Winemaker and marketer par excellence, Brian McGuigan, coined the phrase “It’s the sizzle, not the sausage”. In other words, it’s the story about the wine that sells it, more than the wine itself.
Perhaps we could rationalise it thus: there are so many wines in the world, and so many that are similar, so the way to differentiate your wine from your competitors’ is the story you tell about it.
McGuigan’s catchy phrase evokes memories of walking past a pizzeria or hamburger restaurant, and being enticed inside by the aroma (sometimes regretting it later!).
Burgundy winemaker Thibault Liger-Belair owns some fine vineyards on the Côte d’Or and in Beaujolais. In theory, the quality of the wine should be enough to sell it. And there’s no doubt his wines sell out quickly. There’s little of his Burgundy available, especially at the high end – such as his stunning Richebourg. More of the Beaujolais and basic red and white Bourgogne, though.
Liger-Belair is an engaging speaker, and has a great story. “I’m a lazy winemaker,” he says, “but I’m a very hard vineyard worker. Because you cannot make good wine if the grapes aren’t good.”
Other winemakers order their new barrels from the cooper before the harvest begins; he waits until the wine has been made. This is because he doesn’t truly know what kind of wine he will have until after vinification. Only then can he know precisely what sorts of barrels will be most suitable.
If this sounds a bit cute, there’s more, much more. He travels to the forest and selects the trees that he wants his barrels to be coopered from. In the forest, he makes sure the timber from the south side of the trunk is kept apart from that of the north side. The south side, which faces the sun, is selected for the staves that go into the barrels for his top Côte de Nuits wines, because this timber is tighter-grained and finer. He’s also fussy about the toasting of the barrels.
“I hate the taste of oak, that vanilla taste. I just want to taste the wine,” he says. “Lignin turns to vanilla when the barrel is toasted at 125 degrees Celsius. I don’t want vanilla. I want a very light toasting. Just five or six minutes instead of 60 minutes (on the fire).”
Indeed, why have precious vineyards, and work hard in the vines, only to clutter up the wine with oak?
“All the work in the vineyard is aimed at making the best expression of the soil the most transparent. I am a revelator of the soil. You will never see the words ‘pinot noir’ on my label. That’s not interesting. In Burgundy, we don’t say we’re tasting a Beaujolais, we’re tasting a Moulin-à-Vent. It’s the same in the Côte d’Or: we don’t say we’re tasting a Burgundy, we say we’re tasting a Vosne-Romanée.”
In a world in which winemakers seem to be constantly trying to outdo each other in the fine details, Liger-Belair is leading from the front. His new thing is sulphur – the element used in so many aspects of wine production, from dusting the vines to control moulds, to sterilising casks, to its addition to wine for its anti-oxidant and anti-microbial effects. He uses only natural sulphur from a Polish mine.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the sulphur in the world is a by-product of the petroleum industry. Why would I use that in my wine?”
Fair call. Although I’ve never heard anyone say they had a problem with contaminated sulphur dioxide, it’s the idea of using a petrol product in wine that rankles.
Whether Liger-Belair’s wines are better because of his approach to oak and sulphur is hard to determine, but there’s little doubt that at the pointy end of the fine-wine game, refinements are not made in big leaps. It’s the little one per centers that can make a difference.