Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Alain Ducasse…  Why are these men so much more famous across the planet than any winemaker? After all, only a tiny number of people will ever eat the dishes they prepare – and not many more will attempt to cook them (however many of their collections of recipes may be gathering dust on bookshelves). 

The point about these chefs is that they are creators. They take all kinds of foods and, using more or less sophisticated techniques and, more crucially, their tastebuds and imaginations, turn them into hedonistic artworks that no-one has ever experienced before. 

The wine world is less fond of creators. It hugely prefers recipe-followers. Look almost anywhere: if someone has planted Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s an odds-on chance that it is going to be blended with Merlot or Cabernet Franc, possibly with a little Petit Verdot and even Malbec, in homage to the tablets of stone a vinous deity handed down to the Moses of the Médoc. Want to do something interesting with Syrah? Well, the only solution is to throw in some Viognier. After all, that’s what the official Côte Rôtie instruction book prescribes. Sauvignon? The answer has to be Semillon.

If the food world was run by winemakers, diners in London, New York and Sydney would struggle to find alternatives to coq au vin, osso bucco and sherry trifle. French gourmets happily tuck into “classic” Gallic dishes that rely on foreign imports such as tomatoes, rice and potatoes, but how many wine authorities in France would countenance the use their vineyards of Tempranillo or Gruner Veltliner?

Of course, there have been a few winemakers with chef-like imaginations. Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, creator of Vega Sicilia
Fernando Nicolau de Almeida inventor of Barca Velha in the Douro and Max Schubert with Grange all broke new ground with the wines they produced and in each case created the most famous and most successful wines of their country. But Vega Sicilia was born a century and a half ago, while the Portuguese and Australian wines date from the 1950s. There are other long-toothed inventions, such as Piero Antinori’s Sangiovese-Cabernet Tignanello, Aimé Guibert’s eccentric blend of red grapes at Mas de Daumas Gassac in Languedoc-Roussillon and Miguel Torres’s brilliant commercial Viña Esmeralda, but these are scattered stars in an uninventive, follow-your-leader universe. How many recently-born wines really show signs of imagination? It says much that Dan Jago, head of Tesco’s wine department described McGuigan’s Semillon Blanc as the best vinous innovation he had seen. I’m certainly not criticising that wine – it’s a very clever creation, a genuinely new style and a huge commercial success, and I have been working with McGuigan on a couple of similarly innovative new marketing projects – but it should be facing a lot more competition than it has had so far.
One of the joys for me of having crossed the line seven years ago from being an observer (as a journalist) to a player (as a producer and consultant) has been the chance not only to witness the birth of wines like that Semillon Blanc from behind the scenes, but to attempt a little innovative blending of my own. When Hugh Ryman, Kevin Shaw and I first set about creating Le Grand Noir and Greener Planet wines, we threw away the rule books and treated the vats and vineyards at the Celliers Jean d’Alibert winery as though they were shelves in a kitchen. That’s how the le Grand Noir Chardonnay came to include a generous dollop of Viognier; it made for a far more interesting drink. The same happened when we reversed the favour: the Chardonnay freshened up the Viognier beautifully, and  little Grenache added a lovely strawberry note to the Pinot Noir. For the first release of Greener Planet, we had limited numbers of vineyards that had been accredited as being sustainable, but that led us to come up with a Marsanne-Chardonnay blend with a style that is all of its own that is beginning to develop an enthusiastic following. I’m currently working on an exciting new blend in another country that I find really exciting.
But new blends and styles are rare in wine, nowadays, and rarely the object of praise: just look at the critical manure that has been heaped onto New Zealand’s hugely popular Sparkling Sauvignon Blancs. If innovative wines received even a tenth of the interest and enthusiasm currently being devoted to orange, cloudy and frankly reactionary ‘natural’ sulphur-free, wines made in amphorae, maybe there would be a few more winemakers with a little more international renown.
Most wine producers seem to be content with being conductors playing other people’s scores. What I want to see is a few more composers. A few more jazz musicians who, like those chefs, are prepared to take us on journeys to places we have never been.
Maybe we’ll see a few really inventive wines at WINESTARS at the London International Wine Fair. I really hope so. (If you make or know of one that is not yet on sale in the UK, please do take advantage of the free entry). 

If you have the time and/or inclination, please do read the comments to this post and my follow-up piece Let’s Talk Dirty – the economics of wine
  1. You should have a look at Dandelion of the Barossa Shiraz Riesling, or McWilliam's Shiraz/ Pinot (pioneered by Maurice O'Shea I believe).

  2. Ben Glaetzer's Dolcetto Lagrein, Alvaro Espinoza's Coyam are two other exceptions to the rule, but you're right – exceptions are hard to find.

    But there is essentially only one raw material – grapes! Give Heston et al 1,500+ varieties of carrot and nothing else, then see how innovative they can be.

    It's a very different ball game. People understand food, or at least they think they do, and therefore imagination is waiting there to be captured – it can be made and presented in many different ways, and we can try to imitate what they do. Wine is an interesting condiment that comes in a glass bottle with a pretty label. First, we need people to understand wine, then we need to capture the imagination.

  3. Thank you Ewan for those exceptions. I love Coyam!

    Yes, working with grapes is like being restricted to back & white v colour, but it's as tough, we are limiting ourselves to three shades of grey!

    And I (firmly) disagree with your final point. (Most) people are never going to 'understand' wine, any more than they understand cars, cameras or cheese. The best way to capture the imagination is by making the wine more exciting and tasty.

  4. I often prefer black & white photos to colour – can be more evocative.

    The consumer stairway:
    Car, Camera, Cheese, Wine
    Ford, mobile phone, Cheddar, Blossom Hill Red
    Volvo, Canon, Stilton, Blossom Hill Red
    Audi, Nikon, Stinking Bishop, Blossom Hill Red

    I know many folk who are discerning in all the good things in life, and yet when it comes to wine play it safe and dull.

    Make it as exciting and tasty as you like, but if folk don't aspire to it, if they don't have a picture of how it makes them look, i.e. if they don't think they understand it, then such wonderful creations will be left to the likes of us in the trade to enjoy, plus the occasional aficionado, and so many winemakers will continue to churn out same old same old.

  5. The best wines, like the best food, are created by The Man upstairs. The best winemakers don't “make” wine, they just tend it on its way. The conducting analogy works as long as you understand that He writes the score. We have enough contrived, heavily-marketed tosh knocking around already, no.

  6. Hmmm Your personal definition of “best” I think, and not one that agrees with Michelin – or most recipe books.

    I'm not saying you're wrong. I love plainly roast (good) chicken, grilled steak and fish. But I also like to put a few herbs with what I'm cooking and a bit of wine in the sauce. And that's not conducting. In wine terms it's illegal adulteration.

  7. South African Elemental Bob's “The Turkish” wine – 75% Barbera, 25% Gewurtz – certainly challenged the norm. It was weird having a red wine smelling of Gewurtz but I couldn't help liking it, even though the traditionalist in me screamed NO!However, innovation is more than just putting unusual varieties together. Craig Hawkins (Lammershoek) ferments chenin on the skins and is experimenting with fermenting under water. There are quite a few young guns in SA pushing the boundaries…

  8. I'm really enjoying the introductions I'm getting to innovative wines and makers. And the debate I seem to have sparked. Most of us manage to subdue the “traditionalists in us”, at least sometimes, when it comes to other aspects of our lives. Why not wine?

  9. A dollop of Grenache in the Pinot, Chardonnay in the Viognier, Viognier in the Chardonnay? This stuff happens every day. Robert, I would gently suggest there is a whole world of wild improvisation going on behind closed cellar doors that never makes it onto the back label simply because it's not a marketable story. Doesn't mean it's not happening…

  10. Someone said that the UK wine focus is still on equivalent of dried pasta and jars of ragu sauce yet the same consumers have moved onto fresh, making their own pestos and some even buying “oo” flour

  11. I lived in Burgundy, Bouzy, in a village next to one called Bouze, as it happens, so I'm very aware of “behind closed doors” blending. But the fact that it has to happen secretly illustrates my point. If chefs and mixologists – and brewers – can vaunt their innovative skills, why shouldn't winemakers. What's so bloody precious about grapes?

    Who's to say it's not marketable? The people who said you couldn't sell sweet red wine (with sweet red wine on the label) or wines with names like Cupcake.

    Of course these strange things are only happening in the US. They'll never happen here…

    Oh, hold on, what was that I read about UK sales of chocolate-flavoured wine?

  12. A rather weak comparison I would say. First of all, I think the level of interest is why Chefs are so much more famous than winemakers. In the same way that David Beckham is more famous around the world Than Stuart Broad. More people relate to it and actually, yes people will buy these books with the intention of making the dishes, even if they never do. How could a winemaker compete with that and why would they want to?

    This also comes from the standpoint that much of the invention and creation comes in the winery. Surely we all know that while a winemaker will often take the glory, most of the work is done in the vineyard and this holds plenty of potential for creative thinking. Unfortunately most wine drinkers aren’t interested in trellis systems, irrigation system, cover crops etc. They usually just want to know whether it was fermented in oak or not. These aspects simple don't get the coverage.

    I would also say that truly inventive chefs are exceptions to the rule. You seem to mention as many inventive chefs as winemakers. I believe that most restaurant menus are often filled with classic dishes or 'deconstructed' classics. Isn't this similar to making a classic Bordeaux blend in a country or region not previously planted to those varieties? Taking a classic and putting your own mark on it by way of terroir, or whatever you want to call it, is part of the fun of winemaking.

    An occasional experimental wine is likely to be lurking in most wineries I would say. After all, winemakers like to try new things. The fact is that it won't usually sell very well and so will often only be available to the winemaker’s friends or perhaps be sold out of the cellar door.

    Most winemakers are not content to 'play peoples scores' but in an exceptionally competitive market where sales matter how can you hope for so much inventive winemaking. It is a business and unless the the public start to view wine with the same level of diversity as food they won't buy these wines. Winemakers also only have so many tools at their disposal. In terms of blending, it is still grapes with grapes and it doesn't take long to look at the varieties in your vineyards before you've run out of options. You can't simply put 2 varieties that aren't commonly together and claim great invention. For one thing, it often won’t work. Also, putting one variety not commonly known to go with another variety isn't new. The winemaker just often won’t tell you about it as it might not be completely legal in that region. I can assure you that many wines you've tried will have come from this school of winemaking.

  13. Jody, Thank you for your long and thoughtful note. I freely admit that I will occasionally exaggerate to make a point and catch readers' attention. And no, I don't really imagine that winemakers will ever compete with chefs in the Hall of Fame. But… and, this is my point, we are all waiting for the public to come to us (see your own note and Ewan's above). Chefs, brewers, distillers, mixologists, publishers… all meet consumers half-way.

    That's precisely what happened with Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, a drink that might never have been invented if there hadn't been a Sauvignon glut in NZ. And it's what happened with White Zin.

    Admittedly in many parts of France and Spain, you can't find a wide range of varieties, but that's sometimes for want of looking. Jonathan Malthus, for example, made a fascinating white in Bordeaux which, as I recall, included one or two grapes that rarely appear on official lists.
    And of course many blends won't work – just as many combinations of food ingredients fail.

    And, as I said to Bouzy – above – I know very well that it often happens secretly and illegally. But what I feel as I read these comments and talk to producers, is that the desire to create something new – and to talk about creating something new – is largely foreign to the industry.

    Part of the problem may lie with the gatekeepers – press and buyers – who are not receptive to novelty. As I say it's an industry-wide problem.

    But it's revealing that all of the comments I've received about interesting, innovative blends have come from the New World. And most of the ones I've seen in Europe have come from Italy. But even in the New World, as I say, too many people slavishly follow the old recipes.

    Most of the combinations of grapes we have in Europe are the result of chance. Much like the partners we all choose to live with. If our marriages break down we don't assume that the only replacement partner has to be a copy of the one we had before. The reason no one blended Marsanne and Chardonnay was that they did not happen to go to the same parties. (Unlike Aligoté and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Gamay).

    Silvio Jermann makes some of my favourite Italian wines – wines that combine innovation with marketability.

    The wine world could do with a few more people with his imagination – and courage

  14. Having a background in both fields I would put forth another word for a food “creator”, a “re-inventor”. Due to the ease of duplication from restaurant to restaurant, a chef may feel a greater need to re-invent him/ herself as the public becomes exhausted with the current food fashion.

    A winemaker can also fall in this trap, feeling that he must re-create himself in order to stand out, too excite. Choosing non-traditional varieties, new barriques, cement tanks, or open ferments…they are all reinventions that go in and out of fashion.

    I think the best chefs, are the ones that endure and continue to provoke us as they hone their craft more than re-invent themselves. I don't think of Thomas Keller as a creator, but as someone who is always trying to achieve unattainable perfection.

    Therefore I proudly count myself in the category of winemakers that are not creators, instead I strive to improve my wines every year under the constraint of tradition.

  15. Thank you Michael. I defer to your experience, but chefs have ALWAYS invented dishes and experimented with ingredients. (Think of Careme).

    Non-traditional food ingredients and winemaking techniques do indeed go out of fashion, but some survive, I don't see Cabernet being expelled from Tuscany any time soon.

    I am not calling on ALL producers to innovate; I respect people like you who happily live within the “constraint of tradition”. But I'd like you and others to acknowledge that the wine industry does not have to be stuck in aspic. As the climate changes, producers will in any case be obliged to reconsider many of the ways of the past. Why not encourage some experimentation now – by those who want to do so.

  16. From Jonathan Hesford (via Facebook).

    I don't have a google account so I'll comment here. Chefs aren't creators. They buy other people's products and refashion them. The winemakers equivalents in food are cheesemakers and bakers and beef farmers

  17. Ok Jonathan. I think we are talking semantics here. But even if I accept your rules, bakers, cheesemakers and brewers all invent new products.

    But I still contend that most of the responses I've had, including yours, illustrate my point that the wine world really doesn't want to have much to do with creativeness or innovation.

    And that, simply isn't very sexy, I'm afraid.

  18. I don't accept your premise. I think there is plenty of creativity out there if one takes the time to search for it. I think there are plenty of disastrous wines available in the various markets that perhaps are the result of a little too much “creativity”. I have no desire to follow thew current wine world's fascination with the next new shiny object. In no way to I wish to appear the Luddite – but please – we have enough crap out there already.

  19. Unknown, I respect your views, but beg to differ. Yes, there are innovative wines but, as you say, they have to be sought out – unlike creative cooking. And, for all the wines that owe a “disastrous” character to “too much creativity”, I'd set out the similarly “disastrous”, “traditional” examples of cheap Bordeaux and Rioja (to take to examples out of many).

    We have always had “new shiny objects”. Barolo was sweet; Pomerol white; Pouilly made of Chasselas. We used to have evolution. Since the arrival of AOC in France, we have had stagnation.

    Sadly, that state seems to have afflicted many in the New World, where the opportunities to continue the evolutionary process is more easily continued.

  20. Hi Robert, Blending two varieties together doesn't make for innovative wine making, any mug can do that.You have to sell the stuff so its as much as anything innovative marketing. You need to ask yourself the hard questions – what are the positive attributes to the wine, Is it better? Is it actually perceptibly different? In Australia of course we allow up to 15% of another variety / vintage etc so many wines can be declared either / or so its not clear where the innovation lies – perhaps its in part with the structure of the labelling laws that allow innovation. I wont go over the issues of AC, DOC etc. By the way Calatrasi have been marketing a Chardonnay Viognier since 2000 and had/has a range of wines that were very successful in the UK under the D'istinto brand and the hook there was blending so called new world varieties with so called old world eg. Sangiovese Merlot, Catarratto Chardonnay, Nero d'avola Shiraz etc. It was innovative marketing and worked for a good while, in the UK market as much as any brand in its rough and tumble segment can.

  21. If someone hasn't already said this, it's worth pointing out: if a chef wants to be creative this takes 30 minutes to a few hours and costs him perhaps at most £100. For a winemaker, it will take years to grow these new vines, and if he throws everything into a new wine, it could cost him his livelihood. Whilst I too would like to see more creativity, conservatism is built in to the economics of winemaking (at least for the small producer).

  22. Brian, you are actually helping to make my point for me: D'istinto, as you say was a commercial success in the US, partly BECAUSE of the way it vaunted its innovation. Hiding clever blending within the 18/15 rules – or doing it illegally in the more restrictive regimes of Europe – is like technologically improving the engine of a car and not telling anyone you've done so. Hardly a recipe for commercial success.

    And of course I'm not saying that everyone should simply blend varieties together at random: merely that we don't have to treat the traditional combinations as though they were handed down to us on tablets of stone.

  23. Nick, there are always good reasons for NOT doing anything. Change comes from people who want it to happen. You DON'T have to make commercial quantities of grapes from your own vineyards. The success of a number of Californian labels proves what can be done by people who do not own a single vine. If you are curious to know how a blend of the X that you are growing and Y which you are not would taste, why not go looking for a Y-producer and see whether you could buy enough of his grapes to make a small – micro-vinification – batch?

    There are plenty of reasons for dismissing this kind of suggestion. It's illegal; Y-producers won't want to play with me; I'm not equipped for micro-vinification. Just as there are plenty of reasons not to get fitter or lose weight (I know all of these). But, in a world where man has walked on the moon and turned phones into computers, it is NOT impossible.

    As you say, “conservatism is built in to the economics of winemaking” and, as I'll point out in one of my next posts, so is dysfunctionally uneconomic thinking. Half of Bordeaux currently leaves the producer for €1.50 a bottle – with most of it to ending up on French retail shelves at €3. Elsewhere – in Spain, for example – the picture is worse, while the Australian industry is hardly a model of economic success.

    So, conservatism might just be a luxury many in the wine industry can no longer afford

  24. Another crucial point that has been overlooked by the people who have referred to France. Over half the wine in that country is produced by cooperatives, with a far larger proportion filling this role in the south.

    Cooperatives, by definition can potentially enjoy access to a wide range of varieties and the scale that can allow them to experiment without taking the kinds of risks that would be imposed on an estate.

    A combination between innovative outsiders and a visionary cooperative (what we have with le Grand Noir and Greener Planet and Celliers Jean d'Alibert) can be an ideal solution…

  25. Could not agree with you more Robert. More effort needs to go into finding aromas, flavours and textures that the consumer will love. I have always thought that. It's natural that consumers but also wine merchants will be very valuable in the blending process, particularly for wines to be drunk in the near term. Expertise from the winemaker is needed to add a cuvee that is tighter or more acidic to get some balance an amateur in the process might not see but some sharing ideas and listening to the market would be beneficial. Most winemakers (plenty of exceptions of course) are not exposed to anything like the number of variety of wines that pass under our noses each week and do not see the innovation and flavours we see in the market. So really asking us for more help with the recipe must be a good thing for many wines and wineries.

    Our customers love the new white blends you sometimes find in south africa or italy (boekenhoutsloof experimental white, elena walch beyond the clouds, zind, zind humbrecht (alsace)). These are quite pricy examples but there have been a few others at the £10 to 12 mark too and they sell like hotcakes. The market is so ready for it but we are not seeing enough offered to us. Point taken about syrah and viognier earlier but looking at rose the most gorgeous we have ever ever had was a blend of about 75 syrah and 25 viognier and aged for a few months in 2nd fill viognier barrels. I showed it blind to M Jukes, J Parkinson, Tom Carson and Jim Eustace who all thought it was £30 worth, when in fact it was £12. There is a great opportunity here for winemakers to make something greater than the some of the parts and deliver more wines to excite that may also punch well above their weight.

    More please!

    Another relevant issue is that as able a wine team is many cannot identify what we would consider to be their best wine or best value wine. It is not their fault. But it shows that we are coming at this whole game from different perspectives and it won't take many to change to be very successful to get ahead of the market.

    I was at the excellent Bulgarian winery Miroglio who had chosen not to show me one of their Pinot Noirs as they thought it not good enough. I had flown out to see them so I was not going to leave a stone unturned.
    The wine in question turned out to be the best value in the cellar and we have just been told it has won a special award in the UK (not yet unveiled), for such a humbly priced wine and origin. Even a winemaker of Larry McKenna's (whose wines I have loved) experience with Pinot failed to spot the potential of this wine. Palates and minds need broadening.

    I do understand that sometimes winemakers need a commission to have the confidence to make a blend and we cannot lay all the resposibilty at their door. What about our wealth of experienced UK buyers who do have the budget to ask for and develop wines with different fabulous flavours? What are they doing with all that buying power?

    And yes AOC and DOC is desperately stifling development. But producers need to know our customers do not give two hoots about the name of appellation. They want delicious fun high quality interesting not necessarily expensive to make wine.

    Shed those shackles. Cut loose and live. Let your taste lead you not what you know.

    I expect Steve Daniels was a good example of the kind of buyer some supermarkets could do with a bit more of. Admin and margin rigours must be met but are they really proud of what they are achieving enough of the time?

  26. Thank you Robin. I was beginning to feel quite lonely, reading many of the other responses! It is no coincidence I think, that you approach this issue as an importer/retailer rather than as a producer.

    I KNOW that there are plenty of consumers out there who'd LOVE to see more innovative wines. Earlier this year, the New Zealanders ran a trade and a consumer tasting on the same day in London. The professionals refused in many cases even to taste a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc; the amateurs relished it!

  27. Working for a merchant as I do, I'm with Robin's point of view too. As a merchant we go across the country hosting tastings to show the weird, the wonderful, the new, the innovative as well as the classics. It's no surprise to me that post-tastings sales have been highest with the innovative, new and different wines. We are doing out bit to assist people in understanding what innovation and creativity is all about.

    D'istinto was innovative marketing, but the wine wasn't that good. There is much more that we as merchants, and as buyers, are doing to ensure that the best and most creative winemakers get the coverage and kudos they deserve. And to ensure our customers know that what we ate offering is different, so that they can seek out more of the same.

    It will make for good discussion when we meet in June, Robert 🙂

  28. Fascinating how my simply suggesting that (some more) winemakers might try a little experimentation has been so like kicking a wasp's nest.

    To judge by some responses (including Vincent's), I might as well have been advocating a return to child labour or the free distribution of crack cocaine.

    I guess it just proves my point…

  29. Robert, your point of view is challenging the old stories that we are used to in the world of wine: wine as a natural product (it isn't, it is an industrial product, creation of man) and wine as an way to express terroir. These stories have a historical meaning in winetrade and led te AOP-protectionisme. They are blocking progress and suppressing winemakers who want to be innovative. Deconstruction of old stories is necessary to free the creative mind. I think you are doing that. Enlighting! I am trying to do the same in my Belgian Wine tales. Thanks a lot for the inspiration.

  30. Robert, my response was a quick – nay lazy – one to a complex question.

    I like the comment this has provoked, and it does seem your intention is to do that. In fact I am of the opinion that you like robust discussion and would likely disagree with yourself for the sake of it 🙂

    We've largely skirted around France's great appelation rules on this matter which still act as the benchmark styles for winemakers and interested consumers to emulate. You allude to this with the “diners in London, New York and Sydney would struggle to find alternatives to coq au vin, osso bucco and sherry trifle” comment.

    You also mention Grange, yes it was first created in 1953 – in secret – and has only really been lauded in the last 20-30 years.

    I think the Australian wine industry (where I am based) at the boutique/ owner-operator level is fantastically innovative. Envelopes are truly being pushed, boundaries traversed etc etc

    These may only represent <1% of wine produced, as would Ferrer's dishses represent <1% of output in restaurants.

    Winemakers as well known as those lauded chefs you recall? Perhaps not – doesn't mean they are any less innovative. You just have to open your eyes and seek them out.

  31. Stu – yes, you're right, I do like to provoke discussion and debate. I never make statements in which I don't believe (at least at the time), but I'm looking for others to either change my mind or push me into arguing – stress-testing – my case.

    To your points. France has historically had hugely restrictive rules, but so did Italy. Pioneers like Antinori obliged the authorities to change the legislation. France now has a liberal designation called Vins de France but revealingly it was created to enable UK and other markets to source cheap, multi-regional blends rather than as a means for French winemakers to create their own 'super Tuscans'.

    And yes, envelopes ARE being pushed in Oz, but there is still – in my view – far too much reverence being paid to Europe. And much more than when I and others first fell in love with Australian wine. What we adored was Chardonnays, Shirazes and Cab-Shirazes (and sparkling 'Burgundies' and liqueur Muscats) that were like nothing else we'd ever encountered.

    That's not true of the Chablis-like new wave Chardonnays, Rhone-like Shirazes and pure Vermentinos and Tempranillos I now see filling Aussie bottle-shops. Some of these are delicious. Some (far fewer) are good value when compared to the European originals – especially at current exchange rates.

    But, as I say, I see more Tempranillo-Syrahs and Sangiovese-Syrahs in Spain and Italy than in Oz. And the shift has been from Cab-Shiraz (one of the great marriage by the way) to Bordeaux-like Cab-Merlot (if not examples that follow the Medoc recipe to the letter).

    The trouble, I concede, is that the reactionary behaviour seems to be encouraged by critics and sommeliers, so maybe the experiments tend to be kept under the counter.

  32. Olivier's piece requires fluent understanding both of the French language and of a certain kind of Gallic philosophy.

    Cher Olivier,I read your long blog post with interest. What it most loudly illustrates is the distance that separates the way of thinking in France and the UK. More importantly, it also illustrates the desire in France to see itself as both exceptional and emblematic of an entire continent.

    I am writing this in Sicily, another island where a passion for tradition coexists with huge levels of innovation. But these are both also to be found in mainland Italy, a country with some claims to be 'European'.

    Many of the most highly regarded wines in Italy were created – and are still being created – outside the DOC/DOCG system. (But how much notice has anyone in France ever taken of Italian vineyards, other than as a source of cheap wine to serve in pizzerias or for French negociants to use in Euroblends?)

    I note that you have chosen to ignore the point that I made about the way that – through innovation and by stepping outside the AOC system, – my partners and I have helped to add over a million euros a year to the income of a French cooperative.

    Our success does not fit very neatly into your philosophy so you treat it as irrelevant.Why concern oneself with commercial success – real money, from real consumers rather than subsidies from French and European taxpayers?

    Your response reminds me of the comment of a Frenchman to an Anglo Saxon who had rescued a French company through unconventional means: “I understand how what you did worked in practice, but how does it work in theory?”

    AOC – like the Euro (which I'd love to see succeed by the way) – is all about theory. About how things should work and people should behave.

    Sadly, I live in the real world, a place where President Hollande is about to have a very interesting time finding money with which to keep all the promises he has just made. I wish him – and you – well.

  33. Olivier's piece requires fluent understanding both of the French language but it is worth reading to get an insight into a certain kind of Gallic philosophy. I'd advise against attempting a google translation

    Cher Olivier,I read your long blog post with interest.What it most loudly illustrates is the distance that separates the way of thinking in France and the UK. More importantly, it also illustrates the desire in France to see itself as both exceptional and emblematic of an entire continent.

    I am writing this in Sicily, another island where a passion for tradition coexists with huge levels of innovation. But there are both also to be found in mainland Italy, a country with some claims to be 'European'. Many of the most highly regarded wines in Italy were created – and are still being created – outside the DOC/DOCG system. (But how much notice has anyone in France ever taken of Italian vineyards, other than as a source of cheap wine to serve in pizzerias or for French negociants to use in Euroblends?)

    I note that you have chosen to ignore the point that I made about the way that – through innovation and by stepping outside the AOC system, – my partners and I have helped to add over a million euros a year to the income of a French cooperative system.

    Our success does not fit very neatly into your philosophy so you treat it as irrelevant.Why concern oneself with commercial success – real money, from real consumers rather than subsidies from French and European taxpayers?

    Your response reminds me of the comment of a Frenchman to an Anglo Saxon who had rescued a French company through unconventional means: “I understand how what you did worked in practice, but how does it work in theory?”

    AOC – like the Euro (which I'd love to see succeed by the way) – is all about theory. About how things should work and people should behave.

    Sadly, I live in the real world, a place where President Hollande is about to have a very interesting time finding money with which to keep all the promises he has just made. I wish him – and you – well.

  34. Thanks you for answering Robert ! I have tried to use a good writing so I hope it didn't make you any misunderstanding. Your answer might indicate you perfectly understood what I tried to explain. So first of all, thank you for making that debate even better. Sorry for not arguing your success in Minervois, I did later in “comments” with my friend David : my philosophy (this point is very important, I would have prefer “ideology”) cannot consider your point as a way for developing the wine industry. Why ? Not because you are in the real world and we are dreamers (even if John Lennon is highly famous in France !) even if I might think you opinion will probably dominate in the very next years (yet how do you explain AVA and regional heroes trends respectively in the US and Oz ?) Simply because our education is different : in the UK you are highly responsible of your business because you become highly responsible and independent when young. In France our sales representative is the country itself because everything makes us very attached to family even when adult (a symbolic representation of the country by the way) So we have to think through a collective way even if we have to refuse the true behavior of Human Nature. I insist it is not a dream, it is ideology ! But because this ideology is nationwide it is powerful and influential. individual vs collective… I will never know who is wrong or right maybe a first answer would be in the liberalization of plantings rights. Surprisingly I would be happy to see wine regions (i.e. collective) become responsible (individual) of their future. Sincerely. Olivier

  35. Olivier, thank you for taking the time to write in English – which is perfectly comprehensible by the way. I would respond in French, but I think it is more useful to continue this thread in the same language, and you evidently understand it well.

    You outline the difference between our cultures very clearly. Having taught in France, I could also point out another difference in our education systems: in France, one is 'instructed' to absorb officially sanctioned facts and opinions, and to prove through examinations that one has learned them correctly. In most of the Anglo-Saxon system, we are taught to question (see my subsequent post on Asking Why) what the teachers have said. So a French child who gives a well-argued but unconventional response to an essay question is likely to fail while his English counterpart might receive an A+ for the understanding displayed in their well-argued submission. (I write this, by the way, Olivier, while believing that in many [other] ways the French system is far better than the English one.)

    (It strikes me as curious, by the way, that a country that includes philosophy in its curriculum tends to prefer ideology to logical argument)

    You say “we have to think through a collective way even if we have to refuse the true behavior of Human Nature. I insist it is not a dream, it is ideology!” This is scarily reminiscent of communism (which I seem to recall was also described as an ideology).

    Simply stated, collective ways have not been productive for the modern wine industry (using a word you will not like). If you take the appellation of Margaux as an example, the producers of one of the most gifted parts of Bordeaux regularly vote to allow themselves excessive yields. And just as regularly produce wine of inferior quality to their neighbours in St Julien.

    As a pragmatic Anglo-Saxon what appeals to me above all is wine that gives enjoyment to the people who consume it and a healthy living to the people who produce it.

    Everything else (providing it does not cause damage in any way) is secondary.

    In other parts of France and in other parts of Europe, appellations very often owe their success and fame to the non-collective efforts of individuals. (Guigal, Chave, Duboeuf, Gaja, Palacios.

    Where there are no stars, (Chenas, Cabardes, Blaye…) producers often struggle to sell their wines, or sell them for good prices.

    I have friends who fought for many years to make a living in Listrac before happily selling their chateau.

    Which is the better option in 2012 to struggle in Listrac or to make a successful wine like Mas de Daumas Gassac in Aniane.

  36. Yes you are right, we are close to something like communism… Believe me I am far more liberal than my writings are ! Régis Debray used to produce good things but not everything is applicable by far.

    I totally agree with Margaux example : the point is responsibility. You have got a collective heritage take care of it. You increase your yields or you decide to implement bad wines within the appellation it is your responsibility that's all. I am sure you agree that it is quite difficult to accept that such a region can still produce so average wines…

    Regarding your relationship between wine and consumers I cannot believe, you, Robert, you still believe in that ! How many not-so-good wines are successful ? Too many ! Because it doesn't depend on quality – unfortunately. And I don't think that free-region wines will solve that complex question.

    Yes, it is important to have a successful producer especially within a region : in that case a lot of producers will take example and increase quality or simply follow him (here is the limit of the “regional” system) but you would recognize that 450 AOC is obviously a bit too much… here is one of the reason why the system is less efficient. At least for some because the last results of the French wine industry have not been better for many years.
    I could keep arguing for all along the night ! I am quite stubborn ! I would love to meet you up (maybe London wine fair) so that we could develop something very constructive around that complex subject … Cheers Robert.

  37. Olivier, we obviously agree to disagree. You prefer the “close to something like communism” option, while acknowledging the fact that individuals fail to live up to its ideals. I prefer the capitalist system, despite the power it accords to big companies and easily-pleased consumers.

    Under communism, the Russian populace were probably better educated in classical Russian literature and almost certainly less plagued by obesity. They were also, effectively, slaves.

    You say that consumer choice has allowed many bad non AOC wines to exist. Of course it has, just as it has allowed the existence of 11 McDonalds in Reins. But the AOC system has allowed for countless poor quality bottles of Bordeaux Inferieur. The difference is that the non-AOC wines and McDonalds give pleasure.

    The free market in the US has allowed millions of people to eat bad food and grow hideously fat. It also allows many Americans to experiment with new and old foods and drinks (some of the world's greatest food historians are Americans).

    In France, history, at least in the wine world, has stopped. As I said earlier, if the French culinary establishment had been run according to the modern rules of Appellation Controlee, there would be no pommes parmentier, no sauce tomate, no dindon…

    I will indeed be at the London Wine Fair and would enjoy meeting, but I suspect that we will never find a point of major agreement.

  38. Whatever, it would be seriously pretentious – and dangerous – to think one is right… So yes, I still disagree with you and it doesn't mean I don't want to share a glass with you : it is this wine world we both love isn't it !

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.