The Force Is With Us
By Matt Kramer, columnist
I can't say as I was surprised when a letter came my way from Comte Georges de Vogüé. After all, in the May 31 issue ("What Would You Think If ... ?") I recounted tasting, blind, nine vintages of Vogüé's renowned Musigny and finding them wanting.
Believe me, for that you don't get thank-you letters. But what I did get, from sales director Jean-Luc Pépin (whom I do not know), was a thoughtful, reasoned and subtly impassioned letter [link will open new browser window]. It was a restrained cri de coeur that had less to do with my unflattering judgment of their wines--although that was certainly taken to task--and more to do with their struggle against what might be called "inappropriate judgments" made on today's great wines.
"Your assertion that a grand cru should be 'thrilling from the get-go' is false," says Pépin. "The magic of a grand cru such as Musigny, one true to its terroir, is found in its 'crescendo' of scents and flavors that, when it has reached its peak, has a fundamental balance that is at once filled with a sublime finesse, power, complexity."
He further notes that my assertion that rigor was absent at the domaine--as evidenced by the wines themselves--is an unfair accusation. He pointed to Vogüé's low yields, severe pruning and segregation of vines less than 20 years old from the Musigny bottling as evidence.
I don't doubt for an instant the veracity of this defense. And I believe absolutely in their sincerity of purpose. There's only one problem: It doesn't reveal itself in the wine.
This is not a minor detail. Wine drinkers don't live in an aesthetic vacuum, and neither do producers. Wines are made for a loving audience. And if their tastes shift, then attention must be paid.
This, in my opinion, is the challenge confronting longtime producers of wines once acclaimed as benchmarks. They struggle--sincerely, expensively and mightily--to adhere to the vision that once put them at the pinnacle of praise and prestige. Yet, somehow, the ground seems to be slipping out from under them.
Standards change. What once seemed sufficient, indeed exceptional, no longer impresses. I'll give you an example. For decades, Domaine Henri Gouges in Nuits-St.-Georges was regarded as the supreme producer in that commune. Yet through the 1970s and most of the '80s, quality declined.
The domaine insisted that its wines were still great. Various writers gave Gouges the benefit of the doubt. After all, it was renowned. Yet they simply weren't all they should have been. There was rigor, but it lost aesthetic focus.
Today, the Gouges wines are--dare I say it?--thrilling. The 1996 vintage, for example, saw wines as fine as ever in their history. Are they different from the anorexic bottlings of the '70s and '80s? You bet they are. Are they denser in flavor yet no less true to their terroirs for that? No doubt about it.
Bordeaux saw the same evolution. Indeed, the best properties embraced the changes. (Megaconsultant Emile Peynaud had much to do with this, by the way.) The top Bordeaux châteaus recognized that their wines, however fine in detail, simply lacked richness, roundness and suppleness. They were good in their time, but times and tastes change.
We're seeing the same evolution--grudging or enthusiastic--in Italian wines such Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo. The old-line producers say that no one understands them. Actually, we do understand. But an increasing number of us want wines that speak to us--not our grandparents.
It's true for California, too. Today's Zinfandels are a new breed compared to the wines of the '70s. Ditto for Cabernet.
Is everything that's new automatically better? Of course not. But not everything that once was great is worthy of knee-jerk reverence. Great wines thrill. And today's great wines thrill--forgive me for saying this--from the get-go. This doesn't mean, by the way, that they have to be drinkable right away. (No one who tastes Gouges' stunning '96 Nuits-St.-Georges Les Vaucrains would ever suggest such a thing.)
The privilege of our time is that wines can have it all: a capacity to display depth while reserving the resources to mature with profound accomplishment. Why should we ask for anything less?
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from columnist Matt Kramer in a piece also appearing in the current issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)