“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” – Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Has the wine in your glass been getting stranger? Have you drunk wine from more diverse places and unknown grapes this year than ever before? And, crucially, are you enjoying wine all the more because of that?
In the space of ten years the segment of UK wine drinkers who want to discover great wines has never had it so good. And the trend shows no signs of abating. What’s going on?
In large part we have to point the finger at the hubris of Bordeaux. For centuries it’s been the centre of the world for ‘important wine’, the cornerstone of a collection and the paradigm by which all wines were judged. In the space of ten years it has moved from being an area key to wine lovers to a plaything of the 1%. Marginalised by vanity. And that rarefied place looks a bit dubious right now.
Nature abhors a vacuum. So too, it seems, does the wine trade. Where the dependable Clarets of Colonel Hufty-Tufty go to these days is not clear. But what has replaced them is becoming ever more evident.
I’m not going to stick the knife in and say Bordeaux wines are bad – although there’s always been plenty I’d rather avoid – the wines have generally never been better. I often tell people it’s the first region that made wine seem interesting to me and the first region I read about in Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine. I’ve always loved Michael Broadbent’s comparison to a sixties vacuum cleaner advert as to what a good Bordeaux does when drunk with food: It beats as it sweeps as it cleans. Summarises it neatly don’t you think?
But prices have risen markedly on the back of expected demand from the new demographics, primarily in China. Which has forced us wine lovers into a rather awkward position; we’ve got to look elsewhere for our kicks.
For some the Italian classics of Barolo and Brunello have offered reassuringly aristocratic refinement. For others (myself included) we’ve embarked on a programme to learn wine all over again. To cast off the shackles of the ‘classic paradigm’ and to embrace the freaky, the geeky and, at times, the downright odd.
In 2003 I was running a small Oddbins store in Maida Vale. I had a customer who was far cooler and more perceptive than I could have realised at the time. We called him Strange David. His repeated request was for ‘esoteric wine’, something he couldn’t define other than it wasn’t like anything else. I gamely offered him some new-wave producers from the Languedoc but really couldn’t divine what it was he was after other than something obscure. Now, however, I could fill his bag many times over because into the Bordeaux shaped hole on the shelves we can offer a huge array of outsider wines.
Matured in a clay pot buried in the ground? Yep.
White wine made like a red wine so that it glows a deep amber-orange hue? Yep.
From a grape variety on the edge of extinction? Yep.
Made without recourse to manufactured yeasts and enzymes? Yep.
All this and more.
If you’ve never listened to Philosophy Of The World by The Shaggs now is the time to do so. An album so downright odd and, for plenty of people, unlistenable, but it has become something of an alternative music tabernacle. The subject of BBC radio investigation by Jon Ronson, a staple in the collections of musicians who want to push the boundaries, one of Kurt Cobain’s five favourite albums. It’s completely off-kilter and carves its own sonic path regardless of the normal concepts of sonic beauty. And it has many adherents as a result. The wine I’d have to compare this audio freak to would be Vin Jaune from the Jura region on France’s pastoral easterly edge.
Here is a wine that has been quietly produced for centuries in an unwaveringly esoteric way; the deliberate ingress of oxygen on the young wine, the subsequent veil of yeasts that blankets it while resting in barrels for six and a bit years, the attendant evaporation that comes with that process and the dumpy shaped 62cl bottle that it goes to market in makes it The Champion Of The Strange. Crucially that 62cl bottle makes it a non-standard size and thus, in theory, illegal to sell in the US (though prosecutions never happen and it’s certainly available there). Which makes it all the more sought after of course. The same sort of vicarious thrill as it must be to own one of the original 1000 copies of Philosophy Of The World.
From these outer edges, the rest of the wine world has started to take lessons. Emulating the winemaking regimes of the ancients is de rigeur with anyone trying to carve a niche in the wine market it seems. No longer just the preserve of a few beardy oddballs there’s change happening to wine production everywhere. There’s the amphora-aged Muscat from Chilean estate De Martino (motto: Reinventando Chile), the vivid methode Beaujolais Shiraz from Luke Lambert in Australia’s Yarra Valley, the freaky, oxidatively-aged Torrontes from the Michelini Brothers in Mendoza, Argentina. And it’s not just us pretending to be some sort of wine vanguard; even M&S sells Georgian wine so you know something is afoot. These aren’t just weird for weird’s sake, they are delicious too but come at you from a wholly unexpected angle. Strange David, I salute you, you were well ahead of the crowd on this.
Every week we’re seeing and tasting wines that behave like nothing else. My hope is that this won’t simply become an arms race of ‘my wine’s weirder than your wine’ where we end up in a Life Of Brian scenario with everyone yelling in unison ‘We’re all individuals‘ but that we’ll have a greater range of beautiful wines to choose from. Weird wine has always existed it’s just that without a dominant wine to control the aesthetics of the world we’ve suddenly found the spotlight shifted towards to kooky fringes. And, for now at least, there’s no stopping it.
– Colin Thorne