The wood used to age whisky adds to its story, says Richard Woodard, but let’s get our facts right.
It’s International Sherry Week this week, so naturally I want to talk about Port – because what’s happening in the spectacular vineyards of the Douro Valley might have resonance for Scotch.
Gripped by misty-eyed nostalgia, Port anoraks will rhapsodise about the superlative vintage Ports made during the early 20th century…
‘Sure, this 1994 is nice, but did you ever taste the 1931? And what about the 1912? Before the big companies took over and standardised everything? They don’t make ’em like that any more…’
Any of this sound familiar?
It’s easy to dismiss such fond remembrances as yearnings for a world that never existed – the Olde England of unlocked doors, affable British bobbies and honey still for tea. But even a cynic like me is beginning to wonder…
Port vineyards are historically anarchic; even today, more than 100 grape varieties are permitted, and the vines planted in the late 19th century, after the phylloxera plague wiped out nearly everything, were done so haphazardly and at high density. And yet these packed, chaotic terraces were the source of some of the greatest wines ever made.
Come the 1970s, rationality and science coughed politely, tapped the anarchic wine farmers on the shoulder and suggested a more logical approach. Focus on the ‘best’ grape varieties (five in particular were identified), plant them in separate blocks, pick them at optimal ripeness and make each one into wine before blending them all together.
The reasoning, it seemed, was faultless: use only the finest ingredients, maximise the potential of those ingredients, then use your blending skills to create the best wine possible. In terms of vineyard management, it was cost-effective too.
A river runs through it: Do the vineyards of the Douro hold a lesson for Scotch?
But, about 10 years ago, some began to question this received wisdom. A new generation making unfortified table wines in the Douro noticed that the neglected old vineyards, in which dozens of different grape varieties were sprinkled at random, were making more characterful, complex, simply better wines.
Now the scent of revisionism is in the air. All but forgotten grape varieties replanted, mixed vineyards acquiring a renewed appreciation, different grapes fermented together. No, not everything will be perfectly ripe when it’s picked – but those imperfections, when moulded with skill and experience, only add to the final wine’s quality.
What’s this got to do with Scotch? Listen to David Guimaraens, head winemaker at The Fladgate Partnership, producer of Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft Ports. He reckons the changes in the Douro during the 1970s did their job in terms of achieving greater consistency – but at a price.
‘We pulled the bottom up,’ he says. ‘But we also believe that we have pulled the top down… we have lost some of the complexity and we have certainly lost the diversity.’
Did this happen to Scotch? The entirely rational drive for greater efficiency and consistency may well have improved the average quality of blends – ‘pulled the bottom up’, in other words – but in the process, was something precious mislaid?
The chaos of distillery floor maltings, different strains of yeast and manual operation undoubtedly resulted in some pretty inconsistent spirit – but, when the whisky gods conspired, did that chaos also create lasting greatness?
And, if it did, how can we get it back?
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