Encounters of the Strange Kind with Sommeliers in France

I admit that sometimes I have issues with sommeliers. I respect sommeliers who try to help diners to match a wine they will enjoy (at a price they are prepared to pay) with a meal, I respect sommeliers who try to find unusual wines or unexpected matches with food, I respect sommeliers who are highly opinionated even if their opinions clash with my own views. But I do have a quarrel with sommeliers who decide I should not be allowed to drink a particular wine with my meal.

Some years ago I went to dinner in a famous restaurant in Strasbourg with a group of scientists from a conference I was attending. We ended up ordering a mixture of fish and poultry, so I looked for a white wine and settled on a Domaine Leflaive premier cru from Puligny Montrachet that was at a price point I thought the group would be comfortable with. “Oh no, you don’t want to have that,” the sommelier said. “It is not ready yet. You want the Puligny village wine (from the same vintage).” This wasn’t completely unreasonable as a view, but I felt that the premier cru would have more interest and would on balance go better with the variety of dishes we had ordered, so I said we would stick to it. The sommelier went off grumbling. He returned in due course with a bottle of Leflaive from the right vintage—but it was the Puligny Montrachet village wine. “This isn’t what we ordered,” I said. “Oh no, you don’t want the premier cru,” he said, and went through the whole litany all over again. At that point I gave up and we had the Puligny. Very nice it was too—but the premier cru would have been better!

Last week in Haut Savoie, a sommelier once again told me I had got it all wrong. I was eating with my wife at a restaurant where the only choice is how many courses to have on a tasting menu. The dishes are exclusively fish or vegetables, and the style is very modern (no cream sauces). It’s always a bit tricky to choose a wine when you haven’t been able to choose the specific dishes, but I thought the Clos Rougeard Brézé 2009 from Saumur would be very suitable. “Oh no,” said the sommelier, “you don’t want to order that. It is much too powerful to go with the food.” I demurred politely by saying I thought it should be more or less ready now (I had the 2011 a few months ago and it wasn’t quite ready). The sommelier then looked for other arguments. “Anyway, it is much too oaky now, it will clash with the food.” This seemed a surprising, not to say deceptive, argument, as the Foucault brothers never used much new oak on Brézé, and I imagine they would instantly have taken away his allocation if they had heard this. And why was it on the list anyway, if it’s unsuitable for the cuisine? With an increasing air of desperation, the sommelier proposed various alternatives in the form of a series of white Burgundy premier crus from 2015 or 2016. Talk about new oak! I stuck to my guns, and there was something of a delay before the wine was disgorged, but it arrived in time for the meal. With which it was absolutely brilliant!

What’s the common pattern here? I am very much afraid it is that in these (and other similar cases) the restaurant has been able to obtain a scarce wine at a reasonable price and has not taken advantage by marking it up, but the sommelier cannot bear to share it. It’s greatly to the credit of the restaurants that they don’t go in for price-gouging, but it’s somewhat presumptuous to assume that they can tell who deserves to enjoy the wine. I feel a bit suspicious about this, and am inclined to wonder if the same attitude is shown to all diners.

Sometimes you do wonder how a wine comes to be on the list. At a restaurant in Beaune, I ordered a Pommard premier cru from a good vintage from a producer I did not know, because the price was fair and I assumed that in Beaune they would certainly know their producers. My tasting note starts “This gives a whole new meaning to rusticity in Pommard.” The wine was truly terrible, over-ripe and raisiny, fruits steadily deteriorating in the glass, and a heaviness suggesting over-chaptalization. I hesitated as to what to do, as my impression was that this was the style, and unexpected though that might be, I wasn’t sure there was a single flaw that would be a reason for sending it back. So I said to the sommelier, “Would you taste this wine and tell me what you think.” He grimaced, and said, “We did wonder why you ordered it. Would you like to choose something else?” I asked why it was on the list. “The proprietor comes here often for dinner and likes to see her wine on the list.”

Most sommeliers are pretty quick to whisk a flawed wine away, or to replace a bottle if a diner points out a defect, but the bane of my life is the sommelier who won’t admit to a fault. This happens to me more often in France than anywhere else, and once again I am left with the sneaking question as to whether the sommeliers are equally patronizing to all their customers. In the mid nineties, at a restaurant in Provence, I ordered a 1989 white Burgundy. When offered for tasting, it was slightly oxidized, enough that you couldn’t really see typicité. (This might be a common enough event today, but this was years before the premox problem first appeared.) When I said that I thought the wine was not in top condition, the sommelier drew himself up to his full height and intoned, “Ce sont des arômes de quatre-vingt neuf.” (That’s the bouquet of 1989.) I said as politely as I could that I did not agree, because I was currently drinking 1989s from my cellar and none of them had any oxidized aromas. Grudgingly he brought back the wine list, but advised me not to choose another 1989 because all his wines of that vintage had this aroma. A whole cellar of oxidized wines at a Michelin-starred restaurant!

Sometimes the restaurant redeems itself. Dining at a small restaurant near Nice, we ordered a Chablis that turned out to be corked. The waiter seemed a bit dubious (the restaurant did not run to a sommelier). At the next table was a gentleman dining alone of whom the staff were all making a great fuss. The waiter took our bottle off to him to taste a sample. “Nothing wrong with it that I can see, most enjoyable,” I heard him say. The waiter returned to say that they didn’t think there was anything wrong with the bottle, but of course I could choose something else. (It turned out the gentleman at the next table was a well known local food and wine critic; I hope his taste for food is better than his taste for wine.) Ten minutes later the chef came out from the kitchen. “I am so embarrassed,” he said, “that bottle is so corked I can’t even cook with it!”

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Assemblage in a Beaker: Clos des Epeneaux 2018 Leads to Some Heretical Thoughts

A visit to Comte Armand is always an education in the intricacies of classifying terroir in Burgundy. The domain’s famous holding is the 5 ha monopole of the Clos des Epeneaux (which makes up about half of the estate altogether). Located at the junction of Grands and Petits Epenots, the clos is surrounded by a wall that was built at a time when both Epenots had only a single owner, so defining it as a single Cru. But in fact the wine is a blend.

“The magic of the clos is that you can do an assemblage from four different areas,” says cellarmaster Paul Zinetti.   There is significant variation in the soil even within its walls. Topsoil is deeper right at the top of the Clos and at the bottom, with 60-80 cms resting on fragmented rocks. Other parts are shallower with only 20 cms of depth, sitting on a horizontal stones and a compact bedrock. There is quite a lot of iron in the soil. It’s more calcareous at the top.

In effect the  clos is divided into sectors by location (upper versus lower) and age of vines (35- to 90-years). Each part is vinified separately, and assemblage occurs at the end of élevage. Usually all the lots go into the final blend, but sometimes some are declassified (to Pommard Premier cru without a name). Tasting barrel samples shows how each part brings its own character.

The youngest vines near the top give a wine that is tight and fresh. A plot of older (55-year) vines with similar geology but lower down gives more aromatics, turning from red to black fruits. 65-70-year old vines on the calcareous terroir at the top give wine with more aromatic lift and an impression of elegance as well as power. This sample is perhaps the most complete in itself. The oldest vines, from the lowest part, give flatter aromatics but greater structure.

Concentrating on the proportions, but warning that the blend was only approximate as the wine is only part way through élevage, Paul did an assemblage in a beaker, swirled it around, and then presented the sample for tasting. Immediately you could see the increase in complexity, with hallmark black fruit aromatics balancing chocolaty tannins.

This creates somewhat mixed feelings about terroir. If it wasn’t for the accident that the clos was enclosed by a single wall, very likely it would have been classified into more than one part, and tastings would focus on the changes brought by the terroir of each climat. (Of course, the comparison here isn’t simply on the basis of terroir, as each part of the clos was planted at a different time.)

If these were separate cuvées, once again one would be marveling at the infinite variety of Burgundy. But the blend was vastly more complex than any of the individual samples. The relative merits of blends versus single-vineyards are in contention elsewhere, of course, and in regions such as Barolo the argument has swung one way or the other according to fashion.

The difference in Burgundy is that the detailed classification of so many premier crus (extended by the division of communal appellations into lieu-dits) has pre-empted discussion. Has it ossified the situation? You have to wonder whether Clos des Epeneaux is representative of a more general situation, whether it might be a mistake to classify  some of the smaller premier crus  separately, and whether blends of adjacent premier crus might be more complex? When is the whole greater than the sum of the parts, and when are the separate parts more interesting?

Tasting Notes (ordered by age of vines in each sector)

35-year-old vines: Light red fruit impressions with fresh acidity, fine texture on palate, tannins a little tight but elegant, aromatics a bit flat but just a touch of chocolate at the end.

55-year-old vines: More aromatic impressions, more towards black fruits, finer texture, greater aromatic lift with some hints of blackcurrants. Elegant style feels more like Volnay than Pommard.

65-year-old vines: A more complete impression, with elegance as well as power, and yet more aromatic lift, in fact quite aromatic, with lovely balance. Partly reflects fact that combination of vine age and position at top of clos gives smaller berries.

90-year-old vines: More structured and less aromatic, more sense of black fruits, firmer tannic structure evident.

THE BEAKER: Immediate sense of greater complexity on nose. Palate is quite firm with subtle hints of chocolaty aromatics, but in balance with structure (not as light as first sample, not as dense as last sample). Fine granular texture, chocolaty tannins show on long finish. Promises an elegant future.

Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: A Visit to Domaine Robert Ampeau

The concept of the current release has virtually no meaning at Robert Ampeau. All week I’ve been tasting current releases in Burgundy, varying from 2017 to 2018 depending on whether producers want to show bottled wines or barrel samples. But tastings at Robert Ampeau start way beyond where others leave off. A tasting in the cellars yesterday included only one wine from the present century, a 2002 Meursault Charmes, while all the others, red or white, were between 1999 and 1976.

Wines are released when they are ready, or perhaps more to the point when the domain feels like selling them. I asked Michel Ampeau, who has been making the wines since Robert died in 2004, what vintages were on sale now. I thought I must have mistranslated the years from French when he said 1993-1996, and wondered whether perhaps he had really said 2013-2016, but no mistake: both reds and whites from the mid 1990s are on sale now, giving an almost unique opportunity to start with mature wines.

Production is 60% red and 40% white. There are holdings in ten premier crus, including four in Meursault. The wines are meant to age, or perhaps more to the point, have reached an interesting stage of maturity when released. Since current releases haven’t really reached the era of premox, it’s impossible to say if that will be a problem for the whites, but typically they peak around fifteen years of age and hold until twenty. I suspect that the traditional style of winemaking in an oxidative manner will avert any problem.

The style of the whites is rich and full, so I wondered about late harvest, but Michel says he is an early picker. This may explain why they maintain their freshness for decades. Meursault Sous Le Pièce shows a classically nutty flavor spectrum, Meursault Sous Le Pièce adds hints of honey and spices, and the Charmes premier cru adds a subtle hint of minerality. The complexity of Meursault Perrières shows at one why it is considered a candidate for promotion to grand cru, with complex layers of flavor on a seamless palate. This is the epitome of the classic style of Meursault. Puligny Combettes is a textbook example of the purity and precision of the appellation.

The reds show a great combination of a sheen to the palate masking great fruit density with a structure of supple tannins faintly evident in the background. Although they show development (the youngest we tasted was 1999), all have a sense of liveliness that gives an impression of being a decade younger than the real age. Savigny-lès-Beaune and La Pièce Sous le Bois from Blagny age much longer than you might expect for those appellation, in the generally soft, earthy style of the house, and Auxey-les-Duresses Les Ecussaux adds faintly herbal notes. Beaune Clos du Roi shows a smooth opulence, Pommard is broader but still sophisticated, while the Volnay Les Santenots premier cru tends to earthiness. Reds age easily for 30 years.

Wines from the great appellations show great typicity and ageability, but the surprise and the bargain are the wines from lesser appellations: and the domain is also remarkable for its ability to produce high quality in lesser years, vintages such as 1994 or 1997 showing well today.

Domaine Leflaive and the 2017 Vintage

The atmosphere has certainly changed since I first visited Domaine Leflaive. Twenty-five years ago, I called one morning for an appointment. Anne-Claude answered the phone herself and said, come along this afternoon for a tasting. Today, emails to the domaine get an automated response saying that visits can be arranged only through your local distributor. Yesterday I turned up for an appointment at the domaine in Place des Marronniers in Puligny Montrachet where I have always gone in the past, wandered around until I found somebody, and was then told by a rather brusque, not to say definitely put-out, gentleman, “You are in the wrong place.” “This is Domaine Leflaive?” I asked with some puzzlement. “Yes, but it is the wrong place.” Eventually he said, “you have to go to Rue l’Église.” No further instructions emerged until finally I was able to extract a street number.

7 Rue l’Église is the original cellar of Domaine Leflaive, before they moved into Place des Marronniers. There I found Brice de la Morandière, Anne-Claude’s nephew, who returned from a career running international companies to take over after her death in 2015. He has expanded the old cellars, which are now used for fermentation and first year aging of the local wines. Place des Marronniers is used for second year aging, and there is another facility nearby for producing the wines from Mâcon.

“At Domaine Leflaive, there is only one method,” he says. “We haven’t changed anything. “One year in barriques is followed by one year in steel. First the wine likes to have the oxygen from the barriques, then it likes to have the mass from the stainless steel.” The only difference is the proportion of new oak, rising from 10% for Bourgogne to 15% for village wines, 20% for premier crus, and 25% for grand crus. The intention is that oak should be integrating when the wine is released. “With grand crus you see the oak integrating over the two years it spends with us, with Bourgogne Blanc, if it shows it’s hard to get rid of it. We would be upset if you could taste the oak.” There is battonage during aging. “I read all those articles about battonage being bad—totally unscientific and wrong. If you don’t do battonage, the wine oxidizes slowly but surely.” (Élevage is a little different for Mâcon, which ages in a mixture of concrete and steel, single-vineyard wines from Mâcon get about 10% in old barriques, and the transition to the ‘Leflaive Method’ comes with Pouilly-Fuissé.)

It was worth persevering to get to Rue l’Église because the tasting illustrated the style of Leflaive from Mâcon to grand cru. Production in Mâcon has been expanding and is now up to 24 ha. “In 2017 we decided to start some single-vineyard wines as we could see there were interesting differences,” Brice explains. There was some unconventional thinking here. “One is west-facing, the other is north-facing.” Comparing the west-facing cuvée, Les Chênes, with the Mâcon-Verzé, the single vineyard is deeper and more textured on the palate. A single-vineyard wine from Pouilly-Fuissé, En Vigneraie, comes closer in style to the wines of Puligny, with stone and citrus fruits texturing the palate, but without the characteristic minerality of Puligny.

We tasted a range of premier and grand crus from 2017. “This was the fourth-earliest ever at Leflaive, starting on August 29,” Brice says. “This is really early in our world. The first August harvest was 2003. I came back here in 2015 and three of my vintages have been August years. Although 2017 was an early vintage, the wines don’t turn out over-ripe or too alcoholic.” They are 13.5% alcohol, but taste like less. The character is very linear for an early vintage, presently showing as a somewhat understated style. “2017 is a fantastic vintage, amazingly subtle and elegant,” Brice comments.

Clavoillon shows the smoke and gunflint that is classic for Leflaive’s Pulignys. Sous le Dos d’Âne from Meursault is sweeter and broader, less austere, with less obvious minerality. Pucelles, as so often, moves towards the smoothness and roundness of the grand crus: somewhat shy and reserved right now, its minerality is in the background. Bâtard Montrachet moves to a sense of power, more obvious oak mingling with the stone and citrus fruits: a sense of holding back makes it obvious the wine is too young now. Chevalier Montrachet shows that unique property of the grand crus: it is simultaneously more powerful and has greater sense of tension. Going up the hierarchy, there is greater refinement rather than greater power. Il vaut de detour.

The Whirlwind at Domaine Stephane Ogier: Tasting Cote Rotie lieu-dits

Stéphane Ogier is something of a whirlwind. He greeted us when we arrived at the winery, while simultaneously sending out a delivery of a few cases, and saying goodbye to a large group who had just had lunch and a tasting. Originally his parents had a winery in the village, but Stéphane built a striking winery in contemporary style on the main road between Ampuis and Condrieu 2013. The ground floor includes a spacious tasting room, and there’s a vast winery underneath.

The new winery has a striking design.

Stéphane spent five years studying viticulture and oenology in Burgundy, and then returned home to join the domain in 1997. “That is why great Burgundy, along with Rhônes, are my preferred red wines,” he says. Michel Ogier had sold his grapes to Chapoutier and Guigal until 1983, when he started to bottle his own wine from his tiny 3 ha vineyard in Côte Rôtie. One of Stéphane’s main objectives was to increase the estate to a more economic size, and he added vineyards in several lieu-dits in Côte Rôtie, now totaling 11 ha, and at La Rosine just above Côte Rôtie, as well as planting Syrah farther up the river at Seyssuel, and acquiring a hectare in Condrieu.

Tasting here is an extended process, as the focus is on barrel samples from Stéphane’s many different lieu-dits in Côte Rôtie, all of which are vinified and aged separately. It’s the way par excellence to understand the different terroirs and the basis for making individual wines versus blends. You really get a sense of the variety within Côte Rôtie. At the end, you feel you are almost ready to start blending…

IGP La Rosine comes from the plateau above Côte Rôtie; rich and plush, it offers a foretaste of the Côte Rôtie. IGP L’Âme de Soeur comes from Seyssuel and is more mineral. The Côte Rôtie Reserve is a blend from 10 lieu-dits. There are four single-vineyard wines. “There are no Grand Crus in Côte Rôtie, but I have mine—they are the cuvées of Belle Hélène, Lancement, and Côte Blonde,” Stéphane says. Viallière has also been a single-vineyard release since 2015. Other lieu-dits may be bottled separately depending on the year.

Lots are variously destemmed or fermented as whole bunches. Viallière is elegant, Côte Blonde is rounder with slightly lifted aromatics (it includes 5% Viognier), Lancement is broader and may age longer, and Belle Hélène, from 80-year old vines, is the most complete and subtle. All wines age in barriques, with 1-year to 6-year old barriques for the Côte Rôties, but the only cuvée showing obvious oak is Belle Hélène. The approach is modern, showcasing elegance and purity of black fruits. “Elegant” appears often in my tasting notes.

The wines mature slowly. When you taste the 2010 and can still see the tannins, you think the current vintages must be brutal, but not atall. Tannins seem, for example, to be quite similar in their impression on the finish in 2015 and 2010. Stéphane says it is best to wait 10 years to start, and 15 years for a great vintage.

2018 barrel samples from Côte Rôtie lieu-dits

Besset: nice aromatic lift with chocolaty impressions on nose. Very fine on palate, quite precise, greater precision and breed than La Rosine. Very fine, silky tannins, very elegant, sense of purity to the black fruits enhancing the sense of precision. All destemmed.

Mont Lys: very fine, precise, linear, not quite the breed of Besset, relatively lighter, more sense of linearity, not so profound. This is a wine to blend.

Montmain: chocolaty impression to nose, fine but rounder than Besset or Mont Lys, chocolaty at first, but then a sense of minerality grips the palate. Whole bunch.

Côte Boudin: comes from the lower slopes, all destemmed. More coffee than chocolate on nose, soft impression on palate, furry tannins, showing a touch of bitterness at end. Moving towards floral impressions although whole bunch.

Fonjeant: chocolaty nose moves to become slightly tart and then palate shows faintly acid edge. Partially destemmed, this will bring freshness to the blend.

Champon: always the last parcel to harvest. Very fine impression here points to potential delicacy. Quite tight, tannins fine but a little bitter, Very good acidity. This will really bring freshness.

Lancement: one parcel here goes to the separate cuvée, the others go into the general Côte Rôtie. All destemmed. Tight impression to nose, follows to palate, delicate impression, but less floral than Boudin. Precise impression, the most Burgundian, the most lingering finish, moving in a savory direction.

Côte Blonde: faintly chocolaty, faintly acidic, very fine, a chocolate edge, sense of coffee at the end, more evident aromatic lift. This will be fragrant as it ages. This has 5% Viognier, which explains the aromatic lift.

Belle Hélène: gives the most complete impression on the nose, with some delicate aromas of vanillin, hints of coffee and spice, very fine granular texture. This will be very elegant. Solely Syrah but 80 years old, planted by Stéphane’s grandfather.

 

 

 

 

Playing Russian Roulette with the First Growths

At a wine dinner with Bordeaux first growths from 1985 to 1996, the big surprise was not the quality of the wines, but the huge variation between different bottles of the same wine. Although in each case the wines had been acquired from the same source and stored together, there was not a single instance in which two bottles of the same wine tasted the same.

The 1985 Haut Brion was the greatest puzzle. The first bottle showed a funky, quasi-medicinal nose, which seemed to suggest the possibility of Brett (unlikely though that might seem for this château), although the palate cleared a bit in the glass. It was actually subtle enough that I quite liked it. The second bottle went completely in the opposite direction, showing elegant fruits, but a squeaky-clean character with  that came close to eviscerating the character of Haut Brion.

Next came Angelus 2003. (Yes, I know this was not a first growth at the time, but the organizers evidently took a broad view of the term. Anyway, you wouldn’t balk at including Mouton Rothschild pre-1973 in a first growth tasting.) First bottle was fairly restrained, with rather flat aromatics, and the character of Cabernet Franc pushed a bit into the background. It never came to life. A second bottle showed more aromatic lift with a greater sense of structure at the end. A third bottle showed a more exotic impression, more sense of the precision of Cabernet Franc, with heightened sense of elegance; the very antithesis of any thought that the heat of 2003 might have given a jammy wine, it was one of the more elegant wines of the evening, while the first bottle was one of the most disappointing.On to Mission Haut Brion 1990, where the first bottle was absolutely true to the typicity of the chateau and appellation, with elegant fruits and faint sense of cigar box in the background. The next bottle showed flattened aromatics to the point at which all the life seemed to go out of the wine. While the first bottle was fabulous, the second was merely ordinary.

We went into high gear with Ausone 1996, where the aromatics of the first bottle seemed to point more to the elegance of the left bank than the richness of the right bank. Beautifully integrated, with a sense of seamless layers of flavor, the wine showed something of the ethereal quality of a great vintage of Lafite. A second bottle had a slightly sweaty nose, a faint sense of gunflint, and gave an overall impression of reduction. A third bottle was between the first two, with a flattened profile but not obviously reduced, and a fourth was almost as good as the first.

The first bottle of Lafite 1986 was a bit flat aromatically; although showing the precision and elegance of Lafite, a sense of austerity on the finish made it seem almost stern. I took the sense of a somewhat hard edge to the wine to be the character of the vintage and was uncertain whether it would dissipate with further aging. But a second example showed that this was the character of the bottle rather than the vintage: it really sung, with that ethereal quality of Lafite showing as a seamless impression of precise, elegant fruits, all lightness of being.

With Mouton Rothschild 1989 there was another sort of surprise. The first pour (from a decanter) showed the plush power of Pauillac, very much Cabernet-driven, with black, plumy fruits. A second pour (from another decanter) showed just a little more aromatic lift. The difference between these two was much slighter than between any of the preceding pairs. Here’s the rub: the Mouton came from a single Imperial. The fact that there was any difference at all is surprising, although I have had this experience before, when some pours from an Imperial seemed to be corked while others were pure (I Want My Glass From the Bottom of the Imperial). Interestingly this was also from a Mouton 1989.

The notion there can be differences within a single (large) bottle is disturbing. I think this warrants a proper investigation. I will undertake a thorough experiment if given a supply of Imperials of first growth claret (Mouton from 1989 would be preferred). We will extract the cork and take samples from the top and bottom using a very long pipette, without stirring up the wine at all. Then we will know if proximity to the cork and oxygen on the one hand, or to the sediment on the other, makes any difference within the bottle.

It is not so surprising there should be differences between bottles. After all, if you buy a case of wine and store it for ten or twenty years, you can see at a glance that every bottle has a different level. Differences in ullage imply differences in exposure to oxygen that might well affect the flavor spectrum. But the comparisons in this tasting went well beyond minor differences, to the point at which in each flight there was one bottle that was unquestionably first growth, and one bottle that was disappointing enough to cast doubt on that status.

One moral is that if you are at a tasting where there are second pours from a different bottle, always get a fresh glass for the second pour. Another is to ask whether there is really any point at all in tasting notes, projections of aging, or recommendations, if every single bottle is going to be different. Certainly this is not what the punter expects when he buys a bottle. The culprit must be the cork (inter alia, the sommelier reported that he had never rejected so many corked bottles in preparing for a tasting, so the worst cases had already been removed).

Is there any alternative? Experience with New World wines suggests that using screwcaps might cause the wines to age more slowly and a little differently, but with greater consistency. I’m sure the argument in Bordeaux would be that it’s a bad idea to risk damaging the product of one of the most successful wine regions in the world, but is it so successful if there is no predictability after twenty years?

Why Technology Is Not the Main Issue in GMO for Grapevines

I have despaired for years of seeing a reasoned discussion of the implications of genetic engineering for grapevines or other plants. Politicization has created an atmosphere in which it becomes impossible to discuss on a rational basis the advantages and disadvantages of the technique. Of course there are dangers, but they have to be weighed against potential gains.

This was brought back to mind by an essay by Hrisha Poola, the winner of the wine writing competition on jancisrobinson.com. In his essay (available at https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/wine-gets-crispr) he focuses on the potential use of the new CRISPR technique for GMO of plants and in particular grapevines. This is a valuable exercise, but I can’t help feeling that in focusing so closely on CRISPR, this somewhat muddles the wood and the trees.

Genetic engineering of the grapevine has been possible for a couple of decades, as indeed it has for other crops. In fact, the grapevine is an outlier in the lack of GMO. CRISPR is a technical development, an important one, that makes it much easier to do genetic engineering, and which offers much greater precision than before. It’s significant enough that the authors are candidates for a Nobel prize, but it does not represent the same paradigm shift as the introduction of gene editing itself.

Concentrating on the technique, and giving the impression that it is CRISPR that has actually created the possibility for genetic engineering, distracts us from the main issues. We should be discussing the implications of loss of diversity by exacerbating the trend to use clones, that is, to risk allowing a few genetically engineered clones to replace existing genetic variation. In that context, the interesting question about CRISPR is whether, by making the process easier, CRISPR might make it possible to introduce the same change into a variety of base material and thus reduce the effect of loss of diversity.

We should be discussing how to weigh up the pros and cons of the use of sulfur and copper, necessary for organic viticulture, against the possibility of eliminating them by genetic engineering of the plant. We should be discussing whether it’s better to use steroid sprays to control fungal diseases as opposed to changing the genetic constitution of the plant. And, of course, all this should be within the context of explaining how using genetic engineering relates to conventional plant breeding, and what are its advantages and disadvantages relative to cross-breeding.

It is perhaps significant that Hrisha’s essay opens with a quotation from Mukherjee, who has had a great success with his book (The Gene: An Intimate History), but which is skeptically regarded in the scientific community for its over simplification of epigenetics. It is a sad truth that those who have the public ear tend to trivialize or politicize the issues. I don’t want to cavil, I would love to see an informed debate on the topic, but discussions need to be based not on technique and technology, but on the principles of what is involved.

Unfortunately we live in a culture where the media do not take science seriously, or perhaps to be more accurate, where they do not regard it as a topic that should be treated seriously. I remember years ago when we published a significant paper on the common cold virus in Cell, it made the concluding item on the evening news in the form of a report showing clips from Charlie Chaplin movies where the actor was ridden with cold. Very funny, but not going to help public understanding of science. Sadly, nothing has changed in thirty years. Only last week, a report that alcohol might cause cancer by leading to the production of acetaldehyde was trivialized on Reuters by video clips of drunken revelry. It’s never going to be possible to have serious debate against that background, so kudos to Jancis for publishing a serious essay: but let’s move on from the technology to the philosophy. Now that would be something!