In search of balance: the cult of the winemaker

The cult of the winemaker. Some have stood out due to outstanding, new or different styles but always behind the brand. In recent years, the brand is less and the winemaker is more. For boutique wineries. For the avant garde. For the quirky and the super hands on.
In years gone by, we celebrated the master blenders, the chef de cave of champagne, the bordeaux master craftsman that work with thousands of parcels to give you the wine that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. In today’s world, however, we celebrate the micro-site maker. Someone who takes some grapes, does minimal and bottles it to the applause of the high profile audience.

Micro makers are by definition, making minute quantities at higher prices with minimal reach but take up majority of the air and press time. Vast majority of the population is still drinking the workhorse wines, those blended by almost anonymous makers working behind big brand names. Masters of blending, across time and space to create the same in spite of conditions. A somewhat harder task, I think.

I love the avant garde, the unique and the quirky. I love (some) of the so called natural wines – those that evoke emotion and have a personality. One particularly memorable tasting at Pares Balta (Penedes, Spain) I fell head over heels in love with two very different gentlemen in a bottle: one a gorgeous blond with a millionaire playboy personality, the other a dark and dangerous brooding sex god. That’s two wines with personality plus that I will struggle to ever forget. At another, a half-forgotten and often derided grape variety transported me to the late summer of my youth, a moment of happy melancholy – Pipeno by Cacique Maravilla (Bio Bio, Chile). Yet, others – that may perhaps be more “popular” or social media savvy left me cold.

Similarly, the master craftmakers of champagne who are tasked with blending juice from an incredible variety of parcels to taste the same, year in and year out for those non-vintage bottlings. As much as I might not love the taste of Moet Chandon, the task behind the making of this incredible volume driven non-vintage style is mind boggling. It tastes the same every year, quality only getting better. Similarly, Freixenet and their ubiquitous Cordon Negro which is sold in millions of bottles around the world, exactly the same every time. That is super skilling. Recently, I had the pleasure of having attended a masterclass with the incredibly talented Ed Carr. The skill and the deftness it takes to make a generic big brand $10 sparkling delicious and still be able to make the elixir that is the 2002 Arras EJ Carr (arguably Australia’s best sparkling in any vintage), leaves me speechless.

The point of this you may ask?

The quest for balance, the idea that just because there is one does not mean the other is any less. I love the ability to pick up a bottle for Tuesday night, that does not cost the earth (in all sense of the phrase), and occasionally to splurge on a wine that moves my little gray cells into stratosphere. Could I do the mind altering experience daily? I think I would probably stop appreciating it as much, as I do now.

The one thing I have taken away from all my studies – not just in wine – is that balance is everything. You can’t know the good without the bad. Just because things are different, however, does not make one better than the other. It’s just different. And before the supporters of the natural cry out about destroying the planet and drinking cleaner, big brand does not have to mean destructive to environment or being soulless. It may be the case for some, but not all. Let’s all move forward together.

And let’s not forget the many people who work alongside the winemakers, the cellar dwellers and the green thumbs, the coopers and the steel makers, the potters and all the other support staff that bring the wine to life.

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