Bernard Schoffit was the first winemaker I chaperoned around London. Bernard turned out to be an an exemplary Alsacean: he looked like an athletic lover and, if needed, could wrestle a bear to the ground. He was a judo black belt, a force of nature, with an appetite to match; one night in Colmar, he ordered so much Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris and choucroute I woke up with moobs, and for a short while afterwards became completely intolerant of any kind of meat, fruit or vegetables.
Two months later, Bernard came to London. We spent the day enthusiastically introducing his Domaine to journalists and restaurateurs, but every time I got a whiff of his Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris I came over all queasy, the potency of involuntary memory pinging me back to Colmar’s bloating pigfest. Bernard was sickening too. For ten hours he manfully struggled with our language whilst stubbornly refusing our hospitality and food. The aura of constant hunger and lust that surrounded him in the Vosges had become tarnished by his day in the City. Like Elliot when he found ET floundering in the drain, I felt an overwhelming need to get my fading guest “home”.
That evening, as an aperitif, I had lined-up a range of Australian wines for Bernard to taste. With its umlauts and spired-bottles, Alsace is a winemaking backwater, so I thought I’d give Bernard his first opportunity to try Clare Shiraz, Margaret River Cabernet and Hunter Semillon. We would then go for a curry, another novelty, as Colmar didn’t even have a kebab house, and lamb jalfrezi sounded mercifully pork and cabbage-free to me.
We drank some good wines: an old Magill Shiraz, Cullen Cabernet/Merlot, Tyrell’s Hunter “Riesling” and Grange. I waited for the epiphany, the shot of fruity L-DOPA that would free Bernard from all the volkgeist and chauvinisme that until that moment had “France” fulfilling every one of his vinous needs. But our tasting passed without acclaim or enthusiasm: “Fruit juice, not wine”, was his withering appraisal. The ten year-old Grange got the highest accolade of the night: “Pas mal”. The curry didn’t fare any better. Perhaps Bernard was put-off by the novelty colours and the refracting film of cohesive-ghee that made tiny atolls out of his coral-dyed chicken; or maybe he thought that the dented stainless-steel dishes had once trafficked excised organs to the hospital furnaces. Either way, Bernard hardly touched his food. It was as if he was trying to protect his own rarefied sense of gewürz (spicy) from the thuggish assault of masala-sauce and the garnet meat of the kheema naan. The hot white towel could not have come soon enough: a steaming flag of surrender, hastily unfurled.
During the 1980s, the emergence of California, Australia and Chile as wine producing nations had flung open the doors of wine consumption, and I’d charged through. For me, France no longer owned “wine” in the same way it had done for previous generations. For all Bernard’s dawn’til dusk encounters with vines, I felt that I was more open-minded and better informed than him. Alsace is, after all, geographically isolated from the rest of France. At the same time, Robert Parker seemed to be having similar sorts of arguments over his 100 point scoring system, which offered a degree of equivalence between regions and continents.
This unequivocal attitude got me through the Master of Wine examination. Identifying 36 unknown wines requires that you ditch the aesthetic for the ascetic. You can’t spend precious exam time atomically splitting Meursault and Puligny, and they don’t hand-out marks for genuflection no matter how good the Monte Bello tasted. I wanted “bankers”, easily recognisable wines: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Crozes-Hermitage and, if it came to it, Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris, as long as I got that wave of identifying nausea when I nosed the liquid. The only wine that fazed me in the exam was Cos d’Estournel 1990, which caused an inappropriate rush of excitement, the stirring of something deeply repressed, like those bewildering endocrinal pangs that must come to wild animals that are born in zoos. Five vintages of Cos correctly identified. The red wine paper was a triumph. Something in the genes my mum said; our pre-historic ancestors must have smelt terrible to each other, I thought.
There is an inevitable period of re-tox after the exam. I went to work in Champagne, off to the blurry world of blends and brands. It seemed an opt-out from all those choices the exam presented me with, but like a fervent Buddhist I found something enlightening in this singularity.
Blends are the nemesis of blind tasting. It’s hard enough remembering all those grape varieties, let alone their possible combinations, and in Champagne the mix of grape varieties, villages and years is endless. I was well practised in deciding between continents, so when I was given 10 Montagne de Reims vin clair to taste, my palate went numb. They were all Pinot Noir, and all from Champagne, two facts that together negated any contribution I could bring to the on-going blending discussion. In pursuit of the MW, I had visited New Zealand, Chile and Australia. I had offered unsolicited advice to Chilean winemakers, warning them of the dangers of reduction; and told one of New Zealand’s top Pinot Noir producers to replant his vineyards. Before I took the exam these put upon souls must have been sticking pins into “John” effigies, but the voodoo either didn’t work or veered into the examinee next to me whose glasses all smashed to the ground, spilling the Cos. By contrast, our cellar master rarely left Champagne. Verzenay, Oger and Bouzy marked the limits of his world. His authority was necessarily circumspect. We were both in the business of authenticating identity, except he was working with finger prints where I was making do with the Bumper Book of Flags.
When you bake bread you don’t want to overdo the eggs and butter, or else your baps might turn into scones. Similarly, the tirage is not a post-harvest potlatch into which you empty everything that’s in the cupboards. Like electro-magnetism, certain elements attract each other, whilst others repel. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this blending process is the fact that it’s a preamble to a second fermentation. In Bordeaux, blends between Merlot and Cabernet are pretty much stabilised before they go into bottle, whilst young Champagne is charged with yeast and sugar, primed for its next round of tumultuous reactions, and then crown-capped.
The prise de mousse brings amplification in character and style. Full-bodied wines will end-up lumbering, and blends that are tired at the outset will taste oxidised. Your starting point necessarily dictates the character of the finished wine. Get it right, and you boost the intensity and flavour of the wine, but not necessarily its vinosity.
Studying these neglected facts of Champagne’s production closely, I came to realise that the region has a strong qualitative connection with the rest of France. In particular, there exist a range of minerally-salty flavours that not only dominate Champagne, but also underscore the wines of the Loire, Burgundy and the Haut Medoc. (Think of the difference between Badoit and tap water.) At times this seasoning can seem overdone, its bitter element can reinforce unripe phenolic characters, particularly when acids are high, but in the Grands Crus of Burgundy and the Crus Classes of Bordeaux this mineral element not only adds flavour, but it enhances and fortifies the other tastes of the wine too.
Two things came out of this appreciation: firstly, that the Echelle system pretty much measures the intensity of this mineral element, and relates it back to chalk; and secondly, that throughout my MW tastings this particular property, shared by some of France’s finest wines, had eluded me. It needed a long and myopic encounter between me and Champagne to reveal itself.
These thoughts take me back to Bernard, and the lack of appreciation he showed for the trousseau of Australian wines we tasted before the disastrous curry. Bernard was prejudiced precisely because his experience of global wine production was so limited. He judged the wines by what they lacked, whilst I was busily enthusing about what they had. One of the real challenges of the MW exam is to shed yourself of preconceptions. I often thought that the lack of regular exposure to Crus Classes and Grands Crus might disadvantage me in the exam, but it probably meant I was usefully impartial to what was in my glass, which is the prerequisite for success in blind tasting.
Thirteen years on from passing the MW, the once wide-open doors of the New World are now almost completely closed to me. Only Ridge slips through with any regularity. Like Bernard, I am hopelessly neurotic in my wine preferences, and France pretty much has the run of our house: Chablis and Champagne in the summer, and Chambolle from autumn to spring. Once you start drinking wines from above 47 degrees north, you stop flying south for the winter. It is difficult to imagine a wine exam that could be harder than the MW, the gradients at times seem impossibly steep, but like climbing any ladder, the real revelations come when you finally get to kick the rungs away.