A very interesting article from Neel Burton entitled A short philosophy of wine (Neel Burton, MD) has set me thinking (in an Epicurean kind of way) more specifically about “what wine has done for me” across my lifetime. As his preface to the more philosophical bits, here’s what Neel wrote:
“When you uncork a bottle of mature fine wine, what you are drinking is the product of a particular culture and tradition, a particular soil and exposure, a particular climate, the weather in that year, and the love and labour and life of people who may since have died. If you know how to read it, the wine, like a book, will speak to you of all those things and more.”
“Through wine, I have learnt a great deal about geography, geology, agriculture, biology, chemistry, gastronomy, history, languages, literature, psychology, philosophy, religion… By wine, I have communed with, and actually visited, many parts of the world—and should add that wine regions, with their gardened slopes and goldilocks climates, make for the most agreeable destinations. Blind tasting has accelerated my development. It has also taught me about the methods of the mind, and, in the process, made me less bigoted, less dogmatic. On so many levels, wine offers a medium and motivation to apprehend the world. It is, ultimately, a kind of homecoming, a way of feeling at home in the world.”
Looking back over our 50 years of messing around with wines I can clearly see how it has played a big part in our lives, as students, as parents, as travellers and now in retirement. Yet one of us is a complete teetotaller, doesn’t touch a drop!
Wine as a Chemistry student
I recently wrote about how we first engaged in wine tasting From Wine Bluff to Wine Buff which centred on our lives as students in the 1960s. Our postgraduate research was intense, we needed an outlet that wasn’t just drugs, sex and rock n’ roll so prevalent at the time, and the answer was wine. We learned about grapes, country differences, price and value, and created a flourishing degree of comradeship with our fellow PhD researchers, Dave, Frank, Bill and their wives. So wine drinking was a social activity, an escape from the intensity of Chemistry research for a PhD, but also something that had an intellectual content too, it wasn’t just about getting pissed ….. except at the beginning!
Wine as an early collector
After university the gang split up, we moved from Scotland to N Wales, bought our first house, pursued our science careers and began a family. We made new friends, and found a few who were interested in wine too, but we had money now and didn’t need to put coins away in a jar each week to buy some! We now visited more restaurants and learned how to “tackle” sommeliers from expensive wine lists. We also had dinner parties with these new friends so matching food and wine as well as taking a wine as a guest became something else to learn about. But because we had our own 3 bedroom house we now had storage space for wine racks and began our own collection, especially of clarets, red Bordeaux. The important thing now was to learn about the Bordeaux classification system and to seek out Cru Bourgeois class wines that were of a quality two or three classes above. Understanding which clarets to keep for short term settling vs longer term maturing was especially vital unless you wanted a vinegar collection.
This marked the beginning of much wider learning and more diverse experiences, wine travel entered our psyches as a whole family and had us discussing cultures, history, geography, geology, chemistry even (!), grapes, food, bottles, regional festivals, and speaking a foreign language. In 1987 we had our first holiday in France, it was our first holiday in Europe or abroad even, other than our trips to Kathmandu, Nepal. Our children were 12 and 10 and it was a wonderful experience, an eye opener as we were welcomed into vineyard after vineyard in Meursault (Read it here), Beaune, Tavel, Châteauneuf du Pape, Frontignan, Rivesaltes, Camargue, Collioures and so many more. The highlight was the two day festival in Chateauneuf ….. Fete du Veraison, a Medieval festival with free wine all weekend! These people had a passion for their wine, their way of life, their history and traditions in a way we just don’t see in England. Since that time so many years ago we have visited Jura, Chinon, Chablis, and Alsace in France and “followed the grape” around Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Hungary, Czech Republic and USA. Oh, and around England too! An interest in wine tasting and wine travel opens doors and is a gateway into culture and people!
Wine as a serious collector
We have now been “seriously” collecting wines for around 10 years with the biggest part of our collection being Burgundy, mostly from the Cote de Beaune, especially Pommard and surrounding villages. But we also have wines laid down from Loire, Alsace, Madiran so as you can see France has been our main hunting ground for the collection. We have met and made friends with some lovely people as we collect, particularly the Rebourgeon family in Pommard where we taste the previous years vintage from the barrel annually, Fred of Francois Gaunoux in Meursault, and the staff at the Nuiton Beaunoy wine cooperative in Beaune. Through people like these we have learned a lot about terroir and the geology of the soil, or cobblestones of Chateauneuf, or Jurassic oyster shells in Chablis as the case may be. We have learned about the neuroscience basis of wine tasting too from the book of Gordon Shepherd and conversations with wine tasting experts. We have learned the value of horizontal and vertical tastings to help choose which wines to buy and collect. We have also learned NOT to be baffled, intimidated or put off by the Fruit Salad approach of some professional wine tasters and wine writers. We have learned which are the best apps to use for cellar management, tasting notes and market valuation of wines. And now we are learning the value of social networking that isn’t about selfies, political ranting, being offensive or taking offence, but which can connect people in the interest of wine tasting and wine travel as we seek to complete our wines bucket list based on the Margaret Brand book, 101 Wines To Try Before You Die. Already we have been helped via the internet to gain entry to some quite exclusive vigneron in France and to choose specific bottles for our bucket list. If you are interested in following how we visit places and build up our Wines 101 then read more ….
So, wine is a philosophy in itself! Wine tasting stimulates the senses and provides a window into neuroscience; wine travel broadens the mind into different cultures, geology, geography, history; merely drinking wine is a social activity and one which leads into food and the combining of taste sensations; try learning about these things as you sniff, sip and slurp your way to the bottom of cracked jug in Greece, as you swirl a Reidal glass of claret in a Michelin restaurant in London, or glug from a flute of champagne in Epernay. It’s an existential experience!