Wine is poetry in a glass and as we discovered last week, the glass itself is often art in its own right. Together they create mankind’s most sublime and meaningful drinking experience. There are several angles to explore the intimate relationship between art and wine. Let’s look at three.
I’ve been fortunate to meet many talented winemakers who are artists. Their creative approach to making wine results in true liquid art. Technology and advanced studies have revolutionized the wine industry, but science and art still synergistically coexist at every step of winemaking. Sophisticated devices are used to measure the brix, PH and TA that help measure the ripeness of the grapes, but winemakers still taste grapes to determine the perfect time to harvest. Many winemakers also still rely on intuition to pick the perfect yeast for fermentation. Modern science and technology have unquestionably helped winemakers, but the most distinctive and special wines are still the result of an artistic winemaker.
One of my favorite winemaking artists is Francois Collard of Chateau Mourgues du Gres. A graduate of the esteemed University of Agriculture in Montpellier, Collard moved on to become an agriculture engineer and oenologist at the Bordeaux first growth Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.
As rewarding as working at one of the world’s most famous wineries was, he felt the tug of home and returned to Costieres de Nimes where his family had vineyards and a winery. Located between the ancient city of Nimes and the western Rhone River delta, his property pre-dated the French Revolution and was home to the nuns of the Convent of Ursulines. The nuns like many Catholics of the time made wines for the holy sacrament. I’m pretty sure they also enjoyed a few glasses on the side.
Francois bottled his first wines in 1993 and since then has built a reputation as one of the world’s best young winemakers. The wines Francois makes at Chateau Mourgues du Gres reflect the best traditions of the southern Rhone. Sunshine is so ample that the motto and symbol of the winery is “Sine Sole Nihil,” which in Latin means “nothing without the sun.”
The land features a special soil replete with galets or small rounded stones that were formed in the Ice Age as glaciers carved out the Rhone Valley. These stones retain heat and bring mineral qualities to the wines. The nearby Rhone River and winds from both the north and south also play important roles. These natural features are all positive influences on the wine, but the artistic qualities of Francois are what make his wines truly special.
His top wine Capitelles des Mourgues 2007 is made predominantly from old Syrah vines with some Carignan added to the blend. Year-in and year-out this richly layered and complex wine is consistently one of the best from Costieres de Nimes.
His entry-level La Tour de Beraud white, rose and red wines are delightfully easy-going and well-made while his mid-range Les Galets wines that are also available in three colors are similarly charming wines that offer more concentrated aromas and flavors. All the distinctive wines of Chateau Mourgues du Gres are very reasonably priced and offer a delicious taste of artistic winemaking.
Two additional artistic wines I recommend are the Napa gem Peter Michael Knights Valley Les Pavots Red and the quintessential Chianti Classico Barone Ricasoli Brolio.
Wines in art
Wines have been depicted in art since ancient times. This is not at all surprising when we realize that painters, like winemakers, rely on both technique and inspiration. One of my favorite paintings featuring a wine theme is the mid-19th century work by Adam Woodside titled “Cupid in a Wine Glass.” In the painting a cherub-like blond baby is blissfully bathing in a saucer shaped glass with red wine. Grapes and vine leaves attractively frame the glass.
Another wine-themed painting that I find fascinating is the “Virgin Mary with Wine-Drinking Christ-Child,” by Dutch master Joos Van Cleve (1485-1541). He composed many works depicting the Virgin and Child but most intriguing by far is the painting showing the infant Jesus heartily drinking red wine from a large stemless glass.
From ancient times through the Middle Ages several cultures believed that moderate amounts of wine gave strength and vigor to young children. The political incorrectness of this painting today makes it all the more fascinating.
In the 20th century, wine labels evolved from mere practical information display to art. The most famous examples are of course the labels of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild that, with each vintage, feature the work of a well-known artist.
The 1924 Mouton was the first to feature art on the label with a reproduction of a French poster by Jean Carlu. But these labels weren’t an annual practice until 1945 when Baron Philip de Rothschild decided that each vintage of the then-second growth Pauillac wine would feature a label designed by a notable artist.
Since then, the works of many of the world’s most famous artists have adorned the Mouton label, helping to make it one of the world’s most collectable wines. Of course, the wine is pretty darn good too!
Celebrated artists featured on Mouton labels include Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Dali, Balthus and others. Other wineries around the world have followed the Mouton example. The wonderful Miros wines of Bodegas Penafiel feature modern Spanish artists on their labels. Made in the heart of Ribera del Duero these are delightfully deep flavored Tempranillo red wines.