Elegance in Wines
“Nature is a much better winemaker than a human being” - Nicolas Joly
Which vineyard looks better? This one with "weeds" and flowers? Or...
It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here but fear not dear readers, this blog hasn’t been forsaken. I’m actually rather glad to say that we’ve definitely been a lot busier recently organizing markets and fairs, corporate tastings, and even talks. We did a recent one with General Assembly and Sassy where we discussed the basics of organic and biodynamic wines – but I felt a lot of ground was left uncovered and I’d like to elaborate on what I feel are some of the real differences and benefits of low-intervention wines.
This time I’m going to focus on the subject of elegance. Elegance in a wine is a difficult quality to define. Undoubtedly it’s subjective, but if I’m going to write about it I might as well offer up my own interpretation of this characteristic.
An elegant wine will feel like a skip rather than a walk; it will dance across the palate rather than simply plod along. This light-footedness of course can be due to a naturally higher acidity in certain grapes, the geography of the land, and how the wine is fermented etc, but personally I believe a lot depends on good viticulture.
...This one, with immaculate, clean rows of vines?
If I asked wine lovers in Hong Kong, “Which region in the world produces the most elegant wines?” The answer would probably be instantaneous: Burgundy, of course.
Which estates then? Maybe blue chip wines such as Leflaive, Prieure Roch, Leroy, DRC, Henri Jayer, or Fourrier.
Why those ones? Many people might simply say that it’s all due to the skill of the winemaker - as if their hands possessed magic, or that it’s all down to the terroir – that their soils are uniquely imbued with atomic stardust.
Here is one explaination. Every estate I just listed off happens to have been organic for over twenty years, allowing the roots of the vines to grow deeper and provide more concentration, hence allowing the winemakers to control the ripeness of their grapes. If they need to, they will be able to pick their grapes earlier without losing any intensity. And though all those wineries listed above grow Pinot Noir, a thin-skinned and naturally graceful grape, winemakers around the world are now making delicate wines from all grapes.
And let’s be honest, the best of these winemakers aren’t leading the way with more manipulation in the cellar – they are leading the way with lower amounts of oak aging, lower yields, and lower levels of alcohol. Usually, critics or wine lovers refer to these wines as Burgundian - which, though lazy (I've used it before), is an effective way to express in words how subtle a wine is.
In the United States, Araujo and even Opus One brought biodynamics into the Napa Valley as their winemakers sought to bring more elegance into their wines. In an interview with High Brown Magazine, winemaker Steven Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards mentioned how after converting, “There was a different quality to the fruit, to the way the flavor expressed itself. I could see it as well in the practice of growing, how the fruit set, how it ripened.”
During the same interview, Steve mentioned that, “There was a different quality to the wines...our wines had been more rustic before; biodynamics brought some polish and elegance to them.” Alois Lageder in Italy’s Alto Adige said in the Chicago Tribune that, “[His] vines are healthier and more able to withstand heat stress, so they ripen earlier and have lower sugar levels.”
Not Just Down to Varietal
"Power is easy here. It's finesse that's difficult" - Pascal Verhaeghe
Decanter Magazine’s most recent issue highlighted two of our favourite Malbec producers. In Cahors, one of the hottest and southernmost regions of France, Pascal Verhaeghe of the biodynamic estate Château du Cèdre crafts his Malbec, one of the most dark and inky grapes around, with supreme lightness and balance. Altos Las Hormigas in Mendoza also works biodynamically, and their wines are unique in Argentina for their fragile interpretation of this much maligned grape.
Nero d’Avola by Arianna Occhipinti? Again – unbelievably elegant, especially when you taste hers against other traditional Nero d’Avolas in the region. Tenuta delle Terre Nere’s Etna blends? Arguably some of Italy’s most "Burgundian" wines. Grenache, Syrah, or Carignan by Eben Sadie in South Africa? Cool, gripping, and fresh.
I’m going to mention some other wineries since, disclaimer, we will/are already selling those five estates above, but you probably already get what I’m trying to say: Carignan by Sara Perez of Mas Martinet in Priorat and Montsant, Cabernet Franc by Catherine et Pierre Breton, Syrah from Eric Texier... basically – elegance isn’t entirely about the grape variety or altitude (although this is a huge reason why certain hot region wines have great acidity) – rather, it’s about the attitude in the vineyard.