Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Abe's Bookshelves


In a short video, Abe Schoener is talking and making wine at the Scholium Project. He says something about wine being somatic and sensual, but I’m not going to allow myself a second viewing in case I’m wrong, and this whole edifice of words comes crashing down. In one scene Abe is greedily devouring grapes, like a boar. Next, there is a beautiful tattooed woman treading white grapes against smoking nuggets of dry ice. It looks fun. Abe’s in a barrel, but the woman’s barrel looks more accommodating.


Then it’s back to Abe, now sitting in front of a bookcase talking rapidly about “the carnal, the body…” You can view it for yourself on Hawk was a philosophy professor, as
was Abe. Philosophy has a loose connection with wine: Paul Draper, Randall Grahm and Jancis Robinson all studied the subject, and they are much better qualified than me to discuss its content. Indeed, if they ever read this they might become irritated at the thought that a non-philosopher is queering their patch, but then aren't we all on each other's patch a bit now, anyway? Besides, I've read books, some of which had philosophical themes. And it's the books that catch my eye on Abe's shelves, particularly the pastel 1983 Pelican reprints of Freud. Abe must have bought these at the same time as me - they're in my cellar now - but given the different directions our lives have taken, Abe obviously read his Standard Edition much more closely.   

I'm watching Abe in the barrel and remembering Eric Peter. In 1983, Eric was washed-up on the shores of Guadeloupe in a barrel, Ton-tiki. Penniless and wearing only a pair of jeans, he immediately claimed the record for crossing the Atlantic in the smallest ever vessel. “I knew I had to hit some land somewhere,” he said. “It didn’t matter where.” He had no compass, said he’d lived on a diet of Spanish olives and almonds, and drank rainwater which had collected in his barrel during a 4 day squall. The record was never verified.  (Daily Record, 8th February, 1983)


I know as little about Abe as I do Eric. Abe cast off the obligations of being a professor of Greek Philosophy, came over to wine, and immediately cast off the obligations of being a winemaker too. Some of the sauvignon blanc bunches arriving at the winery reception in the video will be eaten by Abe, the rest will make an orange wine, unless the whole vat gets tipped away. Abe seems as frivolous about outcomes as Eric seemed blasé about his starting point. Eric originally sailed from England. The elements were against him. He launched into the surf, but the first big wave lassoed him back to the shore where he was arrested and his barrel confiscated. His enthusiasm undiminished, Eric began his successful navigation from the Canary Islands, whose easterly flowing waters were outside UK jurisdiction.

Winemaking and archaeology have their methodologies, strict codes of production that encourage re-production rather than freedom and virtuosity.  Thor Heyerdahl was a serious student of reed boats and hardwood rafts. Ra and Kon-tiki – part of the unseaworthy fleet built by Thor - were archaeological replicas. Ra 1 was an ethnographic experiment that sank (but then, I guess, reed boats have always sunk, otherwise the global village would have been with us since antiquity); and when Ra 2 eventually dumped its emaciated ultra-blonde crew on a tropical beach it had the buoyancy of a turd.

Eric's adventure sounds ridiculous, suicidal, but then, so do Thor’s. It’s hard to separate the rational from the irrational here. The fact that Ton-tiki and Con-tiki achieved the same thing just reminds us that stupidity and reason progress through time together, like matter and dark matter; like interlocking talons, which you prise apart at your peril.  Plato put reason on a plinth, separating the mind and alienating the body, and it took Freud, listening to hysterical voices two and a half thousand years later, to fit them back together again. Freud thinks Greek when he places the irrational id and burdened ego into a dynamic relationship with the instinctual drives, but he sounds like Jackie Mason when he says our best hope in life is to attain “the normal level of human unhappiness.

Wine is full of numbers, scores, cod-commentaries, and classifications. It tries to reproduce itself in styles, such that “Bordeaux-like” and “Burgundy-like” have become the trade’s two most overworked phrases. There is an attenuation of interest that comes with rationalisation, a narrowing of thought. Returning to those pastel reprints of Freud, I remember reading that we are drawn to those who exhibit patterns of desire we once had, but have now given-up. I am attracted to the Scholium Project, even though I’ve never tried a bottle, because their relationship with wine seems to be one of pleasure, expansion and indulgence; things I’ve repressed as my tastes have become more institutionalised; as I’ve drifted into a self-censorship that refuses to acknowledge wine in the immediacy and purity of its effects. Abe is right: we need to drink wine with our bodies, not just our minds.     

Monday, 4 November 2013

Champagne: The Power of Blends



It's worth considering that Champagne is not an extracted wine; the ratio of juice to phenolics derived from low yields can be detrimental to the quality of Champagne. Starchy tannin has a place in red wines, but in acidulous vin clair its presence only exaggerates austerity and bitterness.

Blending originally comes out of pragmatism, and the need to overcome seasonal climatic anomalies, but it has become creatively refined. Bad blends repel, like the identical poles of magnets that are forced together. The Chef de Cave is looking to create vectors of flavour, small synergies, and energies of combination. Too often blending is depicted as a potlatch which proceeds haphazardly, crashing the new into the old.

The Chef de Cave is like the Jesuit priest who takes the child and returns the man. He makes decisions at a very early stage of the process, the final elaboration and consequences of which may not become clear for 10 years.

Yields are something of a red herring in Champagne. The prise de mousse boosts the wine's power and intensity. Wines coming off a low yield may end up lumbering, particularly if the time in the cellar is over-extended. Champagne offers drinkers a reflux between refreshment and sapidity: salt, citrus, bubbles, malt. It entices its drinkers to drink again, so it needs to combine delicacy and intensity: delicacy comes from the climate; intensity from the terroir, blending and the prise de mousse. The best wines are mutually dominated by their origins and Champagnisation. Heavy base wines from low yields that are subjected to long lees ageing can be every bit as poor as wines given the minimal term in the cellars.

Champagne Houses understand the relativity of consumption. Most of their drinkers don't go through the Newtonian ritual of the ISO glass before taking a sip. Festivity is Champagne's natural form of expression, but this does not imply a lack of integrity on behalf of the Houses. Just as the handsome architectural facades of Reims hide a subterranean world of hard work, so most blends are the articulation of hard earned preferences. The best wines are an extraordinary expression of intellectual property that can't be revealed by disgorgement dates and the like. Sometimes it's best to wonder at a process, particularly one as beguilingly creative as blending.