Does the farmer cook at a three star restaurant?

by Aymeric de Clouet

(Originally written in French)

The wine world is full of definitive sayings, some of which relate to the 18th century’s way of consumption (directly from casks instead of bottles), but one has a tendency to be heard more and more often nowadays, wine is made in the vineyard, not in the cellar.

When I last heard it, from an esteemed wine journalist, I could not help myself and replied: “wine is not made in the vineyard at all” which was obviously just provocative! Good wines need a good harvest, but a good harvest can be many things, and a good wine maker, especially with modern oenology, can amend many small defects.

Please consider that for centuries wine was made with no understanding of its process and with a focus on increasing quantities out of the vineyards. Despite this, many great wines were made in the past, some which would not pass today’s oenological requirements, but are still among the best wines of all times! Great wines needed a good harvest first, but that wasn’t enough. Even with a good harvest, some of these wines could be completely undrinkable. As for the poor vintages, they could not be saved, except at the time, with the illegal addition of some Algerian wine…

Another example. With constant rain during the harvest, 1997 was not a very highly regarded vintage but still a very good one in Bordeaux, all thanks to osmosis. As well, for over a decade, there has been no appalling vintages like 1992, 1984, 1974, etc. even when some weather conditions were close enough to create bad years.

So how can vintage quality not correlate necessarily with weather conditions?

Because wine is also made in the cellar, not just by its vineyard. Each decision made by the winemaker can transform the grape juice obtained from the winegrower. Starting with a raw product such as a grape, good or bad, anything can be done. From the destemming to the period in vats before fermentation, then to the choice of yeasts, the temperature of fermentation, the very question of the material in which those wines are made (stainless steel, wood, concrete…), every single detail will influence the final result, and every step may ruin everything! Until, at the end of such a process, the winemaker’s entire work might be destroyed with… bad corks…

The good news is that there are several methods to make good wines not just one, and sometimes wine is good when there is no specific rule at all. Burgundy is a very good field of experimentation, with many producers with small surfaces and a lot of shared parcels, and thus many different styles or approaches of winemaking can be assessed. Since 1962, Burgundy is certainly the area which has experienced the biggest changes both in viticulture and, with a lot of mistakes too, particularly on whites. Some winemakers have a distinctive style which can be recognised in every wine they produce, from the basic Bourgogne to the Grand Cru, but as long as their wines are good I do not care. I also like some non-interventionists whose wines will reflect both the terroir and the vintage, with watery 2004s and fantastic 2005s. If any rule, I prefer those who only intervene when necessary, and adapt to the vintage. Some of my favorite producers desteem, some not. Some use new casks, some not, or hardly. I could go on forever, since there are no rules. Wine making is the realm of uncertainty, populated by men of faith! And this goes for wine growers too, but this is another topic which would take us too far.

A good farmer does not necessarily make a good cook, and a good vine grower does not necessarily produce a good wine. Wine needs man’s intervention, the only natural wine being vinegar! I am cursed (!) by the fact that I do not belong to a wine cult or orthodoxy. I am not a religious fanatic for organic wines though, and I have some reservations towards modern oenology. To say it differently, I think that modern oenology brought us a lot, but tried too much to eradicate any knowledge and wisdom imparted by previous generations, and that the New Age trend with its biodynamics and Natural wines go too far when it rejects everything from science.

Not being a fanatic or an orthodox may be harsh for you, since you will make everyone unhappy. The only consolation is that you may enjoy numerous and various wines without shame.