A Good, Ordinary Wine
‘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.’