We hear a lot about the role of complexity in good wine. For me, along with balance, power and interest it is one of the four key factors in determining how good a wine is. Yet I think complexity has a twin which is not identical. Complexity has substance and intellect – it challenges you, may even threaten you, it teases you as you try to puzzle it out, and laughs at you when you get it wrong but it can draw you in with its argument and win you round, so you see what it was like all the time. Its sibling is different – quieter yet immediately striking. Quite simply the twin is just stunning – that’s all that matters. No challenge, no threat, no bluster, merely quiet, welcoming beauty. Its name is purity. There are wines which seduce not by their complexity, but just because they are so pure that you need nothing else. I sometimes see them as the vinous equivalent of water – not tasteless but crystalline, innocent, wholesome yet very, very sexy (and if you think that overrates water then just imagine a full-on thirst). The twins aren’t mutually exclusive. You can find some wines which have both purity (the immediately striking sibling) but then complexity, which pushes its way to the front subsequently and demands attention – though usually, as a friendly sibling it tries to complement rather than compete. Riesling is a classic variety where purity shines (in the greatest cases with complexity alongside it) but there are others and recently I’ve realised that assyrtiko is often one of these too. One thing which tends to mask the purity of a wine (whilst giving complexity) is oak – particularly new oak. One reason, therefore, why riesling typically often expresses purity. Having said that older oak may be less of an impediment – I’m thinking here of chablis which has had a few months in older (and perhaps larger) barrels to fill it out slightly but which can remain mouth-wateringly pure.
This wine is produced under the label Volcanic Slopes Vineyards – but it is a ‘boutique’ wine production from the much better known Estate Argyros on Santorini and the label doesn’t focus on the VSV company – rather on the name of the wine. Argyros consistently make some of the best assyrtikos from the island (which means best from the world). There are a range of styles, all well done, but this caught my attention when I tasted it at Prowein recently. The wine is made comes from the Episkopi (bishop’s) hillside near there main winery, but with separate production in an old canava – (traditional Santorini small wine production building). This is the only wine currently made under the VSV label. We often hear producers liking to boast about their old vines (one recent winemaker told me that his old vine wine was from 25 year old vines!) This is from 150 year old vines (not an unusual feature of Santorini vineyard) and it has been fermented in cement (an old-fashioned though returning material for fermentation tanks), which I think has contributed a bit to the purity of the fruit.
It has some floral notes yet nothing dominates; the flavours are finely integrated. It’s a lighter, more delicate style than some of their other wines but the purity shines through. Lovely acid balance, great length and the wine will age well. Santorini wines are becoming more and more expensive, but this is worth whatever they want to charge (and will still be a lot less than grand cru burgundy).
Maybe I saw purity in this wine because of a not-so-subtle prompt from the name, which overtook my tasting objectivity. However, I think not; in this case it called ‘pure’ because that is exactly what it is.
I don’t normally comment on current news in my blog – but the announcement of a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for wines from Sussex in southern England [https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2022/06/sussex-sparkling-wine-granted-pdo-status/] merits a comment, as a retrograde step for English and Welsh sparkling wine production. The mistake is a nuanced one – but it’s very significant, and shows a failure of cultural understanding, which is where I become interested.
PDOs in Europe are broadly about the ecosystem of the vine – what might be called terroir. They may be vast (Champagne, or AC Cotes du Rhone) or small (Pauillac or Le Montrachet) but they are about what gives a wine their style. The same is true of Chianti, Rioja, and the Pfalz. A large PDO like Champagne cuts across four departements (French counties) and two very distinct regions. Le Montrachet is a vineyard split between two villages and Rioja includes three administrative regions of Spain. Yet they share common climatic (and often geological) features, use the same grape varieties and have a common culture of production – of what they are trying to make and how they are in fact making it.
The Sussex PDO is not like that. Its boundaries are East and West Sussex – not rooted in environment per se but stretching back to tribal identity in Anglo-Saxon England and then medieval local organisation. Yet the assumption is that because this is where local authorities are based, this is where wine will have a common character.
This is not just an Old World worry (even if it may be a first world problem!). The Carneros AVA at the north of San Francisco Bay traverses two counties – Napa and Sonoma – because both parts of those counties share a specific climatic effect. Margaret River was established across two often competing shires because from Karridale to Dunsborough there are broadly similar environmental characteristics. Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand is small part of Hawkes Bay (about 800 hectares) with its own legal protection because of a specific alluvial soil. Sussex PDO has none of this: does Tinwood (to the west and fairly coastal) really have more in common with Oastbrook, (90 kilometres to the east, right in the middle of the Weald and inland) than with Hambledon in Hampshire (like Tinwood, on the edge of the South Downs National Park)? And surely Oastbrook shares much more with the Kent vineyards around the Weald such as Harbourne. A Sussex PDO merely tries to fit the subtleties of regional wine styles into a politician’s or administrator’s worldview which is a recipe neither for accuracy nor success. (Think about how Italian politicians and bureaucrats meddling in DOC and DOCG provisions has created a history of oenological failure).
There is, however, a bigger reason why this matters, and that is ‘the’ consumer. Consumers are just getting used to sparkling wine from Great Britain. They don’t have the means yet – nor even more the desire – to explore regional differences. Only 25 years on from the first success for Nyetimber the key task for the English and Welsh wine industry is to establish, in the minds of consumers, their sparkling wine as the great wine which it can be. That goal is well underway but it is nowhere near finished – especially given the pricing of the wines. This aim is fundamental, and anything which confuses the issue just detracts from that key marketing goal.
Finding out what differentiates wine from different places takes time. Margaret River was first planted in 1967 and only now are wine producers beginning to see the sub-regional differences in wine styles. In Burgundy it took hundreds of years to see to those variations clearly (and it is still being worked on). English and Welsh wine producers are beginning to understand some of these differences slowly but to impose a PDO at this stage (particularly one based on administrative boundaries) is just a distraction from the bigger question
This is a rather different post from normal – it’s about something very personal, rather than an exploration of a specific aspect of wine and culture around the world. You could say that it is a merely promotional comment, but it’s also designed to give a rather broader insight into my work. So…
After almost three years hard work, with six brilliant co-editors, today sees the release of the Routledge Handbook of Wine and Culture. We examine the cultural context of wine consumption and production from a range of disciplines in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Business with 45 great contributions from 57 of the leading authors in the field – and you can get to see how culture shapes wine in myriad ways and places: China, Champagne and Texas, label typefaces and backyard production, religion and fashion theory – then many others. It’s an academic book and not really designed as bedtime reading but I think it really does move on our understanding of wine – and the fact that it is not limited to a single discipline is very important to me. Too many people only engage with wine philosophically, or politically, or anthropologically, without learning about the other ways to explore the drink.
This is the project that has engrossed me professionally whilst I’ve been writing this blog. When I was contacted by Routledge and asked to edit a book on wine and culture I immediately declined. I’d just come out of editing two other books and – more significantly – I knew instantly that such a project would have so wide a disciplinary context that it would be beyond my experience and knowledge. ‘Culture’ in this sense has to bring in expertise from history and geography, sociology and anthropology, cultural studies and text, economics and business – and I only have limited knowledge of most of these.
Twenty-four hours later I rang back and said that I had changed my mind, on condition that I could assemble a team of editors from different backgrounds and experience who would complement what I had to offer and enable us to create a truly interdisciplinary text. This has allowed me to work with a number of colleagues with whom I had already researched and whom I was confident would strive to create a wide-ranging and genuinely useful book. The process has been difficult at times (how do engaged researchers from seven different fields even agree on a definition of culture?) but it has been collegial and creative, as well as intellectually challenging and enriching.
Why wine and culture? Each of us editors is fascinated by this relationship, and each of us has a different story to tell about what piqued our interest in it. Before I became an academic I spent a few years selling wines in liquor stores in Sydney. The wine was interesting – but equally so were the people. There was the lady who, every few days, would come in for the ‘cheapest red wine that you have’; when after some months of this I asked her why it was always the cheapest she answered that she didn’t like the taste – but had been told that it was good for her health to have a glass each evening. The businessman, a self-confessed connoisseur, who insisted on ‘a man’s drink – full bodied red’ and refused the suggestion of pinot noir as you only have to look at it to see it is weak and a wine for women. The elderly couple I encountered outside a professional tasting of French wines who were interested in what was happening but then, when I explained it to them, retorted ‘why do that? We have perfectly good wines here in Australia and don’t need any of that French stuff’. The wine store owners who insisted that they weren’t running a business but were ‘living a lifestyle’. The office worker who didn’t drink wine often but when she did enjoyed it because it took her back to her youth in Croatia when she would be sent by her father to the corner shop with a plastic bottle to fill with wine from their barrel; ‘it would last us about two days’. The winemaker who claimed that idea of terroir was just a French excuse for badly made wine. All these stories and myriad others were as intriguing as the wines themselves, and an interest in what sparked such various views of the drink led me a decade later to write a book about its cultural and social context.
Finally, we note in the Conclusion to this volume that one of the negative aspects of wine is the vast amount of water consumed in its production. We, the editors, enjoy wine immensely. In part reparation for the environmental problems caused by our passion we have decided to donate the royalties from this book to the charity WaterAid – https://www.wateraid.org/uk/
(Thanks to Nicole Mascioli for help with this post).
Anyone who has followed my blog recently will be aware of my obsession with northern Italian wines made from no longer legal grape varieties (see my last twoposts). This prompted one of my Italian students in Dijon, Nicole, to talk to me about her experience with similar types of wine in the town she grew up in. This is Cuggiono, about 30 kms from Milan and in the Ticino valley at the border of Lombardy and Piedmont. It’s a place where there used to be many vineyards until phylloxera yet, as happened in much of Europe (even where I live in Burgundy) most of them reverted to waste land and forest or other agricultural use after the insect plague. Cuggiono is the only town locally to maintain this viticultural heritage. It is on the Ticino which carves out a national park in the area, and it is where Nicole’s parents and grandfather were raised as well. She generously spent some time doing local research on this heritage for me.
The vines all disappeared from the 1920s onwards, but in 1982 the local historical museum in the town decided to recreate the old wines which were made there, and which formed part of the village’s cultural history. There was a conscious effort to replicate the former styles of wine, but 60 years on many of the people who promoted the idea knew nothing of viticulture; however, a local professional agronomist was part of the team and advised them. This, then, was a group of older people who were proud of their identity (and they still are) and wanted to remember it before it was completely forgotten.
By the 1980s the use of American grape varieties was banned in Italy for making wine except for personal use. Many people, including Nicole’s grandmother, had been persuaded the banning of these grapes was due to the health danger they posed, so she pulled up her grapes, incorrectly thinking they were harmful (even though she was no longer making wine with them and it was only a small plot). This was the same year, however, that some locals, based around the town’s historical museum, decided to recreate the wine so that the tradition did not die. The found some local vines and used them to plant a vineyard in the public gardens of the town and, subsequently began to make wine. Children do the foot pressing in a plastic vat; they used to do this in the past as their pressing was softer than adults (weight) and more could get in the tub at once. Meanwhile, the adults harvest and manage the fermentation and bottling. Nicole helped with the vintage at times when she was younger.
Initially the blend was Clinton and Fragolino with some other traditional local varieties. However, the latter didn’t work soe well, and now it includes some freisa (an indigenous piemontese variety with rather bitter tannins but attractive soft red fruit aromas) plus cabernet France (as it resists mildew well) as well as the fragolino (which comes from the Veneto), and clinton. The wine is not to be recommended for those searching for elegance and complexity; however, for its creators it is not about crafting a good wine – but shaping ‘their’ wine. This is about maintaining a fading collective memory or the reinvention of a tradition ‘rooted in our way of being’. Typically the wine is drunk with pan tramvai, a local dried fruit bread. So not just the production, but the consumption also seeks to maintain the heritage.
By 2020 they were bottling 500 bottles. The wine has an has an invented label – it is entitled ‘Baragioeu DO’ (not ‘DOC’ – the standard Italian PDO designation, which would be illegal). Baragioeu is a dialect word for ‘wine. The label also records that this bottle is from the is the ‘38th anniversary’. My bottle is numbered 358/500. Because it is an illegal wine it can’t be sold so the museum kindly gave me a bottle.
This is a follow-up to my previous post about clinton – the almost unknown grape of North American origin which has found a new home in parts of northern Italy. My colleague in Dijon, Lara Agnoli, who hails from one of the villages where the grape was historically grown, very kindly used her contacts (i.e. her mother-in-law!) to talk to some of the older locals who traditionally used clinton to make wine. She recorded the discussions which give a lot more insight into how the residents felt about the variety and the wines they make from it. Most of the information comes from two brothers who have independently made wines.
In fact, they mainly make a wine which they call ‘clinto’. I think this is probably clinton – but they use that name (spelt clintòn) for a grape which they distinguish as being more tannic and bitter; this, I suspect, is just another clone of the same variety – and given how tannic and bitter the clinto is then the wine from the clintòn variant must be completely undrinkable. They say that the grape is often blended with another variety which they call seipe. I wonder if this is a synonym for isabella – with a sweet, jellyish aroma – but my friend Lara says that it isn’t. I’ve not been able to trace any reference to it in and searches I’ve made. Isabella is also called fragola in northern Italy. It produces high levels of methanol (very toxic alcohol) rather than the less-toxic ethanol which is more common in most wine (made from vitis vinifera). The planting of isabella was banned in France in the 1930s because of this toxicity and it was grubbed up compulsorily in the 1950s because it was perceived to be so dangerous, but it still exists in this part of Italy.
The brothers said that their father planted these grapes in the early 1920s – that will have been immediately after the crisis caused by phylloxera in the villages. They imply that he was given the variety to propagate because locals could not afford to buy new vines and it was also planted in other parts of the Veneto like Padua and Vicenza. As I noted in the last post on this subject, clinto/clintòn resisted phylloxera due to its American roots. The locals quickly took to it. The vines were reproduced by layering (they noted that nearly everyone grew clinton at the time) and probably the fact that it was not one of the grapes used by rich local landowners and the large wine businesses around Verona made it attractive as a symbol of their independence. Historians talk of ‘the invention of tradition’ – the creation of a story with what seems to be an ancient origin (perhaps reflecting vaguely what may have happened in the past but more often an idealised dream of what it should have been). Clinto/clintòn quickly became one of these invented traditions. The fact that you could reproduce it by layering offered more continuity with previous centuries of wine-making than the fact that it was American contradicted that continuity. The tradition was cheap wine made on the farm rather than an ancient heritage of indigenous Veronese grapes. The brothers also note that they tried ‘French’ grapes at some stage; however, whilst they were good to eat they made poor wine – as did merlot (seen to be Italian rather than French as it has grown there for at least 170 years). The rich soils of the plain here may have promoted excess vine growth and overcropping.
Around Verona, we were told, the wines made from these grapes were in contrast to the ‘worked’ wines made by the large companies. They were artisanal, fermented in large vats then stored in glass demijohns. They sold the wines to relatives and a few friends. ‘They were fighting to get it’ we were told! Maybe that was due to the price; it was sold for 500 lire a litre (about 25 eurocents).
There is a festival in early October in one local village to celebrate the wines made from the grape. This, however, will be completely different from most wine festivals around the world. Those tend to be inclusive, welcoming visitors (if only because they have a marketing and promotional dimension). This will be about reinforcing community identity, maintaining ties to the communal past and educating local residents about social ties, loyalty and the need for solidarity. It will specifically not want external participants because it is the threat of the outside and a world which is changing that will be the focus of the celebration. So, it makes me want to go there, to see how it operates! However, the ‘worked’ wines from the large companies slowly became more affordable (as the population became wealthier) and fewer locals wanted to buy the villagers’ hand-made, ‘authentic’, offerings. Meanwhile the family needed to buy treatments for the vines to deal with mildew and that became more and more expensive. The brothers’ father went on making the wines until about 1984 /85. They stopped as it was too hard to sell anymore. Yet they kept one vine to remember their father by, as it was his wine, and they reproduce it by layering canes in the soil and letting them root. However, even this vine is harder and harder to keep alive; it doesn’t like the erratic weather that has come with climate change; the humidity and heat is causing the layering to fail. Thus we have an invented tradition – one which has only existed about 100 years but which probably reinforces thousands of years of peasant rebellion against authority alongside communality and rural cohesion – yet which is fading to a close.
The wine was given to me in an old prosecco bottle, stoppered with a crown seal. Pale raspberry colour. A ‘striking’ nose (my partner’s description, attempting not to be too rude.) Strawberry jelly served up in old leathery boots down in a cellar. Spritzy (perhaps malolactic fermentation in the bottle). The tannins are not high but are dusty and unpleasant on the finish without being overwhelming. The acid is unpleasantly high (and I write as one who likes nebbiolo). Strawberry jam fruit, again leather and very bitter; acid also dominates on the finish. A horrible wine. Without question the worst that I have drunk since the beginning of Covid. However, the cultural context of this wine, as a symbol of peasant culture, a counter to the elite (and expensive) local wines, a challenge to the Italian viticultural establishment, and a means of crystallising the work and heritage of past generations, makes it a fascinating marker of rural identity. For more on this see here.
If I asked you about the wines made near Verona you might mention Valpolicella and Soave. If I asked you about the grapes planted there, and you know a bit about wine, perhaps you’d note corvina and garganega – maybe even pinot grigio. Yet it’s unlikely that you would talk about clinton. As it happens it is American in origin – but nothing to do with the former president. Nevertheless, it appears in a few villages around the city, and further afield, towards Vicenza and Padua.
When the phylloxera bug arrived in southern France around 1863 and started to eat its way through the continent’s vineyards, grapegrowers needed to find a way to protect their vines against it. As most readers will know, planting on rootstocks from North American grape species was the widely adopted solution, but another solution was to plant some of the varieties of those American grape vines themselves, and use their grapes to make wine. These are still planted in the eastern USA and Canada – concord is one of the best known varieties. The trouble with these wines is that they are, at best, sickly-jelly in character, and at worst ‘foxy’. I haven’t actually ever smelt a fox close up, but this is description for the dirty animal character the wines can have.
So what does this have to do with Verona? Well, at some point in the last 120 years or so, in the wake of phylloxera, clinton washed up around the old city and some growers started to plant it. Its big advantage was cost. To plant vines on rootstocks they have to be grafted in nurseries – and that costs from 4-6€ for a good quality variety in some parts of the world currently; the cost of planting 3000, 5000 even 10000 vines per hectare would be impossible. However, if you have an American vine you can propagate it by layering – taking a cane, burying part of it and letting it root in the soil then cutting it off from the mother plant; this is at no cost, because the American vine is resistant the predations of phylloxera! If you are an impoverished peasant who uses wine as part of the daily diet this is much better than paying to replant grafted wines. So it tastes worse than rondinella or trebbiano? Well, who cares? This wine is for energy not for aesthetic pleasure and this grape makes for very cheap wine.
In the move to make more ‘quality’ wine France banned planting these from the middle of the last century. The argument was that they produce too much methanol – the most toxic form of alcohol – rather than the safer ethanol (though there is a cultural anti-American bias also at play). By 1956 existing vineyards had to be uprooted in France. Subsequently, with the development of the European Economic Community (which became the EU) these rules spread to the rest of Europe, with Italy finally outlawing them in the early 1980s. However, this being Italy the authorities turn a blind eye when consumption is for personal use. Consequently they live on here (as they do – actually – in parts of France still).
So much for the history; there is a cultural dimension as well. These grapes become a symbol of being what the French would call a paysan. The literal translation is peasant; but that doesn’t get it quite right; an English peasant is uncouth, uneducated, with few economic resources and very probably dirty as well. A paysan is certainly not an intellectual, but may be clever (or at least street-wise), owns some land, knows it well and works it hard. He (or the paysanne if it’s a she) is honest, says what she thinks and is genuine. The same is true in Italy; so, to drink clinton is to identify as one of these people: unpretentious, straightforward, industrious yet willing to make do with the simpler things in life. More than that, to drink clinton is to say that you aren’t inauthentic, arrogant, snobbish, shallow or untrustworthy – like the people who insist on buying those DOCG wines from Valpolicella or Soave: these latter are in fact made from grapes which have a much longer history in the region (and are therefore more ‘authentic’) but the view from the field is that they are also made by companies who charge stupid prices and thus cheat honest drinkers by forcing them to pay too much. In this way wines made from clinton become a badge of identity locally. So much so that villages where it is still grown may have festivals to celebrate this year’s harvest. The wine becomes more than a marker for individual identity; it is also about community identity. ‘Our (maybe marginalised) village in the valley against all those upstart villages in the hills making amarone or recioto’. I worked hard to get some bottles of these wines – and my colleague Lara Agnoli, who comes from the region, kindly sought out friends of friends of friends who would be willing to pass on a couple of bottles from their illegal stock, so that I could try them. I wasn’t expecting anything wonderful and my low expectations were not disappointed. You can read my review of the wine here. But to complain about the quality misses the point of the wine. It is about who you are, not about traditional good taste.
* * *
Meanwhile, here is a postscript for the grape variety nerds amongst my readers. Some of the clinton wines are blended with another American grape, called fragolino. This is so little known that it doesn’t even make it into the bible of grapes – Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz (although they do use fragola as synonym for Isabella and it is probably the same grape). Fragolino has a less sauvage (wild) flavour than clinton. Like many grapes from North America it has a very sweet, confected, jelly-like, nose, a bit reminiscent of strawberry dessert made with artificial flavouring. My colleague Lara also brought me some of the fragolino grapes to taste, provided by one producer who has stopped making the wine ‘because its high tannins are dangerous for health’; this view may be based on old rumours circulated when the grape became ‘illegal’; perhaps health was a pretext to stop people continuing to make an unacceptable drink). They were tannic, with high acid, but also a distinct, aromatic soft red fruit character. For those who want to try it I have found a single distributor online (operating in Germany and Ukraine) who sell wines made from the grape. Ignore the garish advertising – and I suspect it isn’t very expensive.
As a post-script to my last post (pun intended!) Zheyi, who produces the synaesthetic wine-art, has drawn my attention to a sommelier who also sees colours with wine (although as I read it he doesn’t turn this into art). You can read about this here. Given the response I’ve had I suspect that this is more common than we may realise. What Zheyi felt was particularly interesting with this is that the sommelier has some similar colour responses to her – notably the association of yellow through to orange with high acidity in wine. There is probably an interesting research project on this, to establish if particular structural elements of wine produce common synaesthetic responses, or if the association is merely haphazard.
Last July I posted on a discussion with one of my former students, Zheyi Mai, who, when she tastes wine has very strong visual responses, particularly focused on colour and texture. I concluded that article by saying that I’d given her three wines which I asked her to taste and then paint. Just before Christmas we caught up, and she showed me the pictures she has done. The three wines were the following, each with their associated visual interpretation:
She presented three pictures. These are based on:
A white burgundy: Dme Chapuis Chorey-les-Beaune 2018
2. A red burgundy: Dme Remoriquet Nuits-St-Georges ‘les Allots’ 2015
3. A champagne: Marc Chauvet Brut Sélection nv
To recap, Zheyi paints using her feelings about the wines. The process is neither primarily representative nor pictorial (although see below – there may be links between specific colours and specific aspects of a wine, as with brown in the representation of the champagne).
The wine’s structure is key to what she is doing initially, much more than aromatic character. Colour and shapes represent her feelings; she sees them but they need time to come together. As a result the pictures are not painted instantly and she will taste and retaste the wines over three to five days. She tastes the opened wine immediately for an instant reaction and then carries on over subsequent days. Consequently the picture is in part a response to the evolution of the wine in contact with the air. Zheyi has been trained to taste systematically (using the Wine and Spirit Education Trust approach) but in painting she is not representing a structured, logical, professional analysis of the wine so much as a personal, subjective response. Thus, for Zheyi, the champagne shows abundance, fruitfulness and early autumn harvests – not acidity, mousse, sugar and the like.
Each picture has its own physical starting point on the canvas. The place on the canvas where she begins is part of the vision – but she can offer no logic about why it commences there – it’s just the feeling. The sections of the painting then evolve, and the response to the wine becomes more and more subtle. Note that the texture of paint, added on later and thickened, is part of the response. It doesn’t come across in the photos I’ve included so much, but the pictures often have dense layers of nuanced colour.
Zheyi says that when she starts it is as if she has the ingredients for a meal; this is how you begin cooking but how do they fit together? She is not cooking by a recipe but by intuition. What we see is the final dish. A third to a half of the process is in the ingredients – the sensory information from the wine – and about a half to two-thirds is the creative response. Ultimately she is trying to capture the beauty of the wine.
Only after she has finished does she a carry out a more formal tasting analysis; this is to enable her to communicate about the wine, which she accepts that she has to do, to convey how her vision relates to the physical presence of the drink. However, for Zheyi the verbal analysis doesn’t express the wine as a living being – it doesn’t tell the story. In one sense, I suggest, this is like those winemakers who say that they ‘allow the wine to tell its own story’ and she agrees. Later, even if she forgets her formal tasting analysis of the wine she can remember what it was like by looking at the painting. It tells her what she drank – and she can convey that to us.
This is a confrontation between methodical and subjective responses. Zheyi may not agree with this but it seems to me that, ultimately, this process unconsciously synthesises the intuitive and analytical sides of tasting; even if it is not a structured tasting in the WSET format it is still both a cognitive and intuitive/subjective reaction. At the same time Zheyi stresses that ‘subjective’ for her does not mean ‘emotional’; she tries not to be too emotional about the wines she is depicting – rather she wants to understand their story. This seems to me almost to be using synaesthesia to develop a phenomenology of wine, as if the drink was being explored by an anthropologist of physical taste.
The colour of the pictures is nuanced and you have to pick out different things; there are different flecks and shades. Zheyi says that these evolve with time: it is a process of the discovery of these subtleties. Likewise, almost hidden, there are the golden highlights on the dark colours of the Remoriquet painting. When you first look there are one or two obvious things – but with time the image reveals more. It is identical to tasting as we might do it – a process of the discovery of nuance; again this brings together the intuitive and the analytical side of tasting.
It is all about colour and paint texture. She questions whether it is true synaesthesia. It is not like the instant link of a colour with a single musical note or a word, rather it is something which takes time to evolve. Perhaps, also, it is more representative than true synaesthesia. Maybe, therefore, this is quasi-synaesthesia. Yet I would argue that a note or a word and a colour are two single, simple stimuli; a wine (or a meal or a tune) is more complex. Thus her colour synaesthesia may be more complex and take longer to come together. You can look at what Zheyi is doing on Instagram. Interestingly Zheyi is not the only person doing this; Caroline Brun, a wine lover and artist living in Champagne is offering a similar way of understanding that region’s wines – see her website here.
So, finally, here is how Zheyi verbally analysed the paintings of the wines.
1. Dme Chapuis Chorey-les-Beaune 2018
This is a light, airy picture although when she first opened the bottle she found little life in the wine; she began at the bottom with the pink-grey which represented this. A day later it opened up and she moved up to the middle part. This is buttery and cooked pear and a touch floral (which gives pink hues to the colours). It is not a heavy wine – but also static rather than dynamic. A wine to drink now – the painting says ‘here it is’.
This wine is grounded; there is weight at the bottom of the painting as there is at the ‘bottom’ of the wine. There is something alluring which leads you on. It began with purple, blue, black, and liquorice, in the third quarter down. It also has lots of layers – nevertheless, remember that the colours don’t represent the wine in concrete terms but her feelings about it.
The wine is vibrant; it has potential, it is the dawn before a sunrise. Note the gold flecks even on the darkest colours. The picture is greyish at the top and this came later; there is less presence and purity at this stage but that is part of the lifecycle of the opened wine.
3. Champagne Marc Chauvet Brut Selection NV.
The champagne shows abundance, early autumn harvests – not acid, mousse, sugar etc. A cosy, warming, wine, with a big block of central ‘orange’ colour. There is pear and golden apple and abundance – the taste of ripe pear feels like sunshine. There are browns and olive greens. These aren’t dominant; they are just there (she often feels brown in champagne – she links it to the influence of lees contact). Nevertheless, this wine has a great deal of vibrancy, so that colour is limited her.
There is a large central block of colour – yet this is not in fact one single tone. It is nuanced and you have to pick out different things; there are different flecks and shades around yellows, ochres and oranges. These evolve with time: it is a process of the discovery of these nuances. Yet although this is one large block it is also very dynamic; there is more movement to it.
I want to take this opportunity to wish all my readers well for 2022. I hope it brings you health and safety, so good wines – and also a chance to reflect further on what wine means for all of us.
An extra celebration for me at the end of 2021 in my professional role. Just before Christmas I submitted the final proofed copy to the publishers Routledge of a ‘Handbook of Wine and Culture’. This is an edited work that I have been the co-ordinating editor of, working alongside six friends and colleagues, which explores the relationship of wine (consumption, production and intermediation) from a range of perspectives. With my co-editors we cover the disciplines of Anthropology, Sociology, Geography, History, Economics, Business and Literature and Text. It’s been a huge undertaking, with 44 chapters and 57 authors – and will weigh in at more than 500 pages. It should appear this spring. It won’t be for the faint-hearted, and certainly not easy bedtime reading, but it’s a comprehensive and fascinating study for those who are really keen on the subject.