Fusion wine has its place

Wine blends built on unusual combinations, or from grapes taken across different regions, have a long tradition, says Robert Joseph. Maybe it's time to take them seriously once again.

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash
Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

Time is not linear. It loops. Three decades before Nordic chefs began to excite restaurant critics with their ‘pure’, ‘foraged’ dishes, French cooks like Paul Bocuse, Jean & Pierre Troisgros and Michel Guérard were pioneering Nouvelle Cuisine which eschewed the creamy, floury sauces of the past in favour of local ingredients and natural flavours.

At around the same time, the 1970s and 1980s, however, Californian and then Australian pioneers were creating something more controversial: a style of cuisine which came to be known as ‘fusion ’. Like the musicians of the time who put out albums combining rock bands and symphony orchestras, fusion chefs concocted recipes that brought together ingredients from different regions, countries and even continents.

The results were often poorly received – food critic Ruth Riechl called them “air-freight cuisine with a global reach” – while the 1990 Mike Leigh comedy movie Life is Sweet satirised the trend by featuring a restaurant called the Regret Rien whose menu included a British Saveloy sausage on a bed of lychees and tongues in rhubarb hollandaise.

While that level of lunacy was rarely if ever found in real establishments, there’s no denying that many of the early trans-national experiments went too far. Today, however, chefs like Ferran Adria, Jean Georges Vongerichten and Tetsuya Wakuda have made fusion acceptable. Pierre Gagnaire, one of the leaders of the movement has repeatedly featured among the front runners in Restaurant Magazine’s list of the world’s top restaurants.

Fusion wine is another story. Again, it’s not exactly a novelty: in the early 19th century, the leading Bordeaux merchant Nathaniel Johnson wrote that , “The Lafitte [sic] of 1795, which was made up with Hermitage, was the best-liked wine of any of that year.”

Since the arrival of Appellation Contrôlée legislation in the 1930s, however, the idea of marrying wine across regions has been consigned to the bargain basement. Every day, millions of Frenchmen and women happily enjoy glasses of wine from bottles whose labels discreetly declare their contents to be ‘produit de la communauté européenne’ – the official term for blends that include much of the billion dollars worth of wine that France imports. annually.

These Euro-blends – produced and sold by huge companies such as Castel – generally go unnoticed and/or unmentioned by the vinous chatterati. The notion that anyone might, like the Maitre de Chai at Lafite in 1795, actually want to make a premium blend between regions is beyond the modern imagination. When I recently posted a reference to Scolaris, a non-vintage, multi-regional, Italian blend of Primitivo, Nebbiolo, Nero d’Avola and Sangiovese which had been created by the Swiss direct-sales merchant Schuler for sale to its customers at €30.00 per bottle ($34.00), the assumption by wine professionals was generally that it was an ‘opportunistic’ attempt to throw together cheap wine in an attempt to make money.

Would they have felt the same about ‘Historical XIX Century Wine’ or Evidence, the 18th-century-style blends of Médoc and Hermitage that Chateaux Palmer and la Lagune have respectively been producing since 2004 and 2010?

My instinct is that examples like these might get a free pass from vinous conservatives because of the reputation of the two estates and the tradition they are reviving. If a Burgundian were to make a similar experiment with wine from North Africa – another once-well-accepted recipe – the uproar is easy to imagine.

I’m not proposing a reopening of the pipeline between Algeria and Nuits St Georges; however, I did enjoy the JCB Pinot Noir that Jean-Charles Boisset gave me to taste blind a few years ago. It turned out to be a blend of grapes grown in his vineyards in Sonoma and Burgundy. And I see no reason why such wines should not exist and be taken seriously.

When I was chairman of the International Wine Challenge in the 1990s, we awarded medals to a non-vintage French wine called Rebelle from the Bordeaux merchant Dulong, which included wine from Languedoc and the Médoc, and to a another non-specific blend called Caballo Loco made by Valdivieso in Chile’s Central Valley.

All of these wines were delicious, but they are rare transgressive exceptions to the rule that wines have to taste of a place and a year. Because… well, just because.

But in the US, at least, that’s changing. Almost everywhere that wine is sold, you’ll find bottles of – usually red - blends of unnamed grapes from unspecified parts of California and selling at $25.00 to $40.00. Dave Phinney, the man behind the best-selling The Prisoner and Orin Swift brands that fit these criteria, has also launched a range called Locations whose labels are based on the one-letter nationality stickers used on the bumpers of European cars. The ‘fourth release’ (there is no vintage) of the French ‘F’ is made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and ‘assorted Bordeaux varietals’, from Roussillon, the Rhône and Bordeaux, while the second ‘I’ marries  Puglian Torricella and Manduria with Barbera from Alba, and ‘E’ is a cocktail of Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero.

When Gallo bought Locations from Phinney in June 2018, the winemaker described the concept as “creating simple, complex and fun wines by removing the constraints of vintage, varietal and appellation”. At the time he was selling over a million bottles across the range, at an average price of $15.00. With Gallo behind the brand that number is sure to rise.

Of course, as with fusion food, some fusion wines will be much more successful than others. But that’s not to say that the only partner for Cabernet and Merlot should be Syrah, just because that’s what people did 250 years ago. Any more than the only white grape to co-ferment with Syrah should be Viognier. All I’m asking for is the kind of open-mindedness I found in this restaurant review of a dozen years ago by Rebecca Seal.

“It's easier to get away with slightly underwhelming food if it's largely what people expect – I've eaten slightly crappy pepperoni pizza and slightly crappy pizza with carrot and cream cheese on, and I know which one I'd rather have again. Fusing different cuisines together can be really successful and exciting, but so much more noticeable if you get it wrong. That said, is it just a lack of imagination that stops us enjoying new flavour combinations?”

Robert Joseph

 

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