How should fine wine be defined?

Friday, 3. August 2018 - 11:30

“We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here, and we want them now!”

Movie buffs may recognise these words from the cult British comedy Withnail & I and recall that they were spoken by the eponymous leading character in a very English tearoom where wine of any kind, let alone ‘fine’ wine is unlikely to be served.

I remembered Withnail the other day while attending the second edition of an unusual event called Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines (FM4FW) in Champagne. Launched by Nicole Rolet, co-owner of the Chêne Bleu estate in the Rhône who was also responsible for the International Grenache Symposium in 2010, the two-day seminar was intended to bring together a group of wine producers and opinion formers, and a smattering of wine-loving outsiders, with the express aim of mapping out a future for fine wine.

Topics ranged widely from winemaking and sustainability to the financing of wine estates and the role of tech in fine wine. Unlike other such ‘talking shops’, Rolet’s symposium ended on a practical note, with a number of the attendees each taking on the task of looking into particular aspects of the subject with a view to making something happen.

It was impossible not to be impressed by the organisation, the calibre of the people, the quality of the presentations and the discussion, and the intent behind the proceedings. But, for me, there was a fairly fundamental problem – as there had been at the inagural FM4FW. There was no real consensus over what we were all talking about.

The fact that the words ‘fine wine’ can mean very different things to different people is hardly surprising. Like several other British tasters, Jancis Robinson and I were very clear in our minds when we tasted it in 2004, that Chateau Pavie 2003 was not ‘fine’. Robinson memorably said that it was a “Ridiculous wine more reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux with its unappetising green notes,” and gave it 12/20.

Robert Parker famously disagreed, rating it a 96-100 and describing it as “sublime . . . an off-the-chart effort”.

Fourteen years later, it is Parker’s verdict that seems to have been vindicated. Over 440 Vivino users collectively rate it at 4.6 out of five while the price of a bottle has risen from around £85.00 on release to nearly three times as much today.

Many of the FM4FW attendees, however, including Steven Spurrier and Hugh Johnson, clearly disliked the association of money with ‘fine’-ness. ‘Fine wine does not have to be expensive’ seemed to be a popular mantra.

But if price is not a guide to ‘fine’-ness, nor, it was agreed, are traditional appellations. Picking a Clos Vougeot or Barolo at random from a supermarket shelf is not going to guarantee that you will be drinking a fine wine.

So, if we dismiss critics (who disagree with each other), cost, and legally-recognised regions and quality levels such as grand cru, what are we left with?

Many attendees appeared happy to accept Hugh Johnson’s elegant suggestion that a “fine wine is one that’s worth talking about”, which I liked too, but still found unsatisfactory, partly because it’s necessarily subjective, and partly because I can remember long discussions about wines like Pavie ’03.

Ultimately, over the long term, I struggle to find an alternative to price. A wine from a little-known producer, or a painting from a budding young artist, might strike you and me as fine and worth talking about, even though neither commands a high price tag.

But as soon as we begin to share our appreciation of these works with our peers and the wine gets snapped up by a merchant, and the artist signs a contract with a gallery, an almost inexorable process begins that leads to higher prices.

Over three decades ago, when I was living in Burgundy, working for the legendary broker Becky Wasserman, I remember taking an American customer to taste at the Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Meursault, before driving a little further down the road to another, then-little-known estate called Coche-Dury. The American looked at the modest, modern house and suspiciously asked “why are we here?”. “Because Becky and I think he makes pretty good wine, at some very attractive prices,” I replied. So in we went, with the transatlantic buyer still evidently thinking he ought to have been at Sauzet or Leflaive, or some other more illustrious domaine of which he’d heard.

Jean-François Coche was making ‘fine’ wine in 1982, just as he does today. Except that a bottle of a recent vintage of his village Meursault would set you back several hundred dollars – not quite such an ‘attractive’ price.

I don’t know whether Coche-Dury wines were among the ‘finest wines available to humanity’ in the 1980s. But there would certainly be far less debate about that question today.
Robert Joseph