Food is necessary for survival while wine is a luxury. But it is a luxury that helps us navigate the reality of daily life. For publication in week starting 30 October 2017.
Like art, wine can be a pleasure for people who understand it but a mystery for those who do not. My ambition with this column is to communicate to both groups, to help the former broaden their horizons and to encourage the latter to embrace the mysteries.
With people in the first group my aim is to help them appreciate the beauty of a Bordeaux, Barolo or Burgundy. And to tempt them to expand their horizons beyond what they usually drink – perhaps wines from Serbia or India or northern Greece, because the world of wine has become so wide in recent decades.
For people in the second group my objective is to tantalise or tempt or (possibly) seduce them into the world of wine, beyond beer or Bacardi or anything in between. With both groups I want to make wine so memorable that they will savour it the way they remember a first kiss, or when they first saw a majestic work of art.
A great wine should make us reflect or ponder or smile or perhaps cry. But not everyone has had an emotional experience associated with a wine. Only one bottle, a red by Quintarelli in the Valpolicella region of Italy, has ever brought me to tears.
Our emotions are weird things that sometimes do not connect directly to what we are experiencing in the moment, but may be linked to a memory. So my tears with the Quintarelli experience might be connected with a memory of a love from years before as much as it might be the result of an experience from right now. In a way, great wine has that rare capacity to bring together the past and the present.
Winemaking can be an art form and this column chooses to celebrate the achievements of great winemakers whose work is a form of art. When I taste a great wine I sense Humanity’s potential, the same way that a Beethoven symphony or a painting by Rembrandt or Munch help us appreciate Mankind’s majesty. At the sublime end of the spectrum, the alchemy involved in making great wine is a form of magic, a liquid essence of human achievement and spirituality.
A great wine is connected to its terroir — the plot of land of its birth and the climate or environment in which the grapes grew. But it also links with the universe that surrounds us. Aromas and flavours offer two key dimensions of a wine, and sometimes reveal that terroir or “sense of somewhere-ness” that bio-dynamics guru Monty Waldin described in his book on the subject, reviewed in a column earlier this year.
A great wine also has the power to evoke emotions, which introduces a third dimension when we talk about the essence of this mysterious drink. Gerard Bertrand, founder of Gerard Bertrand Wines in the Languedoc region of southern France, expressed these ideals beautifully when I interviewed him at his bio-dynamic winery in February this year. For him an exceptional wine was a combination of “time, space, energy, spirit and soul”.
Does wine have a soul or spirit? Something that exists beyond the physical? Bertrand believes so. “The greatest wines travel directly to the heart,” he said. He acknowledged that time he spent with Aubert de Villaine, owner of the great Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in Burgundy, who taught him the “vital dimension of winemaking – spirituality”.
Words have fascinated me all my life, and I love them as tools for communicating the essence of things. I write about wine because I enjoy the intellectual challenge of explaining a sensory, and sometimes sensual, experience in words that can be appreciated and understand by adults.
But words are probably insufficient to talk about the spiritual aspects of great wine. It is like witnessing a great work of art and knowing that it is pointless talking about that experience. All we can do is savour the moment, and be present in that moment.
This week’s column comes from Beijing where I’m working and enjoying the mysteries and delights of this amazing city. I’ve not had a chance to taste much wine so I will only mention the delights of Grace Vineyard from Shanxi province in central China. Much Chinese wine is nasty, the result of the wrong choice of location / terroir, or from planting the wrong grape varieties on the wrong kind of land. But Grace Vineyard chose their location wisely, on soils similar to those in Bordeaux, in an unpolluted part of the province. The winery lives up to its name (Yi Yuan, translates as “elegant and beautiful garden”) in the sense that the wines have a spirit and a quality that makes them stand out. They are graceful and full of grace.
I have yet to encounter a Chinese wine that has made me cry, in the good sense, though plenty of Chinese wines have made me wince and brought a sensation of horror to my palate. But great Chinese art has the capacity to generate a sense of wonder and awe. Such is the case with an exhibition of the great painter Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) currently on display at the Summer Palace in Beijing.
His work emulates the paintings of classic art, executed with extraordinary precision with coloured ink on paper, in traditional vertical landscapes. These paintings mirror classic art so well that experts describe them as “magnificent forgeries” – in the sense that the experts cannot identify the difference between the classics and Zhang’s copies, the latter are so good. They reveal an essence of longing and joy for life, using classic visual allusions such as where lotus flowers or bamboo signify longevity.
One day I look forward to encountering some great Chinese wine, perhaps with Zhang Daqian’s paintings on the labels.