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Malcolm Jolley: Mountain wines are having a moment in the 2020s

Commentary

This column is being written at more than 2,000 metres above sea level, looking over the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains and Park City, Utah. There is no wine production that I can see from my vista, though the local craft beer is pretty good. Maybe it’s the thin air or the quality of light in the dry mountain air, but the scenery has brought to mind high-elevation wines.

The highest vineyard in the world is reportedly in Tibet, at over 3,500 meters. There are very high vineyards in the Andes too, like the 2,000 metre-high Jardin Occulto ones I wrote about in October of last year. In Europe, there are very high vines growing up into the valleys of the Alps and on the volcanic promontories of the Canary Islands (though that might technically be Africa).

The table I am writing from faces west, so in the morning the sun hits the mountain range head-on. After skiing through the day, the sun sinks behind it. During the day, as I ski, when the sun shines mostly from the south and hits the relief of snow depending both on the position of the hill (whether it faces east, south, or north) and also the steepness of the grade.

While skiing, I took a break to catch my breath in the thin Rocky Mountain air on the slopes and I was taken back to a lecture I attended in the fall of 2019 in another mountain town, Bolzano. There, in the valley of the Adige River, surrounded by the craggy peaks of the Dolomite Alps, I attended a lecture on mountain viticulture by the aptly named Professor Attila Scienza.

Scienza explained that there is a third aspect to terroir, or the conditions that a grapevine grows in, in addition to the two that get the most attention: soil type and climate. Scienza reminded his audience of wine journalists that plants require sunlight for photosynthesis and the advantage that mountain vines have is they get tend to get more of it than their counterparts on lower and flatter land.

Vines on steep grades get more sunshine because they aren’t in the shadow of many things. Ultraviolet rays from the sun might catch them from morning through to evening. Of course, the direction the slope faces is determinative, but one assumes the vines have been planted strategically to maximize, minimize, or find the right Goldilocks amount of sun.

Sunshine provides more than ultraviolet light—it also supplies warmth. All things being equal, the temperature will drop between half and one degree Celsius for every 100 metres of elevation. We know this instinctively from images of snow-peaked mountains in summer. 

Elevation makes vine growing possible in parts of the world where the latitude is less than 30 degrees, and in low ground that would be too warm to grow vitas vinifera by virtue of being too close to the equator. Wine can be grown in places like South America and the Canary Islands.This column is avoiding the term “altitude” assiduously. The a-word, I have been told sternly, refers to objects in the air, like aeroplanes, and not the ground or things rooted in it.

The role elevation plays on climate made me think of another prominent and influential Italian gentleman in the wine world, Alessandro Masnaghetti. Masnaghetti is a wine writer but is most renowned for his skills as a map maker. His maps are instantly recognizable for their colourful patterns, which identify particular vineyards.

For the wine regions that commission Masnaghetti maps, like Barolo or Chianti Classico, they are an invaluable marketing tool. Since at least the famous Bordeaux classification of 1855, the value of one wine against the next has been inextricably linked to where it’s from. A vintner can tell potential customers where her wine comes from, and why the land she grows it on is ideally situated, or she can show them.

Recently Masnaghetti has upped his game and makes three-dimensional maps that are more like models. Now, the wine enthusiast can see clearly why a particular vineyard is higher or lower than the others or faces the sun at different times of the day in a particular way. Like Scienza, Masnaghetti understands sunshine is as important to terroir as soil and climate.

Agriculture is as sensitive to climate change as any human endeavour, and its subset of viticulture is especially vulnerable to warming. The vineyards on the north side of Mount Etna in Sicily are an interesting example. At an elevation of 800 to 1000 metres, the temperature in the Etna wine country can easily be 10 degrees cooler than on the streets of Catania at sea level.

Etna wines have gone from a marginal, local cottage industry, to a sought-after luxury brand. All the big wine houses in Sicily have invested in Etna, as have many from the mainland. Warmer growing seasons have meant an expansion of wine growing upwards on the mountain, and the ripening of the old vines is now all but guaranteed.

This is also true on a case-to-case basis throughout the wine-producing regions of the world, as producers look for cooler higher sites. It’s now common to see elevation described on the back label of a bottle of wine: “From vines grown at 400 metres above sea level”. Or the front, as some producers will include the vineyard elevation in the name of a wine, to show it’s come from a cooler corner of their appellation.

The mix of sunshine-derived concentration of flavour and freshness from cooler growing season temperatures have made high-elevation wines particularly marketable in the 2020s. Some of the best examples of this style are the wines from Argentina, which are grown in the clean air and strong sun of the high plateaus of Mendoza in the shadow of the Andes.

The wines from Itay’s Alto-Adige (or Sudtirol) often share this quality. In the south of France and north of Spain, wines from vineyards that are higher up into the foothills of the Pyrenees are also increasingly in demand. The trend is global, and in cooler regions the difference of just a few metres in elevation might be well enough to make a wine distinct from its lower-grounded neighbours.

Howard Anglin: God save us from the eminent Canadians

Commentary

At least it wasn’t Beverley McLachlin. Apparently even Justin Trudeau thinks it would be a bit de trop to appoint a judge who sits on a Chinese court to investigate Chinese meddling in our electoral system. But admit it: her name at least crossed your mind when Trudeau promised that he would appoint an “eminent Canadian” to look into the matter.

Instead, we got David Johnston, and it doesn’t get much more eminent than that. The man was captain of the varsity hockey team at Harvard, for goodness sake. If we were the sort of country that still went in for honorific prefixes and postnominals, the plain Mr. Johnston would have a string of them as long as any Victorian colonial grandee.

Johnston was a genial and impeccably boring Governor General at a time when that was a welcome relief. Bland to the point of invisibility, he seemed determined not to be noticed. He even refused the historic uniform, opting instead to dress like the commodore of a suburban yacht club. 

Publicly, he rarely set a foot wrong, while privately he performed the less palatable duties of his office without complaint, schmoozing foreign dictators and paying Canada’s official respects at the funerals of the sort of head of state it would be awkward for the PM to honour. 

I don’t mean any of that churlishly. Johnston was an unsung diplomatic asset who reliably and effectively pressed Canada’s interests at the highest levels around the world in ways that most people in government never saw. His reports of his meetings were incisive and helpful.

It’s true that his record of investigative and regulatory appointments is rather more checkered. His exclusion of the Airbus payments to Karlheinz Schreiber from the scope of the Oliphant Commission’s terms of reference was at best a serious error in judgment. I’ll leave the “at worst” alternative to those who were there

More recently, he headed up the hapless Leaders’ Debates Commission that barred True North and Rebel Media from covering the 2019 leaders’ debates. The two news outlets had to rush to the Federal Court to overturn the decision, which the judge said was “lacking in discernible rationality and logic” and “neither justified nor intelligible.” 

Others have pointed to his involvement with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation as a problem, though that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as his advisory role with Deloitte, one of those global advisory firms that has raked in billions from government consulting (including in $172 million from the Government of Canada in 2021-22 alone, according to a Carleton University report) and has generally viewed the genocidal PRC as a gold mine rather than a global threat. 

But complaining about any of this, or any of Johnston’s other corporate and eleemosynary boards, commissions, panels, and advisory roles is beside the point: this is what it means to be an eminent Canadian. As soon as Trudeau uttered that dismal phrase, we knew what were in for. Frankly, Johnston is about as good as we could have hoped for, all things considered. 

The problem here is not Johnston, it’s the whole class, nay the very idea, of “eminent Canadians”—a phrase that means nothing outside Ottawa and a few corporate boardrooms in downtown Toronto and Montreal, but which means everything within that ambit. In those enclaves of faux leather chairs and sapless modern art, the answer to every problem is always the same: deploy the eminent Canadians! 

This is why their boards are stacked with them, and how we end up with paragraphs like this, which could be torn from the appendix of Peter C. Newman’s The Canadian Establishment:

Circles are small in Canadian business, and [BMO board chairman] Mr. Prichard and [BMO vice-chair] Mr. Lynch had every reason to be twisting arms on behalf of SNC-Lavalin, though the pair were in the Prime Minister’s office so often last fall they should have been allowed to choose the furniture. Mr. Prichard is also chair of law firm Torys, which is representing the Montreal-based engineering company. And along with his day job at BMO, Mr. Lynch is chair of the board of SNC-Lavalin. He’s also the former Clerk of the Privy Council, the country’s top civil servant.

When Lytton Strachey wrote his bitchy little book Eminent Victorians, he scandalized British society by aiming his iconoclasm at true giants of the previous age, figures still much better remembered than Strachey himself (the arc of history sometimes does bend toward justice). If the book has a legacy today, it is that it left the adjective “eminent” charged with faintly sardonic insinuation. Only in Canada, and even then only among a certain type of insular Laurentian Liberal, could the phrase “eminent Canadian” still be used unironically. 

The label does, however, pair well with Johnston’s other new title of “special rapporteur.” Brent Cameron did a fine job in these pages explaining what exactly a “special rapporteur” is and what it might mean in this novel context, so I will skip the details. The short answer is that it’s a term borrowed from the dubious United Nations Human Rights Council for an expert appointed to assist them in their (sometimes not entirely spurious) human rights investigations. 

Cameron explained that, “[a]ssuming the use of the unconventional title isn’t some cynical messaging ploy” (which, for the record, is not an assumption that I am willing to grant), if the Trudeau government follows the UN’s example, the “special rapporteur” will be granted virtually unrestricted access to “interview all manner of individuals within the government, the opposition, the intelligence and law enforcement communities, academia, and any advocacy groups within the broader society.” This—and I don’t think I’m bursting anyone’s bubble here—is not going to happen. Even if it did, I doubt Johnston would find much that would surprise anyone.

And here we finally get to my own problem with the appointment. The eminently special David Johnston may be expert in many things, but he is not an expert in the areas relevant to this investigation. He is not an expert in foreign or domestic intelligence, he is not an expert in the political activities of the Chinese Communist Party, and—most importantly—he is not an expert in politics. 

If you want someone to investigate who has been tampering with the high table seating chart at Massey College, an eminent Canadian like Johnston is your man. No question. But the allegations of electoral interference that he is being tasked to investigating occurred at a rather less eminent level of our national politics, down in the murky world of riding nominations and municipal politics. 

These are shady places where, when you turn over a rock, you never know what is going to scurry out. I fear that Johnston will be lost as an outsider in the world of membership drives, volunteer recruitment, straw donors, and foreign-influenced diaspora politics, and will end up chasing shadows, half-truths, and will-o-the-whisp allegations down dead-end paper trails.

But if not Johnston, then who? Cameron’s suggestion of a retired judge or diplomat “from Britain, Australia, or New Zealand—jurisdictions that approximate Canada on multiple levels and utilize the Westminster system of government” is smart, though instead of a judge or diplomat, I’d have gone for a retired intelligence mandarin or ex-cabinet minister, someone with relevant experience of either foreign interference or coal-face politics. Anyone, really, who knows first-hand what to look for. Anyone, in other words, but an “eminent Canadian.”