6 November 2015

Why wine writers should have a taste for the unknown


The cellar was cool and damp, a reminder that in Burgundy autumn had arrived. Inside the air was filled with that familiar stone-dust, flinty smell one associates with old country churches. Stood around a barrel were myself, a buyer for a large UK wine merchants’, a negociant and the vigneron, carefully administering small glasses of delicately flavoured white wine, while his two sons, now in charge of the day-to-day running of the estate, looked on.

As we sipped and spat, furiously scribbling notes, our slurping was punctuated by the noon bell ringing from a nearby Church. For a moment the scene was magical, the noise flooding down the steps, the sound of the bells filling the cellar with their deep-toned chimes.

But it was short-lived, as no sooner had they begun than one of the sons rushed to pull the doors to, muffling the sound so we could once again taste in silence.

I was a little disappointed. Of course we needed to assess the wine and hold our concentration, but isn’t a large part of what we love about wine its history, its culture, its beauty? Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Burgundy, a landscape made up of medieval villages, monasteries and soft, golden slopes of vines.

We were in Saint-Aubin, an appellation known for its steely, pale gold whites which in their youth can taste of almonds but with age take on a more spicy, peppery character.

Standing by the barrel, as I swirled the clear liquid around my mouth I thought of George Saintsbury, the great scholar, wine critic and enthusiast. He would have appreciated the aesthetics of the moment.

Saintsbury is widely credited as the creator of modern-day wine criticism and wrote not as a technician or a professional but as an amateur, one who loved wine, food and above all variety.

In London we have just celebrated the 170th anniversary of his birth. It has been 95 years since the former Oxford don published his seminal work Notes on a Cellar Book, a collection of tasting notes, opinions and reminiscences from his life in wine.

Saintsbury would have loved today’s vinuous landscape. He wrote that he liked to steer from the ‘known to the unknown’, tasting as widely and as much as he could. One feels he would have been at home exploring today’s wine route wherever it took him, from the foothills of the Andes to the rolling downs of Sussex. If he were to stumble across a good Bulgarian Pinot Noir, as I did the other day, Saintsbury would have championed it – and he would have loved the intellectual challenge of navigating Chinese viticulture.

In all of my wine writing, I have always tried to keep the spirit of Saintsbury alive, to retain the enthusiasm of the amateur and the quest to try something new, which absolutely doesn’t have to be the most expensive.

Like Professor Saintsbury, much of my vinuous education took place in Edinburgh where, as well as reading History, I ran the university wine society, honing my tasting skills on imports from Chile and wines from Australia named not after the vineyards and villages where they came from but the grape variety.

Many a dark night spent in cold lecture theatres completing my wine exams gave me a solid grounding in the technical aspects of viticulture and vinification. But it really wasn’t until I found employment in St James’s with Justerini & Brooks that I was introduced to the classic wines of Europe, the charms of which, I believe, have never been bettered.

The art of wine writing has moved on from Saintsbury and there have been a number of prominent wine writers from what one could describe as the ‘London school’. These stretch from Christie’s auctioneer Michael Broadbent, who mastered the art of the modern-day tasting note, to David Peppercorn and Clive Coates. Between them they comprehensively covered Bordeaux and Burgundy, while Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine has never been out of print since it was first published in 1971.

The modern-day critic is very much influenced by the ‘American school’ and wine writer Robert Parker, whose approach was based on objectivity. Parker famously (or perhaps infamously) put his name to the 100-point scale whereby every wine is given a score.

I can see the merits of it when used in conjunction with a tasting note, but others have been more critical – most notably the author and philosopher Roger Scruton, who likened scoring wines to scoring symphonies.

So what is the role of the wine critic in the 21st century? Improvements in viticulture and winemaking, buying and quality control means it is now very hard to find a bad, poorly made wine.

The art of the critic, then, is to find an interesting wine at a price that is reasonable. When the first growths of Bordeaux are selling for more than £250 a bottle and Burgundy’s wines are as rare as diamonds, today’s wine writer has to spread his net further, delving into the world of fine wine and trawling for those rare off vintages, unknown estates and up and coming winemakers.

That’s exactly what I intend to do with this column – to explain the world of fine wine, guide you through the classic wines of Europe and beyond, but also find the new wines everyone is about to start talking about. While all the time keeping at the back of my mind a little inner voice which says: “We are only interested with what we taste inside the bottle, rather than the label outside of it or the surroundings of the vineyard and châteaux – however impressive they may be.”

Maybe, back in Burgundy, they were right to close the doors of the cellar after all.

Will Lyons is an award-winning wine writer, journalist and broadcaster.