Humility in Wine
Day three at the Salon des Vins de Loire was something of a flop. I fell ill Tuesday night, and couldn’t go to the Salon during the day on Wednesday. I only had a morning of tastings scheduled, and I had agreed to taste with blot Jacky Blot, who makes some of the best examples of Montlouis going, and Philippe Vatan, who I missed in last year’s round of Saumur updates. I’ve been in touch with both and apologised for not appearing, and hopefully I will be able to visit this summer when I return to the Loire.
So there are no tasting reports from day three of the the Salon des Vins de Loire. Instead, I want to bring out something I heard during the course of a conversation with two winemakers over dinner on Tuesday evening. I don’t think I should name them, as I didn’t ask their permission to post this, although to be clear everything they said about their peers was positive. Nevertheless, I think repeating what one winemaker said about another without permission might be rather improper.
We were talking about what a grower needs in order to make great wine. Now both you and I could probably come up with a pretty good shortlist. We could probably argue about which of these was most important, but we would probably throw into the hat first a good piece of land, which might of course be very expensive in a valued appellation, where you would probably need to either inherit it, or work for a very wealthy owner. Secondly, we have the vines; are they the right variety, the right rootstock, and the right age. Thirdly, how this land is managed might be significant, fourthly there is the skill with which the harvest and winemaking is executed, fifthly the ability to select and blend, and so on. In terms of personal characteristics, we might look for the winemaker to be insightful, intelligent, and to have a good palate and decision-making ability. There are probably many other characteristics we could add to the list.
The two winemakers I was talking with (although actually I was doing more listening than talking, and trying to keep up with the French) would probably agree with all of these characteristics as being of some importance, but interestingly they rated humility as the most important of all. Humility, the willingness to change, to be challenged, to take criticism as feedback, to watch for and adapt to the unexpected (because in the Loire every vintage is likely to throw something new at you, from hail to floods and from frost to rot). Once a vigneron believes his or her status is without question, the wines will deteriorate, as they will fail to adapt to what is happening in the vineyard. But a winemaker who works with humility can make great wines, and can triumph even when the weather Gods turn against them.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, as I wasn’t taking notes, but the names that were cited as the Loire’s best examples of growers who work with humility, and make great wines in doing so, included: in Sancerre, Alphonse Mellot and the Vacheron family; in Menetou-Salon, Philippe Gilbert; in Touraine, Noëlla Morantin; in Chinon, Charles Joguet, Mathieu and Bernard Baudry (Bernard pictured above) and Philippe Alliet; in Saumur-Champigny, Antoine Sanzay and Thierry Germain; in Anjou, Claude Papin and in Muscadet, the Luneau-Papin family. It reads like a who’s-who of the Loire’s greatest, perhaps unsurprisingly. There may have been others that I missed, but what’s really important is not the list, but the concept. Great wine comes through humility it seems. That’s worth remembering.