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

on 15 August, 2014

Donít judge a book by its cover, donít believe everything you read,donít 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, letís 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. Itís nobodyís fault, but there are precious few of the latter when it comes to wine.

Paucity of fact allows for the perpetuation Ė unwitting or otherwise Ė 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.

Itís so absurd that explanation shouldnít 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 donít hear them refuting it either.

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

Again, Iím not saying that the likes of Burgundy and Champagne donít make outstanding wines, Iím just saying theyíre 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.

Thereís a great deal we donít know about how vineyard†affects flavour, but thatís no excuse to peddle false theories. Instead, we should admit the limits of our understanding and be†open and excited about discovering more of wineís secrets. Sadly, examples of vinous spuriousness are numerous. Sometimes itís defended as romanticism, or sales patter, or as a bit of harmless pR Ė but the real cost is a steady undermining of wineís credibility, and that is a value worth being burnt alive for. Or getting your fingers burnt, at least.


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Is blended Scotch overshadowed by single malt in retailers?

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Is blended Scotch overshadowed by single malt in retailers?

  • Yes
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