What Is Fine Wine, Anyway?

Posted: Thursday 14th February 2019

The old cliché of posh, middle-aged men swirling and spitting is out. A fresh new crop of winemakers are leading the way with intuition, innovation and integrity, writes Aimee Hartley.

The world of fine wine — even to someone who has worked in the wine industry for ten years — has always felt like a rather closed affair. It conjures up an image of wealthy, red-trouser-wearing middle-aged men, swirling glasses of wine and debating amongst themselves which of Bordeaux’s first-growths will find a home in their cellar this year. Perhaps this feels like a limited view on the topic, and indeed the audience, but it does offer an important question — what exactly is fine wine, and how does the term translate not only to the modern wine drinker, but to winemakers themselves?

The cellar at Ormiale

In the last fifty years we’ve all played a role in how we have come to view, and engage, with the topic. Eminent British writer and critic, Michael Broadbent, set up the fine wine department of Christie’s auction house in 1966, selling wine from some of France’s most notorious domains for eye-wateringly high prices. Today, it is Tim Triptree MW (master of wine — an accolade that takes years of study, expense and blind tasting’s to acquire) who has been handed the baton as Christie’s International Wine Director. In an interview last year he offered a definition of fine wines as those that are “collectible and have the ability to evolve and improve with time — ageing in bottle and appreciating in value.”

This is all very well, but the bottles that go under the hammer at auction houses, even at their youngest (known as ‘en-primeur’), simply price out the majority of people who lack the funds, but are rich in interest when it comes to buying wine. Even Broadbent, in recent years, has commented that the price tag of wines sold at auction can be “vulgar.” In 2018, for example, Sotheby’s in New York sold a rare bottle of 1945 Romanée Conti (a much lauded domaine in Burgundy) for a staggering $558,000. Triptree’s definition of fine wine also presumes that one has a suitable space, typically a cellar, in which to age these bottles once purchased (a shelf next to the oven in your kitchen doesn’t count). This feels presumptuous and elitist in its very nature, denying (most of) us the opportunity to identify with wine in an inclusive, positive way.

The desire to collect, or invest in, wine can also reach far beyond its monetary value. Visiting a winemaker or restaurant, for example, may spur you on to take a bottle or two home to keep the memory of the experience alive. The value of such an exchange is measured not in financial terms, but by personal meaning. Considering we now live in an ‘experience economy,’ where every lifestyle brand or commodity worthy its salt speaks the language of experiences over stuff, why is it that the wine world is taking so long to catch up?

Wine critics who have honed their supremacy based on subjective point systems, frivolous flavour descriptors and personal preferences haven’t historically helped matters either. Robert Parker, an American critic who, from the 1980s to early 2010s, not only encouraged a world-wide preference for bold, alcohol-laden reds and oaky whites, but influenced the very style in which wine was made. Producers around the globe (notably Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate in California) clambered to make wines that they knew, or hoped, would secure a 90-something, or 100 point Parker score. The result? The price-tag of those bottles soared to ludicrous heights.

For Andrew Nielsen, one of Burgundy’s most promising young winegrowers making authentic, affordable wines from lesser known parcels in the region — this approach is highly unappealing. “I’ve never heard the term ‘fine wine’ come out of a winemaker’s mouth before,” says Nielsen. “No winemaker that I respect would make decisions about the wine they make based on how they want it to be traded or received. They want their wines to communicate the place they were made in, and to inspire and give enjoyment. The rest is really for the birds.”

Chris Santini in the Burgundian vines

Traditional wine regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux often feel as if they are cloaked in expensive mystery. Yet tradition also plays an important role in defining what is — and isn’t — considered a fine wine today.

“While some Burgundians might cling to an older style or definition of fine wine, many domaines here — some of which may come as a surprise, as they don’t claim any ‘natural’ status — are quietly experimenting,” says Chris Santini, an American-born winemaker based in Burgundy who crafts light, quaffable wines best enjoyed young and in the moment. “I see working more naturally as coherent with ‘tradition’ and ‘fine wine,’ which is where I think Burgundy’s strength and future lies,” he says.

There is a camp that believes natural wines do not have the ability to age, which would mean that according to Triptree’s definition, they would not be deemed fine wines. But the definition of natural wine is another raging can of worms that I’m reluctant to open here. So for the sake of argument, perhaps it’s more helpful to think about them as wines made with a gentle hand, and with respect for the vines (without being nipped and tucked and overly manipulated) and speak honestly of the place and person who made them. This is my definition of fine wine or, simply, the wine I want to drink.

Wine is a collective effort at Ormiale

This desire to drink, or seek out, ‘genuine’ wines is something that Fabrice Domercq of Ormiale, a tiny producer tucked away in Bordeaux’s Entre-Deux-Mers region who is challenging our perception of claret with his fresh, spirited wines, believes is growing. He describes a fine wine as one that is “honest and sincere, alive, bright, healthy and digestible.” As people in the UK have begun to ask more detailed questions about the origins of our food (which has led to the current boom in organics and attention to provenance), it was only natural that, at some point, these same inquiries would extend to the wine world.

Winemaker Fabrice Domercq of Ormiale

This approach to making wine more ‘digestible’, not just in a physical sense, but breaking down the topic in a way that people can relate to, is so important if wine is to remain (or become more) relevant to the modern drinker. There is a lot of overblown rhetoric, pomp and ceremony surrounding wine. This is unfortunate, especially given its ability to lend itself so well to the creation of joyful experiences; something to be shared at the table with friends that allows conversation to flow easily — rather than interrogated into oblivion over its finer or lesser qualities. Let’s not forget that taste in wine is subjective; what is one person’s pleasure might be another’s poison, after all.

The poets, painters and (non-wine) writers seem to have it right when it comes to wine. The pre-eminent American writer, MFK Fisher, might be better known for her prose on food, but her approach to wine was equally as refreshing — both when she was writing during the 1940s and today. To her, wine was a sensual experience and she mused that, “the saving grace of all wines many grace’s, probably, is that it can never be dull. It is only the people who write about it who may sound flat.” Artist Salvador Dali, in the book Wines of Gala, organised wines by their emotional resonance, “according to the sensations they create in our very depths.” To him, wine was fun and celebratory in its nature. Which is something Champagne — as both a region and a brand — has managed to achieve in spades. The cult status and popularity of Grower Champagne (the craft-led vigneron making Champagne with grapes from their own vines) also highlights a wish to move away from commercial, mass-produced wines and brand names, and instead invest in something with actual personality. Olivier Collin, of Champagne Ulysse Collin is a disciple of such a movement, making single vineyard wines that are true to their origin, and a result of intuitive yet hard work in the vines. For Collin, “a fine wine is a bottle you want to finish, with someone that you want to share it with.”

Grower, Olivier Colin Photograph by Lucy Murray Willis

Mark Andrew MW, co-founder of Noble Rot magazine and restaurant in London, has noticed the same trend. “There has been a shift in the fine wine conversation over the past decade, with small, artisanal wineries usurping the marketing-heavy brands, or high-scoring wines beloved by certain critics,” he says. He also believes that social media, alongside an increased appreciation for authentic products, has made the conversation around fine wine more fluid. The rise of casual dining, especially in London, has also seen restaurants, such as Noble Rot, Laughing Heart, Sager & Wilde and Levan, putting out interesting wine lists, that even if they do sell what could be traditionally classed as ‘fine wine’, never refer to it as such.

So, perhaps if we drop the use of the term ‘fine wine’ entirely, and instead seek out authentic, honestly made wines from craft-led producers, the future may be a little brighter. Because we would not simply be investing in the enjoyment of wine, but in human endeavour; in the winemakers who work with a wine’s natural state and not against it, and go to great lengths (not always commercially beneficial to them) to make the best wine possible. It feels good to choose wine in this way too, even if you do have to work a little harder to find them. Especially as the world around us continues to go a little mad and we long for a little honesty more than anything — not just in wine, but in all of life.

This article first appeared in the winter 2019 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.

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