Wine is full of oddities, contradictions and grey areas. That, of course, is part of its charm but also a nightmare to navigate for customers not well versed in these dark arts. Decades of regulations, classifications and marketing have culminated in the mysterious wine label: a tapestry of information that, in theory, gives us a solid idea of what is inside the bottle.
Much early wine education is focused on understanding the language and meaning behind the terms, which vary by country and region. The cruel joke is that the most crucial piece of information is staring you right in the face, yet it is something we typically learn much later. The key to understanding the world of wine, emblazoned across the bottle, is the name of the producer.
The real deal
For all the talk of regions, grapes and styles, it is the great producers of the world that deservedly steal the limelight. Would we even look at the precarious slopes of Côte-Rôtie with the same awe without the hauntingly beautiful Syrah of Jamet, or the powerful, single vineyard expressions by Guigal?
Riesling is a remarkable grape in its own right, but the pure, precise wines of Dönnhoff transcend anything you'll read about it, forever imprinting the experience on your palate. ‘Old Vines’ in its various guises is mostly an unregulated and overused term, yet when you taste the depth of truly old-vine Chenin Blanc from Eben Sadie´s recovered vineyards in the Swartland, you know you´ve stumbled across the real deal.
Perhaps the most important thing about the top producers, though, is their consistently high approach to quality. I would far prefer to buy a wine from a “lesser” vintage from the producers I know and love, than a wine from a “stellar” vintage made by one with a lesser reputation.
Wine production is inextricably linked to nature and its fickle tendencies; if the volume produced is the same each year, regardless of the weather conditions, quality has perhaps yielded to more commercial considerations.
No matter what the weather throws at Piedmont, I know that G.D Vajra will produce the very best wines they´re able to, from their kaleidoscopic Barolos of various crus, to arguably the world´s greatest Dolcetto, Coste & Fossati. Rot and mildew could ravage New Zealand all year and however little Kumeu River produced, I would know that their smoky, flinty Chardonnay would still be amongst the most scintillating wines in the country.
No shortcuts – but much joy
It takes time, patience and financial investment to explore the great producers of the world of wine. Bordeaux alone has over 6,000 producers; a lifetime of potential learning in a single region. Yet this is where the real truth and beauty of wine lies and there are no short-cuts.
Some of the greatest winery visits of my life haven´t been by accident, but as a result of a glass of wine that made me stop and ask myself “Who made this? I need to find more”. So keep exploring, keep tasting, trust your palate and when you hear someone raving about a particular winemaker, go hunt down a bottle and see for yourself; who knows what wonderful places that path might lead?
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