Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 2 December 2013

Viticultural voyages of discovery: the alchemy of shaping fine wines

Unrestricted by tradition, and free of much of the legislative red tape that restricts producers in Europe, the New World is supposed to be the hothouse of innovation and creativity when it comes to wine. Despite this, it is the Old World which seems to have any number of specialists who work relatively small patches of land and produce wines that are sometimes breathtaking and unexpected – unique expressions both of place and of the genius of the winemaker.

Sometimes the original insight has been of the potential of the land itself. For example, during the war Henri Jayer, who already owned some very fine vineyards around the town of Vosne-Romanée, began planting the one-hectare site of Cros Parantoux, above Richebourg, which had lain fallow since phylloxera some 70 years before. Cooler than the adjacent plots, and with only a thin layer of clay limestone on top of bedrock, it was palpably poorer and less likely to ripen fruit properly (though the resulting wine would be purer and fresher). It was also impossibly difficult to plant. “It is a thankless vineyard,” he said. “You have to use explosives to blast a hole for a replacement vine.”

At the same time he applied his own – at the time highly original – theories about the viticulture (low yields, minimal use of chemicals, ploughing to control weeds) as well as his innovations in the cellar (cold soak before fermentation, 100% de-stemming, no filtration). Today his wines are among the most sought after in the world. Produced in tiny quantities, they were always going to be expensive, though lately Jayer Cros Parantoux has come to rival even Romanée-Conti for the priciest releases in the world.

What makes Jayer’s achievement all the more extraordinary is that he was working in one of the most highly documented viticultural environments in the world. The town of Vosne-Romanée is home to many of the most desirable vineyard sites in Burgundy. Every square metre of land around and above the village has been worked for countless generations. As far back as the 18th century the top sites yielded wines reserved exclusively for the French nobility. The wine of Romanée-Conti, for example, the town’s most illustrious vineyard, was described in 1780 by the Archbishop of Paris as “velvet and satin in bottles”. The Prince de Conti had bought the vineyard in 1760 for an amount which was said to be 10 times more than what was paid for a top Chambertin site a decade earlier. How was it possible, in the very heart of a part of the world where grape-growing and winemaking have been the lifeblood of almost every citizen from time immemorial, that as recently as 1945 a simple vigneron could see the potential of Cros Parantoux – and in a single lifetime vindicate this vision?

Mostly the Old World heroes are people who have applied their skill and expertise (much of it the result of modern research and technological advancement) to tried and tested locations, though the Jayer example might just as easily be applied to Jacques Thienpont at Le Pin in Pomerol or Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta at Sassicaia (though here the site he chose was way off the well-trodden paths of top Italian appellations).

When it comes to the New World, however, while there has been an extraordinary amount of innovation, that nexus of site, creativity and artistry has proved elusive. True, many of the locations were waiting to be discovered, and this explains the ever-shifting frontiers of New World wine. Margaret River, one of the newest of Australia’s premium appellations, was only really developed in the past 40 or so years – a time-frame difference of only a decade separating it from its Gondwanaland neighbour across the sea, the Hemel-en-Aarde valley.

Perhaps it is the very recent nature of most New World developments which has made them less susceptible to the more nuanced focus that characterises the brilliance of a Jayer. Most Australian, American and New Zealand producers embraced innovation even before it had been properly trialled: they had least to lose, and were anyway on average more technologically adept than their Old World counterparts. South Africa may have lagged a little – at least compared to the Antipodean industry – in the past 30 years or so, though initially, with the early investment in cold fermentation, for example, we were ahead of most countries.

When you can follow the frontier – literally and figuratively – seeking out new sites or applying new vinification strategies, it’s almost easier to be opportunistic about how to achieve progress. As long as the viticultural map is still mainly terra incognita there’s always a great vineyard just waiting to be planted. When the science of oenology discovers answers to questions that had confounded even the greatest winemakers of the previous generation, faith in a readily accessed ‘fix’ is more likely to be the driver than a back-to-basics hard slog approach to vineyard management and winemaking.

Unsurprisingly, there are fewer examples – at least at this stage – in the Jayer/Thienpont mould in the New World than in the Old. True, Max Schubert “invented” Grange, the first New World wine to achieve the volumes AND the price point of an Old World First Growth. But the wine he created was more innovative in the Australian context than it was in terms of the French tradition from which he drew his inspiration. And while there are now literally hundreds of cult wines which come off tiny sites and sell for large amounts to patriotic punters in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – and increasingly in Chile and Argentina – few if any of these have been subject to the same scrutiny, internationally and over a comparable period, as Cros Parantoux.

Complicating things further for South Africa has been the once living (and now dead) “dead hand” of the KWV – which, until the early 1990s, determined where vineyards could be planted and what yields were permitted. As long as it wasn’t possible for adventurous growers to go and seek out new sites, much of the creative impetus that is part of the equation was stillborn. Now that whoever is mad enough to do so can plant vines wherever he/she likes, we have seen an extraordinary flowering of viticultural voyages of discovery. In the next few years some of these may have proved their worth, and in a few more decades an inspired craftsman may find a new way to approach the fruit coming off such a vineyard.

In the meantime, we will have to hope that the young talent, not only the usual suspects who have done so much to transform the reputation of the Swartland, will turn their attention to the old vines that grow in some of the most unlikely places in the Western Cape. Eben Sadie has been working with Rosa Kruger in recording where these are, and has been marketing his Ou Wingerd Reeks wines to the faithful as a means of highlighting the value of this resource. Johann Rupert has been driving a similar project with some of his Cape of Good Hope wines.

One way or another, we are starting to see the emergence of site as something worth more than mere transient investment for short-term commercial gain. We now need a generation of winemakers for whom the art, the shaping of raw material into a new and complex form, means more than high ratings and ready sales (useful and important though these are). I have no doubt that among them are our Henri Jayers. I’m not sure they know that the next horizon may not be over a distant hill, but could be in the very dirt that holds their vines. I do know that as long as we lionise them, pay over the top for their latest cuvées, relieve them of the challenge to rise above themselves, we’ll never know, and nor will they. DM

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