These 16 films are the crème de la crème of wine documentaries. Highlights include a gripping story about the biggest wine counterfeiter in history, a glossy film charting China’s growing obsession with Bordeaux, and a look at the controversial Barolo Wars of the 80s.
Sour Grapes (2016)
Rudy Kurniawan was considered to have one of the greatest cellars on the planet – until the truth came out. In 2006 Kurniawan, aka “Dr Conti”, made $35 million at two record-breaking wine auctions. Two years on, Laurent Ponsot of Burgundy’s Domaine Ponsot caught Kurniawan selling vintages of wine that had never, in fact, been produced. Through interviews with FBI agents, wine collectors, producers and auctioneers, Sour Grapes chronicles the rise and fall of the greatest wine fraudster in history, who is said to have flooded the market with as many as 10,000 fake bottles and is now serving 10 years in prison. As much as this is a story about wine, it’s a shocking story about sheer criminal audacity.
The little wisecrack after the final credits, un film produit sans sulfites (“a film produced without sulphites”), says a lot about this energetic French language production. Set in the Languedoc, Wine Calling follows a group of young natural-wine producers intent on carving out their niche in France’s wine industry, which they find can still be surprisingly dogmatic. While this tension between natural and conventional winemaking is hardly a new topic, what stands out is the film’s intimate portrayal of the joyous, collaborative, us-versus-the-world spirit that buoys its subjects.
Narrated by Russell Crowe, this polished Australian production deals with China’s newfound thirst for Bordeaux, and the resulting impact on the industry. From the cellars of Château Lafite Rothschild, to wine auctions in Hong Kong, and finally, to newly established wineries on the edge of the Gobi Desert, this is a film largely interested in what happens when the ancient, prestigious and proud meet the young, brash and parvenu – a group that isn’t used to being told “no”. Look out for Chinese billionaire, sex toy manufacturer and wine collector Peter Tseng, who’s only ever interviewed in his office before a wall full of colourful dildos.
Where most wine documentaries focus on a single region or country, this ambitious, Palme d’Or nominee takes us to France, Italy, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and the US to explore the impact of globalisation on the industry. Filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter (a former sommelier at Balthazar in New York) is a fierce believer in the value of small, individualistic producers, and he’s happy to let his audience know it. With this film he aims to show how a few powerful figures, such as consultant Michel Rolland and critics Robert Parker and James Suckling, are responsible for the glut of homogenous, heavily oaked, Bordeaux clones on the contemporary wine market. While this tough, explicitly ideological stance and the unflattering portrayals of these key figures caused a stir, the film also attracted widespread praise for daring to take on the elephant in the room.
Mondovino: The Series, a 10-part adaptation of the original film, can be streamed free on Kanopy. The film itself is not available to stream in Australia but DVDs can be found on eBay, Amazon and other sites.
Natural Resistance (2014)
Where Mondovino saw Nossiter focusing mostly on perceived villains, Natural Resistance follows his heroes: a quartet of Italian grape-growers and winemakers fighting the aforementioned homogenisation – or as one of them cuttingly calls it, Mcdonaldizzato, or McDonaldisation – of wine. Among other things, the subjects are particularly opposed to the DOC system, which they believe is a marketing gimmick, not a guarantee of quality. As these young makers sit aside grand, centuries-old buildings sipping their wine and passionately arguing in favour of organic and/or biodynamic farming and minimal-intervention winemaking, it’s easy to get carried away by the agrarian romance of it all, even if this film’s scale, ambition and overall message pales in comparison to that of Mondovino.
Natural Resistance is not available to stream in Australia but DVDs can be found on eBay, Amazon and other sites.
Barolo Boys: The Story of a Revolution (2014)
Barolo. Today it’s one of the most famous reds on the planet. In the 70s? Not so much. This film charts the style’s path to recognition, but it’s not necessarily a rosy story. Instead, we see the bravado-filled “Barolo Boys” (actually seven men and one woman) taking drastic, deliberate steps to ensure their highly tannic nebbiolo suits the palate of American wine critic Robert Parker and the American public at large. Which is to say: fruity and ready to drink. They prune hard in the vineyard, use additives in the winery and mature in new French barriques. While this revolution ultimately gained Piedmont DOCG status and put the region on the map internationally, with hindsight we can see it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Such is the central theme of this film, which chronicles the “Barolo Wars” of the 80s between the modernists and the traditionalists.
Somm (2012) / Somm: Into the Bottle (2015) / Somm 3 (2018)
The first entry in this trio of documentaries is a tense close-up of four Americans attempting to pass the notoriously tough Master Sommelier examination. The story commences just three weeks from the day of testing and shows the extraordinary lengths hopefuls must go to in order to have a chance at passing. The group’s cramming is juxtaposed with vignettes shot at various wineries across Europe, ramming home the sheer amount of knowledge one needs to absorb.
In contrast, Somm: Into the Bottle focuses on wine’s heritage and culture, and shows why this ancient drink continues to captivate so many. The original group of four makes a return, but this is a story told not through people, but through 10 high-profile bottles. There’s 1966 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz, 2004 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti ‘Echezeaux’ Grand Cru, 1870 Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac and more. As each is opened, we learn about its particular history, prestige and ongoing appeal.
Somm 3 harks back to the 1976 Judgement of Paris, in which Californian wines outshone their more prestigious French counterparts for the first time. The film attempts to set up a similarly historic challenge, with six pinot noirs from around the world – including Australian winery By Farr’s 2014 ‘Tout Prés’ pinot noir – tasted blind in Paris and New York. This engineered event doesn’t have the gravity the filmmakers may have hoped for, making this perhaps the weakest entry in the series. Still, the film has some star power in the form of American educator Fred Dame MS and British wine critic Jancis Robinson MW.
The Somm series was available on Netflix until last year. It may or may not return in future. The DVDs can be found on eBay, Amazon and similar sites.
A Year in Burgundy (2013) / A Year in Champagne (2014) / A Year in Port (2016)
These well-regarded films succeed mainly due to the patient, methodical approach of director David Kennard and host Martine Saunier, a French-born, America-based wine importer. The duo spend 12 months on the ground with top producers in the respective regions of Burgundy, Champagne and the Douro, documenting the struggles and triumphs each new season brings. What stands out is the intimacy of each film, largely enabled by Saunier, whose multi-generational connections give the film crew access to vineyards – and indeed, private homes – that may otherwise have been impossible.
Not currently available to stream in Australia.
Less an informative documentary and more a glossy postcard to the passion, dedication and craft of winemaking, this film captures a vintage at 20-year-old winery Italics Winegrowers in the Napa Valley. We witness late-night harvests, painstaking grape sorting, hand-labelling of bottles and countless pornographic montages of juice sluicing into bottles and barrels. This rose-tinted eye candy won’t change your life, but it’s a nice contrast to many of the more serious, ideological documentaries out there.
Malbec is almost synonymous with Argentina. But how did this waning Bordeaux variety find a new home on the other side of the world and build itself anew? Boom Varietal documents the grape’s early plantings in Argentina for local consumption, through to becoming one of the fastest-selling wines in the world. Along the way, we meet local winemakers, collectors and speculators hoping to cash in on the boom.
Boom Varietal is not currently available to stream in Australia, but DVDs can be found on eBay, Amazon and other sites.
Oz and James’ Big Wine Adventure (2006 and 2007)
How do feel about James May of Top Gear fame? The answer will very much inform how much you’ll like this two-season BBC series, which sees May travelling around France and California with wine writer Oz Clarke, visiting wineries and learning to appreciate their work. Both men play their caricatured roles well – May the oafish, cut-the-wank layperson and Clarke the pretentious wine snob. As with Top Gear, many of the scenes feel contrived, if not outright scripted, but have enough goofy English charm to work. This is the most fun you can have learning about wine on a screen.
Not available to stream in Australia, but some episodes are (unofficially) on Youtube. DVDs can be found on eBay, Amazon and other sites.
Blood Into Wine (2010)
Maynard James Keenan is the frontman of three highly successful bands: Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer. And when he’s not touring, recording or writing, he makes wine. Blood Into Wine offers a glimpse inside Caduceus Cellars, his winery in northern Arizona, of all places. Featuring actress Milla Jovovich and comedian Patton Oswalt, this is about as far from a traditional wine documentary as you can get.
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