Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Wine Critic's Critic: Decanter and Andrew Jefford - The wine industry’s Professor of English. 86/100 points.

'I love re-reading the intro to Andrew's book, 'The New France'. It exudes genuine interest and passion, and reminds me of my own discovery of France and the French 30 years ago, and my continued love affair with the country. He is a great writer…..most of the time'.

Andrew is like your university professor – scholarly, reflective, personable. curious and wise. His emphasis is on quietly expanding the sum of wine knowledge rather than courting controversy and building his profile. He can write brilliantly but like many scholars, he can, very occasionally, veer into language which confuses rather than conveys. I can imagine him saying to himself: why use a simple phrase when an obscure one will do?

Andrew is a regular contributor to Decanter Magazine where he writes a weekly Monday blog as well as doing tastings and writing other articles notably on South of France (where he now lives) and South Australia (where he used to live). I write about both him and Decanter here, and score them as a combination.

I first came across Andrew Jefford when I read his book ‘The New France’ back in 2002. I thought it was outstanding. I didn’t agree with all his ratings (how could Trevallon only get 1 star?) but it did what the title promised. It was enlightening and revealed relatively unknown wine regions of France (Jura, Savoie and Corsica are examples) which are now in vogue. He also championed the small grower, the artisan who makes individual wines in the face of large corporates, and he wrote it at a time when New World wine was in its ascendancy. It was an innovative, reactionary piece of work which helped him win the 2002 Glenfiddich Award for Wine Writer of the Year.

Boy, Jefford can write. He is an excellent storyteller - rational, balanced, insightful and varied – and he brings to life the wines, places and characters involved. His prose is usually clipped and efficient, eliminating unnecessary words. His online style is generally well suited to all types of consumer groups because it is so varied, insightful and well written. There is always a juicy nugget of information or insight offered up by Jefford. He delivers most of his online information via the Decanter blog. His own site links through to his Decanter blog and twitter page.

The range subject matter he can analyse and digest is impressive. Just over the summer, he has covered a wide array of subjects: dépérissement, a maladie which affects only Syrah (July 22), useful tips to bloggers (July 29th) and the downside for the wine market of electronic media (what he calls the information tsunami), Austria’s Danubian wine regions by air (Aug 5th), the risk of contamination in food and wine (Aug 12th) and a top wine tip (Aug 19th).

But my (rather churlish) observation is that Andrew can occasionally write obscurely which perhaps belies his literary yearning and love of poetry (he uses his twitter account to write only Haiku, a short form of Japanese poetry). I think this can upset the fluency of his writing and obscure its meaning. Why bother using this technique? After all, this is fermented grape juice he is writing about.

Here are some recent examples of words and phrases he has used:

·       Wines which are fresh, limpid and juicy, their redcurrant and raspberry fruits shawled, …, in feathery tannins” (FT, Aug 10/11). Maybe it is the use of an avian adjective to describe wine which I don’t like, but what’s wrong with using the word light or fine which would be more comprehensible?

·       The Austrian wine, Gruner Vetliner, has few “allusive pegs, but their texture, pith and sappiness gives them unparalled food-friendliness…..” (FT, 17/18). Allusive pegs? I understand from my limited experience how elusive pegs can be when you want to hang the washing out, but allusive? And sappiness? Come again?

·    His Decanter blog on 19th August mentioned all the following words: ‘least articulate wine’, ‘allusive triggers’, ‘sappy’, ‘adjectivally arid’.  “Qu’est-ce que ca veut dire?”, I can hear Eloi Durrbach (Trevallon) Alain Vaillé (La Grange des Peres) and Thierry Allemand (Cornas) asking themselves. I too have no idea.

Maybe he feels the need to adorn his clipped writing prose with obscure words to add style and colour? Please Andrew, if you need to be obscure, then be obscure clearly!

The words ‘sap’ and ‘sappiness’ (or ‘seve’ and ‘seveux’ in French) for describing wine intrigue me. I have seen these words used in both French and English tasting notes. I think they are odd and clumsy figures of speech.

They appear to be words which have crept into the French language quite recently to describe wines, but I have no idea where they came from. I lived in France for years from 1986, I have a first class degree in French, I played rugby there for years (including Chateauneuf-du-Pape where the growers would serve us wine, not lucozade, after training) and I have spent years mixing with growers and tasting their wines. But I had never heard it used, until recently, to describe a wine.

Do the grapes themselves really have sap? In fact, when critics say sappy (or seveux), I think they mean succulent or juicy or concentrated. So why not just say that? And since when did we think of sap as any of these things (think of a great Oak or Plane tree and is juicy what springs to mind?). It is one of the more bizarre examples of our languages’ evolution. Or maybe it is the circle of wine critics which have contorted its meaning? After all, why use a simple word when a more obscure one will do?

The word for sap, seve, can also be used in a slightly different context: “la seve nerveuse” (literal meaning: “nervous sap”). I asked Eloi Durbach of Domaine de Trevallon if he knew what this meant and he guessed that it meant trop d’acide (too much acid) or ‘tightly wound’ (another vinous metaphor). You see, even the great and the good don’t really know. Everything in wine, like love and art, is subjective and a matter of personal judgment.

Sap and sappiness are neologisms  - newly coined words which may be in the process of entering common use not yet accepted into mainstream language.

I just don’t like the terms. For me, sap is found in trees and global companies where it is a clunky IT system invented by Germans. It isn’t found in grapes.

Here are my scores for Andrew and Decanter:

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