Words and Wine – Book Review
If you like wine, but squirm at words churned out to describe it, here’s a book for you.
How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto by Eric Asimov tells how it’s okay to disregard looking for a quill of three thousand nouns and adjectives to describe wine. (How many Americans have even tasted a gooseberry? And just what is ‘tapenade and lavender’?)
Chapters alternate between stories about appreciating wine and wine regions, with the story of Eric’s own career. As a long time wine writer for The New York Times, Asimov explains how a few strong descriptors – instead of detailed minutiae of tasting notes – are usually adequate to describe a wine. He also questions whether it’s necessary to describe a wine. As long as we’re smiling, who needs it?
In a chapter titled The Tyranny of the Tasting Note, Asimov writes:
“…I’ve found that people who have no idea how one is supposed to talk about wine are far more creative and clear in discussing it than those who have read some books or undergone some training in wine classes.”
“…the flowery litany of aromas and flavors does little to capture the experience of a fine glass of wine.”
“…exaggerated language makes it far more difficult for people to enjoy wine without fearing that they somehow don’t understand what they are tasting…”
In a chapter titled Drinking by Numbers, Asimov elaborates in simple terms how scoring wines, and purchasing wines according to scores, can suck mystery and beauty out of appreciating wine. He offers the importance of considering context.
“Considering context requires asking crucial questions. Where will you be drinking this wine? With whom will you be drinking it? What will you eat? What’s the weather, the mood?”
Whereas the 100 point scoring system has merit, Asimov tells how it fails to consider context. That cheap but wonderful wine you drank with your beloved on a sunny evening on a beach that provides golden memories? Context. That overpriced red that you winced at while drinking with overcooked beef and annoying company? Context.
Asimov’s words reflect those of my friend Les Kellen, who, speaking of wine, tells friends:
“Wine can taste different at different times depending on what you’re eating, the temperature, even who you are with.”
Asimov is an experienced traveler, and has been privileged to taste a great range of diverse wines – at all price points. His writing also shows that he’s a normal guy who worked hard to gain his experience. He appreciates the benefits of discovering the magic and mystery of wines without depending on words or scores to point in any direction.
Perhaps he best sums up wine’s beauty in the second chapter:
“As much as we learn about it, as much as we know, it is at its heart a mystery.”
This book tells how exploring that mystery can provide joy.
If you love wine, but are still mystified as to why, you’ll appreciate this book even more.
Nice one Mr. Asimov.
“Wine talks…It has a million voices. It unleashes the tongue, teasing out secrets you never meant to tell, secrets you never even knew. It shouts, rants, whispers. It speaks of great things, splendid plans, tragic loves and terrible betrayals.”
So begins the book Blackberry Wine, by Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat). The book opens to the speaking voice of a bottle of wine – a 1962 Fleurie. This wine tells the story of a man named Jay – born the same year the wine was bottled. Pushed to the back of a cellar with two comrades – a Château-Chalon ’58, and a Sancerre ’71 – the trio stay happily away from the ‘metallic chatter’ of other bottles nearby, including a Dom Pérignon, a Mouton-Cadet, and a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka.
Then, six weeks before the story of this book begins, six other bottles arrive. “The strangers. The Specials…each with its own handwritten label and sealed in candle wax.” These wines were made not from grapes, but from other berries – including elderberry and blackberry. They are a lively crew who laugh and whisper. These bottles are inextricably related to the story of a man living upstairs: 37-year old Jay Mackintosh, author of a best-selling book titled Three Summers with Jackapple Joe.
The book soon splits into two parallel stories – one taking place beginning in 1975, when Jay was a youngster in rural England, and the other beginning in 1999, when Jay lived in London. The first story tells of Jay’s encounters with a charming semi-hobo named Joe (the protagonist of his later book), and the other tells of how Joe flees London and his girlfriend to live in a country house bought on impulse in France (primarily because the photo of the building reminded him of an image Joe once shared of his French dream house).
Modern day Jay comes to terms with loose ends from his childhood, while also embedding himself into colored and troubled rural interconnections east of Bordeaux.
Memorable scenes include young Jay protecting himself from bullies by clutching a magical bag of charms provided by Joe, and a surprise visit from his ex-London girlfriend – intent on bringing unwanted fame (and a television crew) to Joe’s new home village.
Characters in the book include liars, thieves, unlikely heroes, and an amiable ghost. The story concludes by the same bottle of 1962 Fleurie. For a vicarious plunge into railway, riverside, canal, and agricultural territory of rural England and France combined with a protagonist hunger to explore, Blackberry Wine is a decent read.
My siblings recently sent copies of poems we read while growing up, a few of which we had to memorize (as required) for school. These included Ozymandias (King of Kings) by Shelley, and Fair Daffodils by Robert Herrick. There was also mention of Poems on the Underground in the UK (where passengers appreciated poetry placed on billboards), as well as Poetry in Motion, where the same took place along New York’s public transport system.
Good verse includes compact, powerful imagery that hits our emotions. Poetry is the literary equivalent of – ? Perhaps Red Bull. Or whiskey. Maybe wine.
During the opening scene of the classic movie Bottle Shock, a helicopter cruises over hills and vineyards while a voice recalls words of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson (which are also written on the entrance sign to Napa, California), that ‘Wine is bottled poetry.’
Shakespeare never doubted the power of the grape, and in Antony and Cleopatra wrote:
Come, thou monarch of the vine,
Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne
In thy fats our cares be drown’d,
With thy grapes our hairs be crown’d!
Cup us till the world go round,
Cup us till the world go round!
John Keats’s wrote Wine Poem: Women, Wine, and Snuff
[* always shall be]
Go fetch to me a pint o wine,
And fill it in a silver tassie;
That I may drink, before I go,
A service to my bonie lassie:
Jonathan Swift wrote about the power of an empty wine bottle, unearthed in 1722, in Stella’s Birthday – describing it as though it were a womb containing medicine.
Behold the bottle, where it lies
With neck elated toward the skies!
The god of winds and god of fire
Did to its wondrous birth conspire;
And Bacchus for the poet’s use
Pour’d in a strong inspiring juice.
See! as you raise it from its tomb,
It drags behind a spacious womb,
And in the spacious womb contains
A sovereign medicine for the brains.
Part of the poem Ode to Wine, by Pablo Neruda, is below. This Chilean romantic had homes in both the city of Valparaiso, as well as along the coast of Chile. I was fortunate enough to visit both when I began writing Wine and Work years ago. Inside his beach house we learned how Neruda, renowned lover and poet, drank wine out of multi-colored glasses because he believed they changed a wine’s flavor.
My darling, suddenly
the line of your hip
becomes the brimming curve
of the wine goblet,
your breast is the grape cluster,
your nipples are the grapes,
the gleam of spirits lights your hair,
and your navel is a chaste seal
stamped on the vessel of your belly,
your love an inexhaustible
cascade of wine,
light that illuminates my senses,
the earthly splendor of life.
Want to invest in a decent book of poetry? Consider the classic Norton Anthology of Poetry, a serious tome to plonk beside your nightstand. 100 Best-Loved Poems, a bit slimmer, includes more classics than contemporary verse. My favorite, because it’s a paperback stuffed with verse, and also light enough to have packed away for a two-year trip to Africa with the Peace Corps years ago, is Immortal Poems of the English Language.
Next time you’re alone with a glass of wine, turn off the TV. Try enjoying some verse instead.
Médoc means middle territory, appropriate for the French wedge of land seated between Atlantic Ocean waters on the west, and the Gironde Estuary to the east.
Pine trees grow on the ocean side of this land strip, while swamps and vineyards sprawl eastward. The soil is crappy. It’s so poor ‘you couldn’t even grow potatoes here,’ our energetic guide, Matthew, told us. But vines that struggle through nasty soils often produce excellent wines. Combine that truth with the underlying complex limestone substrate, ocean winds deflected by a massive pine forest, well-drained gravel soils, seasoned winemakers, the best French oak barriques, and the particular soup of all natural elements on the Médoc – the terroir - and the resulting ‘left bank Bordeaux’ wines are some of the most prestigious, and expensive, in the world.
For renowned wines, there are the usual suspects: three châteaux classified in 1855 as Premier Crus (Lafite, Latour, Margaux; the fourth, Haut-Brion, is located south of Médoc, within Bordeaux city) and another added in 1973 – Mouton Rothschild.
Yet the beautiful Médoc is electrified by contradictions. It is traditional yet anachronistic, conservative but liberal, pure and still polluted. The strict, ancient laws of viticulture and wine production adhered to locally are admirable: irrigation is illegal, wines must be produced from grapes grown on châteaux properties – not imported, and for red wines to be labeled ‘Bordeaux,’ they must include a blend from at least two, but no more than six, specific grape varietals. (Whites, making up only eleven percent of Bordeaux’s wine production, usually include three varietals, although a total of nine are allowed.)
But the ranking of which châteaux produce the best wines is an anachronism. Four of the five top Bordeaux Premier Crus were ranked highest by Thomas Jefferson during his visit in 1787, and re-ranked the same by the French in 1855. This accepted classification system has not changed since, with one exception: the addition of Mouton Rothschild in 1973, in a dodgy act of political legerdemain.
To agree on the utter validity of this century-and-a-half old ranking system is a compliment to Thomas Jefferson as well to Emperor Napoleon lll. Otherwise, it is nonsensical. Soils change depending on how they are cared for, as well as due to effects of erosion; climates shift to favor slightly different patches of land over time; excellent winemakers may be replaced by mediocre, and winemaking techniques have improved dramatically during the past two decades, much less century. The dogmatic adherence to an ancient classification system flies in the face of logic, natural resource economics, and science. Yet regardless of discussion over the history of the classification system, the entire region of the Médoc as a whole retains a valid reputation for producing excellent red wines.
There is also the conservative versus liberal slants on wine production. Chateau Pontet-Canet, a stone’s lob from Premier Cru Mouton Rothschild, was classified in 1855 not as a first, but as a far lower fifth grow. Yet it now produces wines that sell for a fraction of those from neighboring Premier Cru lands, and are often ranked as highly. Wine Spectator Magazine rated the 2005 Mouton slightly lower than the Pontet-Canet, yet it sells for over $500 a bottle, while you can get a bottle of the Pontet for about a hundred bucks. And while the 2009 Mouton may rank a tad higher than the 2009 Pontet, a bottle will cost you two to three times as much as the Pontet.
Pontet is also now embarking on some vineyard techniques that might appear liberal within the local context, certainly in a universe separate from most of their Médoc brethren.
To understand this is to grasp an agricultural perception of the difference between pure versus polluted. Some soils of the Médoc have been nuked with fertilizer and pesticides for decades. The result? No one is quite sure what soup of trace chemicals they’re quaffing down with each sip of their beloved Bordeaux. Whereas most of these stately châteaux selling bottles for the price of small diamond brooches utilize traditional fertilizer and pesticides, others forge ahead with more ecologically sustainable ways of keeping their soils healthy. Pontet-Canet is now certified as a biodynamic wine producer. Considering that it is located in the heart of the traditional wine-producing country of Médoc, that’s like hanging a Jackson Pollack painting next to a Monet at the Louvre – certain to raise eyebrows.
But whether or not you subscribe to all biodynamic practices – be they planting and harvesting by lunar cycles or spraying nettle teas on your crops – biodynamic methods are fundamentally healthy for soils, and promote the notion of working in concert with natural cycles, rather than trying to dominate them. The practice encourages bugs to return to abandoned soils to burrow and aerate the land. Pontet-Canet is also moving toward using horses rather than tractors to work the soil – resulting in less compaction and erosion.
The results? Taste to find out. You won’t be disappointed.
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The seventh edition of the World Atlas of Wine, edited by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson (thanks for the gift, Lisa Hazard!) informs me that the Lagrein grape, grown around the far northern Italian city of Bolzano, produces wine that is “serious stuff…with aging potential and a growing number of followers around the world.”
Lagrein grows in the Alto Adige province, so far north in Italy that the region is also called the Südtirol, or southern Tyrol, because it is heavily influenced by the bordering country of Austria (and was part of the Austro-Hungarian regime until the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, after the First World War). The predominant language of Bolzano is German, not Italian. Alto Adige produces just one percent of Italy’s wine, on a total vineyard area of 5,300 hectares (over 13,000 acres). The Alto Adige produces a complete range of wines – from sparkling to dessert, but is particularly known for cool climate white wines, including Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürtztraminer, and Riesling as well as lesser known whites more commonly grown in Germany than Italy – including Sylvaner, Müller Thurgau, and Kerner.
The region is prone to maritime climate influences from the west (Mediterranean sea) and the east (Adriatic sea), while the range of altitudes within this alpine terrain provides vineyards with multiple microclimates. If you stand in the city of Bolzano and gaze upward you’ll see mountains covered in vineyards. A recent promotional advertisement for Alto Adige wines in Decanter Magazine tells how red porphry sandstone provides mineral tones to the region’s white wines. Some vineyards are located above three thousand feet above sea level, while vineyards closer to the valley floors produce more reds. The sometimes wickedly hot daytime summer temperatures in the Bolzano basin – around the convergence of the Adige and the Isarco rivers – produce rich Lagrein grapes, which are used for both red wines and rosés. Wines bottled under the Denominazione di Origine (DOC) Alto Adige Lagrein label must contain at least 95 percent of that grape, and any wine labeleled ‘riserva’ must age for at least 24 months. In this region, the commonly grown red ‘workhorse’ grape is Schiava (also known as Vernatsch). Other local reds, according to the 2014 edition of Guida Vini [published by Altro Consumo], include Marzemino, and Teroldego, and Lagrein – which is velvety and distinct. A cousin of both Pinot Noir and Syrah, Lagrein is tannic enough to provide it with decent ageing potential. Lagrein’s flavor has both zest and minerals – green grass and rock salt, lemon and tar. For dinner in the town of Muncion, my brother ate partridge and wildfowl risotto, while I munched on Tyrolean ham spaetzle, served with Lagrein wine. Lagrein goes well with both dishes – both poultry and local ham (known as ‘speck’ – and which is distinctive because it is both cured and smoked).
Harvest and Chopping Block – Here’s a recipe for a light dish with potatoes and ‘speck’ ham (you can use prosciutto ham) to go with Lagrein wine – from bon appétit magazine. Also, at my nephew’s wedding near Venice a week before this trip, his friend Hanna told me about the website Smitten Kitchen….which happens to have a recipe for making another excellent dish to accompany Lagrein – spaetzle. Looking for a distinct wine, or even a travel destination few of your friends know about? I recommend Lagrein, and Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. Can you take a 45 second survey to help improve this site? This will provide you with more of what you want. Thanks.
In late May, after attending a nephew’s wedding near Venice, then exploring Italy’s northern Dolomite Mountains – I considered how best to spend the rest of the trip.
I looked at a map. Having visited Bologna and Verona years ago, I was drawn to the city of Modena.
Modena? Isn’t that renowned for balsamic vinegar?
Indeed. As well as for manufacturing Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati cars. It’s also within the province of Emilia-Romagna – famed for exquisite food, as well as Lambrusco wine. Cars? No big deal. Good food and wine?
I drove there in two hours.
Whereas Sangiovese wines of Tuscany (Chianti, Brunello) are often rich, red, and tannic, the province of Emilia-Romagna has – Lambrusco! – pink or red, fresh and frothy. Serve in a chilled glass.
Modena’s large open plaza – Piazza Grande – resembles that of many ancient Italian cities, surrounded by concentric ring roads pierced by perpendicular avenues shooting toward the center like spokes to a bicycle hub. After parking, I walked ten minutes before happening – by chance – across a splendid wine bar.
Fabrizio, the manager of Modena’s wine bar Enoteca Athenaeum told me that Lambrusco, “is an easy wine, like Prosecco.” During a late Thursday afternoon we listened to music by the Doors, U2, and Buffalo Springfield while he explained how most – over 90 percent – of Lambrusco sparkling wine is made using the Charmat Method, as opposed to the Classical Method (also known as Metodo Classico, or Méthode Champenoise), which is used to make Champagne and several other sparklers, including Franciacorta from Italy, Cava from Spain, and Crémant from France.
Both methods require adding additional yeast and sugar to the wine after it has undergone primary fermentation (where sugar first transforms into alcohol) to initiate a secondary fermentation. In the Charmat Method, this fermentation is speeded up in pressure controlled tanks (often steel), whereas in the Classical Method it takes place more gradually in the bottle (the sugar and yeast are added to the bottle before it is capped).
The Charmat method produces fresh wines that are rich with fruit and floral aromas, but which lack complexity found in Champagne (or other Classical Method products) – which typically undergo longer secondary fermentations – often 24 months or more. Lambrusco can be frizzante (fizzy) or spumante (sparkling). Though bubbles in a Lambrusco are often larger than those found in sparkling wines made using the Classic Method, the overall pressure in the bottle is, paradoxically, often less – resulting in little or no foaming over the rim on opening.
Lambrusco is the name of both grape and wine. True Lambrusco is neither sweet or white, and contains at least 11 percent alcohol. There are over a dozen Lambrusco grape varieties (and dozens of clones), and wine is made primarily from six of them. Additionally (and confusingly) there are at least eight separate separate Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) regions producing Lambrusco wine. Be wary – some of the grapes and the DOC regions share the same names.
Fabrizio chilled a wine glass by swirling ice cubes inside, then filled it with Lambrusco di Modena, assuring me this was from the vicinity of the city. He referred to other varieties of Lambrusco in his English (learned while visiting America) as being “from the suburbs.”
Below is a brief description of four of the main grape varieties (not clones) used to make Lambrusco wines.
- Lambrusco di Sorbara – From north of Modena, producing high quality, dry to medium dry fragrant wines.
- Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce – At least four Lambrusco grape varieties come from this, the largest Lambrusco producing and exporting region, with both light-colored wines, and drier, darker wines. Both Sorbara and Salamino Lambrusco grapes are often cultivated on plains, often in proximity to each other.
- Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castlevetro - This Lambrusco grape comes from a small hilly region 20 kilometers south of Modena, and produces deep purple, tannic, dry wines. Not only the leaves, but the stalks turn rich red during autumn. The quantity of production is relatively low, but the quality is high. The wine is intensely ruby-red and violet, with its foam the same color. In general, fruit and acidity are reasonably balanced, and there is often bitter aftertaste (not unpleasant). For many, either this or Lambrusco di Sorbara produce the cream of the crop of Lambrusco wines.
- Lambrusco di Modena – This is what Fabrizio served – decent wine, decent price, made from grapes produced in various regions close to Modena. The quality has elevated over time enough to result in the inclusion of the wine in DOC status.
Lambrusco wine turned into a huge, welcome surprise. Sit in the sun on a summer afternoon, fill your glass with frothy, purple, and delicious, low-alcohol vino and enjoy it with cuts of prosciutto, olives, and cheese. You’ll enjoy. This fizzy wine goes well with rich foods from appetizers through desserts, including sweet sausage, salami, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, lasagna, tortellini, and all types of pasta. As the Italian writer and musical composer Bruno Barilli said, “il Lambrusco fa boom nello stomaco,” meaning – obviously – that the wine goes ‘boom’ in the stomach.
According to a book I bought in a Modena bookstore, written by Sandro Bellei and titled – La Rivincita del Lambrusco – Il vino più venduto nel mondo (The Revenge of Lambrusco – the best selling wine in the world), the word ‘Lambrusco’ derives from two Latin words – labrum, meaning margin, and ruscum, meaning wild plant – indicating a grape that once grew wild along forest edges. Romans harvested these grapes from Apennine Mountain slopes. Before them, Etruscans also made wine from Lambrusco grapes.
Between 1960 and 1970, the grape grew in international stature, and in the 70’s Lambrusco invaded the US market. Today it is largely exported to the US, UK, Germany, Russia, Japan, China, and Brazil. Much of this exported wine is a blend of Lambrusco grapes from at least eight separate Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) regions, and can contain up to 15 percent of juice from non-Lambrusco grapes. Fortunately, the benefits of genuine Lambrusco are replacing wines that in the recent past were sold overseas (many in the US) which were overly sweet and fizzy, as Eric Asimov described in his New York Times piece. The better and genuine Lambrusco wines are mentioned in an article about wines that are best to drink young in a recent piece by Will Lyons in the Wall Street Journal.
Words and Wine -
Sandro Bellei’s paperback book (mentioned above) is titled La Rivincita del Lambrusco (The Revenge of Lambrusco). It includes a series of independent essays about Lambrusco. Written in Italian (though approachable if you understand Spanish or French), the book is a love song to a grape and wine, as well as to excellent food, rich history, and a culture that takes pride in enjoying the beauty of long meals and slow drinks with companions.
Different chapters describe types of Lambrusco grapes, history and marketing of the wine, and also include recipes, a long poem, and even an essay on how well Lambrusco pairs with sushi.
Harvest and Chopping Block -
Here is the translated introductory paragraph from the book titled i Sapori dell’ Emilia (The Flavors of Emilia), by Ambra Ferrari.
“Sundays in summer, when the city is quiet and deserted, about noon I leave the house and go hunting for perfumes, seeking scents of the kitchen. On weekdays it’s impossible to catch them, as they are confused among a thousand other smells – the scent of meat sauce and broth, so gentle and delicate, cannot withstand the bully of car fumes. I wander streets and sniff the air like a bloodhound. If I take a slight hint of foods I do not let them get away. I follow, with patience and expertise, into the heart of old houses and finally stand with eyes half-closed in the hallways of those who know lasagna noodles.”
And below is a dessert recipe from the book, listed with a recommended wine to match.
Modena Bonnissima Pie
- 5 cups (500 grams) sifted flour
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
- 4 egg yolks
- grated peel from 1/2 a lemon
- 3/4 cup (250 grams) melted honey
- 2 cups (250 grams) chopped walnut kernels
- 1 small glass of rum
- Mix the flower, sugar, butter, egg yolks, and lemon peel.
- Divide this dough in two.
- Take one half of the dough and use it to line a buttered baking pan.
- Mix the melted honey, chopped walnut kernels, and rum.
- Pour this honey nut mixture over the dough in the pan, then level it with a knife blade.
- Cover this with the remaining dough.
- Bake at 350 to 375 (medium heat) for about 30 minutes.
Serve with Lambrusco di Sorbara Dolce (sweet) wine.
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