Consernyng Tayste and John Milton’s Beeying a Dyck

At a certain point, our concepts of taste got all muddled. Gustatory taste got mixed up with aesthetic taste, sensation blurred into sensibility. This is a problem, because as a result the same snobbery that prevails over aesthetic taste often does so over the tasting we do with nose (80% of taste is retronasal olfaction) and tongue.

It’s all wrong, as any reasonable person knows. There is no accounting for taste: it’s subjective – partly down to gene expression, partly down to where you’re born, how god-awful your school meals were, etc, but always personal.

Taste is not an aptitude test. It’s about pleasure (what food scientists refer to as hedonic valence) and the more we taste the greater the scope for pleasure. It’s something that really needs to be rescued from snobbery and restored to its original evolutionary-behavioural simplicity.

If you’re looking for someone to blame for the confusion, try the poet John Milton. In Paradise Lost, for the first time Milton used the word ‘taste’ to refer to something more than ‘tongue taste’ – namely as a metaphor for good judgement:

Eve, now I see thou art exact of taste,
And elegant, of Sapience no small part,
Since to each meaning savour we apply,
And Palate call judicious…

Four centuries on, some of us struggle to admit we prefer the taste of prosecco to champagne, or Rice Krispies to Eggs Benedict, or any other number of preferences which are governed by the measure of pleasure they give us and that alone.

Well done, Milton, you dick.

This is an extract from an article originally written for iLoveMyGrub.com.

Hangover-less wine (and other stories)

There’s a rumour going round in the outré world of artisanal alcohol consumption that natural wine won’t give you a hangover – presuming of course that you drink a hangover’s worth of the wine in the first place.

I have to tell you that it’s just not true.

It is not true because it contains alcohol, a toxin, which if ingested in sufficient quantities dehydrates the body and consequently impairs its proper functioning.

That said, natural wine may just give you more of a fighting chance of recovery on those dreadful Dixonian days than a bog-standard supermarket bottle would.

Why so? Because of its relative absence of sulphur dioxide.

What is sulphur dioxide?

Sulphur dioxide is a chemical compound. It is widely used as a preservative in the food and drinks industry. It’s used in the preservation of dried fruits; it’s even used to keep fresh fruit looking fresh. Those little packs of sliced apple in the supermarket – have you ever wondered how they stay white rather than oxidising and going all orangey-brown?

Sulphur dioxide (as in ‘contains sulphites’) is also used in winemaking. It has been for centuries. As long ago as the Roman era winemakers would burn sulphur candles in their amphorae wine vessels before filling them with wine; although they didn’t know how it stopped the wine from spoiling, they knew it did. The practice was then adopted by 16th century English and Dutch importers who did the same with their oak barrels.

Nowadays it’s usually added in synthetic, powdered form at various stages of the winemaking process – just after the grapes have been crushed, after fermentation, or just before bottling. These are the stages when the wine is most likely to oxidise and spoil.

Less scrupulous or more risk-averse winemakers will add it at all three stages. Natural winemakers distinguish themselves by adding only a minimal amount of sulphur during the whole operation, usually at bottling.

Some diehards use no sulphur at all. From a commercial point of view this is tantamount to madness. From a natural winemaking point of view, it is almost the Holy Grail.

How does this relate to the bastard behind my eyes?

Experiments have shown that sulphur dioxide messes with the action of a compound called glutathione. When the body processes booze, one set of enzymes converts alcohol to acetaldehyde. Glutathione then kicks in to convert acetaldehyde into acetate, which the body find easier to excrete.

Sulphur dioxide inhibits glutathione, which means acetaldehyde hangs around, which is not what you want: it’s up to 30 times more toxic than alcohol, hence the bastard behind the eyes, the nausea, the insuperable sense that your family and friends “are leagued in a barely contained conspiracy of silence about what a shit you are”, as Kingsley Amis puts it.

So, all other things being equal, if you want to keep the risk of the unpleasantness outlined above to a minimum, you will assuredly fare better with wine that is ‘natural’, rather than ‘conventional’.

One place you can do this in the very near future (assuming that you’re reading this before December 3), is at the William Morris Gallery Late event co-hosted by the Vine Collective:

 

wmg-late-agitate
This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Winter edition of Root + Bone.

The Vine Collective at William Morris Gallery Lates

What do natural wine, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Seahawks, poetry, harps and films about supererogatory clowns have in common?

Answer: the Vine Collective at the William Morris Gallery Lates.

Kirsteen McNish and I are co-curating the next three William Morris Gallery Late events as part of our little Vine Collective venture – although she’s doing almost all of the important work; my main job is to make sure we have a plentiful supply of good natural wine to pour throughout the evening.

This is shaping up to be a pretty special event, one that builds on the buzz of our sold-out night at Blackhorse Workshop in E17 a couple of months ago – a night where we brought together such bright stars as Rob Auton, Will Burns, Michael Smith, Gareth Rees, Leo Smee from Chrome Hoof and folk duo The Cat’s Knickers. And lots of good natural wine.

Our next foray, at the William Morris Gallery on October 1, includes a DJ set from illustrator and Seahawks deckshoegazer Pete Fowler, along with two films by the brilliant Shelly Love and a set from poet-harpist Miriam Nash. The gallery will also be presenting its own entertainment offering. Check the gallery website for full details.

We’ll also have these wines. I’ve included the descriptions below:

image

Cos Frappato 2014 (SICILY, frapatto) – Frappato is an indigenous Sicilian grape. The vines are worked biodynamically Tasting note: Intense, clean aromas of violets and fresias with cherries and cranberries. The mouth is fresh and lively with savoury red fruits and sweet tannins.

Hegarty Chamans 2010 (MINERVOIS, roussanne, marsanne) – A hard-to-find biodynamic white from the Montagne Noire in the Minervois. A blend of roussanne and marsanne. Rich and full-bodied, with notes of honey and stone fruits.

Casa Belfi Colfondo Prosecco 2012 (VENETO, glera) – ‘Colfondo’ literally means ‘residue at the bottom’. This is a naturally cloudy prosecco with sediment. Fermentation is with wild yeasts in stainless steel. Ageing on lees, then bottling on a flower day (a propitious day in biodynamic calendar) without filtration. No sulphur added.

Radford Dale Thirst Gamay 2015 (SOUTH AFRICA, CAPE OF GOOD HOPE, gamay) – Gamay is the Beaujolais grape. This is a rare South African example. Tasting note: crunchy strawberry and cranberry fruits, bracing acidity and light, supple tannins. Think of this as somewhere between a light red and a traditional rosé.

Tragolargo Monastrell 2013 (SPAIN, ALICANTE, monastrell) –
From Alicante, south-east Spain. Monastrell = mourvedre. Organic. No racking, no added SO2, no enzymes, no fining or filtration. Tasting note: Very fruity and complex: spicy, herbal, liquorice, juniper, raspberry, strawberry, fresh tannin and a touch of minerality.

If you’re in the east London area next Thursday, come and have a glass with us.

You can find out about the rest of our William Morris Gallery Lates programme by following us on Twitter – @vine_collective.

I’ll also post updates here when I get a chance.

Cheers,
Darren

WM Lates

Tasting Older Vintage Chablis

In January this year I was learning about the left/right bank contrasts of Chablis at a tasting hosted by BIVB Chablis at 28-50 in Maddox Street. I wrote about it here, using a picture in a deeply clever and innovative way to illustrate the story.

*** Chablis is not a grape, by the way. A drinks magazine editor pointed out recently that most wine consumers think that’s the case. It’s actually a region in the north of Burgundy that makes lean, generally mineral, apple-and-citrus wine from chardonnay grapes. ***

Anyway, at the tasting I was talking to a gentleman called Sebastien who was pouring the wines. He explained to me how Chablis develops in the bottle – the sort of flavours that bottle ageing produces which transform Chablis from lean, generally mineral, apple-and-citrus wines into something new and wonderful – with flavours of hazelnuts, mushrooms, honey, stuff like that.

I told Sebastien that, though I loved Chablis, I’d never tasted any older-vintage bottles and would have to seek some out. He told me that he worked for Jean-Marc Brocard, one of the big producers in Chablis, and that he would send me a bottle when he got back to France. I said that would be brilliant and wandered off to find the smoked salmon (much better with oaked, left-bank Chablis than generally unoaked right-bank Chablis, by the way).

A few weeks later a magnum of Brocard 2003 arrived on my doorstep and I felt very happy about that. I wrote to Sebastien, saying I would wait for the right time to open it and would let him know how I found it.

Several months later, over dinner with my girlfriend and a couple of friends, one of whom is a girl, or rather a woman; the other of whom is a boy, or rather man, I opened it.

Dinner was oysters with two sauces – one of passion fruit, the other sauce mignonette – then saltcrust sea trout with roast potatoes, samphire and saffron aioli.

Now 2003 is supposed to have been a disastrous vintage in Burgundy: loads of frost damage in April followed by one of the hottest summers on record, which meant grapes had to be picked ridiculously early throughout the region. Quantities were low and quality much the same (although cooler sites on higher slopes which usually produced inferior wines (eg Hautes Côtes de Beaune, Hautes Côtes de Nuits) had an anomalously good year).

Yet this 2003 Chablis was absolutely wonderful: hazelnut, honey and savoury notes combined with a much-softened lemon-apple fruitiness. Lovely texture, well-balanced, really complex and quite rich, which is remarkable if you consider that AOC Chablis is unoaked.

No oak, a cool climate and the famously unaromatic chardonnay – this might seem like a recipe for unremarkable wine, but here the combination of good-quality grapes, the flavour-producing action of fermentation, lees ageing and extended time in bottle has produced something wonderful. I wish I had 20 more magnums to savour.

A huge thank you to Sebastien for introducing me to the deliciousness of older vintage Chablis.

Mosella

Mosella is a paean to the river Mosel written around 1,650 years ago by the poet and scholar Ausonius. Born in Bordeaux, Ausonius worked as a lawyer, grammarian and rhetorician before being called to the imperial court in Trier, then a major Roman imperial city, by Emperor Valentinian to educate his son, prince Gratian. Ausonius eventually returned to Bordeaux where, in his old age, he wrote several literary works of which Mosella, here excerpted and beautifully translated from the original Latin, is one of the most celebrated. His descriptions of the boisterous industry on the vine-covered banks off the river make clear just how important winemaking was in the region so many centuries ago. And so well written…

I had crossed over swift-flowing Nahe’s cloudy stream and gazed with awe upon the ramparts lately thrown round ancient Bingum, where Gaul once matched the Roman rout at Cannae and where her slaughtered hordes lay scattered over the countryside untended and unwept.

Thence onward I began a lonely journey through pathless forest, nor did my eyes rest on any trace of human inhabitants. I passed Kirchberg, sweltering amid its parched fields, and Tabernae, watered by its unfailing spring, and the lands lately parcelled out to Sarmatian settlers.

And at length on the very verge of Belgic territory I descry Neumagen, the famed camp of sainted Constantine. Clearer the air which here invests the plains, and Phoebus, cloudless now, discloses glowing heaven with his untroubled light. No longer is the sky to seek, shut out by the green gloom of branches intertwined: but the free breath of transparent day withholds not sight of the sun’s pure rays and of the ether, dazzling to the eyes.

Nay more, the whole gracious prospect made me behold a picture of my own native land, the smiling and well-tended country of Bordeaux—the roofs of country-houses, perched high upon the overhanging river-banks, the hill-sides green with vines, and the pleasant stream of Moselle gliding below with subdued murmuring.

Hail, river, blessed by the fields, blessed by the husbandmen, to whom the Belgae owe the imperial honour which graces their city, Trier: river, whose hills are o’ergrown with Bacchus’s fragrant vines, o’ergrown, river most verdant, thy banks with turf: ship-bearing as the sea, with sloping waters gliding as a river, and with thy crystal depths the peer of lakes, brooks thou canst match for hurrying flow, cool springs surpass for limpid draughts; one, thou hast all that belongs to springs, brooks, rivers, lakes, and tidal Ocean with his ebb and flow.

Thou, with calm waters onward gliding, feel’st not any murmurs of the wind nor check from hidden rocks; nor by foaming shallows art thou forced to hurry on in swirling rapids, no eyots hast thou jutting in midstream to thwart thy course—lest the glory of thy due title be impaired, if any isle sunder and stem thy flow.

For thee two modes of voyaging are appointed: this, when boats move down thy stream with current favouring and their oars thrash the churned waters at full speed; that, when along the banks, with tow-rope never slackening, the boatmen strain on their shoulders hawsers bound to the masts.

Thyself how often dost thou marvel at the windings of thine own stream, and think its natural speed moves almost too slowly! Thou with no mud-grown sedge fringest thy banks, nor with foul ooze o’erspread’st thy marge; dry is the treading down to thy water’s edge.

 

For from the topmost ridge to the foot of the slope the river-side is thickly planted with green vines. The people, happy in their toil, and the restless husbandmen are busy, now on the hill-top, now on the slope, exchanging shouts in boisterous rivalry. Here the wayfarer tramping along the low-lying bank, and there the bargeman floating by, troll their rude jests at the loitering vine-dressers; and all the hills, and shivering woods, and channelled river, ring with their cries.

Nor does the scenery of this region please men alone; I can believe that here the rustic Satyrs and the grey-eyed Nymphs meet together on the border of the stream, when the goat-footed Pans are seized with merry ribaldry, and splashing in the shallows, frighten the trembling sister-Nymphs beneath the stream, while they thresh the water with unskilful strokes.

Oft also, when she has stolen clusters from the inland hills, Panope, the river lady, with a troop of Oread friends, flees the wanton Fauns, gods of the country-side and it is said that when the sun’s fiery orb stops in the midst of his course, the Satyrs and the sister-Nymphs of the crystal depths meet here beside the stream and ply the dance in partnership, what time the fiercer heat affords them hours set free from mortal company.

Then, wantonly frolicking amid their native waters, the Nymphs duck the Satyrs in the waves, and slip away right through the hands of those unskilful swimmers, as, baffled, they seek to grasp their slippery limbs and, instead of bodies, embrace yielding waves.

But of these things which no man has looked upon and no eye beheld, be it no sin for me to speak in part: let things secret be kept hid, and let Reverence dwell unspied upon, in the safekeeping of her native streams. Yon is a sight that may be freely enjoyed: when the azure river mirrors the shady hill, the waters of the stream seem to bear leaves and the flood to be all o’ergrown with shoots of vines.

What a hue is on the waters when Hesperus has driven forward the lagging shadows and overspreads Moselle with the green of the reflected height! Whole hills float on the shivering ripples: here quivers the far-off tendril of the vine, here in the glassy flood swells the full cluster.

The deluded boatman tells o’er the green vines – the boatman whose skiff of bark floats on the watery floor out in mid-stream, where the pictured hill blends with the river and where the river joins with the edges of the shadows. and when oared skiffs join in mimic battle in mid-stream, how pleasing is the pageant which this sight affords!

They circle in and out, and graze the sprouting blades of the cropped turf along the green banks. The husbandman, standing upon the rise of the green bank, watches the light-hearted owners as they leap about on stem or prow, the boyish crew straggling over the river’s wide expanse, and never feels the day is slipping by, but puts their play before his business, while present pleasure shuts out past cares.

Mosel Riesling: Like the Juice of Crushed Slate

Not that you can get juice from crushed slate, but the image definitely evokes the focused, flinty character of rieslings from the Mosel.

In this most northerly of wine regions (it’s at 50° latitude; the latitudinal range for wine growing is 28°-50°) the bits of slate that litter the vineyards store the sun’s heat, transferring the energy to vines which would otherwise lose the will during the cold night hours. The Mosel river itself also helps to nourish the vines, reflecting the sun on to the slopes and providing that extra bit of warmth that encourages the vines along.

And what about those slopes:

Bremmer Calmont

 

‘Steep’ barely covers it. Look across the river at certain vineyard blocks and they look vertical . The Bremmer Calmont (Bremm is the town, Calmont the vineyard. This is a naming system you will come to recognise if you drink Mosel wines) vineyard on the bow of the river between Trier and Koblenz is the steepest in Europe. At 67 degrees, it has the same gradient as the tougher sections of the Matterhorn. Just being able to stand in vineyards like this would seem impossible without harnesses, carabiners and crampons – but farming them?

Terracing is essential on such vertiginous sites, but even then bad things can happen. The guide on my trip told me the last tragic accident was three years ago, when a winemaker who was replanting a particularly steep vineyard site fell off his tractor and somehow impaled himself on a vine-training pole. His family continues to make wine in the same region.

People have been braving these inhospitable sites for 2,000 years, since the Romans ruled the western world. Nearby Trier was a major Roman city and much of the wine made in the Mosel was transported down the river for consumption there. Archaeological discoveries of a Roman wine press that dates back to 400 AD (making it the largest wine press ever found north of the Alps) indicate the scale of the industry then. Indeed it’s thought that the vineyard area in the Middle Mosel sites of Piesport and Neumagen-Dhron during the Roman era was just as big as it is today.

What’s the wine like?

What can you expect from Mosel riesling? It is a very special combination of high acidity, low alcohol and laser-focused minerality. When you taste one of these wines, you know about it. Such finesse, such clear definition, such invigorating freshness. And because the alcohol is low, you can drink a lot without getting messy. I regard this as a huge plus point.

What about Mosel riesling’s famed ‘minerality’? Does the slate show in the flavour of the wine? It may appear to, but no, not literally. Though terroir romantics would have us believe otherwise, there is no known mechanism for the transfer of mineral flavours from soil to finished wine. Besides which slate doesn’t taste of anything. Having said that, there’s something going on that gives Mosel rieslings their unmistakeable, mouthwatering, mineral feel.

Some wine people think that it’s a relative absence of fruitiness which we read as a mineral, even faintly salty, quality in the wine. It’s also been suggested that it’s something to do with sulphur compounds produced during fermentation. Others still argue that certain nutrients in water held deep in a soil – sodium and potassium-containing ones – are drawn up through the roots and transfer to the fruit.

There are even suggestions that the mineral-salty feel in certain wines it attributable to a fungus, a gossamer-fine network of mycorrhizae which attaches itself to vine roots and exists in a marvellous symbiotic relationship with them, transmitting messages like synapses in a brain and helping them to distribute water and nutrients evenly throughout the whole vine system.

Studies are being conducted that should get to the bottom of this terroir mystery before much longer. Until then, if you want to know more about it, I recommend you read what wine writer and former plant biologist Jamie Goode has to say about it.

The best Mosel rieslings from my trip:

I spent two days travelling along the Mosel river and tried a wide range of rieslings from different vineyard sites in the company of local wine writers, Mosel specialists and the winemakers themselves. These are the best wines tasted during my trip. I’ve made a note of those wineries I know to be biodynamic or natural, and have included links to UK retailers/importers where known.

Weingut Sybille Kuntz (Lieser, Mosel, available from OW Loeb)
Maximin Grünhauser (Grunhaus, Ruwer, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Meulenhof (Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Haart (Piesport, Mosel)
Weingut Markus Molitor (Bernkastel-Wehlen, Mosel, available from Bibendum)
Weingut AJ Adam (Dhron, Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Van Volxem (natural, Viltingen, Saar, available from Howard Ripley)
Weingut Clemens Busch (biodynamic, Zell, Mosel, available from David Bowler)
Weingut zur Römerkelter (biodynamic, Maring-Noviand, Mosel, available from Vintage Roots)
Weingut Zilliken (Saarburg, Saar, available from OW Loeb)
Weingut Knebel (Winningen, Mosel, available from Flint Wines)
Weinhof Herrenberg (Schoden, Saar, available from The Winery UK)
Staffelter Hof (Kröv, Mosel)
Weingut SA Prüm (Bernkastel-Wehlen, Mosel, available from The Sampler)
Weingut Hain (Piesport, Mosel, available from Tanners Wine)
Weingut Bastgen (Bernkastel, Mosel)
Weingut Melsheimer (biodynamic, Reil, Mosel, available from The Winery UK)