Marthinus Ferreira: chef of linearity

A decade ago “linearity” was the buzz word in SA wine. From Nederburg cellarmaster Razvan Macici musing on whether “fruit purity and linearity” is the way to express terroir to Winemail describing one of their mail-order offerings as possessed of “good concentration of fruit on the palate, elegance and linearity”, ascribing geometric properties to wine, was all the rage and yet another descriptor had been added to winespeak.

The first sighting was at the Fairbairn Capital Toasty Wine Show in 2004 when the late, lamented WINE magazine interviewed Michael Fridjhon, a tadpole who was later to become a lizard, who noted that to “outline the aesthetics that he as chairman [lizardspeak for “owner”] wants to see applied during the judging of the show, he came up with the concept of ‘linearity’ or fruit purity.”  Of course the concept was not his.

The big question then what to eat with linear wines?  After lunch at DWeleven-13 yesterday, the scales have been lifted from my eyes and the linear food of Marthinus Ferreira is a no-brainer. Here are some vertical asparagus suitable for vegans and vegetarians.

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Xtian Eedes, panel chair of the controversial FNB Top Ten Sauvignon Blanc laundry list, translates “linearity” as “fruit purity” and hails it as an important concept. “Good Sauvignon Blanc hinges on linearity” is one of his many insights, but “it is possible to make a commercially successful Chardonnay where ‘linearity’ plays a very small part in the wine’s appeal.”

For greatness, straightness seems to be the sine qua non: “for Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc or any other variety” in order to have an expression of place, which is the holy grail of terroiriste wine making, “it all comes down to linearity.” As Huey Lewis and the News might have put it: “it’s hip to be linear.” Here is some vertical Scottish salmon from a loch, straight as a die.

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For mathematicians like myself, “linearity” is an unfortunate term to introduce into the lizardspeak lexicon as it’s almost an insult. The interesting problems are all non-linear and to a mathematical winemaker, the epithet of linearity would be synonymous with simple. A far more appealing descriptor would be comparison to a fractal curve that has elegance, symmetry and as much complexity as you like at any scale of observation, the antithesis of a straight line which is after all, simply the shortest distance between two points. Like these horizontal goats cheese (below) from Marthinus.

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When Steven Spurrier was last selecting wine for SA Airways, his interpretation of vinous linearity was a little different. “It’s all Michel Bettane’s fault” he laughed. Stevo traced the concept of linearity back to Michel’s idea of “longueiline” a made-up word in French which Stevo translates as “longer than you can taste” i.e. very persistent. As chairman of the Decanter World Wine Awards, a sort of global Fairbairn but with some credibility, his geometrical insights carry a fair amount of Euclidean weight.

Michel was once a judge at Fairbairn (now rebranded to Old Mutual), which puts him on the scene of the crime, and “linearity” is also a philosophical good fit. Before submerging himself in the wine world on a full-time basis, Michel was a professor of Classics at Fontainebleau. For a former French academic to invent a new word to describe an idea, Michel is simply following in the footsteps of the most famous French radical philosopher Jacques Derrida, who invented Deconstructionism. To define deconstructionism is something of a contradiction in terms (Jacques himself questions whether it can in fact be defined) but it is essentially a subverting of philosophy via a dismantling of language to expose contradictions and false assumptions. Here is a deconstructed starter from Marthinus, presented at a jaunty angle, but still distinctly linear.

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Deconstructionist techniques have been successfully applied in architecture, literature and fine art and longueiline could be the first attempt at deconstructing winespeak, a field overflowing with fuzzy concepts and woolly thinking. The anatomy of the word is intriguing: it has that certain je ne sais quoi that French terms confer in English with terroir a good example. Being linguistically close to longueur, it has that Proustian languidness that is well suited to fine wine and being difficult to pronounce, raises the required barriers to appropriation by non-insiders.

Deconstructionism is by no means universally accepted. Guardian guru Peter Lennon comments “the French excel in fabricated terms of shifty meaning which make it impossible to detect at what point philosophical speculation turns to gibberish. Deconstruction is a theory which appears to lend itself most readily to babbling obfuscation.” Which makes longueiline a perfect addition to the vocabulary of lizardspeak.

A deep philosophical issue lies behind adding the idea of linearity to wine: can a concept exist without a word to describe it and if so, what did we do B.B. (before Bettane)? Research by the American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s seems to indicate that language not only influences thought but more strongly, determines it. So whether in the context of “purity of fruit” or “persistence of flavour”, linearity is a concept no self-respecting foodie can ignore, or at least finesse.