I was going to call my latest book The Wines of Modern France, to emphasize that it’s a new approach to looking at what French wines are like today, but in the end I settled for simply the Wines of France, because so many wine producers in France questioned the inclusion of “Modern.” Perhaps this is not so surprising in a country where tradition is so valued, but it gives me pause for thought as to what we mean by “modern wine.”
Everywhere in the world of wine, there is a continuing debate between tradition and modernity. But it is a bit different in France: I don’t think I have met a single vigneron who would admit to being modern. When I told producers my book was about the wines of modern France, many were quizzical, and asked if you could truly put “France” and “Modern” in the same sentence. This is a common view among artisan producers: modernity means mass production using industrial methods, and rejecting them defines you as a traditionalist. Perhaps this is why no one wants to admit they are a modernist in France: the important thing is to redefine tradition so that your wine fits in.
I had an interesting disagreement about modernity with Christophe Perrot-Minot, who makes clean, bright, flavorful wines that, for me, express the quintessence of modern Burgundy. When I asked whether he regards himself as a modernist, he was almost insulted. “For me this is traditional, not modern. It’s not that I’m looking for drinking young, I’m looking for balance, and they will age well. For me, a modern wine is made by thermoregulation and long cold maceration. Wines that are too tannic, I call them rustic, not modern or traditional.”
The very concept of modernism is viewed with suspicion. Jean-Luc Colombo all but created a scandal when he introduced new oak into Cornas thirty years ago. When I asked his daughter Laure whether she regards her father as a modernist, she responded with a question: “What is tradition—is it twenty years or fifty years or a hundred years?”–a fair point as Jean-Luc’s approach now has been widely followed.
Mounir Saouma, at micro-negociant Lucien Le Moine in Beaune, sees the “young tradition” as the last thirty or forty years, and the “old tradition” as the preceding period. He views the essential difference as the level of intervention. “So I saw the need for a place where we would make wine in the old tradition. There was a window for a policy of ‘I don’t do.’ Many people were saying ‘I do so and so.’ The objective was to be as classic as possible. I don’t like the word old-fashioned, it’s pretentious. Hundreds of years ago there was a simple way of making wine: if it’s red, put it in a tank, push down the cap, press, wait, bottle. I tried experiments in making wine very simply, putting it in tank and leaving it.” Today Mounir makes his wines pretty much that way, and they have a wonderful bright elegance, very pure and precise. I would call them modern by comparison with the muddier flavor profiles of the past.
My book is certainly about modern wines in the sense that it tries to relate the wines being produced today to the objectives of the people who are making them. I would describe many of the producers as artisanal: small scale rather than bulk production, manual work rather than automated equipment, individuality rather than homogeneity. But why shouldn’t a producer who believes in minimal intervention be considered to be modern? It would be difficult without modern methods and hygiene to make natural wines, for example. Is it necessary to equate modernity with industrial methods? And aren’t you entitled to feel some skepticism if a producer says that he makes wine exactly like his father and grandfather?
The best wines today for me are those that do represent the traditions of the region, but which avoid the problems and flaws of the past. Nostalgia is all very well, but whether you call them modern or not, today’s wines are more a reflection of the producers’ objectives than when they were limited by technical problems.
This is an extract from the conclusions of Wines of France: A Guide to 500 Leading Producers.