Recently I was knocking back Meerlust’s new releases at a lunch. They were, for your information:
A 2010 Chardonnay that was a lemon-and-lime on the sea-shore kinda wine, which absolutely killed it with the snoek pate, and a 2010 Pinot Noir, which shows that fantastic Pinot can be made in Stellenbosch. We also tried the 2008 Merlot, which was good, but nothing really interesting. I shouted “whoohoo!” when tasting the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, loads of juicy black-current fruit, quite ripe but in balance. For some reason it made me think of Benicio Del Toro. Finally there was the 2007 Rubicon (Cab, Merlot, Cab Franc) which stole the show, with it’s leaner, more austere nature. Very classy, and, I guess, closer to Mr. Clooney than Mr. Del Toro, and should age as well.
Sorry, got carried away there. As I was saying, sitting at lunch drinking these rather scrumptious wines, we began to discuss some incredibly important issues.
The things one discusses at a wine lunch – among other winos – are, of course of world importance. They solve world hunger, the middle-east issues, America’s debt, Malema, Greece, and hint toward what 42 actually means. To be honest, if it wasn’t for conversations such as these, the world would be in a worse place than it is. So on this blustery day in Stellenbosch, the question that arose was, “Can wine be art?” As I said, vital stuff.
Obviously we didn’t mean taking a blank canvas, spraying it with red wine, hanging it in a fancy gallery and then serving the same wine at the launch while calling the whole thing art. No, no. We were discussing whether wine itself could be considered art. Wine as art?
Chris Williams, cellar master at Meerlust, contended that winemaking was more craft than art. Where Giorgio Dalla Cia, Meerlust’s former cellar master said that winemaking was craft when it was made mechanically, but art when made with one’s soul.
Christian Eedes, former editor of Wine Magazine, was on the side of artistry, while I just leant back and drank more Chardonnay. I hadn’t decided yet, although the fact that I tend to start reading 17th century religious poetry to a dinner table (empty or full) after my third bottle, I felt, had something to do with it.
Part of me wanted to shout. Of course wine is art. Art influences your emotions, and engages your senses as well as intellect, and wine does this to me all the time. Of course this is hinting at appreciating wine’s aesthetics. Which means then, to be art wine must be drunk. Only in drinking can we assess its qualities, judge it, and find its beauty. This suits me perfectly.
You may think this is just mental masturbation – wine snobs pleasuring each other with their pretentious wine conversations while sipping expensive beverages. Err, you may be right. And god, it’s fun. Seriously, though (not world hunger seriously, more like I want a Riesling, seriously), I think whether wine is art or not depends on the approach of both the wine maker and the drinker. If the wine maker, like Giorgio says, puts his soul into it, which I interpret as aiming to make, something of beauty and art (and does), then he can be seen as an artist. For the drinker, it is about considering the aesthetic value of wine.
This points to the reason why I think this is important (or, at least, worth a column). I do not want to get into the discussion of whether a work of art relies on a viewer, but I believe that if we start thinking about wine in these terms (beauty, how it engages our senses, emotions, intellect) we automatically become more discerning. I am not talking about the boring, official, wine judge style of describing a wine: “Nose: clean, medium intensity, oak/vanilla, honey, caramel; Palate: dry, medium-minus acidity, medium body, vanilla (NEW oak), pineapple, baked apple, medium-plus length.” Oh god, kill me now. I don’t care if that is useful. It is boring. It makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a rusty corkscrew, and serve them to myself in a martini made of methylated spirits.
I think that by considering wines in the same terms we do art, we are able to escape the boredom, the anoraks, the snobs and the pretense. We consciously start looking for wines that offer an emotive response, and when we start finding these wines then, I think, we find fine wines. Wines that that make you go, “Wahoo!”
From my favourite wine writer, Hugh Johnson, I leave you with my favourite paragraph on wine. He is standing on the steps of his cellar looking down:
It is a library down there; a library of different takes on the same plot. The plot starts with vines insinuating their roots into the soils of a thousand different fields feeding on what they encounter in the ground, rock or sand, wet or dry, lean and hungry or fat enough to grow marrows. It ends with the air in the glass rising through your nostrils and your mouth to leave an impression on your mind. The two are intimately, directly, inevitably linked – via a chain of events that can go this way or that in numberless and ceaseless variations. On some nano-scale of infinite variety everything is recorded. Like the wings of a butterfly in the rain forest, a passing shower or a spore fungus can tip a balance that eventually makes you decide to order another bottle – or not.
To me this points to wine as art, an art that expresses the origin of the wine, and simultaneously the intentions of the winemaker. Most wines, then, are the worst art possible – derivative, clumsy, saying nothing, ugly, kitsch – but there are bottles out there that nail it. You’ll know when you find one.
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