Burgundy and the Burghound: A Weekend with Allen Meadows – Part I – The Philosophy of Burgundy
It is a cliché in wine writing and amongst wine lovers to talk about that one bottle of wine that began one’s obsession with the world’s most complex beverage. This cliché associates wine with epiphany and the wine lover’s journey becomes one of forever searching for that original moment of joy. However, with further thought wine might more accurately be given an uncanny dimension – the longing to return to something one can never really understand.
The temporality of an epiphany is not always something at the origin – which is why one can continuously have uncanny experiences throughout one’s life. For me, and not in an attempt to eschew cliché, I had the deepest and most uncanny experience in wine I have yet had during a series of weekend events with Allen Meadows – the Burghound.
Allen’s talks, and the discussions I had with him personally, form the basis for the following thoughts, which are divided into two parts: the Philosophy of Burgundy and the Wines of Burgundy.
The Burgundian Origins of Epiphany
Burgundy is a place that has captured the imagination and desires of many wine lovers, most usually the extremely obsessive types. But the origins of Burgundy stem back far before any modern sense of wine appreciation.
The first plantings in the region took place several thousand years ago in the Roman period, when pagans held deep-seated beliefs about the animism of the world. Each object in the world outside ourselves possessed a spirit; and each spirit was unique. Thus could different plots of land each have a different spirit and therefore demand unique attention.
The Christian monks took this belief and monotheized it, accepting that each parcel of land was different from all others and that the difference in flavour found in wines grown in these different parcels was a message from God.
Eventually this animism turned monotheistic epiphany became the modern concept of terroir. At the heart of terroir is the idea that the grape is incidental to the message of the land. Burgundy happened to discover that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were the best vehicles to deliver the message of the land; but crucially it is not the grape that dictates or determines what terroir is all about. But a single grape is the only way to reach close to the land – a blend muddles the message.
The monks went so far as to literally taste the dirt over hundreds of years to slowly etch out plots of land that were fundamentally distinct from others. While to many this likely sounds beyond sanity, the monks were driven by something that for them was greater than causality: faith.
From Faith to Esteem
So why is Burgundy so esteemed today? Some argue that the French now use terroir as a marketing mechanism. While this may be true in some regions, as Allen pointed out, if he were a marketer for Burgundy the last thing he would do is create 1500 vineyards with esoteric French names and a 4 tier ranking system as the basis for labeling and quality designations within the region.
Rather, Burgundy holds so much esteem in the minds of its fans because, when great, it is able to produce wines unlike anywhere else simply because it produces and bottles the land from which the grapes are grown rather than focusing on varietal based bottlings.
In fact, Allen argues that making a varietal bottling is a race to the bottom as producers from other regions continuously undercut prices. What wineries must focus on, bottle and sell is their own unique sense of place. This can’t be done with makeup, but comes from decades upon decades of dedication, testing, and hard work. That is the basis for great wine.
The Genius of a Wine
If this is true, then, wine can be perceived along two dimensions: its sensory impact and its emotional impact. The sensory impact is what we immediately perceive upon tasting a wine. The emotional impact, however, is one that is both uniquely personal and uncompromising.
No manner of marketing or critic can punch through the powerful emotional resonance that the greatest wines are able to muster. But this emotional resonance does not come from dressing up or playing games with a consumer.
Holding his controversial viewpoint with verve and passion, Allen argues that today the cult of the professional has gone too far and overtaken the genius of place. As we obsess over superstar chefs and superstar winemakers we miss the opportunity to understand something far more ancient and far less transient.
Desire can punch our ego out into the world and dominate the objects that we perceive and encounter in our lives. This, however, is an utter contradiction of the ancient belief in animism that has grounded the entire history and modern makeup of Burgundy.
If each place has its own spirit, then it is the duty of the winemaker to give voice to that spirit by sublimating their ego to the terroir. Winemakers who use powerful techniques to manipulate the wine into a muscle bound body builder, while creating a fascinating freak of nature, also eviscerate this spirit.
On the other side of the scale, commented Allen, the biodynamic types may not be making better wines because of their biodynamic techniques. Instead, he’s observed that one commonality amongst these producers is the utter dedication, obsession and attention to detail they put into their wines. With such rigor, he argues, it is not surprising they tend to make better wines.
So in the end, if one is to understand Burgundy, one must understand that the winemaker (and their ego) is a mere vehicle to finding just the right balance and expression to give voice to the land itself. Even if you disagree with this belief, Allen argues, this is how the Burgundians perceive themselves and how they make their wines. It is the very genius of Burgundy itself.
Caveats and Aphorisms
Better than anyone else I’ve encountered in the world of wine, Allen conveyed the intellectual depth and beauty of wine. Until this weekend I had considered but not yet fully embraced that wine is, or at least can be, beauty itself. And, like any great aesthetic pursuit, the greatest moments with wine are those where it brings you close to experiencing the inexpressible.
Those things we cannot communicate directly; the moments that transcend their immediacy; the feeling of expanding beyond our ego. These are the moments we look for in art, and so too with wine. And so these thoughts all came together when Allen mentioned that terroir is more than an intellectual exercise; it is the very reason of existence for the wines.
Burgundy inspires such obsession because those who are drawn into it remain convinced that purity exists somewhere out there in the world, and that it is certainly not found within our egos. If this is a form of faith, I suppose the monks who spent so much of their lives discovering and demarcating intricate plots of land were, perhaps, on to something.
Of course, with purity comes price. And so does economics bring philosophy back to earth. And so Allen remarked that with Burgundy, you may not get what you pay for; but you never get what you don’t pay for.
Burgundy, with its rarity, expense, obscurity and sheer impenetrability yet also comes closer than nearly any other region in the world to purity and beauty. My wine epiphany has come late. Despite years learning about, tasting and obsessing over wine, it is only now that I understand how a mere glimpse of beauty can cause certain individuals to spend their lives in the arcana of a small group of ancient vineyards in the midst of France.