In Defence of A Passion

They say that ‘wine was being made long before history even began to be recorded. It was old when the Epic of Gilgamesh was written. It has given comfort, pleasure and exhilaration to humanity for thousands of years, and will long continue to do so. (Younger, Wine, Gods & Men)

 

History suggests that the phenomenon of fermenting grapes has existed since the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, as far back as 7,000 BC, and that Northern Europe only began to partake seriously from 500 BC, via the spread of the Roman Empire. (Harding, A Wine Miscellany)

 

Personally, it’s had a particular significance in my life since I stumbled across a  William Younger quote. It grabbed my attention, at a ripe and impressionable age:

 

“A bunch of grapes is beautiful, static and innocent. It is merely fruit. But when it is crushed it becomes an animal, for the crushed grapes become wine and wine has an animal life”.

 

I have since tried to appreciate the bigger picture of wine; that picture created by the alchemy and pyrotechnics that come together in a single sip. The very fact that wine is ‘animal’ and ‘animated’ means that: at it’s simplest, it isn’t about the grapes at all, it’s about the animation of human relations: interacting, sharing, bonding, rituals, hospitality … all of the maneuvers of a social life.

 

It is hard not to be fascinated by wine, if you take a moment to think about it. It’s a common cliché in the industry to say that wines are like people. In fact, wines are infinitely more complex than people, and perhaps that’s why they’re so enjoyable.

 

Imagine you’re standing in your kitchen, a glass of red wine and a glass of white wine in front of you on the marble. “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair kitchen, where we lay our scene” –  you pick one, or you pick the other, and as such in this extreme wine can be categorised with broad and hurried strokes: red or white.

 

The other extreme, of course, is that in those glasses in front of you are thousands of years of generous decisions, and cruel ones, intelligent decisions and dumb alike, good ones, bad ones, even fatal ones. Cumulatively, these decisions have made not just a glass of wine, but an identity. They have developed the wine’s personality and it’s reputation – one which depends on the subtlety of circumstance, and is alive enough to keep changing and developing that individual personality until it, like any human, dies.

 

There is one key difference, though, between man and bottle. As much as I might try to dress up the sentiment myself, I will always fall short of the fantastic cinematic moment in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year. Below, are the words of the exchange:

 

Uncle Henry: Max, have I told you why I enjoy making wine so much?

Max: You don’t make the wine, Uncle Henry – that guy Duflot does.

Uncle Henry: [Reproachfully] In France it’s always the landowner who makes the wine, even though he does nothing more than supervise with binoculars from the comfort of his study. No, I enjoy making wine, because this sublime nectar is quite simply incapable of lying. Picked too early, picked too late, it matters not – the wine will always whisper into your mouth with complete, unabashed honesty every time you take a sip.

  (Italics my own)

 

It’s true, of course. Just as you might assess a person: the first impression they make, and their subsequent ones, so we pass judgement on a sip of wine. What is generally acknowledged as the “taste” of something is actually a collection of impressions that have been made on our minds by what we sense.

 

Animal instincts, wouldn’t you say?

 

But whilst a person might expose a fairer side to themselves (and obscure a murkier past) the wine opens up to you and reveals its soul to the very depths. It shows your palate, and subsequently your brain, a photograph of home: stony soils where it’s deep-rooted vines have battled wind and rain, the torment of a late annual frost or two, and the glorious days under the August sun, giving it colour and vivacity.

 

You see, it’s all there – you just have to look for it.

 

However, it’s your kitchen, they’re your glasses, it’s your choice! Fay ce que vouldras, as Rabelais would have it. But, in doing so, remember two things:

 

The first is that ‘Although the earth will claim us all in the end, there is good evidence that regular drinking, in moderate amounts, will postpone, or at least delay, the dread day.’ (Harding)

 

The second is that ‘A cynic is a man (or woman) who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing’. Oscar Wilde was right.

 

“An old wine enthusiast, badly smashed up in a railway accident, was given a drop of wine to revive him. ‘Pauillac, 1899’ he murmured, and then died”.

 

However, it’s your kitchen, they’re your glasses, it’s your choice! Fay ce que vouldras, as Rabelais would have it. But, in doing so, remember two things:

 

The first is that ‘Although the earth will claim us all in the end, there is good evidence that regular drinking, in moderate amounts, will postpone, or at least delay, the dread day.’ (Harding)

 

The second is that ‘A cynic is a man (or woman) who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing’. Oscar Wilde was right.

 

“An old wine enthusiast, badly smashed up in a railway accident, was given a drop of wine to revive him. ‘Pauillac, 1899’ he murmured, and then died”.

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Barbaresco San Cristoforo riserva, La Contea Neive, 2007 (DOCG)

La Contea is a beautiful restaurant in Neive, an area comprising two settlements: the old town on the hill and the new village at the base of it.
The old town, a historic centre of medieval origin, has its entrance guarded by a sixteenth century chapel – San Rocco & San Sebastiano.

Neive is part of ‘Le Langhe’, or rather, the ‘Langa’ which simply means “strip of land” – a name which refers to the narrow ridge between the hills that follow one another in the Piedmont area, between Monferrato and the Ligurian Alps.

It is said by those that live and work there, that the territory reflects the close link between nature and the work of man:  hillsides once covered in forest are now refined into vineyards.

The territory is odd. It is so varied, in composition and specificity – but this gives the air a distinctive perfume of ripeness.

The Langhe is one of the richest wine districts of Piedmont; it is home to Barolo, Barbaresco, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Barbera d’Alba, the Chardonnay Langhe, Roero Arneis and Moscato d’Asti.

The wine is made from the Nebbiolo varietal, the grapes are grown in a fairly young vineyard, the vines boast a slowly maturing age at 35 years old. The vineyard stands at an altitude of 320 metres above sea-level, and is south-east facing.
The grapes are harvested manually, 20kgs at a time, in the second week of October every year. The winemaking is done in stainless steel tanks, heat-conditioned at a controlled temperature of 30 degrees C.

The fermentation and macedation process lasts twenty days, with automatic and regular pumping delestages.

The wine is then aged in barrels for around 30 months, before being aged in bottles for a minimum of twelve months.

One of the reasons this wine is so fabulous is because of the scale of its production: they make little more than 3000 bottles a year, and often, less.

The Nebbiolo grape variety is the secret to the top quality red wines of Piedmont, so before even tasting this wine you know you’re in good company. Nebbiolo wines are customarily distinguished by their strong tannins, high acidity and a very distinctive scent – often described as “tar and roses” (but I think it’s a little more like Bovril and molasses). A less obvious characteristic is the tendency of Nebbiolo wines to lose colour as they age, but more in that later.

Nebbiolo is the quintessential Piedmontese wine grape; it’s the dominant variety in five of the region’s DOCGs and many more DOCs.

Even it’s name is redolent of the hilly region, on crisp and cool autumn morning, when the ghostly Nebbia (fog) has descended to the soil and wrapped itself tightly around the valleys and vineyards.

The grapes are late in their ripening, and more hardy – they are harvested in foggy, winters conditions much later in the year than other Piedmontese key varieties, such as Barbera, and Dolcetto.

This particular wine, the 2007 Barbaresco San Cristoforo Reserve (DOCG), is divine.

The colour is a rich, robust brick red, and as expected, it is just beginning to thin in colour at the edges, bearing the orange signs of an ageing Nebbiolo.

On the nose, the scent of the famous ‘tar and roses’ adage is certainly there. However, it is much more complex than that. There’s an unctuous, heavy and viscous element to the nose that Is intensely aromatic. If you can imagine scents of roses, damp undergrowth, decaying Autumn leaves, woodsmoke, petunia, violets and oddly, lavender, all at once, then you’ll begin to understand the complexity of this wine.

The wine is extremely acidic on the palate. The heavy tannins grip at the corners of the mouth and sharp, sweet aromas of the nose are transformed into a smooth, light mouth feel.

In fact, at 14.5%, the wine is a very punchy number. Couple with this the total acidity st 5.7g/litre, and a pH of 3.42 upon bottling and you suddenly realise what you’re dealing with.

This is one of the finer Barbaresco’s I’ve ever had, lacking only slightly in the fact that I don’t think I could drink it on its own. I enjoyed it with some very pink lamb, with a fresh garden mint sauce and assorted vegetables. However, it would no doubt pair very well with a rich pasta, and almost certainly with various game varieties.

Nose: 4.8

Palate: 4.6

Total: 9.4 of a possible 10
Finally, the Enigmatic side of me has been stirred by a note that’ll be visible to you all on the website of La Contea!

Tonino, Claudia and the team have announced:

“Dear Friends, Customers, Foodies After 38 years of delecacies, the restaurant has closed its doors, and will not be renewing the lease. With heart in hand, we remember all, we thank you for your friendship and we send you a cordial greeting. Continue to eat, to drink and to explore the beauty of our land: maybe we’ll meet again soon for new culinary adventures!”

So I’d set about buying some of their wine, if I were you…

Gozzelino – Piemonte Cortese

The 2015 Piemonte DOC Cortese (Chardonnay) offering is a real treat.

The first thing that catches the eye is, unsurprisingly, the rustic simplicity of the label. It’s a tale as old as time that you should never judge a bottle by its label, just as you should never judge a book by its cover, etc. – but it’s hard not to fall foul of this when accosted by the elegant label, detailing natural vines in the clean air of Piedmont.

Overall, this is a very light wine. At 11,5% it’s clean, fresh and the light effervescence on the palate is characteristic of the fine wines from this region. It’s more akin to a gentle prosecco, rather than a white vin de table.

The vinification process of Gozzelino is one of love and ardour – they manually select their grapes, and they are only picked once deemed at a point of complete maturation. The grapes are then pressed and exposed to temperature-controlled fermentation.

The hues of colour are almost non-existent. That is to say that it is so crisp, so clear that one might be forgiven for thinking that your glass is filled with sparkling water. However, on closer inspection, there a light flashes of straw-yellow, and the faintest tinge of green.

The nose offers top notes of honey, sweet fruit blossoms and a dampness, not unlike the smell of freshly cut grass. The deeper scents offered are slightly savoury, with aromas of garden herbs – thyme, rosemary and the mustiness of soil.

But it is in the mouth that this wine surprises and delights. They’re certainly not what I was expecting. A deliciously savoury hit to the wine arrests the tastebuds. It’s fuller of body than you might imagine from the colour and the nose – the savouriness of the herbs trickles into every corner of the palate and offers something both unusual and delightful. It’s fresh, though – aided by the slightly gaseous composition, but the earthy notes of fertile soil lend a real weight to the bottle.

All in all, this is a fantastic wine – one that punches well above its weight. The bottle was enjoyed with an unctuous pappardelle of fennel sausage and burrata, with fresh basil picking out the sweet, herbal aromas of the wine.

For more information on the vineyard, and for details of the composition, look here: Gozzelino Vini 

And to leave you with something a little more enigmatic, have a read of this delightful legend of the infamous Bricco Lu:

The Legend of the Bricco Lu”

“An unlucky young boy named Wimpy used to live in a farmhouse on the Bricco Lu (hilltop). He was deeply in love with Gentucca, a
beautiful girl. When His beloved had the right age to get married, there were many admirers.

The doubtful father summoned all the claimants to the daughter’s hand on the occasion of the Saint Lawrence’s festival in August, and he promised her in marriage to the boy who would have shown up with the best pair of oxen.

Since Poldo was poor and he did not know who to ask for help, he invoked the devil out of desperation – and he actually Appeared!

Once the deal was made, Poldo went to the festival showing the most beautiful pair of oxen yoked up to a red cart and holding a
“golden goad” in his hands. Poldo married Gentucca and brought her in His house on the Bricco Lu forgetting the sad deal he made
with the devil.

One year later, the night of Saint Lawrence the devil came back to demand Poldo’s soul.

The silence of the night was broken by a rumble and a chasm opened up swallowing Poldo, the bewitched oxen, the cart and the
“golden goad”.

Gentucca went crazy with sorrow and died, but the night of Saint Lawrence her embittered spirit always comes back
looking for the groom who was brought` away by the devil.”

 

A Soggy ‘Campagna Amico’ Farmers Market


First up, this mornings jaunt to the “Campagna Amica” Farmers’ Market was less jaunty, more treacherous. 

There are flood warnings across Piedmont, where houses are being swept off hillsides. It’s rained, and rained, and rained for ten days without respite and the water is beginning to seep into the rivulets of even the most sardonic Italian frowns.

So, it was with a slightly inflated sense of awkwardness at my very broken Italian that I hopped in the car and braved the wet-weather racers on my way to P.le De Gasperi. 

There is nothing ceremonious about an Italian farmers market in the North. Most of the produce is stacked in the back of dusty, decrepit white vans – all of which appear to have at least one flat tire. In my Black Watch tartan oilskin field jacket (lifted for £40 from a sale in Como), complete with fisherman’s beanie and a scarf that’s about the same size as a duvet, I obviously stick out like a sore thumb. 

This has its upsides, though. From under the tatty Barbours and rakish fedoras (which seem to be all the rage here in Varese amongst those of both youth and age), gloved hands are extended at every turn, as one farmer, or farmers’ wife, or farmers’ son, or farmers’ daughter peddles me their wears with a wink, a smile, a bellicose bray of laughter and even rather frequent pats of the bottom… (I haven’t sussed out how I feel about that, yet). 

However, there is one lady who will hold a place in my heart for the rest of my passage from the cradle to the grave. 

They say that, when you find it, love can hit you like a bolt of lightning and render you naked and feeble under the glare of its intensity. 

Regina, dear sweet Regina, hails from a family farm, which she has lived in since her birthday 91 years ago! It sits, she tells me, at the foot of the slopes of Sacro Monte. 

Sacro Monte is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is uniquely beautiful for its “Via Sacra”, an old pilgrimage route through the heart of the community, all cobble stones and tiny doorways, with fourteen chapels lining the path to the summit. You should understand that, even if she did try to tell me all of this in Italian, I wouldn’t have understood. Luckily, I had been to Sacro Monte a couple of days before, so my blushes were spared. 

Regina doesn’t sell much. A few crates of clementines, a couple of crates of (very ripe) apples and, bizarrely, some kiwi fruit (they come from her greenhouses) were all that she had left when I arrived. However, I’m reliably told that one doesn’t frequent Regina for her fresh fruit, but rather for her fruit juices, which she won’t even let the inquisitive ethicist taste before buying.

I asked for some apple juice (none of that orange rubbish with the pulp, no sir, no thank you!) and with a cackle, she gave a little smirk and creaked, pivoting around on her well-worn joints. She sprang up on the side of her truck with the adroitness of one practiced in the art, and began to heave crates of juice around with a reckless abandon more akin to a sumo wrestler than a diminutive rural dame of the fields. 

To say I was shocked would be the understatement of the century. 

One she found what I desired (a 5L box of the good woman’s pride & joy) she heaved it onto a trestle table and patted its head and flanks, as if demonstrating the fatty attributes of a well-reared calf. 

I was convinced. I nodded, grumbled ‘si, si, certo, bene, bene’ (all good noises to make, I’m told, even if they are entirely incorrect) and took another drag at my cigarette. I then leant forward and put my hand out to grab it.

She slapped the back of my hand with a firmness bordering on abusive, and demanded €10 from my companion. 

€10?! For apple juice?! In a country where you can buy a litre perfectly palatable Chianti Classico for just shy of €5, and get pleasantly pissed as a result, I was a little taken aback. Actually, a lot taken aback. 

Regina sensed my indignation and flashed her gummy, near toothless smile at me. She extended a wizened hand and beckoned me in close, whilst she fiddled with the box, attempting to release the dispensing nozzle. From a damp pocket she produced a small, brushed metal flask glass and dribbled some of the sweet nectar into it. 

Handing it to me, with a reverence akin to the offering of church wine to the faithful, I was suddenly gripped with the serious gravity of the moment. 

People around me had stopped to look. 

Cigarettes burned down to the quick in the gnarled fingers of the agricultural congress that crowded in on all sides, hoping to catch a glimpse of the divine experience that would shortly ensue. 

They know, as I do now, that Regina’s produce elicits in even the most fearsome atheists an argument for the existence of God.

Without wanting to over-sexualise the relationship I developed with that mouthful of sweet, rich, voluptuous nectar, I’ll say this – it was the best thing I have ever tasted. 

On reflection, I’d probably have paid €50 for a single cup, and I’d sell my soul to Lucifer to better understand quite how it is made. 

As enigmatic experiences go, Regina and her holy juice will go down as the first, most remarkable chapter on an Epicurean journey that will take me to a form of sensory nirvana – at least, it should do, if today is only the start. 

I shall very shortly be braving the bracing wind and rain again on my way to the Varese Chocolate Festival. ‘Bring me that horizon’, and all that… 

So, until next time, I wish you ‘Bonne continuation!’

EE 

‘To begin, at the beginning’

enigmatic‘ (adj.)

Difficult to interpret or understand; mysterious:

“He closed his eyes and sipped his wine with an enigmatic smile.”

Origin – Early 17th century: from French énigmatique or late Latin aenigmaticus, based on Greek ainigma riddle (see enigma).

 

‘epicurist’ (n.)

A person devoted to refined sensuous enjoyment (especially good food and drink).

Synonyms: bon-vivant, culi, fijnproever, gastronoom, genotzoeker, gourmand, gourmet, hedonist, kenner, lekkerbek, levensgenieter, levenskunstenaar, luchthart-treurniet, lucullus, pallieter, smulpaap, sybariet, vrijbuiter, zonneklopper.