Wednesday 27 June 2012

Wine Tastings: Chianti & Valpolicella, Nostalgia & Ignorance

One of the good things - possibly the only good thing - about doing Sediment, is that occasionally PK and I get invited to a wine tasting, almost invariably as a result of PK's persistence and low animal cunning when it comes to massaging the sensibilities of the promotional agencies involved. As a result, I have been to more wine tastings in the last two years than in the rest of my life; not surprising since I had only been to a single tasting before 2010. 

And I am making progress at these events. After a rocky start, I have improved in both style and deportment. I now know that there is no dress code to speak of, that people will turn up in anything from chalkstriped suits to bemired jeans; as a consequence of which, it is almost impossible not to blend in unless you dress up as, say, Yosemite Sam. This is fine with me, since I normally tend to dress like a mental patient on day release; or like a wine buff.

I have also learned how to ask for wine from the exhibitors/winemakers/stallholders without first hiding behind PK and shouting my order over his shoulder, or sweating visibly with nerves, or barking out Champagne when I mean Chardonnay. And my spitting, while not producing that diamond-hard jet of gore that the very best spitters manage, usually goes in the spittoon and not down my shirt. I can even mouth a few words of wine-appreciator's horseshit, and have pronounced good colour or interesting tannins to complete strangers (under the mistaken impression that they were PK) without being openly jeered at. 

Which ought to represent some sort of addition to my life, a hobby almost, especially since some of the drink you get at these events is delicious, so delicious even I can tell how good it is. 

The problem is that I am incapable of learning. I have no memory for flavours. PK can drink something and make a useful comparison with another drink he has drunk in the past, or at least seem to do so, whereas I live in an irksome present, a present in which wine taste sensations sometimes bear a chimerical resemblance to something I've previously encountered, but… what? Was it a Cabernet Sauvignon? A Corbières? Was it red or white?

I thought I might make a difference to this inane state by going to two Italian-themed wine tastings in rapid succession, thereby consolidating my new-found enthusiasm for Italian wines, developing at the same time some kind of vestigial taste structure for future use. The first one, thrown by Liberty Wines,  was for fancy Tuscan wines, heavy on the Chianti, obviously. I tried a pretty classy 1990 Chianti Classico Riserva, which was too understated for PK, who likes his wines gnotty/pugnacious/ full of granular challenges, but which I found myself comparing, with only a moderate degree of fatuity, to a fine tapestry that had faded with age but nonetheless bore all the artistry and refinement one would expect, only browner. Another five years and it probably wouldn't taste of anything at all, but two weeks ago it was still good.

We then found ourselves a week later at a much wider-ranging Italian wine tasting run by Hunt & Coady. I thought, this is it, this is where I begin the long journey into  wine snobbery, reinvent myself as an Italophile wine bore, this is where the knowledge finally takes root

Two snags. The first was that there was an incredible variety of different wines from an unbelievable number of regions, made from an inordinate number of grape varieties: almost none of which I had ever heard of. The second was that nearly all of the wines I tried, I didn't like. PK was quite in his element, but I kept reaching for phrases like burning carpet, biro ink, unslaked lime, aware that of all things this was not what I had come to the tasting to do. It was only the Chiantis and Valpolicellas, those old chestnuts, that I actually enjoyed. 

So the Italophilia has now been mothballed, pending a complete personality re-think. I weary of my own ignorance, but it shows no signs of running out. 

Worryingly, it may all come down to nostalgia, an insufficiency in fact of the irksome present. When I was a student, doing the Grand Tour of Italy, scouring the place for Maximum Culture and girls, there would be times when I had saved up enough lire for a cheap restaurant meal, and in I would go, and I would have a carafe of strawberry-bright Chianti, or something described as that with the meal, and I would swig this stuff and tell myself, Yes, I am a citizen of the world, I am a person of taste, and it would be a pretty heady experience. 

And it may be that Chianti and Valpolicella, whatever their provenance, are less wines, more triggers of a shifty, half-suppressed, yearning for the past. Nothing wrong with that, in and of itself (think Proust, Keats, Dean Martin), except that it's a faulty premise on which to base a relationship. I mean, it's in the nature of wine to embody notions of time, the immanence of the past, retrospection; but equally, there comes a point beyond which you disappear up your own sense of perspective. 

A possible solution? A wine about which I know nothing, and care even less, an empty space, a Harrison Ford of wines: Argentinian Malbec! 



  1. Best thing I've read in ages.

  2. Italy is a minefield. Virtually the only place in the world where a wine will- in accordance with strict laws- be named after a place, or named after a grape, or named after a process, or named after something else completely different.

    But the wines are good. Made for food. "Condiments", as one Italian winemaker once told me.

    Chianti and Valpolicella earned their place for a reason. Enjoy them, and venture into some Barbaresco or Ripasso della Valpolicella when you're feeling saucy.

  3. you can't beat the beats for the nostalgia of chianti, hipsters breathing chianti fumes into their rarified coffee house atmospheres

    and although i don't have much in the way of the wistful for charles bukowski or mickey rourke, i can admire their drinking styles as illustrated in the photo above

  4. Drink wine
    don't wine


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