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The Jon Bonné interview - Part Two

TERRY: You appear to be drawn towards innovation as a categorical value, but would you consider the existence of wine cultures that are already enacting their Ideal? That is, wines such as Mosel Rieslings, that are already in effect “perfect” and for which no stylistic innovations are needed?


Oh, Terry! Props to you for saving a thoroughly leading question for, naturally, Mosel Riesling.


I’ll start with a quote about another type of wine dear to your heart. This is from the book, and from Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon of Roederer, who is one of the smartest people I’ve met in wine. “The best Champagne doesn’t currently exist,” he told me. “The best Champagne is in the future.” I’d apply that not just to Champagne but to the Mosel, for sure, and to any wine culture that purports to be enacting its quote-unquote “ideal.” Just because a region has reached a wonderful state of grace doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth and improvement.


TERRY: Of course not. The question pivots on “growth and improvement” and on whether we can agree on what those might entail. Yield reduction? Check. Better vine material? Yup. More terroir expression (by various means)? Naturally. Placing Mosel Riesling in amphorae? Hell no. Johannes Selbach made an orange wine one year, did you know? It tasted like an orange wine, with no relation to the Mosel or even to Riesling. This is not “growth” as I understand the word. But do continue.


JON: I did know Johannes made that — much like Bernhard Ott, to try and understand the form. It wasn’t hugely my thing but it’s also not fair to judge after one single trial, unless of course the point was to prove to oneself you don’t really want to do such things, which as I understand was the point.


But does that mean skin maceration has no place in Mosel Riesling? Not hardly. It means that particular form of that path didn’t work for, or at least appeal to, the Selbachs. If Johannes came to me tomorrow and said that he found evidence that his grandfather had let the grapes sit a day on skins before pressing, and that seemed like a way to build texture, it would be precisely the sort of story I heard all over France.



TERRY: Yes, but there’s a reason you don’t hear it along the Mosel.


JON: My lesson from that is that even when beauty is achieved, that doesn’t there isn’t the chance to keep evolving. Burgundy is making arguably its best wines ever today, which doesn’t mean it won’t find even more grace and beauty in a decade. Champagne is flourishing with individuality and vigneron spirit, and today as a Champagne lover you can drink wines you likely wouldn’t have been able to conceive of 20 years ago. But that doesn’t mean it won’t keep evolving.


Back to your point about the Mosel, those wines are in a state of grace today, for sure. But let’s also take stock of how that grace looks. We can revel in the beauty of estate Rieslings that were considered afterthoughts a decade or two ago, much as Bourgogne Rouge today is its own gorgeous thing, versus being rotgut a generation ago.


TERRY: That was less an “improvement” than a choice about what to do with certain raw material. It made more sense, commercially, for all the bits and pieces of this-and-that to go into one cuvée than to continue multiple bottlings under insignificant names.


JON: But clearly there was an improvement! Alternately, we can appreciate the rise of true feinherb, as you and I have discussed a bunch. Or fruity RIeslings made with a natural arc of fermentation, versus süssreserve. Or a wine like Selbach-Oster’s Anrecht, or their Uraltereben. These are wines that have come not from ideating on the ideal, but from seeing different ways to tweak the beautiful, to goad beauty into stepping just two steps further. So I’m not convinced that, even in your beloved Mosel, there’s no path for stylistic progress. Certainly there’s opportunity for agronomic progress, which is to say, global warming should provide a path to a lot more organics and biodynamics in the region.


TERRY: Well, we’ll agree to differ. If Selbach “Uralte Reben” exemplifies growth and improvement, it’s because that wine (and others like it) took their cues from the best of the past, as opposed to reinventing the genre from scratch. Maybe our distinctions are semantic? Because the examples you cited are, to me, matters of refinement of existing principles, and my point is that the Mosel typifies a wine culture where the ”new” is met with suspicion, at least by me.


JON: Well, sure, and there’s a reason that my first chapter has “What’s old is new again” in its title. And I don’t say any of this as a diminishment of the sheer beauty of the current form. Plus, without naming names, I think there is a reactionary tendency with some lower Mosel producers to just do things differently in order to not be their parents.


TERRY: Very true, and not atypical of young vintners in general.


JON: But I think Lécaillon had it perfectly right: A vital culture — wine and otherwise — stays vital because standards continue to evolve and improve, in an organic way. That, to me, was a lesson found in the evolution of wine from the end of the more-is-more era. We’re able to enjoy these pristine — neotraditional, if you will — expressions today because vignerons stopped worrying so much about impact and amplitude, and started returning to the beauty of the land.


TERRY: Absolutely! But other “innovations” had, in my view, a deleterious effect. Without getting too granular, I’ll just comment in general that the naturalistas have done great harm to Chenin Blanc, which I love and which is very often corrupted by a misplaced….whatever it is! Which leads to my next question:


Can the innovative spirit result in incoherence? And if so, how do you know when that is happening?


JON: Sure, although that’s true with pretty much anything. It’s pretty clear when you’re considering the new and you find things that don’t cohere, or are just not good. A lot of this has to do with understanding the difference between form and function, and — as someone else in the book put it — trying to comprehend intent. But in all things, you can have good intent and still fail at achieving something good.


And even when there is total mastery, that doesn’t always mean that you’ve answered the function part well. I am an enormous Joyceophile, and I’m gearing up to re-read Ulysses again. But you’d struggle to convince me that Finnegans Wake is much of a beach read — or even particularly comprehensible.


Since you mentioned chenin blanc, and us agreeing to disagree, I should say that I find the state of chenin to be extraordinary today, in no small part thanks to naturalists like Mark Angéli or Stéphane Bernaudeau or Richard Leroy. It was during my deep dive into the western Loire that I realized I actually loved chenin, perhaps — and I’ll apologize to you in advance — more than Riesling. But the slapdash vinifications and misinterpretation of that grape, and all that crap chenin that smelled like bruised apples? I am happy to leave that shit back in the last century.


TERRY: Two things: one, I yield to your superior knowledge and experience with modern Chenin. I’ve had a few seriously awful wines, which were perhaps atypical. Two, there’s a part of me that loves Chenin more than Riesling also. If it weren’t for Nebbiolo’s propensity toward high alcohol, I might well love Barolo more than Burgundy. But returning to the symposium….How do you judge when innovations are useful as opposed to immature? (“Is the answer to Alsace really to wallow in orange wines???”)



JON: Time is a great judge, right? Or, to quote Edgar Quinet and keep things French, “Time is the fairest and toughest judge.”


What I’m saying is that you have to judge innovation with a bit of a long view, and see if it turns itself into tradition.


TERRY: But that only works when you have the luxury of looking back to see how something turned out. It’s far more difficult – and perhaps impossible – to peer through the periscope into the future, and say “Yes, this will turn out to have been good for this region-culture-community.” But back to Alsace.


JON: To your specific example, is orange wine any less legitimate a response to the reality of Alsatian terroir than the spic-and-span, technocratic, stainless-steel winemaking that took the region by storm a generation ago? Or the centrifuges of the 1980s?


TERRY: Yes, it is.


JON: Well, as they say, that’s just your opinion, man.


TERRY: Self-evidently, and all of this is just our opinions, though I don’t know anyone who’s more entitled to an opinion that you are, my friend.


JON: I think Alsace did itself great harm with the boredom of its wine. It’s ironic to me how many Alsatians have out-Teutoned the Germans in their rigidity and formulaic ways. Which is to say, if you look around today for the old Alsatian fuders, you find them pretty everywhere but Alsace, although that prospect of retro is returning in Alsace too.


Is Alsace’s sole trade supposed to be crystalline, varietal white wines? History doesn’t provide an argument for that.


TERRY: I’m not sure what you mean by that.


JON: It means that the deeper history of Alsace reveals a lot of blending, and a lot more complex expressions than the very narrow, rigid taxonomy that officialdom would like to expose. It means the existence of traditional expressions like klevener de Heiligenstein, or the clear overlap between Jurassic and Alsatian grapes, namely savagnin, as documented in Rendu and Guyot and elsewhere. More poignantly, if you take two of the significant Alsatian grapes, gewurztraminer and pinot gris, they are not white grapes. They’re somewhere between rose and copper. And in Italy, a traditional expression for pinot grigio is the skin-contact style called ramato — certainly more traditional than the Santa Margherita view of the world. So why shouldn’t Alsace be embracing proper expression of its base material?


TERRY: Your position pivots on the word “proper.” According to whom, to what consensus, even to what demonstration of the superiority of the results?


JON: Fair enough — in this case, it’s saying, hey, here’s how these grapes, which are no less Friulian than Alsatian, are made in a form that’s clearly traditional, more so than turning pinot gris into dishwater. And to keep it going with the French quotes, I’ll dredge up another from the book — Emile Peynaud, paying homage to Maurice Druon: “Tradition is only an experiment that worked.” So on innovation, you don’t really know until you know.


And speaking of Alsace, Peynaud endorsed planting Sylvaner in the Gironde! So, we should all be careful when it comes to that role of being a frustrated classicist, as you put it.

 

To be concluded this Wednesday in Part Three


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1 Comment


Thanks for the many valuable insights, Jon and Terry!


The notion of “best [wines of a given type or region]” is conceptually treacherous and needs some unpacking.

But I’m at least going to presuppose (though I suppose that could be contested) that there is a valid sense to “better” (if not to “best”) as applied to individual wines.

If a grower insists that “the best wines of our region are in the future” one could naturally read that to mean that in future there will be wines of this type, grape(s) or region better than any heretofore. I’m inclined, though, to insist that when interpreted that way, a worthy ambition becomes a thing fulfillable at most in certain regions or…


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