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From Burgundy to Bastardy

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In the world of wine, a word I deplore because of its overuse is ‘passion’. As in ‘a passion for pinot’. In my view, passion is a term that should be reserved for the sort of heightened emotional state that can result in trousers being discarded. You may lose your shirt producing pinot noir, but you are unlikely to lose your trousers.

I am recently recovered, just, from ‘Pinot 2013’: a four-day event in Wellington, New Zealand, that attracts pinot noir fans, critics, tragics, drunks, writers, sommeliers, wits, idiots savant and bon vivants from around the world — as well as humble pinot producers like myself. The show was, as they say here, a ball-tearer. What other grape induces such fanaticism?
Merlot? Hardly…

Rashly, I agreed to speak at the opening. I followed the erudite and eloquent wine writer Matt Kramer. It was a tad daunting, since my wife had already somewhat unkindly pointed out that I would be speaking about wine to an audience of some 600 people, 99 per cent of whom would know more about wine than me. I said I thought that was a bit harsh — it would be more like 97 per cent.

In a hall full of distinguished New Zealand pinot makers, Matt quickly ruffled a few feathers by suggesting that, good as we are, we may never quite attain the excellence of Burgundy, because of a somewhat mystical mathematical property there: in Burgundy ‘two plus two equals five’.

I asked, in reply, that if that was the case, why do I so often get sold a three? True, I have drunk one or two fives from Burgundy, but they had cost (someone else) the price of a modest car.

Burgundy: never far from our thoughts. I suggested that we might be seen as the ‘Bastards of Pinot’. We come from a tradition in Europe that is possibly thousands of years old. Our pinot clones are from Burgundy. Our viticulture, our wine-making: these things we inherit from a very rich, very profound and very old culture.

Nevertheless we are the Bastards of Pinot — unwanted, unacknowledged, illegitimate. We live outside the Old House, the House of Burgundy. And like the best bastards anywhere (bear in mind that in these southern climes, ‘bastard’ is often a term of affection), we don’t care! We take what we need from that old culture; but we discard the obsolete and are free to innovate. It’s good to be bastards! It’s even better to be good bastards! This is the kind of rhetorical flourish that goes down well with Antipodean audiences, and a satisfactory cheer was the response.

Bastard or not, my own long standing and torrid affair with pinot began with Burgundy. In 1979, my friend and mentor James Mason ordered a bottle of something incredible at Charlie Chaplin’s favourite restaurant near Lausanne. Up until then, most wine I had drunk came from a cardboard box. But this was something else altogether. ‘Burgundy,’ James said, ‘And don’t forget it.’ I never have; I was hooked.

Fourteen years later I planted my own pinot noir vines at the other end of the world, in Central Otago. This may have looked like an exercise in economy, since good Burgundy had become by any measure exorbitant. It was not. Owning a vineyard is the best fun you can have, but as an investment it is hilariously rash. And if you wonder why a good bottle of pinot is a tad pricier than some, consider this — it is the most labour-intensive wine imaginable. These days, anything can be made on the cheap, but not good pinot.

When I return to my vineyards from abroad, from some film set God knows where, I understand why ‘passion’ is quite the wrong word to describe how I feel. There is far too much contentment involved. My life there resonates to the seasons, to compost and cows, orchards and saffron. We talk of bud burst and tractors. My pigs greet me as one of their own. I measure last week’s rainfall. My shirt is still intact, just. I am a happy peasant…

And then last night, unbidden, a rather wealthy friend opened two bottles of DRC Richebourg 1999, an indisputably great Burgundy. I was gobsmacked. The wine was remarkable, naturally. At 50 quid a sip, it should be.

This morning, slightly worse for wear, I thought that, in the egregious spirit of modern wine criticism, I might actually score it. So here goes: wine — 8/10, value for money — 1/10.

But later, in a moment of compassion, I felt rather sorry for the great producers of Burgundy, those legitimates in the Old House. It must be maddening to see your lovely wine become some kind of bizarre commodity, like copper futures. I go to bed a bastard, but content in the knowledge that someone had a good time tonight, at a fair price, with my pinot. Whatever my friend Matt says, two plus two actually does make four.

The Spectator

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