On sombre and sinister wines

When Eben Sadie was talking about his latest wine releases at the first tasting of them in the Cape, he mentioned that he was aiming to make his Columella more “sinister”. For most of those who registered this strange use of the word, it must have been rather surprising. Not for me, as Eben and I had long ago discussed this concept, and I was pleased that it had stayed in his mind, as it had in mine.

The idea of sinister wines was brought to the modern English-speaking wine-lover’s attention in an epigraph to the chapter on Bordeaux in a splendid book by the American wine importer Kermit Lynch: Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France. The epigraph went as follows:

Bordeaux: They are neither generous nor vigorous, but the bouquet isn’t bad, and they have an indescribably sinister, sombre bite that is not at all disagreeable. – Alexandre Dumas, quoting Cardinal Richelieu

I thought it a great idea when I read it sometime in the late 90s. Traditional Bordeaux was for me the most wonderful wine in the world (it still is, come to that). The idea of sombre, sinister wine somehow summed up all that I liked, in opposition to the “sunshine in a bottle” ultra-ripe, sweet, fruity triviality of the Australian wine that was all the rage in those days – and being pushed on the reviving South African wine industry too.

It’s that idea of real, hard-won substance, not immediately gratifying, but challenging and ultimately – after many years in bottle – profoundly rewarding, that Eben was alluding to, I think, when he spoke about making Columella more sinister.

Anyway, having been reminded of the concept, I started doing a bit of research into the quote from Alexandre Dumas, because the words used are, after, all, rather odd. I knew what they conveyed to me, but what did they mean for Richelieu – or Dumas?

Dumas is, of course, the French author of about a million books, including The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, etc. He also wrote a lengthy Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (Great Dictionary of Cuisine), which was published in 1873, after his death. As Wikipedia says, “A combination of encyclopedia and cookbook, it reflects Dumas’ interests as both a gourmet and an expert cook. An abridged version (the Petit Dictionnaire de Cuisine, or Small Dictionary of Cuisine) was published in 1882.” Incidentally, Dumas had a good deal of Afro-Caribbean blood, as the picture alongside suggests.

I don’t know if the full version of the Dictionnaire has been published in English, but the shorter one has, and I searched it and found the original reference. The stuff about Bordeaux occurs, reasonably enough, in the entry on wine. Incidentally, that entry opens with the fine statement that “Wine is the intellectual part of a meal. Meats are merely the material part.” Good thinking there.

Dumas is quoting Cardinal Richelieu talking to the French king, Louis XV, who’d asked for some information about Bordeaux, of which he’d heard something (this was at a time, in the 18th century, when Bordeaux was not well known). Richelieu says:

“And yet these are not Upper Burgundy or Rhone Valley wines to be sure. They are neither generous nor vigorous, but the bouquet isn’t bad, and they have an indescribably sinister, sombre bite that is not at all disagreeable. Besides, you can drink as much as you like of them. You’ll go to sleep, but that’s all. That is what I like best about them.”

So there I was, close to the source, but not much the wiser. With a translation that puzzles, it’s always good to check the original. So I found that too. The relevant sentence says:

Ce n’est pas bien généreux ni bien vigoureux, mais il y a du bouquet pas mal, et puis je ne sais quelle sorte de mordant sombre et sournois qui n’est pas désagréable.

Well, sombre means sombre sure enough, but sournois doesn’t, as far as I know, mean sinister – it’s more like hypocritical or cunning, hiding one’s feelings. But my French isn’t up to much, so I asked Jean Vincent Ridon what he thought about the translation. He told me: “In this situation mordant sombre et sournois refers to the mouth-feel, specifically the astringency of the wine. Sombre would probably mean that is it not really defined, more in a twilight zone, unprecise… probably being a metaphor for tannins vs acidity. In these days most wines were much more acid than now. And sournois would be seen in this context as surprising, or coming unexpectedly.”

I like that explanation, even if I’m a bit sorry to lose the sinister idea. Because I would agree that tannins are key to the question. There’s an extent to which most modern wine-drinkers – and winemakers – have lost the ability to cope with serious tannin structures. Partly because of the international consumerist cult of immediate or near-immediate gratification. In South Africa, consider even the serious Swartland syrah-based reds. Few of them (including Columella) are not approachable even young (less so the most tannic of them all, Porseleinberg). One of the reasons that cabernet is unfashionable is surely precisely because it is demanding, and tough and even not very pleasing in youth. Young winemakers and sommeliers and hipster drinkers who’ve never had the privilege and vital experience of drinking mature Bordeaux start to scoff at Bordeaux and cabernet, because they don’t begin to understand what real wine of this kind is all about.

I can’t claim to be immune to the problem. I’ve recently been working through some of the best cabs and cab-based wines that Stellenbosch has to offer. They are emphatically not fun at an early age, with their huge structures, sometimes the oak still too evident, the harmony a matter of waiting. To me, virtually undrinkable – the second labels are generally much nicer now. (Ok, some are probably over-extracted and over-wooded, but even those that are not like that are still difficult.) Incidentally, our “port” producers tend to be more compromising, I think, and often the structure of even their Vintage Reserves is a little too easy going, the wines too easily approachable. I salute the producers of fine cab-based wines who don’t compromise. (Which very emphatically is not to endorse Stellenbosch’s over-extracted, tough wines, which undoubtedly exist.)

The glory of cabernet tannins when, after many years in bottle they come into harmony with the fruit (the fruit that has to be there from the start of course, and if it isn’t the tannins and acid just get more bony and dry), that glory is irreplaceable. Something similar is, or can be, not untrue for syrah. Pinot noir is maybe a different story, and that is no doubt why red burgundy is seen as such a model by most young winemakers and by impatient sommeliers and wine lovers.

Bring on the sombre and the sinister, I say. Not instead of, but as well as.

4 thoughts on “On sombre and sinister wines

  1. A wonderful piece, thanks Tim. And I concur.

    Balance remains a key element. I recently had the privilege to take an unfinished bottle of 2015 Porseleinberg Syrah home with me(if an unfinished bottle of Porseleinberg seems like an impossible concept, it can indeed happen when five guys open more than 20 great wines). My wife and I had the last half of the bottle two days – and an airplane trip – later. The wine was still entirely intact after being somewhat man-handled. Muscular and fairly tannic, but also with great aromatics and surprising drinkability, despite its structure. A freshly opened bottle might arguably be less gluggable, but it’s a seriously good wine – a modern classic – and I’m guessing it has a really good future.

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