In Pursuit of Ambiguity

Why do some wine lovers insist on exactitude?
Feb 5, 2013

Recently I gave a speech at a Pinot Noir conference in Wellington, New Zealand. Without going into the various details of my talk, suffice it to say that I offered the suggestion that for producers to create really exceptional Pinot Noir—the truly great stuff—they might want to seek to make 2 + 2 = 5.

I offered one possible means to that admittedly ambiguous end, which involved the idea of Pinot Noir producers creating vineyards that contain a broad mix of clones, or strains, of Pinot Noir, preferably 20 such strains or more.

Moreover, I suggested that this variety of clones be intermixed, as in a field of wildflowers, rather than “rationally” planted in separate blocks, each picked at “optimum ripeness.” (I submitted that the most terrifying phrase in wine today, especially in America, which seems to supersize everything, is “optimum ripeness.” Somehow it always seems to lead to what I, anyway, would consider overripeness.)

The idea here is that too many of today’s New World Pinot Noirs are composed of too few clones (many of them the flavor-potent, narrowband Dijon clones with designations such as 113, 114, 115, 777 and so forth), all grown separately and then carefully, even painstakingly, picked at “optimum ripeness.”

It would be better, I averred, to see a great vineyard—especially with Pinot Noir, a creature of shadings and nuances—more as an orchestra. You need piccolos (slightly underripe grapes) as well as double basses and bassoons (slightly overripe grapes). Too many New World Pinots, for the reasons cited above, seem to be just a collection of cellos.

Anyway, I tossed out this idea as a practical suggestion of how to “let go.” We have become so reliant on rational control that we do not allow ourselves to take the necessary risks required for 2 + 2 to equal 5.

As you might imagine, this caused a bit of a stir. You might be surprised to learn that, as best as I could tell, the Kiwi Pinot producers themselves were not much ruffled by the notion. They are on a devout search for quality and are apparently willing to consider even seemingly improbable notions if it can get their wines to another level.

Other listeners—consumers, wine-writing colleagues—seemed more threatened. One fellow felt that not only was this just so much nonsense, but that obviously I didn’t taste much wine and that I should be getting out in the world to taste more. Considering how much I travel, that seemed a bit off the mark.

What really seemed to irk people about this seemingly mystical goal of trying to get 2 + 2 to equal 5 is that it was irrational. This, in turn, surprised me. Since when was fine wine rational?

Increasingly, we live in an era where everything must somehow have a metric. If something can’t be measured—and thus verified—it’s not “real.” This, of course, is the premise of science, and powerful it is. And useful, too. But such an approach hardly captures all that can be imagined or achieved.

Is New Zealand creating fine Pinot Noirs? It sure is. So too are other New World locales, such as California, Oregon, Australia’s Mornington Peninsula and yet other places. In a remarkably short time, roughly 20 years, give or take a decade, all of these places have managed to consistently get 2 + 2 to equal 4. They have now annually made Pinot Noirs with the requisite finesse, balance and true varietal flavors. That’s no small achievement, especially considering how often, in the early years of each locale, 2 + 2 too often equaled only 3.

But now what? If you can regularly deliver reliable goods, is that enough? Hardly. Would we all (or many of us, anyway) adulate Burgundy if its best wines “only” totted up the admirable 2 + 2 = 4 equation?

Burgundy’s greatest red wines, always 100 percent Pinot Noir, somehow offer another dimension. Somehow, in some way, that seemingly mystical missing “1” that makes 2 + 2 equal 5 is always present. What is its source?

Of course, winegrowers everywhere, as well as impassioned Pinot Noir drinkers, have looked assiduously. Is it clonal selection? Oak barrels? Fermentation techniques? The use of stems or the absence of them? Is it a certain sort of soil? Old vines? The list of possibilities is dazzlingly long and surely contains some answers.

But the real answer, it seems to me, lies in an ability to both accept and embrace what cannot be measured and conventionally verified. It requires a leap of faith into the unprovable-yet-possible.

The great Danish physicist Neils Bohr put his finger on it when he commented to a colleague, “Your theory is crazy, but it's not crazy enough to be true.”

So it is with fine wine and, above all, with great wine, never mind the grape variety. To make what I call “2 + 2 = 5” wines, you’ve got to go beyond the reassuringly rational. The world’s greatest wines tell us of another dimension in our midst. How do we reach it? That, in my opinion, is the single most important fine-wine question of our time.

France Burgundy New Zealand Red Wines Pinot Noir Opinion

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