This post first appeared on WOSA’s Cape Chatter Blog
Reading was my first love. Before girls, before wine, before cricket. I use it to explain how, like wine, the more you know the more enjoyable it is. If the first glass of wine I ever drank was a brilliant Burgundy, or an excellent old South African Pinotage, there is no question that my enjoyment and appreciation would be less than it is today. Similarly, if I tried reading Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne when I was 12, I would not have understood very much.
How we approach different reading material and different wines is also similar. There’s the great literary novel such as Joyce’s Ulysses, and the intellectually void but titillating (if you have paisley curtains and live alone with cats) Mills and Boon novels. You open their first pages with very different expectations.
Wine too has a diverse offering: there are intellectually stimulating wines, wines that need time, wines that are purely hedonistic, wines that you shouldn’t think about and wines that you wish you’d thought more about before buying. Each one cannot – and possibly should not – be assessed in the same way. Would you take a Paarl Perlé as seriously as a Kanonkop?
It is from this point of view that I want to praise the weird, the odd-ball and left of field avant-garde wines. They are needed, and the poo-pooing they get from certain quarters is, I think, woefully misplaced.
I wonder, dear reader, what you think of when I say weird wines? Is it, perhaps, a variety that you have not tasted before? Barbaroux or Enfariné Noir? Or is it maybe a wine made using strange techniques? A crazy long skin contact white wine, a wine made using only amphorae as a maturation vessel, or a blend of carbonic macerated Cabernet, Merlot and Pinotage?
Weirdness is relative. What is normal for Lammershoek winemaker Craig Hawkins may well be completely insane for the rest of us. But weirdness is important. Weird wines that stretch the very boundaries of what we imagine wine to be are vital to the continuous exploration of what is vinously possible. You don’t have to like it. In fact you probably won’t. That’s the point.
Lovers of wine, literature and art should continually find themselves confronted by strangeness, works that they might not understand first time around or find difficult. Works that question the confines or structures that define the medium they are enjoying.
Some might agree with John Lennon’s sentiment that “Avant-garde is French for bullshit.” But I think they just fear the unknown or the different.
There is so much wine in the world, so much average wine, so many millions of bottles of drinkable, well-made wine, that do everything right but do nothing interesting at all. Any one of those bottles would have been extreme 200 years ago. Techniques such as cold fermentation in stainless steel would have been futuristic aberrations to the wine drinkers of the early 1800s. I can think of no better example of the weird that became the normal than Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon Blancs. What then was new, different, extreme is today as commonplace as, well, green Sauvignon Blanc from Durbanville.
When I think of weird wines, my mind turns to those that are the furthest from what is considered normal in the world of wine. I think of Craig Hawkins’ own-label Testalonga, which makes the drinker question the role of tannins in white wine. Craig Sheard’s Elemental Bob, a left-field interpretation of Pinotage; Eben Sadie’s Mev. Kirsten, a totally unique and intellectually demanding Chenin Blanc; and Adi Badenhorst’s Funky White, which asks us about the division between sherry and table wine. These to me, some more successful than others, push the boundaries of wine. When you taste them you are forced outside the confines of what is ‘normal’.
Just like Duchamp’s urinal asks “What is art?” or Tristram Shandy asks “What is a novel?” weird wines ask us ‘What is wine?’ Part of the avant-garde’s purpose or drive was to break down institutionalised ideas in whatever medium they were created in. And our taste in wine – no matter how many people shout ‘It’s all relative!’ – is as institutionalised as anything. Critics claim from on high that this wine is 100 points or that wine is only 80. It is no wonder that when many are faced with wines that do not fit into their rigid paradigm, they find them easy to dismiss. Actually, I think winemakers are worse than critics here; some of the most rigidly narrow-minded tasters I’ve met have been winemakers.
For wine drinkers who love the exploration of flavour and texture that wine offers experimental, strange and weird wines are important. They broaden the context in which we drink. If I have only ever drunk Chenin Blanc, how can I hope to understand and appreciate Gewürtzraminer? Similarly, different techniques and methods – whether the winemakers are inventing them, or looking back to what has already been done – start on the fringe and slowly make their way into the centre. Here I am thinking of Gottfried Mocke’s Greywacke Pinotage at Chamonix, Duncan Savage’s experiments with amphorae at Cape Point Vineyards and Chris Alheit’s Chenin-Semillon blend, Cartology.
In my opinion the greatest enemy to wine – or to art – is narrow-mindedness. Whether it is Stellenbosch winemakers ignoring the brilliance of the Swartland or Swartland producers eschewing all Sauvignon Blanc, absolutism hinders exploration and creativity. I have been guilty of this. My hatred – it still burns but is at least controlled – of coffee Pinotage may be misplaced, and I’ll look like a fool when a Pinotage I love is created using techniques learned in the creation of those horrid, confected, wines. Who knows?