Wide World of Whine

Controversial documentary 'Mondovino' just might drive you to drink

At one point one of the good guys concludes, deeply, "It takes a poet to make a great wine."

Does it, really? Tell you what, buddy, you take Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman, and Lord Byron, I'll take a pile of software money and 12 migrant grape pickers, and we'll see who makes a great wine. And that is all I have to say about Mondovino, the movie, which, at two hours fifteen minutes, felt to me like four hours of trigonometry homework. If you're in the trade, you should go. If you're not, you'll likely be bored senseless or misled.

That said, I do have a lot more to say about the issues raised by Mondovino, and especially about how you can have a more interesting wine-drinking life if you participate in a way of thinking that doesn't have people's secondhand ideas of Pomerol at the top.

Pastoral poster child: Burgundian winemaker Hubert De Montille in 'Mondovino'
TH!NKFilm
Pastoral poster child: Burgundian winemaker Hubert De Montille in 'Mondovino'

How does this distant idea of perfect Pomerol affect people who pay less than $15 a bottle? One word: Yellowtail. Oaky, sweet Australian Shiraz is, in a very distant way, trying to be Pomerol. So is syrupy California Merlot. Coincidentally, to my palate, these are also the two wines on earth that have the most in common with Coca-Cola. I watched Mondovino with three people from Wine World, on separate days: French wine importer Chris Osgood, who finds wines from the Languedoc for local distributor the Wine Company; Michael Arnold, who works for wine distributor Cat & Fiddle; and Jeanne Moillard, a young woman who lives in Burgundy and was in town promoting the wines of her family company, Moillard.

Each of these people wanted to talk about something that is more about our lives than it is about the movie: They wanted to talk about how aligned American and Australian palates have gotten to the idea of wine as a sweet, vanilla-toasty beverage, and how difficult it makes their passion of selling more distinct wines.

"To me, these wines taste like candy bars," said Chris Osgood, speaking of American or Australian mass-market reds. "In France, traditionally, wine is made to go with food--not to stun and overpower it. Every time I have one of these big American or Australian wines with a meal, I feel like I'm eating bites of a Snickers bar between bites of the meal. When I was 21 or 22, I definitely liked wines like that; I always thought, 'This is bigger than the last thing I tasted, therefore it's more memorable.' When you develop your palate you learn that bigger isn't necessarily better. What's memorable is the relationship between the food and the wine. With food and wine, in Europe, it's a chicken-and-egg thing: The two grew up together, they go together like people in a marriage, the sum is greater than the parts.

"For me, opening a wine is like opening a travel book: You get the geology, the geography, the history, the cuisine, and the climate of a single place, all packed into one bottle. And that is dying. The Sylvaner grape is just about gone in Alsace, suddenly there's just a lot of Chardonnay."

To counteract this homogenization of the world, Osgood brings in several Languedoc wines that have idiosyncratic character. We tried a few of his wines while we talked about issues that weren't in Mondovino. Château Eugénie, a Cahors Malbec (called Auxerrois in France) that's available for about $12 at Surdyk's, Liquor Depot, France 44, and Zipp's. This dark wine doesn't have the obvious fruit or friendliness of a wannabe Pomerol. Instead it has a strongly mineral nose, a scent of plums or prunes, and the funkiness of truffles, all hung upon a bracingly angular and stiff structure that cuts through the world like an axe blade.

You want a different experience than soda pop? Look no further. This Château Eugénie seems like it would be forceful enough to stand up to any steak coming off the most char-laden backyard barbecue, or, in winter, to prickle up the palate to prevent a cassoulet from becoming too unctuous.

Osgood also has an unusual wine made from the Négrette grape, a small, very black-skinned grape grown outside of Toulouse. This wine, Château Bouissel, is available for around $10.99 at Solo Vino, Thomas Liquors, and Surdyk's, and, for a dollar or two more, in an oaked version at Sutler's, in Stillwater. It's an unusual wine, deep black, very acidic, full of red cherry, red fruit, and various Grenache-like elements, as well as a unique nose of saddle-leather and cassis. Osgood said that the Négrette grape came to Toulouse during the crusades, that the knights brought it back from Malta.

You want to participate in unique regional culture? Knights. Malta. No kidding. Possibly even chain mail and swords. Château Bouissel. Again, I could see this as a good barbecue wine: Because of all the acid, it would be ideal for something both barbecued and spicy, like a garlic-filled lamb sausage, or something with pork and sweeter spices such as cinnamon. The final wine Osgood and I tasted was a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, les Poyeux from Saumur Champigny, which costs $12.99, exclusively at Surdyk's. This French Cabernet Franc was aggressive and intense: figgy, violet-scented, fiercely tannic, with a stiff, practically crystalline structure and a tarry density. It was the exact opposite of a Coca-Cola wine: It was like a bone corset on a gamine smoking a Gauloise.

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