More and more of these experiments are taking placeby Barry Smith / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Most winemakers are obsessives. They know their vines intimately, what they are aiming for and whether it has been achieved or not. The very best makers remain fascinated by the subtle variables that render one year’s wines outstanding while those from an adjacent year are merely very good. Such obsession with detail determines the choice of their winemaking philosophy, whether biodynamic or lutte raisonnée (the use of synthetic fertilisers only where absolutely necessary). When sharing a glass with a group of Burgundy producers, it is never long before the conversation reverts to the position of the vines on the slope and their orientation to the sun. It is this meticulous attention to detail that leads to the production of fabulous wines that bring us so much pleasure.
But after years of carefully growing and tending to the vines, the winemaker’s mind can start to wander, leading some of them to try their hand at making wines in other countries and regions or with other grapes. Perhaps they hanker after their early days of experiment, or believe that their insights into winemaking can be transferred from one place to another. But as any winemaker will tell you, nature is always full of surprises.
Such experiments can be frowned upon by fellow winemakers or by the authorities who regulate what is allowed in a given appellation. This may be why Alphonse Mellot, a celebrated producer of Sancerre in the Loire valley, calls his very beautifully balanced and Burgundy-style Chardonnay “Le Pénitent.” It does not comply with the regulations of the appellation d’origine contrôlée, which insists that white wines should be made with Sauvignon Blanc (or elsewhere in the Loire, Chenin Blanc), and so it has to make its way to market without the usual imprimatur. But it is none the worse for that. Those in the know will recognise and celebrate the success of this experiment and the suitability of Chardonnay to these flinty soils.