Culture & Wine #5.2 Literature

There are many ways to write about wine. At one extreme there is the technical — a language of terroir involving geology and environmental science, vines, grapes, harvesting, fermentation, bottling and vintages. Moving a little to the centre there is writing about neuroscience and sensory perception, the aesthetics of taste and whether our judgements of a wine are subjective or objective. Moving even more to the centre of the spectrum, we encounter tasting notes. These may be technical in nature or poetic. Then there is wine journalism, some of which tells the reader which bottle to buy on the way home from work, which bottles to buy for maturing, and which wines to accompany certain foods. Finally there is writing which tells of wine through the ages, it’s links to economies, trade, history, philosophy and tourism. In some cases there have even been great works of literature from different era that give us a glimpse into how wine was perceived and described, the source and style of a wine, who could afford it and in what circumstances. What follows here are a few extracts from literature and wine spanning a few hundred years and differing purposes and styles. To access the book or website click the specific image.

1. William Shakespeare

Picture this, Falstaff, alone on the stage in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, Act IV, Scene III, describing a wine drunk by kings, sherries-sack (the old name for Sherry from Jerez, Spain), in which he muses on why he is disliked by Prince John but loved by Prince Hal. As he raises his glass he is transfixed by the wine, firstly praising its effect of the intellect, and then its ability to strengthen the body and defeat cowardice. Thirdly he describes the virtue of wine, inspiring every man to acts of courage and valour before finally concluding that Prince Hal, soon to be Henry V, has been transformed from the inherited weak disposition of his father to a courageous warrior by consuming plenty of good wine, and that accounts for the close bond between them rather than the dislike directed towards him by Prince John.

  1. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapours which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.”
  2. “The second property of your excellent sherris is the warming of the blood, which before, cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice; but the sherris warms it, and makes it course from the inwards to the parts’ extremes.”
  3. “It illumineth the face, which, as a beacon, gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners, and inland petty spirits, muster me all to their captain, the heart; who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour comes of sherris.”
  4. “Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father he hath like lean, sterile, and bare land manured, husbanded, and tilled, with excellent endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant.”

2. Myself!

Now, a piece of writing from my own book published in 2020, Its Not About The Wine. This is from the final chapter in which I review my 50 year journey as a wino. In this paragraph I describe two extreme approaches to buying, drinking and enjoying wine in modern times. Although each may result in the same immediate sensory pleasure, the second approach widens into a cognitive and greater aesthetic pleasure, a pleasure which is enhanced and caused by the previous experience of the couple and probably a natural curiosity about exploring the world of wine. In the Shakespeare quotes above, Falstaff may not have asked for a specific Sherry from the cask but he was undoubtedly portrayed in part by Shakespeare as a thinking man, someone who looked deeper into the nature and virtues of wine. Now here’s one of my own.

“For many years now it has been unfashionable to buy, drink, think about or consider wine as anything other than an alcoholic drink made from whatever the varietal name on the label. “I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay please, how about you, oh I’ll have a large Pinot Noir!” said the couple in a fashionable London wine bar. Meanwhile, at the next table, having called the waiter over, one person asks for a Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume, the other asks for a Pommard Premier Cru Les Rugiens. The second couple care about where their wine comes from and what it tastes like, one is a chardonnay the other is a pinot noir, they are terroiristes. The first couple are garagistes, they neither know nor care about where the wine comes from nor about the skill that has gone into making it. The first pair are globalists and support and pay for the large corporations who blend and control production of wine like it’s a can of baked beans. Every can must taste the same. The second pair are localists. They respect the traditional winemaker who nurtures his vines and produces a wine that is not only distinct compared to another region, but distinct from a neighbours wine produced from the opposite side of the hill! Think local, drink local and have infinite choice and an infinite variety of styles even for a single grape. I am a rampant terroiriste and would never consider buying or drinking a wine that had been blended and “twisted” to suit a global market. And slowly but surely all over the world terroir is being championed in Argentina, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia and ….. England. Time to join us and seek out wines that are terroir driven.”

3. Neal Atherton

Wine is often a topic within travel books or travel guides, but rarely have I found one that is written by someone whose appreciation of or love for all things connected to wine is so beautifully written as those of Neal Atherton, another English writer whose books are as much about wine as they are about travel. As you read the paragraph below from Neal’s French Wine Uncorked, I defy you not to be transported and standing alongside him in those deep, dusty and mould ridden cellars in Burgundy, so full of bottles of Pinot Noir that have survived Napoleonic Wars and two World Wars!

Our visit here is not restricted to a tasting and we are handed over by the young lady to a man who is dressed a little less beautifully – we are off to the cellars deep below the cobbled streets and this is a rare privilege and one of the benefits of being on a guided tour in this more inaccessible region. The cellars here at Champy are truly astonishing and steeped in the long history of this wine house. It seems that nothing has ever changed down here, the wooden storage racks that appear to have fossilized to stone are from the 18th century. The walls are musty and full of spreading wine mould. There are cases of wine all along the passageways and hidden in dark alcoves beneath the low ceilings. The really astonishing part is looking at the loose bottles down here in the cellars. Some of these are very old vintages and it is not surprising to see many bottles still available from between the wars. Actually when you start to explore farther down the passages these bottles are in fact relatively young. We come across an 1898 Volnay, 1875 Pommard and oldest of all a Chambertin from 1858 – this is a real treat to see and we are all in awe at what is down here. There are old 20th century vintages set in antique wooden racks. These bottles are completely encased in dust and mould and would require much attention and relabelling to get ready for sales to someone who would have to be a very serious collector with bottomless pockets. As we emerge back above into the light we all feel a long way removed from being home and selecting a bottle in the supermarket or wine store. We have seen a totally different side to wine and its production and indeed what can be done with the noble grape. Life will never be the same again but I will continue to refuse to become a wine snob which you could so easily do.”

4. George Saintsbury

Notes on a Cellar Book was published in 1920 and involves direct writing about wine based on his own cellar and tasting experiences of George Saintsbury. Saintsbury (1845-1933) was a journalist, reviewer, critic, editor, and Professor of Literature at the University of Edinburgh. The book is a classic and describes wines, their cost, together with tastings at the top of a hierarchy of wines that most of us cannot even imagine, never mind aspire to! The language is somewhat archaic, the costs are in old English currency, and the vintages such as the ‘82, the ‘86, the ‘95 etc all refer to the 1800s! The books strings together his notes from his cellar book and …… with an incredible factoid ….. that nowhere in the book is there mention of a single grape! Here’s an introductory paragraph.

There is no money, among that which I have spent since I began to earn my living, of the expenditure of which I am less ashamed, or which gave me better value in return, than the price of the liquids chronicled in this booklet. When they were good they pleased my senses, cheered my spirits, improved my moral and intellectual powers, besides enabling me to confer the same benefits on other people. And whether they were bad or good, the grapes that had yielded them were fruits of that Tree of Knowledge which, as theologians too commonly forget to expound, it became not merely lawful but incumbent on us to use, with discernment, when our First Mother had paid the price for it, and handed it on to us to pay for likewise.”

5. Decanter Magazine

Modern wine tasting notes and descriptions are nowadays mostly to be found on websites marketing wines, blogs from amateurs and professionals, and good quality magazines like Decanter. This monthly magazine is very informative and has a completely different approach to writing about single bottles of wine than that of George Saintsbury from 100 years ago. Here’s a description of an Argentinian Chardonnay from Catena Zapata, Mendoza. Price …. approx £70!

Nuanced and elegant, with fine notes of lavender and lemon balm and a wet stone minerality. Mouthwatering acidity with layers of savoury, floral and fruit aromas that interplay in a long lingering finish. Sophisticated. Drink 2021-2030. Score 97/100”

6. Jamie Goode

One of the best and most informative websites is Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak. Jamie is an English wine journalist and author with a PhD in plant biology, he writes for newspapers, magazines and journals as well as being an author of several books and a contributor in many others. His website is freely available with articles not only reviewing specific wines, but also describing vineyard visits, aspects of chemistry and neuroscience, and the occasional delve into philosophy. Here’s an extract from one of his very readable posts about what do we really sense when we taste a wine. It’s not particularly technical, the technicalities come in Part 2 following on from this article. He begins by discussing taste and smell generally, alongside our other senses of vision and touch/feel. Then moves on to wine.

Let’s move to wine. We can reasonably state that wine is a multimodal object. We learn to recognize it, and it’s not simply the flavour (‘taste’) of wine that represents this object. It is the way it is normally encountered, in a bottle, then poured into a glass, then smelled, then drunk. All these go together to make the perceptual object that is wine. For most people, wine is wine, primarily. They want a glass of wine, and they recognize what they are given as being wine without really thinking of it. Once we have this object that is wine – and we can also regard it more specifically to be a flavour or odour object, because it can be identified as such from this alone – then we can delve deeper into deciding what sort of wine it is. If we restrict ourselves to olfaction, which is the main sense used in wine tasting, we work out what sort of wine we are tasting by recognizing odour objects. We can’t discriminate any more than a few different odorants in a mix: once there is a mix of more than four odorants, they lose their individual characters and produce a new, single odour quality. And although we can’t distinguish the individual odorants, we can discriminate mixtures of odorants – objects – from each other. Thus if you are baking bread and brewing coffee at the same time, you recognize each object (each consisting of a mix of many odorants) separately.”

7. Roger Scruton

And now to my favourite author, the late Sir Roger Scruton, who has written on wine, philosophy, aesthetics, and politics. My favourite book of his is I Drink Therefore I Am, it is an intermingling of Scruton’s wine experiences, his opinions on the wine industry from producers to consumers, whether our personal immediate experience of a wine is sensory, cognitive or aesthetic, and plenty of philosophy including a hilarious chapter on which wine to accompany the reading of particular philosophers! He could be acerbic and pithy or charming and humorous. So here are a couple of paragraphs from that book that to my mind clearly place wine as an artefact of culture.

A great wine is a cultural achievement, not available to Protestants, atheists or believers in progress, since it depends on the survival of local gods. One of the greatest goods bestowed on France by the Catholic Church is to have offered asylum to the battered gods of antiquity, to have fitted them out with the clothes of saints and martyrs, and to have cheered them with the drink that they once brought down from heaven to us all. That, in a nutshell, is why French wines are the best. Each acre of soil in Puligny has its own fertilizing mulch of history, in which saints and sinners have conspired to consecrate the grape. You don’t have to go to the expense of a Montrachet or a Chevalier-Montrachet to prove this. In recent years I have explored the village of Puligny in the glass. And although I have never set foot there, I can fairly say that I know every acre of it – and obstinately use that measure which the European Commissioners, who have the death of Europe in their hearts, are about to make illegal. For it describes the terroir réel beneath the territoire légale of the bureaucrats.”

So let us return to the real justification of wine, which is the practice of virtuous drinking. Here is one way to do it. First surround yourself with friends. Then serve something that is intrinsically interesting: a wine with roots in a terroir, that reaches out to you from some favoured place, which invites discussion and exploration, and which takes attention away from your own sensations and bestows it instead on the world. Into the aroma that rises from the glass, conjure as best you can the spirit of absent things. Share each memory, each image and each idea with the company; strive for a sincere and relaxed affection; most of all, think of the topic and forget yourself.”

Rather a long post, did I get anywhere in attempting to demonstrate that wine literature, from medieval plays to Victorian cellar notes, from travel guides to wine magazines and internet blogs is part of, indeed embedded within the culture of any societies? Of course I have been selective in my examples, but only in so far as using as wide a range of sources as possible with an example from each. I own and have read many other books, some from authors more famous or widely read than those I have quoted. But when pulled together I believe that they ALL educate and develop our understanding of the place of wine within many cultures around the world. So thank you also especially to …. (Click on their name for one example of their contribution)

Jancis Robinson

Hugh Johnson

Oz Clarke

Kermit Lynch

Eric Asimov

Barry Smith

Rajat Parr

Jay Mcinerney

Rod Phillips

And all the others too numerous to mention

Categories: Culture & Wine, Masterclass, Wine

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3 replies

  1. More books for my reading list? Making slow progress with “I drink, therefore I am” and looking forward to the summer when I’ll have more time to read on the beach! It’s interesting to find that so many people have written about wine related to perception, aesthetics, history and culture and so on, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person


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