The other day, I tasted a lovely white Burgundy. It was fresh and balanced and lots of other good things. On my not-overly-technical understanding, a lot of the flavours I tasted were a result of winemaker input; barrel fermentation, lees stirring, and malolactic fermentation being three that I know to have been applied to this particular wine. My tasting companion at the time remarked (and I’m relying on a hazy recollection) that he could see why many Australian producers emulate these wines and, perhaps more pointedly, how many fail.
Tasting this Burgundy, I wondered how its fruit character seemed so well matched to the winemaking treatment, showing synergies that, in the slightly alcoholic moment, defied many other wines I had tried. No doubt we produce some beautiful Chardonnays in Australia, and there’s a variety too, with significant stylistic variation between regions and producers. Yet these variations, and what seems to be a broad shift in style towards leaner wines, is telling. It’s as if the apparent naturalness and fit of the white Burgundy’s style is something we are still struggling to find in local expressions of this grape.
A recent discussion at The Winefront also got me thinking. In his introductory paragraph to a review of a Wedgetail Estate chardonnay, Gary Walsh writes: “Here’s a wine that plays to the strengths of both the Yarra Valley and Chardonnay. Hooray for that!” It seems perhaps too obvious that a producer would seek to achieve this sort of synergy when crafting a style, yet Mr Walsh’s point as I understood it was that some styles being sought at the moment aren’t sympathetic to their variety or region, leading to wines that may not capitalise on the potential of either. The discussion then devolved into questions of influence, inspiration and the process of settling on style. To my mind, these are complex considerations, without self-evident answers.
It’s not too long ago that Australian wines were identified explicitly by their adherence to Old World styles; hence, we had Claret, Burgundy, Chablis, Hock, etc. That might seem hopelessly outmoded, and perhaps it is, but it’s interesting to contemplate this approach in terms of where we are now. I would argue that, to an extent anyway, we still think in these terms. To continue the Chardonnay example, they may be labelled by variety, but comparisons with Old World styles are ongoing. One reads of local wines that are chasing “white Burgundy” or “Chablis” (or even “California”). And I get it; these models are often benchmark wines that, on one level, are worth emulating. Mr Walsh’s comment, though, throws things into disarray. By chasing a Chablis style with Yarra Valley Chardonnay, for example, are we applying a set of techniques to grapes that that may not respond sympathetically in turn? Or, to phrase it positively, I know what Chablis tastes like, but what does Yarra Valley Chardonnay, in its finest expression, offer? My bet is that, whatever its ultimate expression, it would not be mistaken for Chablis. As a consumer interested in a range of distinctive, quality wines, I would not want it to be, either.
One of the, perhaps naive, tendencies I have when tasting many wines, particularly those in the upper echelons, is to assume they are an expression of purely vinous intent. This is no doubt untrue. Winemaking is, in most instances, a commercial enterprise, so producers must consider the needs and desires of the customer in addition to their own. However, one of the attractions of wine is that, despite commercial imperatives, there is a level of passion for the product itself that translates to a focus on the sort of purity of craft and intent that, personally, is of great interest and value. And this purity, even if just one part of the picture, is the playing field in the present context. In other words, within the boundaries of the freedom afforded a producer, how does one set stylistic direction?
The easy answer is to copy something that already exists. I understand the urge towards homage, and am the first to admit that some lovely wines can result. There’s also an understable, somewhat romantic attachment to the tradition of Old World wines that can prompt the desire to emulate. But such wines frustrate me too. At their worst, they embody the pointlessness of Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake; it’s perfect, but why bother? They don’t tell me anything new or insightful. They are stillborn, in effect, because the concept behind them is an impossibility.
I’d like to think styles with longevity are those that tell us something new and that have, in and of themselves, unassailable integrity. Such a wine style would be sui generis, an inherent benchmark. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc embodies some of these ideas. I believe it is a style with longevity; a genuine regional classic that will survive the vagaries of fashion as its own, truly authentic, wine. There’s nothing in the world like it. It wasn’t arrived at by trying to closely emulate another wine. Rather, it grew from the character of the fruit and an understanding of what is unique about the flavour profile of the region. Not to suggest it is a static wine style, but it remains broadly recognisable, and the mainstream of producers seem to agree on how the fruit is best handled.
Yet such a pure view of authenticity is also an impossibility, no matter how much I might wish for it. The reality is, precedents exist, so the manner in which producers navigate the landscape of influence is, perhaps, the most relevant question of all.
Returning to my white Burgundy, conversation at the time turned to influence and poetics, two words that instantly prompt a search through the bookshelves for Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence.
Bloom argues that poets are inspired to write by other poets, but that purely derivative work is inherently weak because it lacks originality. So, the influence of precursors must be negotiated in such a way as to produce work that is strong, and has longevity. The key point here is that precursors are used as a starting point, but are “misread” as a means of generating original work. The models aren’t simply reproduced, they are demolished, extended, hollowed out, improved upon, effaced, absorbed. The later poet, in other words, must engage with precursors in a destructive and creative manner, to avoid producing weak work.
The parallels aren’t perfect. The poetic canon, for example, works in terms of succession, whereas we live in a world of wine that is alive across geographic and, indeed, temporal boundaries. But it’s instructive to look at how Bloom’s model might apply to the question at hand and see if it provides any answers. Underpinning all poetry is the notion of poetic vision. For Bloom, the task of the poet is to overcome the anxiety of influence and produce work that is strong and that expresses his or her unique vision, possibly in defiance of precursor poets. I liken poetic vision to terroir in wine. There is a truth, a uniqueness to terroir that, through vinification, can achieve its full expression. As the poet uses language, the winemaker applies a series of techniques in vinification to most vividly communicate terroir. The job of the viticulturist and winemaker then, like the poet, is to identify and find the best means of expressing this truth. Which is another way of posing my question: how to decide what style is most appropriate given a particular parcel of grapes?
Take five Yarra Valley Chardonnays made from the same parcel of grapes but vinified separately, each in a different style. One has been made to taste as similar to Chablis as possible, a second in the Californian style but with less malolactic fermentation, the third like hyper Puligny-Montrachet, a fourth seemingly the reverse of everything we know about Meursault, the last a distillation of Chassagne style. The Chablis-like wine, to analogise Bloom’s theory, is “weak,” submitting to the influence of precursors and adding nothing new. It might be beautifully executed, and very tasty, yet it is destined to leave no lasting impression, to elicit a cosmic “who cares,” because it has nothing to say (except “me too!”). The other wines, in various ways, are attempts to produce strong work. They engage with precursors and misread them in various ways in an attempt to assert the truth of an underlying terroir. Some might be highly manipulated (there’s a sideline argument to be made here about the fallacy of minimal intervention as the best way to mediate terroir), all are potentially strong styles. Whether they are, in fact, strong styles is a matter for the vinous canon to sort out over time. It may be that the truest expression of Yarra Valley Chardonnay isn’t all that interesting (thought I doubt it). But what seems clear on this view is that an attempt needs to be made to engage with existing benchmarks in a creative, challenging and destructive way in order to understand the potential inherent to a particular terroir. One can neither seek to directly emulate existing wines from other regions, nor hope to create wine in a vacuum, uninformed by the good and great wines of the world.
There are a few implications of this argument. One is that terroir, as problematic as the term is, ought to drive style. It also suggests we need to engage deeply with Old World benchmarks in order to understand both the level of quality and style we are “up against” in the fine wine stakes. However, to see Australia as some kind of colonial outpost of Old World wine condemns us to long-term irrelevance. The answer lies not in emulating other styles, but in knowing them well enough, and being strong enough, to defy them.