Devil's Advocate - Defending Michel Rolland's Five-Nation Wine Blend

Michel Rolland has announced the launch of a super-premium wine called Pangaea - the result of blending Bordeaux varieties from 5 countries. Robert Joseph, who previously embraced Penfolds’ French-Californian blend, defends the concept.

RT: 3m 30s

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

A few years ago, I had a consultancy client with wineries in Austria and Hungary. In one, they produced Blaufränkisch; in the other, they made wine from the same grape, but called it Kekfrankos. After tasting wines from both operations with the then-director of the company, we both agreed that, if we wanted to make a small batch of red wine that was finer and more complex than anything already on the table, it would be an Austrian-Hungarian blend. Of course, under current EU legislation, the label on the resulting wine would not have been able to carry any information about the origins, grape variety or even a vintage, but we believed that, for a small experimental batch that could be hand-sold, these were hurdles that could be overcome.

Sadly, that director – my client, in effect – left the company before we could explore the project any further and my consultancy came to an end. Indeed, I suspect that the gap between his openness to this kind of lateral thinking and the narrower attitude of the winery owners may have contributed to his departure.

Arbitrary borders

One of the things that amused and appealed to me about the idea of blending between these countries was the arbitrariness of the borders. After all, between 1867 and 1918, Austria and Hungary were part of the same empire. Before 1861, Italy was a set of separate kingdoms. Alsace has famously been part of Germany as well as France and, today, if the Catalans and Corsicans were to get their way, they would not respectively be living in Spain or France.

My point is that terroir, if you believe in it, has nothing to do with political boundaries.

Now, hardline terroirists may believe that wine should only ever come from very specific places and that all blending across regions is consequently inherently wrong. Depending on the tightness of the definition of terroir, this view might preclude the production of some delicious Champagne, traditional Rioja and my own le Grand Noir wines for which we blend wines from very diverse soils, altitudes and microclimates within Minervois.

For the less-hardliners, I guess it’s all a question of where to draw the line: South Australia might be ok, and maybe ‘South East Australia’, but not Australia/New Zealand, for example. And what to make of the Penfolds Bin 707 vintage that included fruit from Margaret River, a region which, by European standards, would have been several countries away?

Wine's only duty

But why draw these distinctions? Wine is a drink. Its only duty is to taste good and give pleasure while doing the minimum possible harm to flora and fauna. (I’d much prefer to drink a blend of sustainably-produced Spanish and French wine than a conventional wine of comparable-quality from a vineyard in either country.)

If you were to accept this way of looking at it, you start to see wine in the way tea and coffee blenders, chefs and mixologists approach their respective sectors.  And the French wine giants who annually find spaced in their blending vats for nearly three hundred million litres of imported bulk wine from Spain.

Like fusion cuisine

In the 1980s, the notion of ‘fusion cuisine’ was controversial. Today, the freedom to combine influences and ingredients from different continents is treated as normal, just like the decision of a mixologist to cleverly include a touch of wasabi in the brilliant cocktail I recently enjoyed in Dusseldorf.

To say that it’s wrong on principle to mix X with Y smacks of the kinds of laws imposed by nasty governments and religious bodies – and the heads of families like Romeo and Juliet’s Montagues and Capulets.

I’m writing this in Verona, not far from ‘Juliet’s balcony’ that is photographed by countless tourists every day. Of course, there never was a Juliet, or certainly not in Verona, and the origins of Shakespeare’s story can be traced back to Ovid’s ancient Greek tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in Babylon. Or beyond. Over the centuries, there have been countless adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, including Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s brilliant West Side Story that transported the tragedy to New York in the 1950s.

Not correct

I’m sure members of the authenticity-police would have the same kinds of issues with this kind of ‘appropriation’ as wine purists do with anything that doesn’t comply with their notion of what is ‘correct’. But the audiences of these shows rarely worry about such things; they care about whether or not it is enjoyable.

If it is acceptable to be inventive with great plays; if jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Jacques Loussier can create their own versions of classical concertos; if painters can produce their own renditions of canvases by other great artists and use non-traditional materials to create entirely original artworks, why shouldn’t Michel Rolland have a go at breaking the wine code?

To repeat, all that matters is how Pangaea tastes. If it’s good – and I’m betting it will be – others will follow and, who knows, in a decade, there will be lots of affordable multi-national blends that will be giving lots of people lots of pleasure. And maybe one of those will be the salute to the Austro-Hungarian empire that I imagined making a few years ago.




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