19 June 2009

Forever small

[tombstones]Wine is about many things, and one of them is loss. You drink a bottle, and then it’s gone.


Sure, there’s another version next year, but it’s not – and can’t be – the same. Eventually, every wine runs out or runs down; the last glass is swallowed, or the bottles that remain fade to an unnoticed death in some dusty corner. When the wine’s insignificant, or a mere commodity, such passings go largely unnoticed. But when it’s something special, something tangible is lost.


The wine world recently lost two rather special people. Jean Hugel was the first, and that loss was more personal for me than the other, because of my deep and abiding affection for the wines of Alsace.

Some, familiar with the wines of perhaps the most famous of all Alsatian houses, might ask how that could be. Hasn’t Hugel underperformed of late? Sometimes, yes (with exceptions), though of course opinions differ. Perhaps significantly, their decline has often been expressed as a lack of vigor, a premature fading, an absence of life. The wines, as they must, reflect the man.

But no, the respect I have for, and the debt I owe to, “Johnny” Hugel is grander than issues of individual wine quality. He (along with the Trimbachs) made the name of Alsace in the United States, and many other places as well. Without his tireless promotion, I wouldn’t know, own, or love these wines. Within Alsace itself, no number of encomiums can measure his influence.

The second loss was Paul Avril, of Clos des Papes. I’d wager that for all the love shown to this often-extraordinary property, few knew the name of the proprietor. I only met Avril once (and knew neither gentleman well), but to spend time with either was to be in the presence of living passion made manifest.

Others have said what there is to say about what these losses mean to the world of wine, to their regions, and to their families. But I’d like to take a moment to point out something they shared. Something that is being lost in our modern world of superstar winemakers, self-reverential marketing, and gratuitous consumption.

Clos des Papes had its signature wine, their Châteauneuf-du-Pape (in two colors), and on those sometime pricey bottlings was their reputation built. But there was also the little wine. Explicitly so, in this case: Le petit vin d’Avril was a vin de table that sold for very little money. No, it was not the best wine in the world, or even in its category. But that was never its intent.

Hugel’s showcase wines were its late-harvest bottlings, relatively rare and fabulously sweet, but then there was the classic blend they called “Gentil” …often as pleasant a wine as could be had for anything approaching its price.

When we think about the giants of wine – and certainly, Hugel and Avril were giants – we tend to think about their longevity, their influence, and most of all their bottled monuments. But in the quiet hour after their passing, spare a thought for the wines that reflected that quiet. Drink their epic works in tribute, but spare a glass for their humblest offerings as well. They wouldn’t have made them if they didn’t intend just that.

For one day, the last great Clos des Papes touched by the hand of Paul Avril will be consumed. Eventually, the last Hugel-inspired selection des grains nobles will fade into a sweet sunset. And there will be those that will mourn their passing. But the simple wines, the daily wines – whether theirs or those that follow – will remain.



Vinogirl said...

Reading 'The Billionaires Vinegar' at the moment. I was thinking about the men who actually crafted these wines (the real ones, not the younger fakes), and how their handywork still lived on into the 1980s, and how some lucky people (again, if the wines had been authentic), could still participate almost 200 years later.

thor iverson said...

Yep. It's about loss, but about longevity as well. I know there are people who just don't like "old wines," preferring more obvious and youthful fruit flavors in their wines, but it's not just about tertiary flavors, it's about drinking history. Literally.