Il nous faut sillon qui porte
La promesse d’un vin nouveau.
Yes, these words from the 1952 Extrait del’Almanach du Beaujolais remind of the necessity of the promise of new wine, especially wine from Beaujolais. I ran across the Almanac in reading a history of Beaujolais by Jean-Jacques Pignard whose family produced the village Beaujolais I had enjoyed enough to send me burrowing through my book shelves. It was a kind of total Beaujolais experience, because I had just watched Anthony Bourdain interact with Paul Bocuse on the CNN series “Parts Unknown” and recalled the times Bocuse had told me how much he liked and used Beaujolais.
As a child, the great chef said that daily consumption of Beaujolais in his father’s restaurant ran to 220 litres, the equivalent of a single barrel. And as I embark on another car trip across the high deserts of the Southwest and eastern California to the Promised Lands of Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, it will be Beaujolais that will sustain the four-or-five-day drive each way, carefully kept on ice, of course.
The biggest reason for Beaujolais is that I like it. I know it’s a wine dismissed by most connoisseurs, but few wines are as consistently friendly, so versatile, and so forgiving about provenance. Nor does Beaujolais care about food matches. Not knowing where I’ll be dining while on the road, I always carry back up provisions of which Beaujolais is a staple.
So between Bourdain and the Pignard family along with my travels, these past days have been something of a Beaujolais immersion. Sometimes things just come together for us wine lovers, and for now Beaujolais stands on my center stage.
Life has never been easy for the wine producers of the Mosel Valley. Their vines grow on the steepest slopes in the wine world, so steep that part of the grower’s regular duties include carrying by hand the heavy stones from the lower rows of vines back to the upper rows because of constant sliding. Add that duty to being in one of Europe’s most northerly wine zones with fickle weather, and wine life in the Mosel is always a challenge.
But there’s more. There’s the matter of the bridge and the Autobahn. Like the Germans, when I used to drive from Karlsruhe or Kasiserslautern to Luxembourg, I had to use state or secondary highways.There was no super highway, no Autobahn, no direct route. It was either contend with slower roads or go the long way around via Cologne and Aachen. For years, the Mosel producers have been at odds with the Ministry of Transport about whose, if anyone’s, vineyards should be sacrificed for a new highway and a magnificent bridge across the Mosel River.
Still not enough trouble. Besides loving their wines, Germans love car racing, and one of the biggest motor rallies in the country takes place on those twisting roads along the Mosel and its picturesque vineyards. And, as happens in such high speed contests, race cars often leave the road and skid through several rows of vineyards. The upcoming issue of DECANTER reminds us of this unique vineyard threat with a photo of a Finnish driver standing beside his wrecked car after it tore through some prime vines just a day or two before the harvest.
Racing fans aren’t much kinder to the vines. They often watch the races from the vineyards, trampling the vines going to and from their vantage points and leaving behind their trash.
So the next time you’ re looking over the selection of Mosel wines on your retailer’s shelf, recall the unfriendly climate, the back-breaking labor, the conflicts with modern transportation, and give a shout out to the strong and brave men and women who bring us their elegant wines.
Mosel? On the German side. Moselle in France. It doesn’t matter. The work is hard.
Some thirty years ago, while walking together around the old riverside streets of Strasbourg, Robert Mondavi told me he hoped to make a red wine ready for drinking when bottled but which would also age 30 or more years. Unfortunately, I have never had a chance to experience any of the great man’s wines at age 30, but I am seeing reports of some concerns about how red wines have been aging in recent years.
There is a plague of premature oxidation. Oxidation happens to all wines eventually, but today’s concerns result from the number of wines oxidating after only a few years when they have been expected to last much longer. This issue does not seem to be more prevalent in any one region but there does appear to be an emerging pattern among wines undergoing such transformation.
The causes are believed to date back to the 1990s with the trend to produce fruitier wines with higher alcoholic levels. These wines tended to be more pleasing on the palate and to generate high scores with those who ascribe points to wines. These wines were vinified from very ripe grapes with concentrated flavors, lower tannins, and much lower acidity. In the extraction process, many producers were using excessive oxygen to assure the wine remained fruitier and “more approachable” early on.
Last week I experienced two Napa Valley Cabernets — Ad Vivum 2009 and Carter Cellars 2008. Both were virtually tannin-free and if I had seen them and tasted them blind, I would have guessed their age to be 15 years or more. Deep color, intense on the palate, dried fruit on the nose, and a drying finish. They had not oxidized in any way, were drinking beautifully, but they did bring to mind the reports I have been seeing about premature aging.
From Italy through Burgundy and Champagne, I have been told that climate change is ripening grapes as much as a month earlier than usual. In California, this year’s harvests have been exceptionally early. The riper the grapes, the higher the sugars and alcohol content, the less acidity. Acidity is one of nature’s protectors of the finished product. Without it, wines “tire” more easily.
No one is saying this is a widespread problem but it’s happening often enough to cause concern. During our Strasbourg stroll, Bob Mondavi explained how acidity helps the preservation of the finished wine and the fruit provides the flavor. His goal then was the right balance.
All of us who enjoy and use wine know that most of us keep our wines too long, allowing them to tire before we use them. It appears that we may be on the verge of shortening the keeping time still more.
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