The day before we meet (he in Sicily, me in London) Peter Vinding-Diers did an interview on trending social media app Clubhouse. “Have you heard of it? It’s awful.” He peppers our conversation with such wry asides on the horrors of the modern world – “There’s too much dogma in winemaking nowadays” – but I soon realise it’s just talk. You don’t meet many near-80-year-olds with such a zest for life.
Peter Vinding-Diers was at the forefront of wine consultancy for decades. In a long and varied career, he has made discoveries that have literally changed the course of winemaking. He’s not a household name because, as a believer in the primacy of place, he says the winemaker should be behind the label rather than on it. He seems to be a happy blend of self-effacement and confidence, together with a bracing frankness of opinion.
He was born in Denmark in 1943, the son of the writer Ole Vinding and his wife, the painter Anne Lise Grantzau-Christensen. His uncle Ebbe Munck (a much-loved mentor of his) was an explorer and war hero who became a Danish ambassador, and the family was related (via a complicated series of marriages) to great artistic dynasties such as the Renoir family.
The early pages of his autobiography Viking in the Vineyard describe the sort of existence a well-connected young man could enjoy just after the Second World War – fast cars and Champagne, frontiers crossed and recrossed, rules and regulations disdained: “It was the beginning of the 1960s and it was spring time. We had left Geneva that morning and were now on our way south towards Grasse and the Côte d’Azur. The needle on the speedometer hovered in the high 180s, then swung past 200 kilometres an hour…”
The man who dropped out of his studies at the Sorbonne and has no formal qualifications (“I’m a dilettante”, he says) has led a life dedicated to the cause of great winemaking. Like many of his generation he was introduced to wine early – his hunting-and-shooting grandfather would serve Pommard with partridge and Pomerol with duck, and his father “bought a hogshead [of Château Lynch-Bages] every year and had it bottled in Copenhagen” – but it was his first trip to South Africa in his early 20s that cemented his desire to make wine. “I stood dreaming on the deck and wished that one day I could come back to the Cape to learn about growing vines and making wine in this perfect setting.”
And he did. After a stint as a war correspondent, including parachuting into Vietnam with the 101st Airborne (“we came under fire almost immediately”) and a few other journalistic jobs, he and his new wife Susie set off back to South Africa – after some setbacks he found a job in Paarl in the Western Cape. He was allowed to work in the vineyard in the week as long as he tended the owner’s pigs at the weekend, a fact that didn’t seem to bother him at all.
That was the beginning of a six-decade career that was to span continents and earn him the respect of the world’s greatest winemakers. When his precarious position at Paarl came to an end he put his suit back on and knocked on the door of Nietvoorbij, the experimental research institute in Stellenbosch. And so, “a new chapter opened up for me.”
Vinding-Diers says luck and connections have played a part in his life, but that only takes you so far. “I’ve had luck, but I’ve also worked hard. The two go hand in hand.” From South Africa he went to Château Loudenne in the Medoc, then to Château de Landiras and Rahoul in Graves, where he introduced wild-yeast fermentation and thereby revolutionised white winemaking in the region.
His discovery that every vineyard has its own yeast is attributable in part to a thread that has run through his life: his hatred of dogma. One of his first notable discoveries was that dry ice can be used to deal with sulphur faults in a wine. “First they said it’s impossible, then they said yes, it works, but it can’t be done.”
This doggedness stems from a bad university teacher and nothing else,” he told me. In championing wild-yeast ferments in the early 1980s he came up against the weight of wine academia. “Generations of winemakers at Bordeaux University’s faculty of oenology have been filled with nonsense about the ‘dangers’ of using wild yeasts…Professor Ribéreau-Gayon did not believe in my theories, but I was going to prove him wrong.”
His career has been a series of landmarks: as well as his scientific discoveries, he pioneered modern winemaking in Ribera del Duero by persuading his nephew Peter Sisseck to take on Hacienda Monasterio; he established vineyards in Maule in Chile and made important contributions to winemaking in Brazil, Bulgaria, Georgia and Hungary.
His legacy as the world’s foremost authorities on yeast is secure. Vinding-Diers has also established a winemaking dynasty: while Sisseck went on to found Pingus and become one of the most noted winemakers of his generation, Vinding-Diers’ sons Hans and Anders are both winemakers of some renown.
What is most striking in this accomplished man is not his modesty, exactly (I fancy he has a perfectly clear idea of his abilities), but his open-mindedness and willingness to learn. He remembers the first time he saw white wine fermented on skins in the huge kvevri (amphorae) in Georgia. “I took one look and thought they were awful. I learned a big lesson when I realised they were beautiful wines. It taught me humility: be very careful installing new rules unless they fit in with the culture.”
He’s always been considered one of the first of the flying winemakers, but Vinding-Diers has finally come to rest, on the slopes of Mount Etna, at a property he and Susie first saw more than two decades ago and bought in 2005. Montecarrubo was “a small piece of wilderness with some unkempt olives and a few lacerated almond trees,” as he described it – it is now planted to massal selected Syrah from Hermitage, while they lease a further vineyard planted to Sicilian Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Again, he has refused to bow to tradition, basing his three wines on Syrah instead of the region’s native grapes such as Nero d’Avola, which he considers too coarse for a truly great wine.
He tells me he has no intention of taking up any more consultancies. “I have no time, and anyway, I’ve discovered you have to live where you work. If you’re only away a week, something can happen. The vineyard is like the sea – it changes every day.”