October 2018. Horace, and the Vortex of Change.


Horace, and the Vortex of Change.

It seems to be a modern phenomenon these days to question the veracity of an item you are about to purchase. I have touched upon it before in respect of Italian olive oil, and English Stilton cheese, where authenticity is an undeniable factor in its choice. What then, you will want to know, has the poet Horace got to do with such deliciously unctuous and aromatic items? Here, I admit his lyric ‘To a Cask’ is only by way of introduction to the following narrative given our shared enjoyment of wine:

Whatever thy vein, though art fit, jolly cask

Of old wine, to be broached for a fête; and my friend

Corvinus comes, and deigns to ask

For my mellowest liquor; so thou must descend.

Wine, I am about to tell you, is not what it used to be. Now you find the same in a smart bottle with a designer label, and a plastic cork, which, as an oxymoron, is a classic torquere tort if ever there was one. It appears you wouldn’t deign to broach a 75-centilitre bottle in Horace’s day! Which suggests, I think we can assume from the verse, that the Romans had a classification for the wine they enjoyed. Whether it was so pompous and exaggerated as that of today is a more difficult point to pursue, given that recommendations were by word of mouth, not by the suspicious hype of glossy wine magazines. Certainly they had prestigious zones, like those on the border of Campania where the famous white wine, Falernian, was produced, and that, given its prestige, was classified according to its exact location in the area. But the real question I am asking is, did they have to deal with the sort of skulduggery foisted on the modern imbiber? Did some Roman vintner dare to lace it in a poor year? Probably not, when the death penalty was a movable, arbitrary entity. No doubt they had their tastings, and formed some opinion, but I suspect they didn’t order a few dozen bottles of the 15 BC, or whatever, as recommended by Augustus, Mark Antony, or Robert Parker. As Horace indicates, the ruling classes bought their wine by the barrel, and aged it in their cellars. They no doubt also had the opportunity in their travels to sample the local produce, and there may have been wine merchants able to transport such items, but they didn’t have the luxury of judging myriad offerings in one spot distant from the vineyards. Travelling to the nearest town was often a serious undertaking, which was why they preferred to be urbanites. Here they may well have had the chance to sample a host’s offerings, as Corvinus demonstrates, but it would have been a restricted collection from more immediate environs.

Lucky us, now we’re spoilt for choice. Or are we? Choice means the ability to select from a number of possibilities, and where wine’s concerned the number seems to be infinite. Setting aside the pennies, that great restrictor of choice, we are faced with grape varieties and the blending of the same. A single grape wine is something of a rarity, but since the rise of the consorzio in Italy so is the liberal blending of different grapes. As this includes the colour and scent, such uniformity soon induces into the matter of things a characteristic ennui that can only be lightened by a different vendemmia, and even that soon palls. Choice is therefore restricted to switching to a different grape and region. No bad thing perhaps, variety being the so-called spice of life. Yet even there the modern globalized peripatetic oenologist will have stamped his taste on any number of wines so that their identity will be a mere phantom, an illusion of individuality. Certainly the in-house oenologist will leave his own preference on a wine, but there is likely to be honesty in his labour not found in the globe trotting fixer who might give a nod to chips of oak added during the fermentation, micro-oxygenation, or filtration which robs the wine of its soul. Yet sadly some Italians with an eye on marketing, and those risking a flutter, will choose the convenient route and ‘follow the fashion’. A touch of Cabernet here, a dash of barrique there, and a good deal of Bordeaux charm to lure the wine journals, the tea boys of the fourth estate, along with ‘uncle Tom Cobley and all’, seems to have done the trick.

I have to say, Tuscany’s attempts at reproducing a fine French wine was a neat gamble, and their only mistake seems to be in considering it’s worth as much as the real thing. ‘You pays your money’ so the saying goes. Well, fools do. In the same way as one swallow does not make a summer, neither does one vendemmia make a great wine. Not unless you cook the books it doesn’t. Once upon a time, if the vintage was poor, an honest broker like Boscarelli of Montepulciano refused to bottle a bad vintage, and turfed it out as sfuso, or a presentable table wine. In todays boiler pressure world they trade on yesterdays credit knowing the vast majority of punters rarely buy a case of anything, but will remember hearing some wine buff lauding a Brunello, or Barolo, or something like, and take a shot at that.

Who would care to say that a 1989 Brunello is better than a 1999 Brunello, or any other such comparison you may make? If they do, they are not comparing like with like. As the ageing process takes place its past cannot be revisited. The history, and the future, are out of balance. In the matter of time you cannot have a foot in one, and a foot in the other, all at the same moment. The superb 89 may not go the distance, and prove humble fare against the 99 it would have knocked for six ten years before. When a wine journalist essays that the produce of a new vintage far exceeds another in quality he is asking you to believe that his memory is infallible, which of course, it isn’t, and sadly for them, they cannot prove that it is. You may well note that Corvinus has asked for a silky smooth, well-matured wine, not the 12 BC Falernian Horace had tucked away at the back of his cellar. ‘Pleasant’ and ‘enjoyable’ are the words they found appropriate to wine; anything more fulsome was excessive. The more eulogistic a wine journalist the more you should take their flannel with a stiff drink. At least there’s no arguing about its pedigree.

Which brings us back to a tricky problem. What does a successful wine estate do when it runs out of space? All the hype is over, and they have a loyal list of clients, what then? Then they run up against a brick wall. Sales don’t increase at such stratospheric heights, competitors own the land next door, and the press aren’t interested in promoting an old pair of shoes anyway when its readers want the latest buzz. So you buy up a mediocre estate in a foreign place, replant the vineyard and produce your old success under a different name, which gets you lots of new plaudits for a wine of virtually the same character, and a brand new set of clients to blow your trumpet. The old ones are too busy pooh poohing the upstart. If they only knew. Places in South America suddenly become a new Napa Valley when in fact they’re up the creek! Time to move on, find a place where the action is, and show them how it’s really done. E101- Gum Arabic, new oak staves for lining old barrels, flavour enhancers and powdered tannins are for those at the bottom of the barrel. At the other end are the alchemists turning the red stuff into gold by market manipulation presenting a passable wine as a chef-d’oeuvre, generally accompanied by a very high price. In technical marketing terms this is known as ‘skimming’, yielding temporarily high initial returns. Once sales begin to fall, so will the price, and sometimes even the name. In the wine business a waning star always seems to be accompanied by a rising one. How would you know if it’s only a re-branded look alike?

As the Italians don’t have the sort of classification demanded by the French for their wine; Premiers Crus down to Cinquèmes Crus, you have to go by reputation, or rely on the local Coop for pricing where they don’t offer a tasting. However, there is one, not infallible, factor you could bear in mind. All grapes have to be picked and fermented if they are to become wine, and in a natural process they then need to age until drinkable or they reach their peak. Six months to as many years as it takes. You don’t have to be a quantum scientist to calculate that the longer it takes the greater the cost to the producer. For that reason, in the way of things, a ten-year-old Valpolocella Amarone is not going to be as cheap as a five-year-old Amarone. If a wine seems expensive it might be politic to note the year it was bottled. Not infallible, but a better bet than forking out £150 for a lemon!

Underhand dealing is not confined to the bandits. Having mentioned Brunello, which can be a genuinely fine wine, it is sad to mention the 2008 scandal where top producers like Antinori and Frescobaldi were accused of adulterating their products. I’m not sure that many of us would have known it was mixed with Lambrusco grapes, but that’s not the only point is it? At the same time the investigation uncovered the creation of illegal vineyards using EU funds, and like me, you might want to consider why does the EU spend other nations money to support already successful enterprises?

If you’re a little mystified by all this legerdemain on the part of the wine trade and Brussels, you can do no better than purchasing a DVD by Jonathan Nossiter titled “MONDOVINO”. It’s fourteen years old now, but as nothing seems to have changed, it’s probably due to the fact that the vast majority if imbibers haven’t seen it. A cutting edge exposé in its time, and as a Cannes short listed ‘critical gem of a film’, still available, a fresh interest would be no bad thing. It allows us to focus on the fact that one wine is certainly not like another, despite certain people, as demonstrated in this film, trying to make it so!