Musings on Hugh Johnson’s three categories of wine
Hugh Johnson had a marvelous column in The World of Fine Wine. The man certainly knows how to turn a phrase, and the elegant way he displays his wide knowledge of wine is one more reason why he has been the King of Wine Commentators [a word he prefers] for so long. The bloggers who hope for lengthy shelf lives (not to mention money) at this gig would do well to study his books.
I want to riff on something Johnson wrote in his opening paragraph: “A sense of place. That’s what everyone says they’re looking for these days. Not balance. Not harmony. Not structure or strength or typicity or even mysterious beauty. We read phrases like ‘a wine that comes from somewhere.’ It should be music to people who write wine-atlases. But do we actually know what it means?”
Johnson mentions no specific names of critics who say they’re looking for “a sense of place.” Nor shall I, but if a certain one pops into your brain, so be it. When I read Johnson’s opening words, I thought he was going to demolish the concept of “a sense of place,” but no. He casts doubt on the ease with which some writers claim to find it–and then creates his own list of “vineyard sites that stamp their wines with recognizable character”: Scharzhofberg, Les Santenots, and even a minor white wine from the Languedoc that, Johnson writes, he preferred to Montrachet “at that minute”–nice hedge. Well, there are minutes I’d prefer a cup of coffee to Montrachet.
Johnson also devises a category aside and apart from wines of place: those from producers “who leave such a clean imprint on their wines that it’s the house you see first, then the vineyard.” Among these he includes the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. This surprised me, I must say, since the DRC’s wines always (in my reading, at least) have been accounted as among the world’s greatest expressions of terroir. So I’m not sure what that statement means, although I’m on clearer ground when he places Champagne in a kind of murky, third tier (“wine[s] of high pedigree that evoke plenty of abstract approval but not the sense that you are somewhere”…). This is, I suppose, because most Champagne is blended.
So three Johnson categories:
1. Wines of a place
2. Wines of a house
3. Wines “of abstract approval” that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of “high pedigree”
I thought it would be useful, and perhaps even interesting, for me to play with the Johnsonian categories and see if there are California wines that neatly fit into each. So I researched my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database. I soon realized, however, that things are not as cut and dry here in California, for me, as they are in Europe, for Hugh Johnson. For example, when I considered the wines of a place, the vineyard of David Hirsch immediately leapt into mind. It is a vineyard I can at least claim to know with some fuzzy precision, having been there a few times, and certainly having been in the Fort Ross-Seaview, several-ridges-in neighborhood of Bohan Dillon Road many times over the years. Just as with that minor white from the Languedoc Johnson delighted in (not least because, as he drank it, he could visualize “the vines sloping down to the sea” which led him to describe it as “a sort of seaside Sylvaner”), I can and do picture the Fort Ross-Seaview ridgetops everytime I drink a Hirsch (or Failla, or Flowers, or Wild Hog wine: the high-above-the fogline clarity, the piney forests, the wild herbs, the brilliant sunshine and chilly nights, the red soils that give way to sandy Gold Ridge in the best spots, the sheer, isolated remoteness and–the human element?–the attractive, somewhat eccentric vitality of the winemakers). Surely the wines from these vineyards, including Hirsch, reek of a sense of place?
Well, yes…and no. Not to this critic, anyhow. Nor would I describe them as “wines of a house” whose producer style immediately marks them as distinct. So are they from Johnson’s third category–wines “of abstract approval that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of high pedigree”? You certainly can’t describe them as such. They do have a sense of place…but it’s not as pronounced as the utterly inimitable distinctiveness Johnson finds (or claims to find) in Scharzhofberg and the others.
This is why I’ve never written that such-and-such a wine “could only come from” such-and-such a vineyard. It might have contributed further to my branding as a wine critic were I to do so. After all, nothing halos a critic with more glory than to make such sweeping pronouncements, which inform the public of the critic’s discernment and expertise.
But the fact is that I’ve always valued fact and truth more than anything else, including hyperbole, in my wine writing, and have resisted the temptation (whether from me, or from others) to make sweeping pronouncements I can’t really justify. This is especially true in the context of blind tasting, when it’s impossible to summon the visual memory of “vines sweeping down to the sea” based merely on what’s in the glass.
If I take the bottle out of the paper bag, so that I know what I’m tasting, then it’s a lot easier to find “that sense of place.” Here, then, are some wines that do seem to exhibit a “somewhereness” every time I taste them. Each is from a particular vineyard. I make no claim, nor ever will, however, that a vineyard-designated wine must be superior to a blended one: Johnson concedes as much in the case of Champagne, while I need mention only one wine–Cardinale–to make the same point.
David Arthur Elevation 1147 Estate
Anything from Hirsch Vineyard
Chardonnays from the Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard
Goldschmidt’s Game Ranch Cabernets, from Oakville
Certain Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernets. Janzen and World’s End, both 2009s, are good examples.
Shafer Hillside Select
Marimar Torres’s Pinot Noirs from the Don Miguel Vineyard
Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah
Rochioli Pinot Noirs from south (or east) of Westside Road, especially West Block and River Block
Williams Selyem Pinots from Allen Vineyard
Each of these wines conveys something of its origins, but I would not want to bet my mortgage on identifying them in a blind tasting. Each of them also conveys a “house style”, but it’s important to realize that most of them have been produced over many years, by the same winemaker, so who’s to say what part of the wine is pure terroir, and what part is the winemaker’s considered opinion when it comes to such interventions as fermentation particulars, type of oak barrel, length of barrel aging and so on? As usual, we arrive at that conundrum: a great wine sits at the median point of natural terroir and its interpretation by the winemaker.
The point, I think, is that we get so mesmerized by place-centric musings that we run the risk of delegitimizing certain wines that don’t fit into our preconceived notions of what makes wine great. That is why I was happy to see Johnson talk about that Languedoc wine (which he did not identify by producer). He might simply have dropped the names of Great Growths and Grand Crus like so many critics airily do, but part of what has made Hugh Johnson so compelling for so long is that he refuses to play that game of “I drink better than you can or do.” It no longer matters to him (if it ever did) to say he prefers a Languedoc white to Montrachet; he loses no prestige nor reclamé as a wine critic by doing so.