Pleasure in the detail

Essayist and author Adam Gopnik takes a look at the world of wine through the lens of seminal wine-lover’s bible, Wine Grapes, and talks to one of its three co-authors, Jancis Robinson MW about the joy of discovering long-forgotten indigenous grape varieties
Pleasure in the detail

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Wine, though the most intimate of pleasures, lends itself to the most expansive of texts. We drink wine most often – tastings aside – in pairings of two, or in lonesome but agreeable solitude, and, its narcotic pleasure being felt internally, we feel its effects as we feel a fever: almost secretly, in shivers. Though wine is like sex in its intimacy, unlike sex, the form in which we fetishise wine – our vine erotica – is not hushed and illicit but encyclopedic. On the shelves of any wine drinker, there are likely to be catalogues, dictionaries organised by region, old Parker buying guides some 600 pages long that somehow, though dated, can’t be discarded.

Wine seems singular among human pleasures in this. We don’t, as a rule, rush from reading a poem to great anthologies of poetry, or add to the savour of seeing a play by reading a big atlas of dramatic literature – not, at least, after we graduate from school. Sports fans, it’s true, like big books of statistics, but then sports-watching is a social act in the first instance – the more people in the stands, the merrier the occasion. With wine, we like the macro with our micro: with a solitary glass in hand, we look, in print, over the next hill, or the current vintage, at the vineyard across the way, or the vintage yet to come. It’s part of the pleasure the glass provides.

The reasons for this micro and macro turn are, on reflection, commercial and artisanal as much as aesthetic. The business of wine needs a big picture of its domain, its resources, and its potential market – scale sets the stage for commerce. The makers of wine like to place themselves on a broader map of where wine is and what it’s made with. The great Bordeaux classification of 1855 is not just the noblest public monument to a beverage ever attempted, but a model of market-making and even market price-fixing. Once a hierarchy of growths has been established, it is easy to slot in the price tags.


But there is a truth of taste beneath the ordering of value. With wine, we know that what we are experiencing is, however singular, still an intersection of opposed forces – as the peerless wine writer Jancis Robinson MW says of her first glass of Chambolle-Musigny 1959; “I knew at once that there was something in the glass that was sensually delicious but that it was also made, produced, and therefore suggested a history of intellect and discernment.” The pleasure of wine is the crossing of a place, a grape and a people; and so, we turn to the big books to frame the small pleasures.

What distinguishes wine from even a good glass of ale or a local brew is the specificity of the pleasure set against the scale of the system that made it – one that historically embraces the planet. It’s a First Growth, or a domaine Burgundy, or a Ridge Zinfandel or a New Zealand Pinot Noir made to a Burgundy model by American wine makers … the more we know, the more we’re free to feel. Most sensory pleasures are specific to the point of being illicit – aside from the bemused fetishist, romance is a spontaneous pleasure, often aided, to be sure, by a systematic wine. Wine is premeditated; we choose a bottle, let it ripen, and break it open. Even casual table drinking has a tale to tell, a journey to trace on a map.

These thoughts are brought to mind in contemplation of Wine Grapes, the monosyllabically titled but unprecedentedly expansive dictionary of grape varieties grown to be crushed and fermented on this green planet. Authored by Robinson, along with Julia Harding MW and the geneticist Dr José Vouillamoz, it marks an epoch – several epochs – in our understanding of wine, from both a professional planet-straddling and an amateur glass-in-hand perspective. A book of its time (published in 2012), it was made possible, in part, by a revolution in the DNA analysis of wine grapes to help discover their origins and histories.

The DNA profiling of wine grapes only began in 1993, and the first ‘paternity test’ successfully concluded in 1997 – a mere few days ago by historical perspective – with specialists, Dr Vouillamoz among them, drawing astonishing Darwinian lines among seemingly unrelated grapes. Zinfandel, it has been discovered in the last 40 years, is not only the Siamese twin of Primitivo, but its Croatian Siamese twin. In proper Darwinian fashion, the book tells us, “It looks increasingly as though an enormous proportion of the grapes we know today are members of a few key families.”

The leading families of wine, Pinot and Nebbiolo and the rest, like the leading houses of Westeros, jostle and engage in incestuous inter-breeding as they move towards dominance. As Jancis Robinson admits, the quest for the origins of grapes can become surprisingly emotional. “The Zin quest is so … heated. There was a Zinfandel conference in Croatia, with all the great Zin makers, even Joel ‘King of Zin’ Peterson from Ravenswood, and we all had to present our various things about Zinfandel. There was a small cohort of people from Montenegro who reckoned that their variety – whose name is unpronounceable – was the true progenitor of modern Zinfandel, not the Croatian one. It became so … Balkan! And you know what? They may be right!”

Wine Grapes is of its time in another sense as well, marking the moment when we have started to think of wine not solely in terms of region, but much more in terms of variety, with the semi-mystical term ‘terroir’ acting as a kind of Holy Spirit between them. Thinking ‘grape’ more than ‘place’ releases our imaginations. The wholesome instructive pleasures of the book, to which we’ll come, shrink beside the unwholesome, guilty pleasures of turning the pages to meet the failures among grapes – the near-misses, the long-forgotten and forlorn lost toys – which please more than the patterns of primacy. The pleasure of reading about the grapes whose juice we do drink is nothing compared to reading about those we don’t. In dictionaries, oddities and parentheses fascinate us more than the major entries. No one turns to the dictionary to study ‘and’; we go to study ‘antediluvian’.

So, turning these pages, flipping through the P’s on our way to encounter the great Pinot families, we come upon the lesser gods, even the little misshapen gnomes and dwarves of the wine world, and we delight in meeting them. (A fascination added to by the forthright sub-heads the editors provide.) On our way to Burgundy and Pinot Noir, we also meet Pinotin, a ‘recent obscure Swiss hybrid’ which edges into Pionnier, ‘a minor but complex, cold-hardy American hybrid used in blends in Québec’, and, of course, Pinotage ‘South Africa’s very own cross, both loved and despised’, which leads us on to Pugnitello and even Pukhliakovsky (a Russian variety ‘with erratic yields producing light wines’) and even unto Pules – ‘a minor Albanian white’. Radiating out from five pages on the major Merlot, we bump into Merseguera, ‘an uninspiring variety’ from Spain, and Merzifon Karasi, and Merzling, dismissed as a ‘very minor disease-resistant German hybrid’.

Why these lost or obscure kinds of grapes bring so much delight with them is a fascinating question. It has in part to do with our general appetite for oddities and obscurities, which once produced ‘freak shows’ and still makes us fascinated with archaic musical instruments: we are curious to hear the sackbut because we want to know what led to the trombone. It is also the virtuous case that variety is the safeguard of continuity. In an age of ever-decreasing biodiversity with just a few varieties taking the place of many possibilities, one Quixotic California winemaker, driving through the fields of Cabernet and Chardonnay, dismissed them all – with a wave of the hand – as “chocolate and vanilla, chocolate and vanilla”.

The health of the planet is safeguarded by the persistence of so many kinds. It is also because the existence of these minor yet still thriving varieties gives us a satisfying picture of adaptation, the central biological act. Each of these grapes has found a home in the world. It may not be much of a home, but then neither, face the facts, is ours. We identify with the unknown grape. We are all more like a very minor disease-resistant German, or a cold-hardy Québec hybrid, than we are something noble and complicated. Few of us are bottles of Burgundy; we can all identify as minor Albanian whites.

In conversation, Jancis Robinson, sheltering at home near Kings Cross in London, a home with a view of a graveyard (though a cheerful one she assures an interviewer) – talks of the wine almanac with the blunt enthusiasm that marks her writing. Robinson, in addition to her obvious honours and credentials, is a rare thing in the wine world, or any world: a writer who writes with equal parts brio and expertise.


She explains the origins of Wine Grapes. “What happened was that one of the co-authors, Dr José Vouillamoz, who had been at University of California, Davis, felt that he needed to earn more of a living, and came back to Switzerland and got a job working on Alpine botanicals. But he didn’t want to lose his relationship with wine, and he came to me and said that he’d like to collaborate on a book about grape varieties. I’d already written one in 1986, based on our very fractional knowledge then.

Over lunch, I took along Julia Harding, a wine writer who works on my website. She’s extremely punctilious.” (Robinson, punctilious herself, says this with such emphasis that the listener feels that, with Harding, we must be talking about new frontiers, not to say dimensions, in punctiliousness.) “She had exactly the right sort of brain for a project like this. José suggested that we focus on the 10 or 12 most planted grape varieties to help simplify it. I thought that that book didn’t sound interesting enough. I waited until we were quite far down a bottle of Valpolicella and said, ‘I think our book should be about every single grape variety we can find.’ He gulped and said, ‘Then that’s what we shall do!’”

The idea of creating a ‘perfect map’ of a subject is one of the itches that govern modern life. John James Audubon set out to describe not the major but every bird and beast in North America, and that’s what he did. Similar ‘almanacs of everything’ fill our botanical and anthropological shelves. It is an ambition so tied to modernity that in the mid-19th century, Lewis Carroll perfectly satirised it in his novel, Sylvie & Bruno, where two mad professors talk about their dream of making a map that would be on a one-to-one relation to the actual world – utterly perfect, if impossible to unroll.

“I loved the scale of the thing,” Robinson says of her perfect map. “So, we carved things up: José did all the DNA stuff and history because he had good access to it, Julia, bless her, did the footwork – how much of each grape is planted where – while trying to taste as many as possible, too! And I wrote the entries on the best-known varieties, and the introduction and read every single word.

As with any dictionary, we used what came before: we went through appellation lists, with all of the varieties allowed, some of them almost extinct. A nice little detail of the book is that we persuaded the publisher that it should have some colour plates, and we were particularly keen to include the plates from the world’s first oenological book, L’Ampélographie: Traité Général de Viticulture, of 1901 … just out of copyright!” She pauses. “Of course,” she adds reflectively, “it was José, naturally, who discovered that Pinot and Syrah are related.”

The offhand nature of her mention can’t conceal the significance of the remark. Of all the discoveries offered in the book, this is perhaps, for the amateur wine drinker, the most exemplary and astonishing. Painstakingly tracing the DNA heritage of the varieties, these two noble houses, Syrah and Pinot – the grapes of the Rhône Valley and those of Burgundy, the heart of Côte-Rôtie and the soul of Chambertin – are unified as cousins. This happened not through willed cultivation but in the natural evolutionary way: through variation and adaptation. Initially, the elegance of Pinot Noir was transformed through the usual evolutionary pressures of place and mutations, into the earthy pleasures of Syrah.

Chance mutation and lucky planting turned one grape into its near opposite. (‘Cross-fertilisation’, we’re told, ‘was common until the early 20th century because several grape varieties were often intermixed in the vineyards, facilitating natural crossings between distinct grape varieties’.) The phylloxera epidemic in France from the 1860s on – though it did not destroy as much as is sometimes thought – acted as a kind of sieve or filter of grape varieties, a sort of extinction event in large-scale natural history, forcing hard choices and making obscure varieties less desirable to save by root grafting with New World vines.

One virtue of the book is to propose, in effect, a new order of wines by celebrating ‘secondary’ grape varieties. “For me, among the obscure wines, something about as well-known as Cinsault stands out – it can make such lovely wines,” Robinson says. “There’s been such a sea change as the century turned. Everybody once wanted to make fruit bombs to one of three standard recipes. Then in this century, higher acidity, lighter wines are finally revaluing, and so Cinsault comes into its own.

“Sometimes I come across a grape that isn’t well known but that’s so obviously superior. There’s Aglianico – the name suggests it’s Greek, though no Greek variety has ever been found and you only get it in Southern Italy. Perfect for late ripeness, and not for cool climates – and now it has travelled to Australia, where they’re desperate for hot weather varieties.

The whole array of Portuguese and Greek grape varieties are so fantastic! And so individual. And I love that after a dalliance with international varieties, both countries are now celebrating their own. There’s another white grape, an Iberian variety that’s stunning, and, again, I’m not sure it’s yet been planted much: Godello! It’s a bit crass to say it makes wines that taste like Montrachet, if a little more terroir-y and mineral … but it does. I could drink Cinsault for red and Godello for white into the next century.

“There’s such a gap nowadays,” Robinson goes on, “between the Napa Cab thing, and these young people who are buying unknown grape varieties that sell for a fraction of the price, that are really good. Such a lot has happened in the field of recuperating old vines, some so obscure that they don’t even have a name. Miguel Torres, the scion of that great company in northeast Spain became very interested in grapes.

At first, he said, ‘Hey Dad, we need the posh varieties, Cabernet and Chardonnay’ – and made all these wines which did well in the Judgement of Paris. But, with time, he realised that it made more sense to concentrate on the indigenous varieties. He’s been engaged for 30 years, putting classified ads in the local press – ‘If you know of a wine grape that you can’t identify, let us know of it, and – if we think we can propagate out – we’ll do micro-vinification.’ He’s actually rescued Catalan varieties that were on the brink of disappearing; I think he found 30 varieties, and recuperated eight for micro-vinification with sufficient character to give them a new lease of life. And much the same thing has been happening all over Italy. If we published the book today, we’d be up to at least 1,500 kinds of grapes.”


The great sorting question of our time, of course, is the question of climate change and its effects on wine cultivation. Robinson is cautiously hopeful about Burgundy. “I was lucky enough to go there and spend some time. The 2020 harvest is the earliest ever, at least since the 14th century. But, whereas the 2003 vintage, that legendary hot summer in France, produced wines that were pretty bizarre, the 2019s seem as fresh as a daisy, with pure fruit. I’m no plant biologist, but the vines seem to be getting used to the conditions … or the winemakers are. They’re not extracting as heavily, but, given that, there’s no sign of added acidity (it’s routinely added in the southern hemisphere), the acidity is coming from the grapes as well. Even some real old Burgundy hands, when you ask why the wines are so fresh, say, ‘I really don’t know.’”

About the Southern Rhône, though, she is more pessimistic. “They’re not helping themselves in the Southern Rhône: too many are trying to make concentrated, high alcohol, 16% wines. And maybe consultants are too powerful down there – one consultant can be responsible for 20 or 30 labels, and so you’re going to have 20 or 30 wines that reflect that.”

It’s here, though, that the knowledge of grapes, and our possession of this specialist dictionary, seems particularly valuable. If wine is to save itself from the vagaries of climate change, it will probably be through the introduction and new use of ‘marginal’ or forgotten ‘heirloom’ grapes. Only recently, France’s Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) officially approved six new varieties: four red grapes – Arinarnoa, Castes, Marselan, and Touriga Nacional; and two whites – Alvarinho and Liliorila – all described as ‘well-adapted to alleviate hydric stress associated with temperature increases and shorter growing cycles’, potential saviours of the region against the villain of global warming. All of them, of course, are charted and explicated in Wine Grapes. In the end, the great strange truth of wine is the truth of life: a thousand vectors press down on us at once – place, history, time, temperature, luck and breeding – and somehow in the intersection we find, or make, our pleasures. The question of type and variation was very different before Darwin who wrote, oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) almost simultaneously with the great classification of Bordeaux, publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859.

(Oddly because his theory would have been true in any other time; not so oddly because the urge to map the world, for the ‘almanac of everything’, was typical of mid-19th century confidence, as Carroll’s satire suggests.) Before Darwin, who loved wine, the fundamental view of the world was that the superintending categories, species and varieties, were the fixed things in the world. Everyone took it for granted that the ‘kind’ the ‘essence’, was the real thing and all the little variants merely particular shades away from it. A grape was a better or worse instance of its variety. Grapes, like apes, were of one fixed sort.

Darwin’s great overriding insight was that only particulars exist, and that species and superintending categories are the labile and ever-changing kinds. Every kind of living thing came from somewhere weird and is on its way to somewhere weirder, with a brief stopover at being the thing it is now. The elegance of Pinot Noir is a close cousin of the earthiness of Syrah, one state is simply a moment in the life of the other, and each are moments in the life of the surging, unfixable whole. Wine, braiding through the planet and only coming to rest on a name for a moment in one place, is a bit of scientific epistemology in your glass, the truth of the particular made potable. It’s a fine destiny for a simple pleasure.

This article was originally published in FONDATA, Issue One. 

Photography by GAVIN BOND

Floral set design by STUDIO LUPINE


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