World wines rely more on scientific and technological innovation. I don’t think terroir is a pretense, although I do think the French mysticize and romanticize it excessively, and I don’t think that the New World is too new for terroir. The ways you can influence the taste of a wine fall into three general categories: the grapes you use, the soil/climate you plant them in, and the winemaking technique. One of the reasons why wine is so complex and fascinating is that the interaction of these three variables can produce such a wide and changing variety of experiences. And that doesn’t even incorporate the experience of the consumer enjoying the wine with friends and food!

If, for example, you drink an Italian Sangiovese next to the Bonny Doon Sangiovese, you can taste the varietal characteristics of blackberry, black cherry, and dried currant. But I tend to taste more juniper/eucalyptus in the California Sangiovese than in the Italian, even though there is some juniper in both. Some of that is probably terrior, I would bet.

Sorry, didn’t mean to rant about terroir … just meant to convey that where you grow the grapes can matter, but that the interaction of that with the grape itself and with the winemaking technique leads to a very subtle and complex, and enjoyable, outcome.

3 thoughts on “Reason’s Critique Of Pure Riesling

  1. Terroir is one of those words with multiple meanings. It can refer to the influence on a wine of the soil and microclimate in which grapes are grown. It can also be an excuse for overpriced, underflavored wines from certain parts of France.

    Lawrence Osborn is wrong, by the way. It is beer, not wine, that is mostly psychological — I will not say 99% psychological — because the range of flavors and aromas is much smaller in beer than in wines. Especially with respect to the most widely consumed lager and pilsner brands around the world, beer is beer. Brand loyalty is a product of something besides what is in the can; the beer is a symbol of good times or good fellowship (and, sometimes, a symbol of one’s willingness to drink what everyone around one is drinking), nothing more.

    I guess I get a little impatient with “profoundly empowering concepts” with respect to things like wine. Yes, buying a bottle of wine is not like buying a bottle of milk. One kind of wine will taste different from another, and some will go better with certain foods than others. But a bottle of wine does not bite. It represents neither a huge financial investment nor a long-term emotional commitment. I’m all for making wines more approachable to the new wine consumer, but at some point people have to stop being so easily intimidated.

    Great civilizations do not rest their greatness on people who are frightened by a shelf full of different wine labels.

  2. Interesting post. I would add to your list of things that can influence the taste and character of a wine the way the vines are farmed. This has tremendous influence on the wine. For example you will have a tremendously different wine if fruit is “dropped” off the vine so energies can focus on fewer bunches. Also, if the grower chooses to pick at a lower sugar level you’ll get an entirely different wine.

    Finally, I think some thought should be given to the idea that terroir is in large part just a matter of traditional growing methods in a region. While the composition of the soil, the solar radiation and the perspective of the slop is important, I think that the traditional winemaking methods of a region are often mistaken for the influence of the terroir.

    As for Mondovino, it’s a terribly simplistic film that works to advance a terribly simplistic agenda. My two cents.

    Great post.

  3. Israel wine

    There is no Chablis grape. Chablis is a growing region inside the Burgundy growing region of France and a true Chablis wine is a Chardonnay which MUST come from Chablis, France.

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