At this time of year many recent graduates will be wondering what to do with their hard-won degrees. While I cannot point them in the direction of specific vacancies, I can assure them that the world of wine needs many of their skills.
Scientists, you would not believe how many basic questions about wine remain unanswered. Although wine is treasured for its ability to age (better-quality wines are virtually the only consumables that can improve over years or decades) we know remarkably little about what actually happens as wine matures. It would be wonderful to put some graduate minds to work on this in order to work out exactly why some wines age so well and others don’t.
Another area for research by a combination of geologists and soil scientists is the much-discussed but undetermined relationship between rocks, soils and the grapes and then wines that result from them. Because there seem to be tasteable correlations between certain sorts of wines and the vineyards that produced them, tasters have liberally applied “rocky” terms to wines. Mosel Rieslings, often grown on vineyards littered with shards of slate, are sometimes described as “slaty”. For decades the wines of Pouilly-Fumé have been called “flinty” by English speakers, a reference to the flinty look of the silex soils found in vineyards there.
Similarly, many of the wines grown on the decomposed lava on the slopes of Mount Etna seem to have some discernible warmth and pungency, which it is awfully tempting to label “volcanic”. And in Priorat, Catalonia, there is a flavour common to many of the red wines from vineyards high in the sparkling mix of black slate and quartz known locally as llicorella.
We winos were all happily relating rocks and soils to our tasting notes until geologists such as Professor Alex Maltman at Aberystwyth University in Wales pointed out why, scientifically speaking, there could not be a direct relationship between a wine and the geology of a vineyard. Rocks have no flavour and plants have no direct communication with them anyway.
Everyone is agreed that the precise structure of rocks and soil has a huge influence on the all-important availability of water to the vine. But it’s over to the soil scientists to examine exactly how the composition, as opposed to structure, of the soil may influence the taste of a wine. Or not. The most important component of terroir – that is nothing to do with topography, climate or man – may be the particular complex of micro-organisms in the soil and atmosphere.
The world of wine awaits more research in this area. Who knows? One day, thanks to our new scientists, we may know enough to use the tasting term “mineral” with some precision.
But it’s not just scientists we need. Recent activity in the usually sleepy port wine trade has opened my eyes to the opportunities for historians in the world of wine. For much of the second half of the 20th century wine producers were falling over themselves to demonstrate how modern and technologically proficient they were. But this century has seen a sharp about-turn, with a big return to historic methods (horses in the vineyard, bottling by phases of the moon), and tradition being valued above all else. It is no surprise then that producers have become more interested in the past – their own in particular.
In the past month alone we have seen the launch of two 19th-century ports aged in wood and now available in luxury handcrafted packages from the major port shippers, Symington Family Estates and The Fladgate Partnership. The Symingtons’ Graham Ne Oublie bottling comes from a cask of 1882 tawny bought by the current generation’s great-grandfather to commemorate his arrival in Portugal from a troubled childhood in Scotland. It could hardly have more backstory.
If the Symingtons have been busy writing history, their rivals at The Fladgate Partnership (Taylor, Fonseca and Croft) could be said to have been rewriting history. In the course of some recent research I see that the start date of the Croft port house is no longer the 1678 that features in all previous literature and whose tercentenary celebrations in the Douro I enjoyed when Croft was part of Grand Met (later subsumed into Diageo). According to a recent self-published monograph and the port house’s new logo, Croft now dates from 1588, conveniently making it “the oldest company still active today as a port wine producer”. Clearly there are great opportunities for historical researchers in the wine trade.
But how about all those English graduates? Opportunities here are legion. Most wine nowadays is sold by the written word, whether on a website, as part of a “shelf talker”, in a catalogue or on a back label. Here’s where I’d like to see an invasion of well-educated English graduates.
I am hugely in favour of back labels. I know some producers think their wines are too smart to need any information other than the bare legal minimum. But consumers nowadays are as thirsty for knowledge as they are for wine. They love being given a bit of background to what they are thinking of buying.
Supermarkets fall over themselves (under government pressure) to tell us how many units a bottle contains, how long we should keep it and (usually hilariously) what we should eat with it. We therefore have a situation in which the less smart the wine, the more we are told and vice versa. According to the back label, Blossom Hill Moscato will deliver “ripe aromas of freshly crushed grape and tangerine with soft melon and lime fruit and a clean crisp finish” – but about Château Lafite we are told nothing. Bravo to classed-growth claret Domaine de Chevalier, which puts the precise assemblage on back labels. Others who try harder include Torres of Spain and Ridge Vineyards in California, which have long shared every detail of their wines with us. And they are literate to boot. Some graduates clearly work there.
Back labels of note: where are all the English graduates?
Favourite meaningless phrases:
• “Lovingly grown”
• “Selected parcels”
• “Limited edition”
• “Meticulously blended”
• “Optimum ripeness”
Creative writing prize:
Oxford Landing for:
“On the banks of South Australia’s mighty Murray river where drovers once took their sheep to water”. It’s one way to say this wine comes from Australia’s inland irrigated wine factory.
Prize for chutzpah:
Gallo (5,000 employees) for: “You can taste the Gallo family’s dedication to the art of winemaking, passed down through four generations, in this Chardonnay.”
Photograph: James Reeve