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Malcolm Jolley: On la Bourgogne, and wine that tastes like it’s supposed to

Commentary

If every wine region in the world got its wish, would it be to be la Bourgogne? Probably. The money’s pretty good. But, should they? Is la Bourgogne (sometimes referred to as “Burgundy”Because the vignerons of la Bourgogne showed me exceptional hospitality, and plied me with some very excellent wines at a dinner early in my recent visit in the charming cathedral city of Auxerres, I promised to call their region and its wines by its proper French name when I wrote about for the trip they hosted me on. To be fair “Bourgogne” is what is printed on the labels of the wine, so I understand why they wish to popularize the proper name. Also, the French word for the colour Burgundy is “Bordeaux,” so…) really where emerging wine regions want to go? Is the Côtes d’Or really just a long stony ridge of golden handcuffs, where conformity is the norm and the creativity of winemakers is stifled by dreams of €300-a-bottle release prices?

It’s crass to bring up the subject of money and commerce when discussing a craft—if not an art form—that regularly encompasses a vigneron’s life’s work. I regularly do, though, because it’s always there. The first consideration a consumer makes when buying a bottle or a case of wine is the price. When I meet a neighbour in the local liquor store and they ask me for a recommendation, my first question back is, “How much are you willing to spend?”

My participation in this year’s Grands Jours de Bourgogne, as a guest of the winemakers’ syndicate le Bureau Interprofessionel de Vins de Bourgogne, put this instinct on its head. Once I got used to being in a room with, for instance, a few hundred open bottles of Pouilly-Fuissé, the idea that wine is a business would magically fade away. In a good year I would consider myself lucky to have just one of these bottles open on the table in front of me on more than one occasion. But after a few sips, luxury can become commonplace pretty quickly.

Empires that don’t expand inevitably collapse. As the prices for the Grands, Premiers, and even Villages Crus continue to rise, so does investment in vineyards that were only recently considered at the margins of la Bourgogne. If you see Irancy (think red Chablis) on a wine list, you’re in the hands of a savvy sommelier and have the opportunity for at least a high quality-to-price ratio experience, if not an actual bargain. Same goes with the whites from St. Aubin or anything from the craggy Hautes-Côtes de Beaune.

Meanwhile, along the Côtes d’Or, the winemakers confound greenhorn dégustateurs de Bourgogne like me. I tasted a dozen 2022 Pinot Noirs in a row in Gevrey-Chambertin with a slight variance on clean and raspberry notes. I decided that resistance was futile, admitted that I was a simple man, and surrendered to the idea that the place itself, at only 400 odd hectares (a bit more than half the average size of a farm in Saskatchewan), had its own taste.

The Bordelais and the Bourgignons can fight it out as to who invented the idea of terroir. Each in their own way has exploited it beautifully. I stopped asking winemakers in Bourgogne about their elevation for the 2022 vintage because they kept giving me the same answers. The variance was really only in what one might do (which for all intents and purposes means how much new oak) to a Grand Cru versus a Premier Cru, and so on down the quality pyramid. The wine was meant to taste like the field, not the cellar, and the recipes were mostly fixed.

And why would anyone screw around with a recipe that works? If a Master of Wine expects a particular taste of place, why would anyone not give it to them? Across France, the invigilators of the cahier de charges, the rule books that strictly dictate how a wine must be made to hold the status of an appellation, must look at Bourgogne with envy. The vignerons hold the line, and as a consumer you can be confident that a given bottle of wine from the fields surrounding a particular village somewhere in between Dijon and Lyon will taste like it’s supposed to.

This is the dream of ambitious wine regions, though few come close to achieving it. Brunello di Montalcino is pretty close, though the occasional producer still goes heavy on the oak. Most wine tastings or trade shows run on a bell curve, with a few exceptionally good and bad producers. It is striking to go to three or four tastings in a day where the quality and consistency of character of the wines are flatlined on a high plateau. I found myself taking longer at the tables I visited, free from the anxiety that I was missing out on the one big discovery at the next table. I could take time to appreciate the wines in sequence, almost as a totality.

Of course, it could be that the rebels and outliers might just not show up to the Bureau’s tastings, or bring their off-piste wines to them. In Chablis a long line formed around the table of the Young Turk, Clement Lavallée, whose organic, biodynamic wines skirt around the term of art “natural.” But for all of their minerality, this young man’s Chardonnay had more in common than difference with the ones across the aisle on the tables of the big négociant houses. Chablis is Chablis, and the thought of the word should make the mouth water a bit like it does when we think of lemons.

Mavericks make good copy, and the wine media (present company included) is always looking for a rebel. If the winemaking rebel is also “legendary” or “iconic,” then it’s even better. The cult of the auteur is alive and well in wine writing (and its wealthier cousin, marketing). But there is a quieter poetry when winemakers work in concert to present their terroir in a voice that’s more in harmony than not. C’est bon, c’est typique.

Michael Byers and Aaron Boley: From Elon Musk to Russia, the race to own outer space is heating up

Commentary

As part of a paid partnership, this month The Hub will feature excerpts from this year’s five shortlisted books for the Donner Prize, awarded to the best public policy book in Canada. Our podcast Hub Dialogues will also feature interviews with the authors. The winning title will be awarded $60,000 by The Donner Canadian Foundation on May 8th.

The following is an excerpt from Who Owns Outer Space? International Law, Astrophysics, and the Sustainable Development of Space (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

The asteroid 101955 Bennu is just a pile of rubble, weakly held together by its own gravity, the remnants of a catastrophic event that occurred a billion years ago. But Bennu is also a bearer of both life and death, containing clues about the origins of life on Earth while, at the same time, having the potential to destroy humanity. For over time, the agencies of physics and chance have brought the 500-metre-wide asteroid onto an orbit very near to Earth.

A robotic spacecraft named OSIRIS-REx set out in September 2016 to make contact with Bennu. After many rehearsals, flying close to Bennu each time, the spacecraft made a brief landing—a “touch-and-go” that enabled it to collect a sample from the asteroid’s surface. Scientists will spend decades analysing the 120 grams of material, which include amino acids, the building blocks of life.

The OSIRIS-REx mission, however, is about more than science. NASA readily admits that the visit to Bennu is a prelude for possible mining operations, with governments and private companies hoping to extract water from asteroids to make rocket fuel—thus enabling further space exploration and, perhaps, an off-Earth economy. But some states oppose these plans, arguing that space mining, were it to happen, would be illegal in the absence of a widely agreed multilateral regime. They point to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits “national appropriation” and declares the exploration and use of space to be “the province of all [hu]mankind.” There are also reasons to worry that space mining, if done without adequate oversight, could create risks—including the low probability, high-consequence risk of an asteroid being inadvertently redirected onto an Earth impact trajectory.


A little Pomeranian called Saba missed out on the chance to join Sharon and Mark Hagle on the first of their four planned flights to space, though Blue Origin did offer the dog a consolation prize—a specially fitted flight suit! As for the Hagles, they already have tickets for Virgin Galactic and are now in talks with SpaceX. Travelling to space is an “extraordinary” experience for the Florida-based couple, whose previous adventures included swimming with whales and abseiling into caves. “My thought is you go, I go,” Sharon said of her 73-year-old property developer husband. “Mark has always taken me out of my comfort zone.”

More and more of the world’s ultra-rich are travelling to space as tourists on short sub-orbital flights or much longer orbital flights, with increasing numbers going to the International Space Station. Trips around the Moon might also become a reality soon. Hollywood, unsatisfied with the visual effects provided by CGI or parabolic flights on aeroplanes, is right behind them, with Tom Cruise expected to fly to the International Space Station for a film shoot soon. It is all great fun, of course, unless one considers the environmental impacts.

The Soviet spy satellite Kosmos 1408, launched in 1982, ran out of propellant decades ago and became just another piece of Space junk…until it found a new purpose in life. It was chosen as a target for a powerful military to demonstrate a capability that everyone already knew it possessed—to destroy a satellite at will.

A ground-launched missile struck the 1,750 kg satellite at a relative speed of at least 20,000 kilometres per hour, creating a huge explosion and, at the same time, more than a thousand pieces of high-velocity space debris large enough to be tracked by ground-based radar. Tens of thousands of smaller but still potentially lethal pieces were also undoubtedly created, many of them on elliptical orbits that cross the orbits of thousands of operational satellites, as well as the International Space Station and China’s new Tiangong Space Station. Immediately after the explosion, astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts retreated into the shelter of their capsules, which are hardened for atmospheric re-entry, and closed the hatches while the highest concentrations of debris flew by. 

That was not the end of the story, however. Some of the debris will remain in orbit for many years, posing an ongoing threat to all satellites, including many operational satellites belonging to Russia itself, the state that took this dangerous and completely unnecessary action.

The Milky Way glows above the 6856 meters tall Bhagirathi peaks as seen from Tapovan, at an altitude of 4500 meters in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, Friday, May 10, 2019. Altaf Qadri/AP Photo.

SpaceX recently moved the bulk of its operations from California to Texas, attracted by the Lone Star State’s low taxes and minimal regulations. The move may also have contained an implicit threat to the U.S. government: the now-dominant space actor could up stakes again, but next time to another country. Luxembourg, a well-established tax haven, would be an obvious place to incorporate. Although a tiny European country, it provides a friendly home for two of the world’s largest operators of communications satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), and, in 2017, adopted legislation to facilitate commercial space mining. SpaceX, meanwhile, has already acquired two large oil-drilling platforms that could be used to allow launches, quite literally, offshore. 

Having launched more than 5,000 satellites since 2019, SpaceX now controls large swaths of Earth’s most desirable orbits. Should one company, or indeed any actor, be allowed to use the most valuable parts of low Earth orbit (LEO) to such an extent that its use effectively excludes other actors from operating there safely? At what point does SpaceX exceed the carrying capacity of LEO and degrade spaceflight safety for everyone?

Tighter regulations are coming. But those regulations will be the result of negotiations, and companies, knowing this, are now working to establish the strongest possible negotiating positions. The emergence of Luxembourg and other “flag-of-convenience” states in the space domain will certainly help those who seek to minimise regulation. SpaceX only exists because of NASA contracts provided to it when it was a fragile start-up. It still relies on NASA and U.S. Space Force contracts for revenue, but the company is growing ever more powerful, launching thousands of satellites each year and planning missions to both the Moon and Mars. At some point, governments may find that they are negotiating with a leviathan that is both able and willing to transcend all boundaries.