It has been a bit of dry wine week for me, friends. It happens, even to a dedicated wino such as myself. So as I can’t draw inspiration from the present, I shall take it from the recent past. I thought I would relate to you, dear readers, how I became so interested in wine. How my brain changed from seeing it as Dylan Moran does, to becoming obsessed with the stuff; thinking about it, wondering about it, elevating the great bottles to works of art and the best winemakers to geniuses.
It was quite fortuitous how I became hooked on wine. I wish I could say it was something dramatic: being bullied into a corner by two boisterous sommeliers and forced to taste Corton, but it was all quite simple, and it came down to difference. A friend called to say that her stationary-selling buddy could not make it back from Genadendal – or wherever he was flogging staplers – in time for a wine course*. Being a spontaneous chap and always happy for a chance to imbibe in good company, I agreed to this little excursion without question.
And that night there was a moment when wine changed for me. It opened up, expanded, filled my head – and that was even before I was drunk. I can’t remember the wines that were in front of me, they were red, and the same vintage and variety. They were not amazing, their complexity did not bowl me over, I was not struck by some magical flavour, it was simply that they were different. That difference captivated me; it forced me to ask why. What made that difference? I had no idea how complex (and awesome) the answer would be.
And that hasn’t really changed. I have learnt more, of course, tasted more – and by Jove have I tasted some incredible wines – but that difference still underpins my enjoyment of wine. And this is, as I learnt, because “wine is a living substance, and anything that is alive goes on changing until it dies.”**
There is another reason, I think, that wine won me over so easily. Literature had buttered me up, but wine had taken me home. A sort of interdisciplinary hanky-panky was about to take place. This I think is quite typical when it comes to subjects one is interested in. I know a sommelier that paid his way through University growing and selling pot. He became obsessed with the stuff, the different strains, growing techniques. He became, in short, a connoisseur of cannabis. This income allowed him to start buying expensive wines. Slowly he too began to notice the differences, and found that his obsession with weed could easily be transferred to wine. Today he is studying to become a Master of Wine.
For me though, it was literature. I was immediately fascinated by how we could communicate the differences in wine despite having different palates and tastes. What we taste and smell in wine is at once incredibly personal, yet to communicate this we are forced to make it public and shared. For example, you can find an aroma in a wine that immediately reminds you of a smell from your youth – the jumper your gran knitted you, for example – and though this smell and memory are incredibly strong, as a means to communicate what the wine is like it is perfectly useless. To try and accurately communicate what the wine is like, we have to attempt the singular, while remaining general enough for it to be understood. This is the sort of paradox that tickles me pink.
Similarly, if I start telling you a story – or you start reading one –with the beginning, “A cat sat on the mat…”
You all have different cats sitting on different mats, in front of different front doors of different houses that are in different suburbs, cities, countries, worlds. Those cats are singular, yet we all understand what “a cat sat on the mat”, means. This is how we taste and communicate about wine. I had seen this struggle with language articulated in so many poems and novels, but now I was experiencing it with wine.
Of course this is just one aspect. Another important comparison is the necessity of knowledge. Go read Joyce’s Ulysses. Most people, unable at first to see the context, understand the references, or recognise what is going beneath the surface, will toss it aside as incomprehensible, pretentious nattering, by a man who clearly needed his head seeing to. But with work and study the context is drawn, the references understood, and as sense starts to be made you will stand back and say, this man is a genius.
With wine – although simpler than Ulysses on many levels – the same applies. If you had given me a great wine (so far the most magical for me was a 1999 Hermitage from Jean Louis Chave) on the night of the wine course, the depth, complexities, and magic would have been lost on me. The more I tasted and learnt the better I was able to “read” the wines I drank. I began to see behind them – sometimes to the winemaking, sometimes to where they had come from. I still get it wrong, misread them, get confused – thankfully this means there is still more to learn. Like books, some wines are shallow and offer little. (“Yes, yes Harry”, you shout, “we know, Paulo Coelho and chocolate Pinotage, get on with it.”) Some are guilty pleasures, some serious, some light, and others I can come back to time and time again, with each sip I learning something new.
Like reading, drinking wine is an endless pursuit. A pursuit that rewards you for your efforts, does not punish you for your laziness, and can lead you on a path to a meeting with the sublime.
* The course was run by Cathy Marston, and is an excellent introduction to wine. If you want to learn more about wine you can either invite me out for dinner, or go to Cathy’s course. I reckon Cathy’s will be cheaper. http://www.cathymarston.co.za/?page_id=707
**Hugh Johnson – A life Uncorked
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