A Good, Or­di­nary Wine

The London Magazine - - KONRAD MULLER - Kon­rad Muller

‘The quest for a Pinot Noir which comes near to match­ing a Côte d’Or Grand Cru has be­come like a Holy Grail, es­pe­cially for many New World wine-mak­ers. To date, Par­si­fal has yet to ap­pear,’ Rem­ing­ton Nor­man (1992)

‘Bur­gundy is a lovely thing when you can get any­body to buy it for you,’ A. J. Liebling (1962)

This morn­ing the dawn fog comes steam­ing down the river like the breath of a dragon. On the far­ther shore, the hill­sides are hooded in sil­ver and black trees wan­der like walk­ers lost in the mist. The sun is an or­ange smudge and be­low me the waters of the river slide on in ob­scu­rity. Soon the fog will come ghost­ing up the slope where I stand, shroud­ing ev­ery­thing in a freak­ish light, the shed that is the hum­ble win­ery, the neigh­bour’s crop­ping sheep that lie hud­dled in the rot­ting mush of black and pur­ple leaves, husks of the sea­son, and the dark stat­u­ary of the vines them­selves that stand on the hill­side, white with rime, in row af­ter row like Ro­man cru­ci­fixes, a cross­bar on an up­right.

In this is­land’s cap­i­tal, Ho­bart, such a blan­ket of dawn river fog is known as ‘the Jerry’, a last scrap of thieves’ slang that came with the con­victs from old East Lon­don, where in all prob­a­bil­ity the term is now long for­got­ten. I could stop quite hap­pily and watch the evo­lu­tions of the ‘Jerry’, which by mid-morn­ing will be burnt off by the sun into a bril­liancy of blue, ex­cept it is quite cold out and there is labour to do.

In the field ev­ery­thing is as silent and dewy as the cling­ing fog. Not even the ravens croak lazy in the gum trees. There is only the oc­ca­sional kook­aburra’s dawn hul­la­baloo, laugh­ing at us in the cool of the vine­yard, and the soft thud of the fall­ing wood, the steady swish and whir of the

elec­tric snips, the iron blades that, once re­leased, have a cer­tain guil­lo­tin­ing qual­ity, and I am mind­ful of my fin­gers and the wires as we go. For it is win­ter and we are prun­ing my fa­ther-in-law’s Pinot Noir vines.

What I know about viti­cul­ture wouldn’t fill too many para­graphs in an agri­cul­tural man­ual. But, as it hap­pens, I have an aunt and an un­cle with a vine­yard in South Aus­tralia called Wen­douree, and be­fore pro­ceed­ing fur­ther, my aunt sug­gested I read the trea­tise by Dr Jules Guyot, Cul­ture de la Vigne et Vini­fi­ca­tion, first pub­lished in Paris in 1855. She had a French orig­i­nal edi­tion; I or­dered my­self a fac­sim­ile re­pro­duc­tion of the stan­dard English trans­la­tion that ap­peared in Mel­bourne of all places in 1865, with the ex­hor­ta­tion that it be stud­ied closely by ‘the farm­ers and vi­gnerons of’ – those three dif­fer­ent places – ‘Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Tas­ma­nia.’

In those pages, writ­ten in the best lap­idary style of nine­teenth-cen­tury sci­ence, I dis­cov­ered much to en­lighten and amuse me. Here was a har­vest of slightly in­tim­i­dat­ing in­junc­tions, sly bits of hu­mour and pro­nounce­ments coined ex cathe­dra, on ev­ery­thing from soil to sales, dis­ease to de­bud­ding, mac­er­a­tion to ma­nure.

On ma­nure the French oeno­logue gives sage ad­vice: ‘When I rec­om­mend ma­nur­ing, I do not mean to ad­vise mak­ing a sewer or a char­nel of every vine­yard. Est modus in re­bus,’ and then hazards the de­light­ful sug­ges­tion, ‘Woollen rags, horns, hoofs and leather, are pre­cious on ac­count of the long time they take to de­com­pose.’

As to site, he re­minds us, ‘The vine orig­i­nally was con­sid­ered only suited for aban­doned lands, and our best vine­yards ac­tu­ally are sit­u­ated on spots un­suited for farm­ing.’ He dis­courses on the virtues of crush­ing with the feet, ‘There can be noth­ing ob­jec­tion­able in the feet of a man, where clean­li­ness is ob­served.’ On the dan­gers of cities, ‘Wine is quickly de­stroyed in the cel­lars of cities and es­pe­cially in streets where heavy ve­hi­cles pass con­stantly and at rapid pace.’ On the de­cline in wine qual­ity,

‘I buy good wine when I find any, which is rare nowa­days.’ On the ab­sur­dity of wine­s­peak, ‘I have known an English­man who did not like wine “un­less it trailed a pea­cock tail in his mouth”’. On the moral prop­er­ties of wine, ‘I am de­cid­edly con­vinced that the wines of France are the true cause of the frank­ness, gen­eros­ity, prow­ess and gal­lantry of the French, un­ques­tion­ably su­pe­rior to other na­tions,’ adding, ‘The in­hab­i­tants of beer drink­ing coun­tries will never have the same live­li­ness of mind.’ Above all, the great Dr Guyot re­minds us that wine is there to be tasted and even drunk, ‘The true con­nois­seur knows that the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of sight and smell must be fol­lowed by the in­tro­duc­tion of the liq­uid into the mouth.’

And it will be no sur­prise, then, that amongst these pages I dis­cover fairly au­thor­i­ta­tive re­marks on the art of prun­ing.

It seems that prun­ing is to viti­cul­ture what the­ol­ogy once was to the me­di­ae­val church: a source of de­bate, schism and mys­tery. There is a broad di­vide be­tween spur and cane prun­ing. Spur prun­ing (or Cor­don de Royat in the French) in­volves the vine al­ways re­tain­ing two hor­i­zon­tal branches to which the pre­vi­ous year’s shoots or canes are pruned back to sev­eral short growth points – the brutish spurs – each con­sist­ing of two buds. Cane prun­ing, by con­trast, is more thought­ful and more el­e­gant. Here no per­ma­nent hor­i­zon­tal wood is left. Rather, from the crown of each vine’s trunk, a long cane, bear­ing many buds, is re­tained and tied hor­i­zon­tal to the wire, al­most like a rid­ing crop, to pro­duce the shoots for the com­ing sea­son; a short spur is also left on the crown to cre­ate the cane that will, in turn, be used in the fol­low­ing year; and the rest is pruned away.

The small fam­ily vine­yard where I was work­ing had in re­cent years been spur-pruned – hence those sawn-off, black crosses on the hill - the nos­trum amongst some grow­ers be­ing that the dras­tic act of spur-prun­ing re­duces fruit yield and in­creases in­ten­sity, a qual­ity de­sir­able in good Pinot Noir. But this win­ter we were tri­alling a shift to cane prun­ing.

In Ho­bart, I had met An­drew Pirie, a sage amongst Tas­ma­nian wine­mak­ers (Matthew Jukes, the Bri­tish wine writer, once dubbed his Vin­tage Pirie 1996 ‘the great­est sparkling wine made out­side of Cham­pagne’; and his wines can be found in Lon­don at Berry Brothers and Rudd). To me he coun­selled cane prun­ing, point­ing out that with Pinot Noir the most fruit­ful buds lie at the mid­dle and ex­trem­ity of the cane. There­fore, to spur prune was for the farmer ef­fec­tively to throw away his har­vest. In­stead, in cool cli­mates, such as Bur­gundy or Tas­ma­nia, the pre­mium should be placed on max­imis­ing the ef­fects of sun­light (Roland Barthes it was who called wine ‘sap of the sun’). That was best done through cane prun­ing, Pirie as­sured me. To this end, at Apogée, his vine­yard in the north of Tas­ma­nia, he demon­strated how a sky­light ef­fect could be cre­ated by leav­ing a gap of un­used space along the wire be­tween the end of one vine’s cane and the next trunk, with the spur then left to send a shoot sail­ing into the north­ern sun, thereby en­gen­der­ing fruit­ful­ness for the next year, with­out any real loss in in­ten­sity.

So as the mid­day sun climbed over the field, bathing us in a warm or­ange light, we ap­plied the sug­gested method: leav­ing a sun-brushed spur on each vine’s crown and then care­fully se­lect­ing a healthy cane – the thick­ness of a pen­cil, the colour of honey, a hand’s breadth be­tween the beads – ty­ing it hor­i­zon­tal to the wire, cut­ting off the un­wanted wood, and leav­ing a sky­light swim­ming be­tween the vines.

In my read­ing I later dis­cover this was ex­actly the tech­nique laid out for France by Guyot in his fa­mous trea­tise. To­day it bears his name, the sin­gle Guyot method, and is com­mon prac­tice amongst the great vine­yards of Bur­gundy.

Amongst con­nois­seurs, Pinot Noir has a spe­cial, al­most cult-like mys­tique, verg­ing on rap­ture and reve­la­tion. Like a prob­lem child, the grape is fa­mously un­ruly and sen­si­tive, be­ing dif­fi­cult to grow, thin-skinned, prone to dis­ease, sus­cep­ti­ble to frost, bud­ding early and ripen­ing late. And yet

the wine that can be pro­duced is such as to elicit the most rhap­sodic of ep­i­thets – haunt­ing, ethe­real, ro­man­tic, volup­tuous, Chopin in a glass. The finest ex­pres­sion of this grape re­mains the near myth­i­cal Grand Crus from the Côte d’Or in Bur­gundy, and in­deed Pinot Noir is ar­guably the sole red wine va­ri­etal where the French at their best are still with­out New World peer. Yet Bur­gundy can be patchy. One knowl­edge­able wine mer­chant (Tom Gil­bey, who runs an ex­cel­lent list of one hun­dred wines from his haunt, The Vint­ner, in West Lon­don) as­sures me that the vast ma­jor­ity of red wines pro­duced in Bur­gundy are medi­ocre to say the least. He be­lieves New World Pinot al­ready de­liv­ers good wine more re­li­ably.

In Aus­tralia, Tas­ma­nia is in­creas­ingly recog­nised as the most promis­ing re­gion in the quest for the Holy Grail of a world class Pinot Noir. Al­though the lat­i­tude is closer to Tus­cany, the cold south­ern ocean grants the is­land a tem­per­ate cli­mate more akin to Bur­gundy or Al­sace, and so more acreage – old or­chards and graz­ing grounds – is now be­ing given over to the pro­duc­tion of the Pinot Noir grape. As yet, the in­dus­try is in its youth, and many of the is­land’s best pro­duc­ers are still ex­plor­ing such ba­sic ques­tions as which Pinot Noir clones and which prun­ing meth­ods work best at which sites, even which are the best sites.

Even so, the plau­dits are be­gin­ning to flow. Re­cently Home Hill, from the Huon Val­ley in the cold far south of the is­land, won Aus­tralia’s most pres­ti­gious wine award, the Jimmy Wat­son Memo­rial Tro­phy (un­usual for a Pinot Noir, in a coun­try where warmer va­ri­etals, Shi­raz or Caber­net, tra­di­tion­ally hold sway). Much of this wine is small-scale and not as yet ex­ported. But two highly re­garded Tas­ma­nian Pinot Noir to be found in Lon­don are Tolpud­dle, a vine­yard named af­ter the trade union mar­tyrs sent here as con­victs; and Ap­s­ley Gorge, from the is­land’s mild east coast, which can pro­duce wines that savour su­perbly of the slightly rot­ten old French farm­yard. As for the small vine­yard where I was work­ing, our am­bi­tions re­main more mod­est: ‘A good, or­di­nary wine,’ to quote Dr Guyot, ‘should be the first object of wine­mak­ing.’

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