Memoirs of a wine lover Casanovas aren't what they used be. Neither is their wine.

“After we were well frozen we went to eat oysters, with Sillery, to warm ourselves again, and after that we went from one casino to another, not intending to commit any debauchery, but for want of something better to do.”  

History of My Life (Volumes 1 3729_bIn the field of playing the field, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was a giant who gave his name to generations of comparative midgets – guys who couldn’t pretend to attain the lofty standard he set for both quality and quantity.  For The Original, the highly intelligent, well-educated offspring of an Italian actor and actress, no effort, ingenuity, or gold was to be spared in pursuit of a date – or “asssignation” as it was then styled.

Casanovas aren’t what they used to be.  Such is the conclusion I’ve arrived at as I near the end of volume 2 (of 12!) of the work, one of the authentic literary monuments of the eighteenth century and a real trove of detail about the pursuits, politics, clothing, domestic arrangements, and, of course, gender relations of the Europeans who lived it. Food and wine figure prominently here either as accompaniments to seduction or the actual instruments thereof. Remind me to tell you the one about Emilie, Armelline, and the one hundred Venice oysters.

With the aid of an electronic version of the memoirs (courtesy of Project Gutenberg) I was able to note each instance of wine mentioned in its 2679 pages.

Many are likely to be familiar to the 21st century reader, namely: refosco, muscatel, muscat, Champagne (lots of this), red and white Burgundy including Chambertin (“Truly Chambertin and Roquefort are excellent things to restore an old love and to ripen a young one.”), Bordeaux, Malaga, Tokay, Rhine (or Rhenish), alicante, Cape (South Africa), La Mancha, Montepulciano, Montefiascone, Languedoc (as Beziers), Orvieto, Hermitage, Gatta, Neuchatel, aleatico (as “Oleatico”).

Other varieties cited still exist, but are scarcely the stylish sips they used to be. Among these: Madeira, Malmsey, Cyprus (assume this is the sweet, luxury wine known as Commandaria), Sillery (a species of Champagne, though perhaps still rather than sparkling), Ratafia (a wine-based cordial), and Canary (AKA Canary Islands, whose wine may now in process of making a comeback), Samos and Cephalonia (from islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas, respectively).

Still other wines seem permanently consigned to oblivion. Who today has any idea what Cerigo, Scopolo, or generoydes were or tasted like?

Gem-quality anecdotes and quotable quips are thick on the ground here, and even the occasional remarkably sound admonition. For example, who today, beset by claims of winemakers that their wines are pure, natural, organic, biodynamic, more pristine than Adam and Eve before the Fall, could fail to be tickled by this indignant outburst:

You stupid fellow,” I exclaimed, “how can you ever be certain of the purity of wine unless you have made it yourself?”

(This post was first published in January of 2012)

Stephen Meuse can be reached at tableintime@icloud.com

About that first drink . . .
Which came first - beer or wine?

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6000 year-old winemaking site recently discovered in Armenia.
Credit: Gregory Areshian

I’m often asked to weigh in on the question of which alcoholic beverage first passed our greedy lips – beer or wine.  Since it’s not a case of needing to have one before you can have the other, the first-drink problem isn’t as daunting as the chicken/egg conundrum – but it does seem to linger.

I don’t think there’s actually much of a contest here (I’ll tell you what I think decides the issue in a moment), but noodling the question has made me think about the number of ways in which viniculture and brewing differ and how these differences affect how we use and think about these beverages.

The main distinction, it seems to me isn’t so much in the raw materials as in their relative durability.  Grapes are supremely perishable. Once ripe, their sugars ferment spontaneously and they can’t be kept for long without deteriorating.

Although drying can extend their life for weeks or possibly months, the gradual diminution of water content means that it may become impossible to extract the juice needed to make wine, in which case you have to be satisfied to eat raisins.  Even if some juice can be pressed  from them,  their sugar content may be so high that fermentation start or be maintained.

The main distinction, it seems to me, isn’t so much in the raw materials as in their relative durability.

In a sense, cereal grains present the opposite problem since they refuse to ferment on their own and must be driven to it. With a view to converting their starches to fermentable sugars they are first sprouted in a process called malting; once dried, the sprouted grain is cracked and soaked in water (mashed) to produce the wort, a sugar-rich liquid. At last, you’ve got something yeasts can work with.

While both cereal and fruit harvests must be accomplished in a single burst of hard (often communal) labor, grain, once dried a bit, can be stored for long periods of time without deteriorating.  By contrast, all grapes destined for wine must be processed quickly.  To do this you need the means to crush grapes, vats to ferment them in, a press to extract the must, casks to hold the finished product, and a building to house the casks — the lot amounting to a serious capital outlay. The initiative grapes show in doing their own winemaking can only be described as admirable.

By contrast, grains need a lot of help to become beer. But the process, once understood, can be carried out on a domestic scale, in quite small batches, with very simple tools, and by drawing only so much grain as is required in each instance.  A not too sizeable stock of barley could easily provide a family with freshly brewed beer for a year, or it could be purchased in small lots from a merchant. In all these respects brewing has much in common with breadmaking.

In the ancient world both bread and beer were the homey, unpretentious, everyday output of households (in Pharaonic Egypt youngsters went off to school with a crock of Mom’s beer for their lunch), while along the banks of the Nile wine was already an expensive, exotic beverage consumed by elites and no one’s idea of a DIY project.  Wine and beer have retained their original places in the social hierarchy of beverages with amazing persistence.  To see how persistent, one has only to reflect on the ways each is marketed.

While the conclusion seems inescapable that the simpler-to-make wine must have preceded beer by some thousands of years, when we return to the question of which of the old rivals enjoys absolute historical priority, I’m afraid the answer has to be neither.

Work by Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory seems to prove that our first intentional encounter with alcohol came via a promiscuous mash-up of whatever we could induce to ferment (honey, berries, grapes, tree fruits) along with some flavorings in a single pot.

In other words, our first drink was . . . a cocktail.

First published on January 23, 2013.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at tableintime@icloud.com

Ali-Frazier it ain’t
But the Bordeaux-Burgundy rivalry is one for the ages

Sketch by Lorraine Emerson

 

Question to noted wine expert: “Ever mistaken Burgundy for Bordeaux?”

Expert’s answer: “Not since lunch.”


Along with Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy may be the most well-known words in the wine world. Even people with no wine experience at all know these names and with good reason.  Each began its wine-obsessed life shortly after the Roman conquest of what is today France; each is mainly famous for its red wine; each is a prime object of interest to connoisseurs and collectors.

It’s nice to know your Burgundy from your Bordeaux, but it is even better to understand that these two famous regions take quite different approaches to the question of how good wine should be made. They serve as models for two different approaches to winemaking wherever in the world it’s undertaken.

From the beginning, Bordeaux, sited along the French Atlantic coast within easy seagoing reach of lucrative English markets, took an aggressively commercial approach to the making and marketing of wine. Anglo merchants set up on the Bordeaux wharves where they could collect the wine they bought from smallholders in the high country upriver, quickly blend it into the generic light-bodied red wine the British knew as claret (better not to inquire too closely into their technique), barrel it up, and ship it in the nick of time for Christmas.

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Beyond boo/hurrah
Is there a better way to talk about wine?

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From week to week, guests queue up at the Formaggio Kitchen  tasting table to sample a few wines from our shelves, chat about their respective merits and demerits and decide what they might enjoy taking home. It’s a ritual we count on to introduce guests to wines that we think are worthy of their dollar.  After all, if they’re in our shop, it means we thought them worthy of our dollar.

How someone makes a decision about a wine may be a closely-guarded secret, but listening carefully to the way a guest talks about wine provides some clues. I’ve noted at least three schools of practice.  Here’s how I parse them.

The boo/hurrah school.  Students of ethics have long been confronted with a problem that goes something like this: When we describe one behavior as good and another as bad are we making objective judgments about the state of things in the world, or are we really just shouting out our personal preferences?  If we take the position that ethical judgments are really just expressions of our attitude rather than statements of fact, we’re engaging in something moral philosophers call emotivism.

According to this view, saying something is good really just means we approve, like, or enjoy it – we give it a “hurrah.”  To say that something is bad implies the opposite, and we give it a “boo.”  The technique is emotive because we’re reacting on an immediate, instinctive level.  Often, we’ve decided to like or not like even before we’ve had time to engage in any thought process at all.

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A place at the table
Is wine a condiment, side dish, main course, or something else?

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Still-life, Pieter Claesz. 1641. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Wine has been an integral if not always necessary element of many of the world’s cuisines for a very long time now. Those intrepid proto-vintners of the Caucasus, the Georgians, assert that they’re working on their 8000th vintage (give or take a kveveri or two), a claim which places the origin of winemaking back to the early-neolithic.

Evidence exists that the Chinese were in the game as far back as 3000 BCE, a millennium or so earlier than the first documented fermentations in the Nile Delta.  Wine was a ritual beverage at the courts of the great cereal empires of the ancient Near East for ages before being banished — or driven underground — by the Islamic conquest.

We know about the Greeks and Romans, of course, because they are the direct antecedents of modern Western wine culture,  but it’s worth noting that classical-era wine practices differ markedly from our own. In that era wine was almost never drunk neat but was always mixed with water and generally consumed after, rather than before or during, meals at male-only drinking parties called symposia.  The sterner sort of Roman husband thought it improper for his wife to drink wine at all.

If we define cuisine as a more or less durable socially-constructed schema for preparing and consuming  food, the places to which we assign various consumables assume importance.  Some examples (drawn from our own culture) might be (i) that the sweet course marks the end of the meal (we call it dessert); (ii) that a salad may be positioned as a first course and thereby function as an appetizer, or make its appearance after the main course as a kind of palate-cleanser; (iii) that a proper  main course requires a starch, a vegetable, and a protein source (or at least 2 out of 3).

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