There’s something I guess one could call the Bob Dylan instant. The moment at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that shocked and outraged fans: Dylan, who’d only ever been seen with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, turned up with a Sunburst Fender Stratocaster that was clearly plugged into the mains. The following year, when he repeated the offence of going electric in Britain at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, a member of the audience shouted, “Judas!” There was another outpouring of outrage in 1969 when Barbra Streisand wore a trouser suit rather than a dress to collect the Oscar for her role in Funny Girl (women were banned from wearing trousers in the US Senate until 1993). And that was nothing compared to how upset real ale lovers were when beer was first sold in cans (1935). And now, a fresh delivery of grist has been delivered to the mill of annoyance, in the shape of Penfolds ‘Spirited Wine with Baijiu’.
For those readers who haven’t encountered Baijiu – anyone who hasn’t spent much time in Asia – it’s China’s most popular alcoholic beverage. As innocently water-like in appearance as vodka and gin, this distilled grain or sorghum smells and tastes like not very good Grappa. Recently, big Western companies like Diageo have done their best to tame this dragon and produce finer versions, but Treasury Wine Estates’ decision earlier this year to add it to a red wine came as a shock to almost everyone – especially as the brand was Penfolds.
Cries of “shamelessly cynical”, “sacrilegious” and “just downright wrong” were audible among Australians who treat Penfolds with much the same reverence as the French have for that other successful-in-China brand, Château Lafite. Inevitably, most of the loudest attacks came from people who had not even set eyes on the beautifully packaged $120.00 Baijiu Penfolds, so I was fascinated to taste it for myself along with a handful of other people, including a couple of British wine writers whose expertise I respected.
Stated briefly, while this 21.5% fortified dry red was not a style we were used to drinking, none of us demurred on any of the occasions when the waitress offered to top up our glasses. We started out with a full bottle and finished with a nearly empty one. When I shared this experience online, the mostly negative response from fellow professionals essentially boiled down to saying that wine should not be “mucked around with”. As one Master of Wine said, wine is “complete… like the Catholic Church… or an Olympic sport”. Its shape, in other words, ought not to be shifted. I found a particular irony in this reaction being applied to a Penfolds effort, given the hugely negative reaction received by Grange when it was first released in the early 1950s. The wine that has now become a flagship for the Australian industry was derided as a “dry red Port” and its production officially halted.
But sweet Port was an innovation in its day, as were Sauternes, Champagne, Madeira and, I suppose, Tokaji. None of these is a natural product, by any stretch of the imagination.
Flavouring a wine with a spirit is now also being done in the US by the winemakers of brands such as Mondavi, Fetzer and Beringer, with their increasingly popular bourbon-barrel-matured reds. Who, critics of these whiskeyed wines ask, would want a wine that tastes of bourbon? To which might be offered the simple answer: the growing number of people in the US – including a substantial proportion of women – who enjoy drinking American whiskey.
It all seems to come down to ownership. The Dylan fans in Newport and Manchester imagined that their devotion to the acoustic troubadour gave them a right to dictate the kind of music he sang and the way he sang it. Wine purists have drawn a similar line in the sand over what winemakers should or shouldn’t be permitted to do to fermented grape juice. Personally, I love Bob Dylan plugged and unplugged, just as I relish the way Picasso and Matisse’s styles evolved, and the freedom with which great chefs and mixologists daily experiment and create new dishes and cocktails.
Penfolds Baijiu and the Bourbon-ificated reds may be a fad, or they may find a place in the mainstream. Time will tell. In either case, however, on their journey, they’ll have given pleasure to their consumers and employment and profit to their producers. And I struggle to see what’s wrong with that picture.