Wine's Greatest Tradition? Innovation

Winemakers like to say that they do things just like the previous generation. Nonsense
Dec 10, 2013

In 2008, I had the chance to walk through the cellars of François Raveneau, one of Chablis' greatest producers, to taste the wines and ask Bernard Raveneau how he and his brother Jean-Marie crafted such mind-blowing expressions of Chardonnay. It was one of the most frustrating hours of my life. The wines said a lot. But coaxing lengthy answers from the reserved Bernard was about as likely as getting the small French oak barrels to talk to me. What was the secret of Raveneau's success? "We are just doing what our father did," said Bernard, the first of several times he spoke those words during the day we spent together.

Numerous winemakers have told me the same tale: I am just doing what the previous generation did. Tradition informs every move I make.

Wine carries more tradition than most things we drink. The grapes are often grown by farmers caring for land that has been in the family for generations. In a world where nothing seems constant, where we're actually testing cars that drive themselves, wine, like old vines, has deep roots. That's comforting.

This was on my mind as I sat down for a holiday stuffed with the comfort of tradition. Thanksgiving is an annual blend of rituals, traditions and family, much like artisanal winemaking. Whether your clan likes to eat at midday or evening, whether you believe in praying before breaking bread or making sure the football game is in your line of vision while you eat, a major part of Thanksgiving is wrapping yourself in a warm blanket of traditions. 

Those rituals can be sacrosanct—family feuds have been sparked by failure to top the sweet potatoes with marshmallows. When my family travels to my dad's house in the Connecticut woods, I know my stepmom will put out her cartoonish pilgrim salt and pepper shakers. If we stay in New Orleans, I know my father-in-law will serve Beaujolais Nouveau. For several years, I hinted that he might pay a better tribute to Beaujolais if he highlighted some of its great crus like Morgon and Moulin à Vent. But for him, it's not Thanksgiving without half a case of the first wine of the latest harvest. The tradition is what matters.

Yet, recently he started putting out some Burgundy after the first bottle of Nouveau was empty. As much as we like to think our traditions are unchanging, they evolve, just like us.

Wine's traditions go much deeper than my wife's devotion to her mom's cranberry Jell-O mold, and yet, they evolve too. For the right price, you can pop open a bottle of Château Haut-Brion, just like Charles II in 17th-century England. Except the main grapes in his bottle were Cabernet Franc and Carmenère. Cabernet Sauvignon arose a century later, while Merlot arrived in the 19th century. Champagne has a long history, but Dom Pérignon was trying to make still wine. It would take centuries for the Champenois to accept and then master bubbles.

If you look hard at any region, you will see that no wine is frozen in time. Barolo? Locals made sweet reds until someone decided to import French techniques in the late 1800s. Montalcino? The home of Brunello was best known for sweet white wine until the 1960s. In Burgundy, Cistercian monks were studying the local terroir nine centuries ago. But their Pinot Noir was so light it was practically a rosé—they didn't know how to shield it from oxygen, so they fermented it rapidly and got it into barrel before it could soak up much color or tannins.

Wine Spectator's 2013 Wine of the Year, Cune's Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004, is a perfect illustration that wine is ever-evolving. Rioja is viewed as a traditional place. But most of what we think of as traditions were foreign to the area before some locals began adopting techniques from Bordeaux in the late 1800s. Even the traditional R. Lopez de Heredia was a trendsetter 120 years ago.

Cune, one of those pioneering houses, was founded in 1879 and is still somewhat classic. But it no longer ages its Imperial in all American oak barrels and no longer ages it for a decade or longer. Three years in French oak seems perfect to the current generation.

Even Bernard and Jean-Marie Raveneau are innovators. And so was their father. His dad abandoned wine, selling his land as Chablis struggled. But young François Raveneau saw potential and bought prime vineyards. His son Bernard initially wanted nothing to do with wine, but missed it and ended up working for a local co-op for a time. He says that gave him a different perspective and new ideas. And while he and Jean-Marie still harvest all their grapes by hand, and still do a lot of "traditional" things, they also ferment their wines in stainless steel tanks. You can respect the techniques of the past without being imprisoned by them. 

The only true tradition in wine is innovation. How boring wine—and life—would be otherwise.

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