The Man Who Knew Too Much

December 2, 2010

Matt Kramer has just released a compilation of his New York Sun and Wine Spectator columns, straightforwardly titled Matt Kramer on Wine. Right away in the preface Kramer apologizes if some of the contents seem dated. “After all,” he points out, “journalism is written for the moment and when that moment has passed, well, timing is everything.” But Kramer is one of the most thoughtful wine writers out there, and most of the pieces in the collection are timeless.

Of particular resonance today is his 1998 column, “Real Collecting vs. Phony Collecting,” inspired by the 1997 auction of the art collection of Victor and Sally Ganz. In Kramer’s account, the Ganzes were well-to-do, but not all that rich by the standards of the art-collecting world. Lacking the advantage of bottomless pockets, they built their collection on sheer connoisseurship. The Picasso painting Le Rêve—the one Steve Wynn infamously ripped with an errant swing of his elbow after agreeing to sell it for $139 million—came from the Ganz collection. Victor Ganz bought it for $7,000 in 1941.

But “when the price of Picassos rose beyond their means,” Kramer writes, “the Ganzes shifted their highly focused interest—and insights—elsewhere. Almost unerringly, it seems, whatever they bought proved over time to be enduring and enlightening.” For example, in the 1960s, Victor Ganz was at “a big-name gallery where the big-ticket work of a famous painter was being shown.” He was unimpressed and wandered around the corner to a more humble gallery, where he discovered the work of then-unknown sculptor Eva Hesse and, “after intense absorption,” bought three pieces.

What bottles would a wine collector as discerning as Victor Ganz buy today? Kramer poses the question, but doesn’t suggest any answers, except to point out that first-growth Bordeaux is not on the menu: “He knew too much.” I think I have some ideas, though:

Antoniolo Gattinara Osso San Grato, Travaglini Gattinara Riserva. — Barolo and Barbaresco are the blue-chip nebbiolo wines. Everybody knows that. But in another of his books, Making Sense of Italian Wine, Kramer points out that it was not ever thus—“there was a time, a half-century ago and more, when the district and wine called Gattinara was as prestigious and highly regarded as Barolo.” What’s more, Barolo itself is a fairly recent invention, at least compared to other blue chips like Bordeaux or Burgundy. According to the New York Times’s Frank Prial, “Once, Barolo was a sweet wine. In the 1840’s, the French wife of a local nobleman hired a French winemaker, Louis Oudinot, to transform Barolo into a dry wine in the French style. The new style soon became the only style.” Which is to say that very little in Piedmont is carved in stone, and it’s not too late for Gattinara (once again) to receive its due as a reference-standard nebbiolo.

It’s often said that the most compelling wines come from regions where the grapes ripen just barely, which certainly describes the mountain region of Gattinara relative to the sun-drenched Langhe where Barolo and Barbaresco are grown. The cooler climate renders nebbiolo with leaner, more feminine proportions reminiscent of pinot noir. The volcanic soils inflect the wines with a gravelly minerality as vivid as you’ll ever experience in a wine. Antoniolo’s Osso San Grato, from the producer’s top vineyard, is my favorite example. On release, it exhibits fine-grained tannins which make it far gentler on the palate and easier to drink than any Langhe nebbiolo of a similar age. With age, it turns sappy and savory and cranks the mineral expression up to eleven. Travaglini’s Riserva eventually showcases the same rockiness but isn’t as forgiving of being opened too early. On release, it’s a firmly structured wine capable of being mistaken for Barolo in every respect except for its surreal bottle shape (and its price tag).

Louis Jadot Moulin-à-Vent Château des Jacques Grands Clos, Coudert Fleurie Clos de la Roilette Cuvée Tardive. — Most articles about Beaujolais repeat two chestnuts. The first is that the majority of Beaujolais is junk, with the good stuff tarnished by association with the likes of Beaujolais Nouveau. The second is the story of how Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, ordered the gamay grape expelled from the Cote d’Or in the 14th century. The insinuation is that gamay makes a fundamentally less noble wine, justifying the contemporary prejudice of Beaujolais as rustic and simple. But it turns out that Philip the Bold’s gamay is not relevant to Beaujolais after all. In his Book of French Wines originally published in 1928, P. Morton Shand wrote that the gamay of Beaujolais in fact “has nothing in common” with the “infâme Gamet” that littered the Cote d’Or in Philip the Bold’s day. The latter yielded a “dark juice” presumably lacking in elegance, while the gamay strain planted in Beaujolais “is essentially a vin tendre, a wine that is above all fresh and refreshing, light, delicate and full of fruit: the antithesis of anything ‘big and booty.’”

Just as modern collectors have forgotten the esteem in which Gattinara was once held, few realize that the best vineyards in Beaujolais were once as prestigious as the grands crus of Burgundy, and sold for comparable prices when they changed hands. In fact, Shand’s book relates that 32 vineyards in Moulin-à-Vent were entitled to a Grand Cru appellation under a 1919 délimitation cadastrale, which seems to have gone down the memory hole as Beaujolais appellations today only cover the name of the village. Nevertheless, four of those original Grand Cru vineyards are today in the hands of Louis Jadot’s Château des Jacques estate and given their own vineyard-designated bottlings: Clos du Grand Carquelin, Clos des Rochegres, Clos de la Roche, and Clos des Champs de Cour. They are as sophisticated as Burgundy and structured for long aging. Coudert’s Clos de la Roilette is just as pedigreed. Shand reports that the Clos de la Roilette was nicknamed “‘le Clos-Vougeot du Beaujolais’”—after the single most esteemed Burgundy vineyard of that era—for “the manifold perfections its wine embodies.” The Cuvée Tardive comes from vines over 80 years old and has the quiet intensity that’s a hallmark of very old vines: concentrated, but somehow still slender in its silhouette.

Domaine Karydas Xinomavro, Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko. — It seems strange that a nation whose wine culture dates back to antiquity, just like Italy’s, should be so far off the radar of so many wine drinkers today. But there are no wine critics or famous importers evangelizing Greek wines, Greek cuisine doesn’t dot the landscape the way Italian restaurants do, and of course there is the inherent awkwardness of pronouncing the names of native grape varieties like “xinomavro” and “assyrtiko.” So most Americans are unlikely to encounter Greek wines without making a deliberate effort to try something eclectic. And yet even many who do make that effort often end up ignoring Greece. That’s a shame, because Greece has some priceless assets to offer. First, it’s a Mediterranean culture where wine is a fixture at the table, and the wines are therefore made to be consumed with a meal rather than to outpunch other wines in a mass side-by-side competition. Second, regions like Santorini, home of Sigalas’s thrilling assyrtiko, are among a precious few spots in Europe unaffected by the phylloxera epidemic that devastated Europe’s vineyards in the nineteenth century and where old vines still grow on their own roots. The result can be a clarity of expression that’s almost jarring to modern palates. Sigalas’s assyrtikos, with their rough, craggy texture reminiscent of some Austrian rieslings or gruner veltliners, feel like they are chiseled out of the volcanic rock on which they’re grown.

Karydas comes from the Macedonian appellation of Naoussa, whose signature red variety, xinomavro, has been compared to pinot noir and nebbiolo. In truth, it has the tough, muscular structure of the latter in its youth but shows its feminine side with bottle age. It also has the interesting distinction of being one of the few non-French varieties that can walk away from an encounter with new French oak without losing its soul, as Karydas demonstrates. The distinguishing characteristic of Karydas’s xinomavro is its veritable rock quarry of minerality. My notes on one recent vintage read: “There is oak here but the dominant flavors are so rocky the wood practically tastes petrified.” But I am especially fond of the note the wine writer Elliot Essman crafted on the same wine. Taste being a fundamentally difficult and subjective thing to put into words, one doesn’t often come across a wine tasting note that totally nails the experience of drinking a wine, but this one does, to the extent that if I’d missed the name of the wine I would have thought, “Sounds like Karydas.” He wrote: “In the mouth, the tannin speaks without timidity, though you want to enjoy it now for what it is rather than as a vector for some theoretic aging process. These are firm, drying tannins that you love for exactly what they are. . . . We know this wine has seen wood, with accents of cedar, cigar box, tobacco, cocoa, some leather, and dried mountain herb. An earthy minerality provides the bottom: gravel and crushed rock, the kind you would use to build a road you expected to last.” His verdict, in lieu of a point score: “A cultural statement.”

There are too many others to list, including some that admittedly aren’t cheap except in comparison to the offensively priced blue chips with which they can legitimately compete. For example, I have become much less depressed about Ch. Cheval-Blanc’s becoming a five-hundred-dollar wine since realizing that the cabernet franc in Clos Rougeard’s Saumur-Champigny Le Bourg can equal or exceed Cheval-Blanc’s in distinction; ditto for Pierre Peters’ Champagne Les Chetillons relative to the great Salon. In the Rhône it continues to surprise me that the trophy pricing that’s infected Chave Hermitage hasn’t yet spread to Jamet Côte-Rôtie and Allemand Cornas Reynard, which manage to epitomize their respective appellations, while at the same time towering over the rest of the wines there, in the same way that Chave does, or did. And Australian renditions of the grape that did not succumb to the Fruit Weight fashion, such as Mount Langi Ghiran’s Victoria Shiraz and Henschke’s Mount Edelstone, are as profound, individual, and ageable as their Rhône counterparts. Then there is riesling. Is there any wine collector more boring than the type who presumes that great riesling begins and ends with Trimbach’s Clos Ste. Hune? Even setting price aside and limiting myself to the dry genres, I’d sooner drink and cellar Alzinger Steinertal, Hirtzberger Singerriedel, Hirsch Heiligenstein and Gaisberg, various of the Mosels from A.J. Adam and Peter Lauer, Klaus-Peter Keller’s Grosse Gewächse, and Grosset Polish Hill.

Admittedly, it’s one thing to point to an underdog and declare that it can knock the champion off its pedestal, and it’s another thing actually to defend the claim. So, before mentioning anything here, I applied the Charles Murray “Seriously?” test. Murray wrote, in connection with his survey of the greatest human accomplishments in art and literature:

I think that the number of novels, songs, and paintings done since 1950 that anyone will still care about 200 years from now is somewhere in the vicinity of zero. Not exactly zero, but close. I find a good way to make this point is to ask anyone who disagrees with me to name a work that will survive—and then ask, “Seriously?” Very few works indeed can defend themselves against the “Seriously?” question.

The sale of the Ganz art collection yielded over $200 million. I doubt there are many wines one can buy today that will look like similarly brilliant investments from a financial perspective. But even if today’s undervalued wines never get discovered, it still pays to find room in the cellar for them. Because if they don’t escalate in price, then people who have mature bottles won’t bother to sell them, so the only way to experience them will be to cellar them yourself. And the experience just may turn out to be as profound as you can get from the fanciest Grand Cru money can buy. Seriously? Seriously.

For further reading:

10 Responses to “The Man Who Knew Too Much”

  1. The wine culture in Greece dates back to antiquity, yet at the same time, modern winemaking is very young by any standards. Winemaking declined through the Ottomon occupation from the 15th century that lasted until 1821. The arrival of phylloxera, and the two world wars that were followed by the civil war left the wine industry in shatters. The 1960′s were dominated by bulk wine, and also gave rise to retsina. During the 70′s a handful of large players dominated the bottles wine market. During this time, the first boutique wineries were set up. A lot of progress was made, finally the first decade of this century saw a tremendous improvement in quality and winemaking skills. There are currently approximately 800 wineries in existence, more than 700 of those are small to medium sized.

    Xinomavro and Assyrtiko are both stunning grape varieties that currently offer tremendous value. I often shake my head in disbelieve by the price tags of these wines, many are to be found at below $20 and you will be pushed hard to find wines that demand more than $30. Both varieties also share the characteristic that they can age really well. They offer complexity that should entice every wine lover. Thank you so much for your wonderful post!

  2. Great writing, great message, and a wonderful motivator to taste some new wines (to me). I do hope you are right, but I also hope people ultimately buy wine for their own pleasure rather than investment

  3. Wow! I’ve never read any other piece of wine writing that has inspired me to move so quickly to action. I’ll be spending the rest of my weekend trying to track down these offerings… Thanks for sharing and can’t wait to see what is next!

  4. For Santorini Assyrtiko, you should include on your shortlist, the very much on form addresses…

    2009 Argiros Estate
    2009 Assyrtiko Wild ferment by Gaia.

    As for Xinomavro…

    2007 Uranos Thimiopoulos Vineyards,Trilofos, Naoussa
    2007 Xinomavro Reserve Vv.Alpha Estate, Amyndeon

    Have fun.

  5. Paul V said

    Nice post! Love Sigalas Assyrtiko and the xinomavro I’ve tried. I am a bit biased being greek and all. Don’t think I’ve had better beaujolais than Jadot Chateau des Jacques. Guess I should try some Gattinara now.

  6. bags said

    Congratulations on a profoundly interesting and provocative beginning to a most promising blog. Wow!

    One of the implicit points is whether we should actually ^care^ that others recognize in a wine what we might and whether, since most of us do not resell our purchases, we should subsequently also hope that such attraction produces higher value for our wines (and higher costs when we want to buy more later).

    I ponder the association of your thoughts on wine with the example of fine art, but it’s not at all clear to me that it works fully. With the possible exception of Madeira, the glory of wine is its fragility. Wine, like life, is short. Art, on the other hand….

    Anyway, like others above have said: great and worthy writing. Many thanks!

  7. Sean Barry said

    Simply put, welcome to the blogosphere. What a relief to find inspired, engaging, serious wine writing–something beyond the inanity of screed & baseless opinion & number-crunching (“I only drink above 90″) that has no relation to the experience of wine.

    Very much looking forward to future posts…Kudos.

    sb

    ps. (Shush up about the Chateau des Jacques–I don’t want to have to pay more than $20 for another religious experience)

  8. Thanks everyone for reading and commenting. I’m especially happy and relieved with the comments and site visits from Greece, as one always has a fear, when commenting on something one knows a little bit about, of being made a fool of by someone who knows a whole lot about it. Anyway, thank you to the Greek visitors for confirming that I am not crazy. Mark my words, one of these days xinomavro will be the rage!

    To Bags: there are certainly important differences between wine and art (for one thing, wine isn’t — or at least good wine isn’t — designed to be a medium for the maker’s self-expression), but there are also some interesting similarities. For one thing, I think it’s right to think about both in aesthetic terms. For another, I find that the “collector gene” leads to a similar mindset whether one is collecting wine or art or comic books or garden gnomes….

  9. [...] writing I’ve likely ever read. If you haven’t yet stop reading now and click on over to Keith Levenberg’s Cellar-Book. That said be forewarned I have been on a relentless search for each (see Assyrtiko mention above) [...]

  10. Gilberto said

    Keith,
    I have discovered your blog only recently and am enjoying reading it a lot!
    The reason why I stop here to leave a comment more than two years after you wrote this article is the story of the “invention” of Barolo by Louis “Oudinot” which you quote from Prial.
    I guess this is a misspelling of Oudart, which has often been attributed the transformation of Barolo wines from sweet to dry.
    This story can be read for example on the “Atlante delle vigne di Langa”, where one can read that it was Cavour who called the enologist Oudart from France, because he was in love of Burgundy wines and wanted to make similar ones in the Langhe. The wife of the nobleman mentioned by Prial must be the Marchesa Falletti, who knew Cavour very well and got to know Oudart through him. According to the Atlante: “And it was in this way that, starting from the Nebbiolo grape and applying new enological techniques, Barolo was born.”

    The Atlante is published by Slow Food, but the founder himself, Carlo Petrini, was presumably not very happy with this historical reconstruction, because he pushed the archivist Anna Riccardi Candiani to make more research in order to find some basis to this story.
    Mrs. Candiani accepted and the outcome of her research has now appeared in a book again published by Slow Food.
    To make a long story short, the reconstruction is to a large extent incorrect. It was first written in this way by Dalmasso, an Italian professor of viticulture in Turin, author of a “History of the vine and wine in Italy” and from there it propagated.
    A few more details:
    - Oudart came to Italy by himself to establish a commercial activity based in Genoa.
    - he rented land and bought grapes to make wine which he commercialized himself;
    - he proposed to Cavour a collaboration (not the other way around), but Cavour refused;
    - he did make dry Nebbiolo, but from grapes grown in Neive, not in Barolo. These were presented in various exhibitions (in Florence 1861, London 1862 and Dublin 1865) and were quite successful.
    - the vintages he presented were 1857 and later ones, anyway decades before the first official dry Barbarescos.

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