Richard Hemming: Don't believe all the pigswill written about wine

on 15 August, 2014

Don’t judge a book by its cover, don’t believe everything you read, don’t follow the crowd.

Language is littered with idioms warning us to question what we are told, yet the received wisdom of wine goes habitually unchallenged.

Correspondingly, wine culture suffers from an undue profusion of pigswill, much of which is perpetuated so unthinkingly that it has become almost heretical to dispute it. The traditional punishment for heresy is being burnt alive. So all you crazy zealots out there, dust off those firebrands.

First, let’s conciliate by conceding why wine is so predisposed to this problem. It is founded in subjectivity. Matters of opinion are hugely liable to manipulation, exaggeration and distortion over time, whereas matters of fact are distinctly not. It’s nobody’s fault, but there are precious few of the latter when it comes to wine.

Paucity of fact allows for the perpetuation – unwitting or otherwise – of half-truths, myths and downright falsehoods. generally speaking, their dissemination correlates positively with the amount of money involved.

Exhibit one: the 1855 classification, and especially its first growths. Let the record state that I do not deny their potential for superlative quality. But it is categorically untrue that some kind of magic formula ranks them above every other left bank red in perpetuity. The very concept, your honour, is both crackers maracas and bonkers conkers.

It’s so absurd that explanation shouldn’t even be necessary. Yet the kudos and, more importantly, price these five wines command is imperiously resilient. They might claim this privilege was thrust upon them, but I don’t hear them refuting it either.

More broadly, there is no sane reason why New World wine cannot transcend top quality Old World wines – as blind tastings repeatedly demonstrate.

Again, I’m not saying that the likes of Burgundy and Champagne don’t make outstanding wines, I’m just saying they’re absolutely not unsurpassable. The fact that the New World has a shorter history and often models itself on European originals does not damn them to perpetual inferiority, and any such suggestion is as ignorant as it is arrogant.

Which brings us to terroir. The argument for terroir centres on one piece of totally subjective evidence: taste. It is undeniable that wines taste different when all factors apart from soil appear to be unchanged, but does that mean that Chardonnay vines in Chablis extract the flavour of oyster shells through their roots? The short answer is no. The long answer is nooooooooo.

There’s a great deal we don’t know about how vineyard affects flavour, but that’s no excuse to peddle false theories. Instead, we should admit the limits of our understanding and be open and excited about discovering more of wine’s secrets. Sadly, examples of vinous spuriousness are numerous. Sometimes it’s defended as romanticism, or sales patter, or as a bit of harmless pR – but the real cost is a steady undermining of wine’s credibility, and that is a value worth being burnt alive for. Or getting your fingers burnt, at least.

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