Why do you REALLY like that Bordeaux? / by Joe Fattorini

If you've heard of Geoffrey Miller, it isn't for his thoughts on wine*. He's an evolutionary psychologist and author of a book called "Spent". It's a Darwinist look at consumerism and how marketing "uses our inherited instincts to display social status for reproductive advantage". Or, looked at through the world of wine, why sommeliers smile and say "you have exquisite taste madam/sir" when you order a $/£/€200 bottle of wine. It's because they know you want some nookie.

French sommelier.gif

But Geoffrey Miller has another wine insight. Although he didn't know it when he said it. He's identified a particular European heuristic. If you're not familiar with a heuristic, it's a psychological word for an "approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals." It's a mental shortcut. A leapfrog to "what's probably the right answer". Doctors are probably trustworthy. Grannies will probably not nick your laptop when you go to the loo on a train. They're not guaranteed to be reliable. (cf Harold Shipman and the lady who tried snaffling mine a few years ago). But they "feel right".


Miller believes this European heuristic favours intricacy. If something is complex and elaborate on a small scale, Europeans reckon it's "probably good". It's why the Swiss make watches. And why European cars are so much smaller than American ones. Whereas in America the heuristic is different. Bigger, is better. America values scale. Power. Vast shopping malls. Hulk Hogan. Monster trucks. 2015, 2010, 2009, 2006, 2005.

Why 2015, 2010, 2009, 2006, 2005? These are vintages in Bordeaux. And they're all thought of as the riper, "bigger" ones. And last night I tried the lot from Chateau Brown. Chateau Brown is in the vastly underrated area of Pessac-Léognan in Bordeaux. And Chateau Brown is a brilliant (and handily-easy-to-remember) name to have in your back pocket if you're looking for tasty, well-priced claret. You can (and should) buy some from places like Soho Wine Supply and Ellis of Richmond. And my notes have words like "supple" (2015) "lush" (2010), "bold" (2009), "ripe" (2006) and "exotic" (2005).

Ch Brown.jpg

The tasting was organised by Jean-Christophe Mau (of the Chateau) and Richard Bampfield MW. Richard split eleven wines into two groups. To one side were those bigger, lusher, riper vintages. On the other side were contrasting years. 2014 "bright". 2013 "pacey". 2012 "pepper". 2011 "light". 2008 "sauvage". 2007 "herbal". Interestingly, Richard called them "classic" vintages. As well he might. He's a European.

Im not a european.gif

"Classic" is a loaded word. With its connotations of classical music, classic art and classical antiquity. It implies "better". At dinner afterwards (it's a hard life working in wine) I sat opposite Neal Martin. It's was a momentous evening for Neal. It was the last night of his work for The Wine Advocate and eRobertParker.com, America's most influential wine publication. In the morning he would move to begin working with Vinous, a rival. Neal doesn't much look like one of the world's greatest tastemakers. Particularly for a generation of American bankers, lawyers and financiers. All lovers of the large.

Neal Martin.jpg

Over the last 15 years or so he's moved markets and palates with his assessments of Burgundy, South Africa, Sauternes, Tokaji, Port, Madeira and Bordeaux. Yet Neal's a bit scruffy. He could conceivably have emerged from a Nick Hornby novel about confused dads working in a retro vinyl shop in the noughties. Lacoste sweater, trainers, jeans. He's achieved global fame and authority as a wine critic. But he walks and talks like a boy-done-good from Southend. Which he is. You almost want to ask him to quote for plastering your front room. (Indeed, when Neal was photographed for an article in The Sun about his rise to fame, he changed in such a rush he confessed afterwards he had spatters of Dulux up his arm from some recent decorating.)

It's no great revelation to say that there's a difference between American and European preferences in wine. And Bordeaux is at the pointy end of it. What's "good" in Bordeaux has been the topic of fierce rivalries and debate. Most famously in "the Chateau Pavie incident". I'd tell the story. But the protagonists themselves tell it better in this Radio 4 programme. In the European corner is Jancis Robinson MW (also known for her starring role in The Wine Show... *coughs*) and in the American corner is Robert Parker. Neal's now-former-boss.

For some Robert Parker is a bête-noire. And by extension Neal. Parker's love of big, ripe, fruity, forward, lush wines and influence over Americans, changed the wine world. Not always popular in Europe. Neal's own palate is nuanced. But even so, Neal told how he was booed by an audience at the famed Meursault Paulée dinner in Burgundy when they heard who he worked for. The antagonism comes from a sense that they've changed palates. Away from "better", classical European styles. To "lesser", brash American ones.

Geoffrey Miller would see it differently. If his European vs American heuristic is right, Robert Parker and Neal and Jancis are three of the great, hidden psychologists of our age. Their task wasn't to convince their audiences. But tell them what they wanted to hear. Status - and hence sexual success - for Americans, comes from being big. Big car, big wines, big steaks. I'll stop there. Jancis too, is blessed with a palate and insight into what Europeans know will "probably" lead to social acknowledgement. And subsequent nookie. Attention to detail. Fine distinctions. Grace and restraint.


We pretend that wine appreciation exists on a higher plane. That identifying, describing and detailing the fine distinctions between wines is a cerebral, almost monastic task. Part-science, part-philosophy, part-artistry. One is good because it's "classical". The other bad because it's "vulgar". But we're kidding ourselves. Two million years of evolution churn away every time you taste a glass of wine. Evolutionary psychology says you like it because you think it'll help you get it.

*You possibly heard of Geoffrey Miller because on his much-regretted thoughts on PhD applicants. Miller attracted considerable controversy in 2013 for this (retracted and apologised for) tweet.