Is Wine Art?

Feb 28, 2010

Years ago I got into an argument with a colleague of mine. We were talking about art and wine while working in a wine store. At the time I was writing tasting notes for wine displays, using quotes from poets, philosophers and authors on wine. What sparked the conversation is my comment that even though wine is a cultural product and brings us pleasure it is not Art (with a capital 'A'). 

"What about the art of wine?" Leah, my cute, red-haired colleague asked in her perky voice.

I replied by saying that when we speak about the 'art of wine', we really mean the 'craftsmanship' behind making wine. 

"But wine is beautiful. It brings us pleasure."

I nodded. "Of course."

"And even though it isn't a 'Mona Lisa', people can appreciate it."

"But we don't drink the Mona Lisa."

"We take it in," she said emphatically.

"Yes, I see. But it isn't Art. We can pick up the sheet music of Bach or the poetry of Ovid. We will never find again the wine of ancient Rome or the wines Goethe consumed in the Rhine."

I can't remember what exactly she said after that. I think it heated it up from there. 

Recently I picked up the Art Instinct by Denis Dutton (a professor at the Univ. of Canterbury, New Zealand). Dutton's book is focused on providing a link between art and evolutionary science. The main argument is that our love of art and beauty is inborn in us. Our love of a landscape goes back to our roots when men and women wandered the earth is search of food and shelter. Our ideal landscape is green with trees and water, suggesting to our ancestors the presence of wildlife and food. 

Towards the end of the book he discusses the distinction between craft and art, quoting from R.G. Collingwood's The Principles of Art.

A craft is anything related to recipes, formulas, methods and routines. A craft is skilled work "for the purpose of creating a final product or designed artifact." The craftsman's "foreknowledge is required by the very idea of the craft." 

In the case of wine, it is a craft as opposed to Art. The winemaker knows that when he takes his harvest of Merlot, crushes the berries and allows them to ferment in vats, eventually he's going to end up with an alcoholic beverage. There is also the method of pruning vineyards, the recipe of a wine.

In the case of Leonardo da Vinci, he had never painted a "Mona Lisa" until he painted the "Mona Lisa". A winemaker has made wine before. The artist, yes has made art before but the works he creates are singular and particular. 

In Art, even though the finished work of art is the goal, the contents or the journey towards completion is filled with insecurity, wonder, creativity and other decisions. Wine, however follows a logical procession, from harvest to bottle. Even though the wine maker may choose to decide to blend his wine or let it remain in oak barrels for six months as opposed to three, these decisions are based on an idea of the outcome. The end result for an artist may that he intended to write a symphony and ended up with a tone poem; the poet may have wanted to write an elegy and instead wrote a sonnet; and the author started a story and ended up with an epic. 

In the case of vinifcation, the winemaker is setting out to make wine -  not juice, not jelly, not jam or pie. 

I don't know if Leah could argue with that. I'm sure she could. Not only could she make me mad but when she got mad at something that bothered her, that she couldn't fight, those cute white cheeks of hers would get pink and her green eyes would engulf you in the prettiest flames. 

So if the "Craft Vs. Art" argument doesn't work, Leah, thankfully Dutton has my back (and even if he doesn't, getting smacked by you will be a pleasure).

In Chapter 3, 'What is Art' Dutton provides a criteria guideline for judging art. They are as follows:

1.) Direct Pleasure
2.) Skill and Virtuosity
3.) Style
4.) Novelty and Creativity
5.) Criticism
6.) Representation
7.) Special Focus
8.) Expressive Individuality
9.) Emotional Saturation
10.) Intellectual Challenge
11.) Art tradition and Institutions
12.) Imaginative Experience

For wine to be art, it would have to fulfill 90% of the above. 

Direct Pleasure - True wine brings pleasure unless you absolutely detest wine or it leaves you numb.

Skill and virtuosity - Wine takes skill to make but virtuosity... hmmm... We would describe a violinist who has mastered Bach's Partitas and Sonatas as a virtuoso (Joshua Bell). A winemaker as a virtuoso - that sounds a bit exaggerated to me (moreover, would you call him a magician?). 

Style - Wines do have styles but these styles are dependent on the grape, the country of origin and popular taste. The styles of wine preferred by Robert Parker are big and juicy. The styles of France tend to lean towards area of origin. Burgundy can be robust depending on the region but their style is that of Pinot Noir.

Novelty and creativity - There isn't really novelty in wine. It's been around a long time. It is more of a food with aesthetic attributes. This is novel but not unique as there are other foods with aesthetic aspects - i.e. sushi. As for Creativity, yes, to some extent but as I mentioned above, the decisions of a winemaker may be creative, they also happen to come from a craftsman's bag, a limited range of things one can do to wine (you shouldn't set it on fire or try to use it as paint).

Criticism - Yes, wine is routinely criticized. 

Representation - For art to be art, it must represent something. True music doesn't necessarily represent scenes in nature but music is closer to the abstract while wine is wine. A painting depicts people having a beautiful afternoon (Renoir's La Grande Jatte) but wine doesn't really depict anything but itself. It is what it is.

Special Focus, Expressive Individuality, Emotional Saturation and Intellectual Challenge - Art is individual, unique, unto itself and there is both an emotional content and cerebral aspect. Wine may challenge our senses and our recollection of certain scents and flavour but in no way does it fulfill the rest. While wine might be remind us of the wooden smell of a dock or your mother's blackberry jam, the emotional saturation of your experience relies on your singular memory and not an emotion intrinsic in the wine. 

Art Tradition and Institutions - There is no way we can physically judge the wine of five hundred, a thousand years ago, or of Ancient Rome let alone the Greece of Homer against the wines today.  We have description of wine from Pliny the Elder but that doesn't help us. Whereas we have the writings of Euripides and we can compare him to Eugene O'Neil, we can't take the Falernum of Rome and compare them to modern Bordeaux, Sautern and Burgundy, nor the wines of Campania. 

Imaginative Experience - While wine evokes flavours and scents, the imagination depends on us. Again, if we smell wood and think of a dock and a first kiss, that is us, not the wine. Within wine, there are no sunsets, no dreams of true love and no lovers. We tend to bring the wine to those experience that enhance our lives.

So there is it, Leah. Wine doesn't really fit the criteria above. I'm right and you're wrong. Don't worry, you would have put up a good fight, I'm sure... that is if we got into the argument today. It's taken awhile and I've held no grudges. 

Silliness and teasing of Leah aside, this doesn't mean I don't de-value wine. Wine is an art within itself. Wine to me can bring aesthetic beauty to a moment. In Roger Scruton's Beauty, he discusses everyday beauty or the beauty found in our daily lives. Think of a hostess in her home preparing the table for a dinner party. Instead of using the bottle, Scruton observes, the hostess decides to use a carafe to pour the wine. The touch may not be on the level of artistic genius but it brings something new to her table.

Wine is part of the everyday beauty of our lives. We drink wine to see the world differently, to feel a reverence we may not feel while completely sober. This is not to say that being drunk is preferable but just as we eat chocolate to feel a richness in our bodies, wine is that nectar that loosens us. Just as young men eager to talk with young women at the bar drink beer to get 'Dutch courage', wine is that sometimes solemn, sometimes poignant addition to conversation. Everything in a balance.

So no, wine isn't Art (capital 'A'). But wine is definitely beautiful and essential to the beauty of life. The craft and art of wine brings us closer to something special, a je ne said quoi in a given moment. In many ways I think it helps shape our understanding of beauty.

Mind you, if I had a decision to see the art in a modern art gallery (I think of  Manzoni's Merda d'artista or 'shit of the artist' - and it literally is just a piece of shit... I'm not joking), I'd prefer a glass of wine. Modern art is typically no longer beautiful while wine remains so. That's something to be said, eh, Leah?


Santa Carolina - Quality on the Rise

Feb 9, 2010

For many wine buyers, sometimes it makes sense to buy the cheaper wines. 

Santa Carolina's introductory line of varietal Cabernets, Sauvignons, and Chardonnays are an  especially easy purchase. They're easy to drink and easy on the wallet. The fruit is good, the quality reasonable.

But when it comes to the Reserva line, it's harder to justify a purchase. 

Like many Chilean wineries, the firm's roots begin in the nineteenth century.

The winery was first founded in 1875 by Luis Pereira Cotapos in Macul in what is now central-eastern Santiago. When the city expanded, the firm gradually sold off vineyard land to accommodate the capitol's rise in population. Over time, this left the winery with one estate in Maipo and vineyard lands in Cachapoal and Colchagua with a presence in Casablanca via the subsidiary of Viña Casablanca.

The firm's headquarters remain in downtown Santiago while the majority of vinification takes place in Colchagua and Curicó. 

Today, Santa Carolina is owned by by the food and drink group, Empresas Watts (formerly Empresas Santa Carolina) which also owns Finca el Origen in Argentina.

Peter Richards notes in The Wines of Chile that Sanata Carolina "lost its way during the nineties." 

The main problems  came from a lack of investment in the vineyards and the infrastructure. The winemakers for the longest time depended on a basic wine making approach, using formula instead of innovation to shape their wines. Many of their techniques remained old-fashioned, severely out-dated compared to major players like Concha Y Toro and Santa Rita. 

From poor irrigation systems to shoddy oak handling, the resulting wines lacked fruit, character and complexity. Something had to change.

In 2004, Santa Carolina finally fell under new management. An investment plan came into the works and by 2005, two new head winemakers were put in the driver's seat at both Santa Carolina and Viña Casablanca. 

Sven Bruchfeld, now head at Santa Carolina knew he had no time to waste and with colleague  Andrés Caballero and viticultural consultant Pedro Izquierdo, they took a backward glance at previous vintages to see what they needed to do. 

Going through Santa Carolina's wine library, the trio discovered some "descent stuff" but for the most part, the lack of quality disturbed them. New policies were put into place. They found new coopers to craft their oak barrels. They bought small, unused vinification tanks and installed them with temperature control. They also revamped their vineyards, urging the growers to pick later in the season to ensure more sugar and bigger flavour.

The 2006 vintage marks the beginning of Bruchfeld's innovations. He knows it will take time, maybe five years at the most before consumers will note a difference in Santa Carolina's wines. The following wines are on the way to success but the road is a bit bumpy.


Santa Carolina Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua 2008
After doing my research, I now understand why I had always been a little indifferent to the winery's Reserva line. I had the 2007 vintage last year and found it solid but lacking in character. It reminded me too much of the basic Cab. The 2008 vintage is good but I too found it a little muted. There are notes of red currants, green pepper with a nice smoky herbal touch. Sadly, I had a strange feeling this wine had already hits its peak.

Santa Carolina Reserva Merlot Colchagua 2008
The Merlot has a stronger varietal character compared to the Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon. Taking a sniff, I right away got lush notes of blueberry, chocolate and coffee. On the palate, I found the wine to be also muted but with a gentle richness. The wine was especially smooth. Unlike the Cabernet, the wine survived the next day. 

Santa Carolina Reserva Carmenere Rapel Valley 2008
Of the three varietal Reservas, I found this wine the most appealing. Carmenere is not an easy wine to make but when it is grown in the right conditions and harvested at the right time, the variety can offer consumers a delicious alternative to Cab or Merlot.

The 2008 Carmenere is a pleasure to drink with rich cherry, roasted herb and a light vegetal/earthy note. The wine has more going for it but like the others, suffers from a restraint in character.  

Overall, I liken these wines to the different stages of waking up in the morning. Whereas the Cab is still blinking its eyes and yawning, the Merlot is making coffee, while the Carmenere is the brightest and most alive of the three.

Richards, Peter, The Wines of Chile. Mitchell Beazley, London 2006.


Cono Sur - Big on Value and the Environment

Feb 4, 2010

until the barrels were filled with wine
and let the obscure man learn,
in the ceremony of his business,
to remember the earth and his duties,
to propagate the canticle of the fruit.
 - Pablo Neruda - Ode to Wine

Wine isn't completely recession proof. It's true, consumers continue to purchase wine but when it comes to Quality versus Quantity, Quantity becomes the crowd pleaser in down times (when your dollar has to stretch, why buy one bottle for twenty dollars when you can buy two?).

But considering that the recession might be on the way out, it's still easy to buy the cheaper wines, especially when they offer good value. 

And that's why I continually applaud Chile.

In Peter Richards' exceptional and accessible The Wines of Chile he writes:

"Cono Sur, is for my money one of Chile's best wine producers, exemplary not only in its quality but also value, diversity, and ambition."

Peter Richards is a name you can trust. A young but world-renowned expert in South American wines, he has written and judged competitions for Decanter as well written numerous and informative books for Mitchel Beazley, the wine connoisseur's publisher. 

Cono Sur is part of the Concha Y Toro group (which also includes: Emiliana, Trivento in Argentina and Almaviva, a jount venture with Baron Philippe de Rothschild). 

Set up in 1993, Cono Sur's main focus is to bring something unique to export markets. The image of the bicycle on their wine labels signifies the winery's dedication to the environment. In 1998, it first adopted its integrated pest management practices, followed in 2000 by further attempts to create a sustainable vineyard approach. By 2005, about 60% of  their vineyards were regulated under these new management systems. 

Also, Cono Sur is the first winery  in Chile to use screw caps for export wine, a trend readily followed by other Chilean producers.

Cono Sur sources fruit from as far north north as Elqui to Bío Bío in the South, with about 1,000 hectares of vineyards under ownership. Concha Y Toro also helps with the supply. The main man who brings it all  home  is Adolfo Hurtado.

Hurtado acts as both head winemaker and general manager. He only wants the best for himself and his winery, preferring the pursuit of quality over settling for the safe, mediocre mainstream. Along with his vineyards holdings, he has additional connections with local growers and independent vineyards helping to boost the quality, character and depth of Cono Sur's wines.

"Perhaps Cono Sur's strongest, most dynamic offering is in its whites. Its basic Viognier is a striking statement of intent, great value for money and with excellent varietal character in a balanced moreish package."
- Peter Richards, The Wines of Chile

This is one of my favourite value Viogniers (if not the only - Viognier can be quite pricey in the Rhone and less than exceptional when it is below the twenty dollar mark in California). I've had this Cono Sur Viognier from various vintages and they have yet to disappoint. My latest bottle was snagged by my brother who finished it before I had chance to write a review... thankfully I was able to sneak a few sips in to provide a tasting note.

Cono Sur Viognier Colchagua Valley 2009
A lovely apricot and peach melon melody with additional notes of candy tropical and banana. Excellent with Pasta Primavera dishes and pork. 

 Hurtado: "The lesson we learned from Burgundy was that to make good Pinot Noir in Chile we had to do everything different from how we'd done it until then." Pinot Noir remains a challenge in South America. But so far the challenge has paid off. Some of the best Pinot Noir is sourced from fruit in Leyda on the western coast, Casablanca in the Acongua Region and from Bío Bío in the south. For consumers looking for a tasty alternative to the dill-like Oregon Pinot or the fully-fleshed California Pinots of Carneros, let alone the expensive Pinots we find in Central Otago New Zealand and here in Ontario, Cono Sur is your answer.
Cono Sur Pinot Noir Central Valley 2009
True to its varietal profile, this Pinot offers everything you can expect: sour cherry, earthy notes of raspberry with a nice hint of mulberry. Excellent with turkey and lamb dishes. 

"...Pinot Noir remains Hurtado's primary focus. His basic varietal is a delight - sourced from cool-climate sites around the country including Bío Bío, it is balanced, fresh, and with good varietal character..." - Peter Richards.

One of my favourites offered by Cono Sur's introductory line is the Merlot. Now for those new to Chilean wine, at one point Carmenere (Chile's flagship variety) and Merlot were not truly distinguished until late in the twentieth century. This mean a lot of Carmenere was mistaken for Merlot. See my Cinderella Story of Merlot.     
Merlot is Chile's second most planted variety but has been known to under-perform compared to Cabernet Sauvignon. The grape can be a bit heat-stressed in Chile and there are other issues: dehydration, sensitivity to soil-related problems and flavour and colour fading in the latter part of the season. 

But worry not, grape growers have been working hard to rectify the problem.

Cono Sur Merlot Central Valley 2008
This wine is seductive, to say the least. Supple blackberry, boysenberry and wild berry with a delicious  chocolate-vanilla charm. This wine is a dream on your tongue.

Richards, Peter, The Wines of Chile. Mitchell Beazley, London 2006.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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