Pleasure Of Wine

A non-drinker recently asked me what she was missing by not drinking wine. It got me thinking.

As usual, I asked her a question first: why didn’t she drink? It turns out she got really drunk at 13 and it put her off alcohol for life – or at least the intervening 30 years. I’d call that too easily discouraged.

The conversation got derailed and I never did reply, but later on, I mused about what I should have said to her.

I love Louis Pasteur’s saying that “a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine”. Wine is, at base, one of life’s little pleasures. It doesn’t have to be a fancy or expensive bottle, but a glass of wine gives your day a lift. With food, it’s not just an accompaniment, it’s part of the meal.

I’ll never forget one of the great lessons I had on this subject. I was in Broome in 2000 when Cyclone Rosita struck. I was in a fine restaurant where they served all the great delicacies of the sea – oysters, pearl meat, abalone, coral trout and lobster, but the cyclone was intensifying, a state of emergency had been declared, and alcohol had been banned.

We couldn’t have the fine wines we’d planned to enjoy with this delicious meal. Instead we had mineral water. Till then, I’d never fully appreciated what a vital role wine plays: great wine transforms great food into a great meal. It wasn’t half as enjoyable with water. (And then we spent the night lying on the floor of a pitch-black ballroom as the wind roared and rain dripped through cracks in the roof.)

Wine is as much an intellectual pleasure as a sensory one. Like music, literature or art, or even sport, the deeper you dig into the stories behind what confronts you, the more enjoyment you can find. Some people can enjoy wine simply for its sensory pleasure. They don’t want to know about the winemaker’s training, the vineyard location or design, the technicalities of vinification or the way the soil was cultivated.

Others like to dig deeper. They find their enjoyment of the product is enhanced by knowing about the climate of the region and the weather as it affected this vintage versus that one; about the geology of the region, the soil of the vineyard and what kind of philosophy is behind the management of the land, and how that in turn influenced the character of the wine in the glass.

Indeed, if you are fascinated by microbiology, plant biology, geology, meteorology, agriculture, biochemistry, microbiology or any one of a dozen other sciences, you will have a ready-made entrée to another level of appreciating wine.

On one level, it is a complex science of endless fascination. On another, it’s just a drink. And a damn good one.

But let’s come back to terra firma: wine simply tastes good. It has a certain wholesomeness to it. It is closer to being a completely natural drink than most beverages, and hence it brings us close to the earth and to nature. There is a link with nature, which we call terroir, that guarantees that a Bordeaux red will taste completely different from a Tuscan or a Californian wine made from the same grapes, using the same techniques.

Ditto the sparkling wine of Champagne and a similar wine from Tasmania or Franciacorta. Why does chenin blanc make sublime wine in the middle Loire Valley and nowhere else? Why is merlot so distinguished in Pomerol but hardly anywhere else? Why is the semillon dry white grown in the Hunter Valley unique in the world? The reason is not a lack of effort or money. It’s nature. And that’s part of the wonder of wine.

When you visit a wine region in the Old World, the wine is just as distinctive as the local food, the accent of the people, and the architecture of their buildings. Like language, it’s something that’s under threat from globalization. Efforts must be made to preserve it, simply because it’s worth preserving.

Looking back over these words, I feel I’ve failed. It’s all so inadequate. To try to explain something so mysterious as the glory of wine is doomed to failure. It is too difficult. It must be experienced. That’s the only way to know. So, if you’re a confirmed teetotaler, it’s too bad. Unfortunately, you will never know. Catch-22.

(Ah, but you can change…!)

*Published in Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine, Feb-March 2014 issue. 

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