Any visit to a vineyard or winery should focus on a LOT more than sniffing, slurping and buying a few bottles! I’m well known for my oft repeated phrase “it’s not about the wine”, a phrase I borrowed and changed from the disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong …. “It’s not about the bike”. In his autobiography Armstrong told of a “journey” to overcome cancer and win numerous Tours de France, and so irrespective of performance enhancement via drugs, the phrase is about the time, effort, problems, the science, the ambition, the strategy …. to achieve something remarkable. And so it is with that bottle of wine you are about to taste a sample of. It begins the day a young vine is placed in the soil. Not just any old vine in any old soil, but a specific grape variety best suited to THAT soil, in that position, in that climate. Also remember it was planted by a specific person, someone with a belief and a plan to create a wine of a specific type and following a particular process. The process begins with that planting, but continues as the seasons progress with pruning, tying, feeding, weeding, harvesting, crushing, fermenting, analysing, bottling, storing! Then they open a bottle for you to taste ….. how do you react, what do you say, what do you ask them? Have you done any prior research?
Now, to some of you this may seem a little “over the top”, but not if you begin to consider the things I have just mentioned and realise that your pleasure in the tasting can be increased by adding some cognitive input to the sensory. At a basic level it’s knowing the grape, the soil and aspect, the ageing whether in stainless steel or oak, and a little of the vineyard/winemaker history, in other words …. some prior knowledge. Your understanding will grow as to why this wine is more acidic than that one, why another has more tannin than the first, whether a biodynamic approach in this field produces a wine of a different taste from the other field using pesticides. Then, there is the wider and deeper comparative knowledge that builds up over time as you visit more vineyards, taste more wines of the same grape but growing in different soils and made by different winemakers, some with pesticides, some organic, some biodynamic. It’s not JUST about the wine!
If you are interest in this as a philosophical subject related to wine I can recommend an article presented by philosopher Kent Bach “What good is knowledge in enjoying the experience of wine?”
Our visits to vineyards are always conducted like this: prior research, taste, ask questions, compare. The three tastings we conducted during our family holiday in France in Savennières and Chinon recently was a perfect example.
We arrived at Savennières around 11am and parked only a few,yards away from the entrance to Domaine du Closel owned and run by Evelyne de Pontbriand. Their most famous vineyard within the whole domaine is Clos du Papillon, a butterfly shaped climat, hence the name.
“The soil is very shallow here, full of schist, but wines have been made here for generations. The Fief des Vaults is mentioned in 1495 in the Chateau des Vaults archives, with its vineyard, orchard and garden. The chateau was built in the XVII century and remastered in the XIX century. The park with its current design was created around 1850. The property has been in the hands of members of the upper class of Angers and of the prestigious family of Nantes shipowners : Later, in the 19th century, the family of Emmanuel de Las Cases, Napoleon’s biographer, inherited the estate. Since that day, the Château des Vaults and the vineyards have been managed by the descendants of Las Cases, including Evelyne de Pontbriand the current owner/Manager. Evelyne is from a long line of women winemakers, first started by Marque de Las Cases du Closel. Her niece, Michèle Bazin de Jessey, developed the vineyard and created the company, Les vins Domaine Closel, which she has handed down to her two children one of which is Evelyne. As far as I can work out she is the 5th generation of women winemakers here. The wines here are white, all made from the Chenin Blanc grape and all mostly long lasting with years to develop to their full potential. The best of them challenge the Grand Cru of Chablis for complexity and ageing potential.”
The previous paragraph is written as a quotation because I’ve written it before in an earlier post AND it represents the cognitive aspect of our tasting here, a range of knowledge we have about the wine before we even begin. Our tasting was managed by Adeline again, and we slurped our way through wines grown on differing soil variants, La Jalousie, Les Caillardieres, and Clos du Papillon, and each increasing in depth of flavour, complexity, length of finish …. and price. Unfortunately, Evelyn the owner was away at a conference in Germany but had left me a present of a voucher for a full tour of the vineyard, the chateau, and a special tasting of different vintages for our next visit. We bought a few cases and sauntered off for lunch, we had more tastings of the same grape in a different district later that afternoon.
Driving back to Chinon after lunch we discussed the wines we had tasted, did they meet our expectations, how did they compare with other Chenin Blanc wines we had tasted in the past, how did they compare with previous tastings in Savennières? Our first tasting of these wines was in 1987, our daughter was almost a teenager (!) but even she has retained those memories, and this is another cognitive element of knowledge I was writing about above, memories of how the same wine has tasted previously. After a couple of hours, late afternoon, we parked at the Pierre & Bertrand Couly vineyard just outside Chinon only a couple of miles away from our hotel. Before you ask, I was the designated driver as I’m better experienced at spitting the wine out!
We have also visited this vineyard before over several years, but it was a first time for our daughter and her husband. They are more famous for their red wines made from Cabernet Franc, and labelled as Chinon plus the makers name, as convention dictates. However they make a white wine too, just one, and from Chenin Blanc as the Savennières wines. The different vintages were much lighter and fruitier than those we had tasted in the morning, more like a grassy Sauvignon Blanc than a Chablis, quite different from the morning’s wines. They were OK for my taste, typically good value for a Chenin Blanc to be drunk on a hot summer afternoon in the garden, but not to Sharon and Michael’s taste. I bought a case of their young, fresh Chinon Les Blancs Closeaux.
Later that evening we sat outside our ground floor hotel rooms in the hotel garden area with our own very large charcuterie plus cheeses and salad stuff. Time for one more wine and a continued discussion of the Chenin Blanc grape, different styles of it we had tasted earlier, and comparing them with past experiences. THIS is what Kent Bach was writing about in his article “what good is knowledge when tasting wine?”. He was really asking about the extent to which “knowledge” adds to the sensory or aesthetic experience of wine tasting. Our family agrees that it DOES add to the overall aesthetic experience but not the sensory; for example you may have noticed that there are no “tasting notes” in this post, we don’t get all those fruit salad flavours that some folks get so don’t pretend that we do. Ever tried describing the taste of a banana …… it tastes of …. banana, and because of the knowledge from our past experiences we know what Chenin Blanc tastes like from different soil types or countries. This is what adds to our tasting experience and is partly what we spent the evening discussing over a bottle of wine. You might have guessed it was another Chenin Blanc, we’d been given 4 bottles by the hotel owner so naturally one thing led to another as it entered our mouths and brains and the comparison with other Chenin Blancs from France, South Africa, etc began all over again.