Wine is in crisis. As a product in itself, in production and also in consumption. Alcohol has come under considerable neo-prohibitive pressure, built up by militant addiction prevention and an interventionist public health system. As an agricultural sub-sector, viticulture is often blamed for environmental pollution, erosion and climate damage. Consumption itself has been declining sharply worldwide for years, especially among younger age cohorts. In France, for example, it is only among pensioners that wine is not losing ground. It is obvious that no cosmetic surgery will change this. Lepeltier is fully aware of this, and her answer is clear: it is the wine itself that must change. At the end of her wide-ranging account of what wine is and what shapes it, she therefore gives an outlook on the “wine of tomorrow”. An ambitious programme, but necessary and absolutely at the right time.
Lire la vigne, lire les paysages, lire le vin
Lepeltier has divided her book into three parts, which focus on the vineyard, the landscape and finally the wine itself. In this way, she places herself in the tradition of the “Back to the Vineyard” movement, which since the 1980s has corrected the excesses of cellar innovations in viticulture through near-natural (often organic or biodynamic) cultivation. This is manifested in the book with detailed and very convincing descriptions (also because of the illustrations by Loan Nguyen Thanh Lan). In part one, for example, on the vegetation cycle of the vine and its morphology as well as on the microbiology of the soil. Lepeltier’s reflections on the relationship between budwood and rootstock are particularly stimulating.
However, for the author it is not simply a change of perspective. Following concepts of a holistic understanding of nature, she proposes to no longer understand vines as mere planting material, not even as biologically independent individuals, but as collective beings, as colonies. With these, a new “culture of the living” should then be tested together, in the sense of a Gaia concept of the earth (Bruno Latour), and a “diplomatic viticulture” of the future should be pursued. At this point, Lepeltier introduces a variety of alternative farming methods such as biodynamics, permaculture or wine forestry, which she presents with empathy but always objectively.
A metaphysics of wine consumption
But the author’s view of the vine is about much more than that, namely a metaphysical foundation of wine consumption, so to speak. In fact, with Goethe and Rudolf Steiner (as well as the central concept of “élan vital” by Henri Bergson, the philosopher on whom the author wrote her diploma thesis, which is not mentioned but is in the background), she ultimately understands plants as pure metamorphoses of the living, as a constantly changing vital process, which in the vine (according to Steiner) “pours out” into the berry as in no other plant. This vitalistic interpretation of the vine will then be the foil against which Lepeltier unfolds the ideal image of the “vins vivants”, the “living wines”. Here, any attempt to suppress or even limit this original vitality through oenological techniques sins, as so to speak, against nature itself.
In this groundwork for a philosophy of the vine (if you want to call it that), the author uses all the rhetoric of the French deconstructivist theory. There is talk of the “trap of epistemological anthropocentrism” and the “revival of bridges of knowledge that could exist until the Enlightenment”. In fact, however, her figure of thought is the purest philosophy of life (“Lebensphilosophie”) from the pre-last turn of the century. In the German-speaking raw food movement after 1900, these lines of thought led to the idea of “solar energy” stored in food and the growth substance “auxones, and inspired talk of “power values and “energetic value scales” (Bircher-Benner, Kollath). Propagandists polemically contrasted the “living”, unprocessed “whole food” with the “dead civilisation food” – inferior “half food” – which was then immediately taken up by National Socialism. A fact that has not been adequately addressed by the German raw food and health food movement to this day. Lepeltier is in no way to be accused of being close to right-wing ideologies. However, it should be clear on what thin ice any vitalist argumentation moves.
A reflected concept of terroir
In the chapter “Lire le paysage”, the author finds herself back on less controversial terrain. Geology, climate and terroir have been the cornerstones of the French discussion on linking the origin and quality of food and drink since the 19th century. Lepeltier takes up here the preliminary work of the great geographer and wine historian Roger Dion, who understood the terroir concept primarily as a social rather than a geological fact. The chapter could have been even more well-founded if it had drawn on Paul Vidal de la Blache. As a 19th century mastermind of French anthropogeography, he was a pioneer of the regionalisation of France and the spiritual father of the AOC legislation in 1935. Lepeltier’s ambivalent attitude towards the current situation of controlled designations of origin can certainly be debated. However, it is largely understandable.
The concluding part “Lire le Vin”, on the other hand, falls somewhat short, especially the chapter on vinification. This is probably because for the author, due to her “non-interventionist”, vineyard-centred worldview, the work in the cellar – with the exception of the topic of yeasts and the “alchemy” of barrel ageing – is simply the least interesting part of wine production. In fact, zeitgeist-conscious winemakers around the world tell the narrative that wine is now made in the vineyard and no longer in the cellar. In other words, that the oenological armaments of the 1980s and 1990s are a relic of a bygone era and that wine today – assuming hygiene and good barrels – more or less makes itself for responsibly working winegrowers. The opposite is true.
In fact, today we know incomparably more about alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, about colour and aroma formation and tannin management than we did 20 years ago. And so the tools for “monitoring” them have also been considerably expanded. It is no coincidence that “definition” is the buzzword of the modern wine world. Top Bordelais winemakers compare their wines of today with “4K” photographs as opposed to the “sepia photographs” of the past. I would have liked to hear from the author about this modern precision winemaking. About the different grape sorting systems, cold maceration and smart vats, for example, or about the advantages and disadvantages of modern pneumatic versus traditional basket presses. Perhaps it is just a lack of interest, but one has the impression that the book is not up to date at this point. Clark Smith, for example, has outlined in “Postmodern Winemaking” that one can also arrive at a philosophy of wine through the subject of vinification. In it, he rejects the classic “aqueous solution” model and, using a colloid concept, advances to an understanding of wine production as a process of structure building.
Paradigms of tasting
In a recent interview with “Le Figaro”, Lepeltier asked the rhetorical question “whether it is really possible to taste in a wine the essence of the land from which it comes” and compared the answer to finding the “Holy Grail”. If one is primarily looking for “terroir essence” and vital energy in wine, conventional approaches must naturally pale. Accordingly, in the tasting chapter, the author primarily presents the “geosensory” tasting grid by Jean-Michel Deiss and Jacky Rigaux. According to this, wines are judged according to categories such as “liveliness” (from “dead” to “exuberant”), their geometric “shape” (“pointed”, “rectangular”, “spherical”) or “wine with origin” (“yes” or “no”).
Is it really possible to taste in a wine the essence of the land from which it comes? This is the Holy Grail at the moment.Pascaline Lepeltier
Classic tasting paradigms are mentioned, but their relevance is hardly discussed: for example, the aroma-, especially fruit-emphasised model following Ann C. Noble (but also, as Olivier Jacquet pointed out, Jules Chauvet) or the texture-based model, as expressed in the Mouthfeel Wheel of the Australian team around Richard Gawel. In the chapter on service, it is surprising that the author did not take up the argumentation of Esther Mobley, who in 2020 in her article “Wine’s diversity issue starts with the way we talk about the taste of wine” in the “San Francisco Chronicle” denounced the lack of diversity of the classical wine vocabulary against the background of an almost exclusively Western European coinage of terms. In fact, reflection on the unmistakable “race-class-gender” imprint of our wine language is still in its infancy.
A new mythology of wine
“Mille Vignes” is a book that teaches you a lot about wine today. But it is also a combative book, a book that wants to change things. “Rediscovering the taste of living wine”, Pascaline Lepeltier writes at one point, is “an eminently joyful and political gesture of resistance”. When she quotes names like Alice Feiring, Isabelle Legeron or Jonathan Nossiter, it becomes clear where the author stands “wine-politically”. But unlike them, she makes less of an ideological harshness felt. Lepeltier, who came to wine through a bottle of 1937 Château d’Yquem, is a regular columnist in the “Revue du vin de France” and has just been eliminated in the semi-finals of the Sommelier World Championship. Surprisingly smoothly, she performs the credible balancing act between the natural wine scene and fine wine lovers.
At the end of the book, Pascaline Lepeltier offers a captivating prospect of a “new mythology” of wine. In view of the ideological, missionary impetus of the most important contemporary discourses, the reviewer hopes, however, that this will not be the matter of a quasi-religious congregation and “an act of faith”, as the author writes following Nossiter. But rather, to quote Friedrich Nietzsche and a phrase from German Romanticism, a project of “free spirits”, a “mythology of reason”. The final sentence of the book is: “The coming revolution, which is so necessary, can only be a revolution of the palate.” In any case, and here the author is in full agreement, it is a struggle worth fighting.
Before becoming a wine journalist, the author studied literature and philosophy and wrote a dissertation on aesthetics. The book “Agrikultur. Über Landwirtschaft, Herkunft und Geschmack” is in preparation.
Pascaline Lepeltier: Mille Vignes. Penser le vin de demain
352 pages, format: 277mm x 237mm, many illustrations