I have no interest in diminishing the role of viticulturist and winemaker through my practice of wine writing. Making wine is an inherently interventionist process; a simple fact, but one worth repeating in an age where we deify a nature curiously devoid of people and fetishise a past of naive wholesomeness. The right degree of intervention is, of course, vastly contested, and guiding principles like “minimal intervention” are both hopelessly reductive and damagingly misleading. Many wines benefit from extensive work in the winery which, when done with sensitivity and skill, helps to illuminate the underlying qualities of the fruit and create a more complete wine. To the deniers, I simply direct you to unwooded Chardonnay.
Intervention oughtn’t, however, be the focus of a sophisticated criticism of wine. Viticultural techniques and winemaking operations are means to an end, and it’s in connecting those means to the achieved end where a truly interesting conversation about wine is located. In other words, we judge a wine with reference to why it was made, how it was made and what it tastes like.
Straightforward commercial styles yield easily to this analysis, made as they are to be both technically sound and easily accessible. No faults and plenty of fruit? Check. To effortlessly produce these wines in large quantities is one end point of many New World wine industries, and represents a collective achievement I respect enormously. But these wines are often boring to drink, boring to write about and, as such, contain little to engage one’s interest critically. Monumental efforts in the service of bland ends.
Jumping to the other end of the spectrum we have producers like The Scholium Project, who seem determined to (re)invent, discover and pervert conventional notions of wine style. It’s part punk, part hipster and, as an enterprise, vastly more interesting than yet another clean Cabernet. Especially daring are experiments with wine faults, something Scholium seems to explore with its white portfolio in particular.
Clearly, then, not styles for those without a certain tolerance for winemaking eccentricity. There’s a slight urge I feel to celebrate these wines simply for existing, and I do believe there’s value in an ongoing curiosity about how wine ought to taste. In a way, though, by requiring a greater role of the winemaker, these styles expose themselves to greater criticism. When production decisions are so obvious, they become very large targets for the critic.
This wine goes further than the 2009 the sylphs in its focus on aldehydes and its suppression of primary fruit. Indeed, the distorted but complete view of fruit in the sylphs is here reduced to remnant flashes of flavour; slight darts of citrus, peach and minerality. So thick is its blanket of nutty, sherry-like aromas and flavours that few other elements make it out alive. Yet it’s curiously lacking in freshness too, not at all like a good flor sherry. There’s structure here, but somehow the flavour profile suggests a sort of stasis, like wading through mud.
Clearly, the defining act of winemaking was to allow the wine to sit on ullage for a year or so, developing the nutty aldehydic notes that so emphatically dominate this wine. The consequences of this choice are so significant they come to define the entire flavour profile. That’s ballsy winemaking.
One must ask at this point, though: does allowing the wine to develop so oxidatively illuminate the fruit’s underlying qualities? Do the winemaking inputs help to achieve balance? Is this a wine of beauty?
For me, the answer is no in all cases. I believe the style has a precedent in the wines of Jacques Selosse, but what might work in Champagne seems less successful in the world of Sonoma Chardonnay. Drinking this wine is an exercise in frustration. It’s not totally without beauty; there are beguiling flashes of minerality and fruit, bright and pristine enough to suggest some exceptional raw material. Yet I resent having to fight for these moments, and I regret not knowing what the fruit might have made if handled more sympathetically.
As with all the Scholium wines I’ve tasted recently, this is made with clear intent and conviction, qualities I applaud. It takes guts to be so bold in the winery, a domain that is too often about avoiding faults and too rarely about chasing a vision. That this wine ultimately fails, though disappointing, is perhaps unavoidable in a project so intent on experimentation.
The Scholium Project