Pauline Vicard and I often argue over the definition of ‘fine’ and ‘luxury’ wine – a subject that she, as head of the London-based Areni Global fine wine think-tank, spends quite a lot of time considering. She is convinced, for example, that success in export markets and a track record of sales in the secondary market are prerequisites. I’m not sure that the first of these necessarily applies to the finest Napa Cabernets and can think of limited-production wines that rarely come under an auctioneer’s hammer. I’m also not sure how big a part sustainability – however desirable in itself – plays in the decision-making process of people buying fine art, clothes or wine.
Where Vicard and I agree, however is over ‘intent’. A fine wine is made by a person or people who are trying to make the very best product possible.
That statement raises as many questions as it answers, however. 2013 Crus Classés were, famously not only far from being the very best wines Bordeaux could produce; a disastrous growing season made them poorer in quality than many far cheaper efforts from a long list of other, humbler, regions. Why wouldn’t knowingly putting these substandard wines on the market undermine the claim to ‘fine wine’ status of the chateaux that made them?
What about blending?
But, what if the winemakers at those chateaux had taken advantage of the 85:15 blending dispensation on offer to their counterparts elsewhere and used compatible wine to turn their pig’s ear into a silk purse? Or quite frankly produced a multi-vintage effort from their own vineyards. How would purists have felt about their fine wine-ness?
And the same, of course, would apply in normal vintages to the use of commercial yeasts and micro-ox equipment or spinning cones or additional water to reduce alcohol. Are these more, or less, compatible with fine wine than the use of a gentle bladder press, or a sophisticated optical-sorter to ensure that only the most perfect fruit reaches the fermentation vat? What, in other words, if the quest for fine quality involves legally stepping outside the confines of handmade, terroir purity?
It is instructive to look at other sectors. While Noma has built a following for the simplicity of its cooking, few have ever suggested that the dishes prepared using super-sophisticated equipment by Fernan Adria at El Bulli in Spain or Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck in the UK were any less fine.
Are Canaletto’s paintings of Venice diminished by his labour-saving use of a camera obscura? Bartolomeo Cristofori’s invention of the piano in around 1700 allowed composers and musicians to make louder music than was ever possible with a harpsichord. Did it reduce its quality?
Fine silverware, as this recent article reveals benefited hugely from mechanisation. Why should a fine candlestick and a fine be subject to different rules. Top estates may increasingly use AI to help in their decision making. Will this delegitimise their right to be taken seriously as sources of fine wine?
I‘m writing this in Georgia, where winemakers are discussing the legitimacy of installing cooling equipment to control the temperature of wines fermenting in qvevri amphora, and of using ultra violet equipment to kill bacteria in these notoriously hard-to-clean terracotta vessels.
From where I stand, what matters is the quality of the final product and the intent behind it. The method – provided it is honest, legal and causes no harm (which, of course brings us back to the question of sustainability) - is secondary. So, ad absurdum, if someone with the ambition of making one of the finest wines in the world were to come up with a way of doing so using AI and robots, I certainly wouldn’t reject it out of hand.