Malcolm Gluck is best known as the wine critic behind the UK’s “Superplonk” a guide to the cheaper wines on the market. Now he’s in the process of re-inventing himself as a broader wine commentator, with a special interest in debunking certain “myths” (as he puts it) and, in Malcolm Gluck’s Brave New World, celebrating the New World wines of Australia, California, New Zealand and South Africa.
What of other new areas in the wine world like South America? They don’t fit into a very curious theory he espouses – that it is in English-speaking countries that true innovation occurs. “People who speak English … are … like the language itself, open to ideas… and sceptical of hard and fast rules.” Which is clearly an illogical proposition at best, at worst outright xenophobic.
But the chief argument that becomes the theme of the book is one against the particularly French concept of “terroir” in wine – that certain identifiable places, vineyards, are the source of better wines. For Gluck, the primary source of a wine’s personality is to be found in the person who makes the wine. He sees belief in terroir as “a meretricious device” to uphold land prices and keep wine underpinned by myth. Instead, wine is “less about local soil and more about local soul”.
Hence he travels to the new world to find new lands where the wine is clearly made by human winemakers, many of whom are celebrated for their achievements. If a certain area’s wines do share common characteristics (surely suggesting the importance of soil and site) he posits that this is due to the collective will of the winemakers to produce a recognisable local style. “Tasting all of Otago’s Pinot Noirs side by side one gets a sense of a personality broadly common to each, which is surely the product of the similar outlooks and ambitions of the winemakers.” This is one example of the slightly desperate rationalisations for his theory that scatter the book. To answer this on only one level, anyone familiar with the wine lands would know that winemakers tend to inter-compete, often with very different outlooks and ambitions, so where does this leave similar wines? He also often conflates owners of wine estates with the style of the wine – when the winemaker can be someone of a very different nature, with a different influence on the wine.
Not being a firm believer in the modern interpretation of terroir myself, I am sympathetic to his point of departure, which makes it a pity that he lets the book down through a weakness for florid turns of phrase in lieu of sound reasoning. To speak of the belief in terroir (however potentially misguided) as “insane” misses the nuances of centuries of cultural development and its intriguing manifestation as places on earth that have vines on them. The book is further marred by dated information (it is clear his data on South Africa was gleaned in 2003, and not updated) and very poor fact checking and proof-reading. Tokara becomes Tolana; Beaumont’s winemaker becomes Wilhelm Kritzinger (at Bellevue, which farm doesn’t feature) instead of Sebastian Beaumont.
Gluck is outspoken and the result of this can at times be colourful, resulting in evocative descriptions of the places and people. “Peter Finlayson appears and greets the visitor with the measured aplomb, deportment, and head of the Duke of Kent.” However his analyses of the countries and wineries are often very telegraphic, suggesting too little time and stretched resources. Where he has spent enough time (with consequently more relaxed paragraph lengths, for instance with the Napa’s Mondavis) the book is stronger and can be thought-provoking as well as decent armchair travelling. But with all its half-baked jousting the book makes a very odd epitaph for the author – and Gluck makes the assertion that this is what it is.