Roger Scruton  I Drink Therefore I am.

The randomness of the readings that underpin these letters leads us to deal now with another book written in English, and another posthumous tribute. It is “I Drink Therefore I am”, subtitled “A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine”, by the English philosopher Roger Scruton, first published in 2009. English is reiterated because the author boasted about it, although it has been said that his was nostalgia for an England that never existed, which is certainly possible in the light of what this book offers us. He died in the ill-fated year 2020. A controversial man and a friend of controversy, we are not going to deal with his public figure here; we are only interested in his peculiar opinions on wine -he was a journalist critic for a time-, in the book we are commenting on.

 

 

There is a Spanish translation by Elena Álvarez published in 2017 by RIALP, with the title “Bebo, luego existo”. It does not include the subtitle of the original. Perhaps it would have been appropriate to do so. Every Englishman and, in general, every Monty Python fan, knows -and the author himself tells us so-, that the title of the book copies a refrain from a song by this groundbreaking group called “Bruce’s Philosophers’ Song” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9SqQNgDrgg), which reviews the drunkenness of the great philosophers, be they ethylic or mental, or even flatulent, as in the case of Descartes, the one of “‘I think, therefore I am’…”.

 

Indeed, in the core of the book (Chapter 5), the author analyses the second part of the syllogism: “Therefore I am”. In these three words, he tells us, are concentrated all the concepts that underlie all philosophical reflection: (i) “therefore” is “reason” (or “cause”), (ii) “I” is “consciousness” and (iii) “am” (first person singular of the simple present tense of the verb “to be”, one wonders why English speakers then complain about our irregular verbs) is “to be”. He reflects on these terms with such a profusion of arguments and so many quotations from the classics, with such precision in concepts and words, that it should in no way be taken as a joke that he concludes the following:

“For Schopenhauer, however, the ultimate reality is Will, not Self, (…) 1 have often wondered why he took this unsatisfactory path, and am inclined now to put it down to his fondness for beer. Schopenhauer was not in the habit of steadying before his face each evening the glass in which the 1 confronts its own reflection”.

The first part of the syllogism, i.e. the pure act of “Bebo” (“I Drink”), does not deserve in his view complex philosophical reflections. Drinking is as natural as thinking. He does observe, however, the possible existence of various forms of “drinking”. It seems that the way of drinking has no influence on the inexorable conclusion of “existing”. But perhaps it destroys the assimilation to thinking. There are ways of drinking in which rationality is absent. He literally tells us: “while we are familiar with the adverse effect of drink on an empty stomach, we are now witnessing the far worse effect of drink on an empty mind”.

The book has two clearly differentiated parts, although they are offered intermingled. On the one hand, the philosophical reflections, which are not easy to follow; on the other, the wine-making considerations, which are very stimulating to follow, and which are sprinkled with such culture, clarity of judgement and a sense of humour as serious as it is typically English, that they are pleasantly palatable.

 

 

It begins with the initiatory journey that leads the author to become, according to his trademark sense of humour, a “wino”. Next our wino takes us on a literal Tour de France and then gives us news from other parts of the globe. As is only natural, he dwells particularly on countries in the Commonwealth orbit. His news items do not seem to come from a direct knowledge of the terrain, except in the case of France, although this does not include Burgundy, which he admits he has never visited. They are therefore navel-gazing trips around a glass of wine, around his own ability to inhale vapours and exhale metaphors and finally around his enormous culture; he states unabashedly: “Travel narrows the mind, and the further you go the narrower it gets”. This lack of contact with the land does not prevent him from being a staunch defender of the “terroir”, in which he includes all the culture he holds dear. (The “soil” is not only the physical mixture of limestone, mulch and humus, but as Jean Giono, Giovanni Verga or D.H. Lawrence would describe it: “Nurse of passions, stage of dramas, and habitat of local gods”.

I cannot dwell on such comments; it is enough for us to deal with what he says next about Spain. He devotes about three pages to us, almost two of which are devoted to socio-political questions, on the basis of the reading of Invertebrate Spain, a book published by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in 1921. We will skip these questions and stick to the wine.

He graciously prides himself on knowing our country as intimately as Debussy – “who went to the Iberian Peninsula once for a weekend, saw his mistake, and fled back to Paris” – because he rode his rickety motorbike for a couple of days through the Pyrenees without finding anything worth mentioning.

So he also turns to his navel. In his imagination, Spain is still unspoilt, and to think of it – even more, to drink it – is a source of uncontaminated joy. “The villages and bodegas, that I visit in my glass are whitewashed, flagstoned, perched on steep inclines, with the parched, mean, gritty, clay-bound soil falling form their tight perimeters like terracotta skirts”.

Thus, the same romantic clichés of Merimée and company that the musician had. Debussy may, however, also have had undoubtedly authentic references to compose Prelude number 3 of Book 2 (between 1912/13) – entitled precisely, and precisely in Spanish, “La puerta del Vino” (The Wine Gate, an inner gate within the Alhambra) – since in it one can perceive something of Granados’s Danzas Españolas or Albéniz’s Iberia, both published a few years earlier, although frenchified with the natural impressionism and rhythm of Ravel’s left hand.

No doubt Scruton also had authentic references in the cups around which he travelled.

In our country, he is mainly concerned with Rioja, which he says is a French invention. It seems to be true that the development of wine in Rioja was linked to the time when the phylloxera epidemic had wiped out the vineyards of Bordeaux. However, he goes on to say: “The Spanish bodega represents a business rather than a place, and is less a vineyard than a factory, often buying in grapes from all over the region”. Here you have to go to the “business” rather than the “terroir”, so the wine will never take you to a small area of given soil as it does in France (although we know that this “given soil” can include Joan of Arc herself).

This being the case, it does not seem to detract from the fact that in the “Rioja winery” grapes from all the land of the designation are blended, as long as the properties of each varietal are not artificially altered. Rioja is also a “terroir” as a whole. We have already talked about this when referring to the biodiversity of the Rioja soil, and there will be an opportunity to expand on this.

The red Rioja, continues the author, is made from Tempranillo, blended with smaller amounts of Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano. It is aged in oak barrels, usually American, which explains its vanilla flavour and long finish. It is officially classified into four types according to its ageing in cask and bottle: plain Rioja, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. The latter can only be made in the best vintages, and to drink it at its best one must wait for ten years. He ends up with his customary imagery: A glass of old Gran Reserva is like a vision into a candlelit crypt where gaudy archbishops doze among vessels of gold.

The author concludes all his references to Spanish wines by noting that “the combination of oak and Tempranillo works in the uniquely favoured region of Rioja (favoured in particular by those winemakers from France); but it doesn’t work in the Valdepeñas, where ‘gran reserva’ may often connote an overdose of flakey make-up”. He adds that in other areas Tempranillo is blended with more northerly varieties, or excluded altogether. Among the latter, he highlights as most interesting the Bierzo variety with its ancient vineyards along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, planted with the indigenous variety “mencía”, which “thanks to a poor, sunburnt soil is rich in minerals, with a dark blood colour and a melancholic taste, like a bittersweet love song by Lorca”. However, such vineyards grow on chalky foothills so steep that they must be worked by donkey, so that, in keeping with his poetic licence, he concludes that whenever he has offered “a share of this wine to Sam the Horse he has turned quickly away, as though hearing the last neighs of the many equines who have crashed to their death for the sake of this bloodstained remnant of their labour”.

 

The book then goes into abstract considerations again, such as the meaning of wine, or the meaning of the complaints or reproaches made against it, especially the one about abuse (alcohol, in short). The book is not exactly short, 198 pages in English, which become, as seems inevitable, 295 in its translation in only slightly larger print. It is therefore impossible to summarise it, but three important ideas are worth highlighting: (i) wine intoxication is a sensory rather than an aesthetic experience, (ii) it is easier and more tempting to prohibit than to educate; the tendencies to prohibit result from the puritanism that has been defined (H.L. Mencken) as “the obsessive fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy”, and (iii) wine consumption should be guided, like life, by the sayings written above the door of the temple of Apollo at Delphi:Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess”, both naturally related, because practising the latter is a prerequisite for attempting the former.

Finally, he gives us some ideas about food pairing (“maridaje”), a word which, in Spanish, as we know from the previous issue, is reviled by everyone, but for which there is no adequate substitute. What to drink with what? Now, the object of the pairing here is not the material food, but the spiritual food. That is, which wine goes well with which philosopher (or vice versa). Of course, the selection is subjective. A few brief examples: a good Bordeaux is perfect to accompany the reading of Plato’s Republic; no wine, but large quantities of water plus a Spartan austerity will be necessary to swallow Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the driest book ever written; a Burgundy of 1964 is very suitable for reading Sartre, since re-reading will then be as impossible as finding the wine again. He reserves for us the honour of assigning us Leibniz, with a Crianza or a Rioja Reserva, opened an hour or two in advance to allow the archbishop’s flavours to breathe.

I hope I have given you good reasons to read this book, which is as interesting, and even amusing, as it is demanding. I conclude by acknowledging that since I read it, I feel, every time I raise my glass and confront my “I”, more conscious of being, of pleasure and of the pleasure of sharing.

 The time comes to say the word

and you let it flow, help it

to slip between your lips,

already anchored in its time limits.

The word is founded by itself, it sounds

there in the heart of the speaker

and climbs little by little until it is born

and before it is nothing and only a truth

makes it a record of something unique.

“Memories of a short time” 1954

 

This issue of “Wine and Letters” is a tribute to the writer José Manuel Caballero Bonald who passed away on 9 May. He is fully recognised as a writer of poems, novels and memoirs. There is no prestigious literary prize in Spain that he has not won, culminating in his receiving the Cervantes Prize in 2012. In articles and obituaries circulating on the Internet you can read all about it.

We mention him especially here because he was also a wine lover. It is said that the gift he was most excited about when he won the Cervantes Prize was a key that gave him access to an important winery in Jerez, where he could go for a year, as much as he wanted and accompanied by anyone he liked. Lover and connoisseur. The news of his death has accelerated the already foreseen idea of dedicating an issue of these newsletters to him, as his BREVIARIO DEL VINO (Wine Breviary) published by the publisher José Esteban in Madrid in 1980, was on the shelf in the library waiting its turn, dedicated as follows: A mis compañeros de promoción literaria, que han bebido lo suyo. (To the literary companions of my generation who have drunk their share). This is the group of poets known as the generation of the 50s of the last century.

 

 

News published recently has led us to learn that this little book went through several subsequent editions until the last one, which was first published by Seix Barral in October 2006, notably improved in terms of aesthetics. In terms of content, it is basically limited to an update of the figures, and the addition of a nice chapter (III) on “Spanish wines according to European travellers”. The other chapters deal with: (I) “From mythology to history”, (II) “The biblical memory of wine”, (IV) “From the vineyard to the bottle”, (V) “Uses and consumption”, ending with a “Brief wine vocabulary”.

“Let us beginas Chapter I doesat the beginning, i.e., with the legend, which is not always a distorted version of history. Even supposing it is, it is particularly tempting to attribute the same antiquity to the biography of wine as to the biography of man”. And it is particularly stimulating to feel part of that history. That is what we are trying to make you aware of here.

The chapter then goes on to explain how this fusion of myth and reality develops in the various histories: of Sumerians and Aryans, of Chinese and Egyptians, of Semitic peoples, of Persians and their close relatives, of Greeks and Romans, Iberians, prequels and sequels, Arabs and Christians, and within the latter especially, of course, the monks….

Chapter II takes up the biblical memory of wine. From Genesis, which contemplates its birth (and effects) in the new world, freshly washed, thanks to Noah, the only righteous man of his generation who deserved to be saved from the universal flood, to its literal consecration at the last supper in the New Testament. And, besides, referring to its significance for a people whose greatest sorrow on their pilgrimage to the promised land was the lack of “fig trees” and “vines” (Numbers), and especially through the miracle of the wedding at Cana, the transformation of water into wine, which illustrates the importance of wine in the already established society.

(Forgive me for interrupting the reading to encourage you to look on Youtube for a video that delightfully explains such a miracle through the mouth of a little girl. The little girl says that this is the passage of the Bible that she likes the most, and the tele-preacher (because this is what it is all about), after making an astonished face and starting his fastidious pedagogy, presses the little girl by asking her what lesson she gets from such a story, and it is she who gives us the lesson: “That if you run out of wine, you had better start praying”).

 

 

Chapter III gives us an account of the opinion that European travellers have had of Spanish wines, starting with nothing less than Shakespeare’s complimentary praise of sherry in the mouth of Falstaff (in Henry IV, 2nd part, 1600), for which we can only feel a healthy envy here from the land of Rioja, which went virtually unnoticed by the foreign chroniclers who visited the peninsula, first called by the Empire, then by the desire for enlightenment, and later by the illumination of romanticism. Today “all these travelling experiences now have a decidedly prehistoric aftertaste”, but there is no doubt that the references and quotations encourage our wine tour and our desire to broaden its scope.

 

 

The wine itself begins its journey in chapter IV until it ends in due course in the bottle. The path takes us from “the soil and the vine” – with some of the “environment” provided by the “micro-organisms” and the “climate” – through “the harvest” – at the ideal moment of sugar and acidity -, through “obtaining the must” by pressing or crushing, through “vinification” – that is, the transformation of glucose into alcohol -, through “selection and correction of the musts” with tasks such as ‘punching down’, ‘pumping over’, ‘racking’, ‘sulphuration’, ‘aeration’ and ‘refrigeration’, until the wine is ‘devatted’ and transferred to ‘ageing’ barrels. It remains there for “ageing and conservation”, undergoing constant “analysis” and perhaps due “rectifications” – with special reference, of course, to the Jerez ageing system of “soleras” and “criaderas” – until it culminates in the “bottle”, but its life does not end in this way, as it continues to evolve within the bottle. As for this evolution, he concludes the debate on its duration, as well as the chapter, by observing that “given the uncertainty of the question, it is perhaps preferable to choose to drink a wine before it can cease to be wine. The patience of sight is one thing and the opportunity of taste is another. A carefully stocked private cellar is always a desirable treasure, though it should not be thought that it can be passed down from father to son”.

 

Therefore, let us get down to work, which is what Chapter V “Uses and consumption” helps us to do, in which it tells us when, where, how, in what way and with what to enjoy a drink that, before being “spirited, is a nutritious stimulant of human physiology”. 

There are two things that the reading of this breviary has conveyed to me as a brief conclusion. The pleasure of reading, blessed as the author is with the gift of words. The satisfaction of being part of the history of wine which, as it has been summarised, “practically coincides with the history of humanity over the last ten thousand years. The vine and civilisation have coexisted inseparably, constantly exchanging their respective virtues in a stimulating pact of mutual aid”.

 

Nowadays, sayings are in the doldrums, and no less so the so-called, in Spanish, “refraneros”, understood not in the academic sense of collection of sayings, but in the colloquial sense of people who are prone to foist them upon others without rhyme or reason, that is, a person who uses sayings all the time. The reasons are clear. A good part of the sayings contains stomach-turning moralising, if not outright vomiting, and this is often the purpose of those who preach them. Prosodically speaking, if I my say so, they are like pesky flies or ball-busters.

However, there are sayings that have a pure and suggestive descriptive value, and there are situations in which they fit like a glove. Even the traditional swearword, the old rude word, can have its appropriate and brilliant moment, even for the most squeamish.

A repertoire for such occasions – the wit to introduce them is not something that Salamanca teaches -, in relation to the subject that happily brings us together here, is the book “Refranes y dichos populares en torno a la cultura del vino” (Popular sayings and proverbs about wine culture) by Víctor Jorge Rodríguez, self-edited -which is perhaps a symptom, for the second time, or may be a consolation or perhaps a ‘proverbial’ stumbling over the same stone-, in May 2015.

 

refranes y dichos populares del vino

 

We have here a very extensive repertoire of sayings in successive chapters relating to the exaltation of wine and its health benefits, the way in which it should be drunk, both on its own and with other foods, its physical and mental consequences, both with regard to friendship and “love” (I leave it in inverted commas because most of the sayings here tend to be as sour as vinegar), or marriage. …, as well as other “old sayings”, related to the care of the vineyard and wine production, and to the different geographical areas of production. The fitting conclusion is: “Wine for everyone. Wine always”. It also has a previous introduction in which the nature of the sayings as an element of popular culture is highlighted, and it is recommended to ‘drink’ them in small sips, savouring them, and in good company.

So there, they remain at the disposal of your wit. (When these lines were well-advanced, I became aware of the self-editing. The book may not be easy to find, but there are plenty of collections of sayings *). I’m afraid I did not heed the advice, and its massive ingestion has generated a certain heaviness. For a moment I thought that, to add a touch of humour to the string of sententious phrases, I might try to offer their literal translation into Spanish. Also, the other way round. It is good fun. Besides, this could contribute to broadening Shakespeare’s language, since in England, logically, wine lacks a popular breeding ground, and the countryside is a field for the expansion of noble animals, the protagonists of many English sayings, particularly the horse, but also cats and dogs, which apparently fall from the sky in torrents[i]. A couple of trials made me give up the idea, there were no sparks.

In any case, and taken with a pinch of salt – I’m afraid I keep using idioms, surely it is like the biblical teaching of the beam and the mote – a good proverb can have its moments. Making categories about what is good is always subjective. I like the old and metaphorical ones: “subirse a la parra”[ii], “caerse de la parra”[iii] , “salir a por uvas”[iv], “nos dieron las uvas”[v], etc. Real and not metaphorical must have been the above-mentioned “te la han dado con queso”[vi]. (An infallible and universal trick because, as our book tells us, that “wine with cheese tastes like a kiss” is almost literal in at least seven languages; in any case, it is not advisable to abuse the cliché, the best way to destroy a magnificent wine is to drink it with a magnificent and inadequate cheese).

[i] The famous English saying: “It’s raining cats and dogs”.

[ii] It means “to get high and mighty”, but literally translated it means ‘to climb up the vine’.

[iii] It means to suddenly become aware of something, but literally translated it means ‘to fall off the vine’.

[iv] It means “to be with the head in the clouds”, distracted or absent-minded, but literally translated it means to go out to get some grapes’. Today it is widely used in football when the goalkeeper goes for the ball inappropriately leaving the goal unprotected.

[v] It means something like we’ll be here all day or “until the cows come home”, but literally translated it means ‘they gave us the grapes’.

[vi] It means to be fooled, “to be taken for a ride”, but literally translated it means ‘you have been given the wine] with cheese’. When the old winemakers wanted to sell a poor-quality wine, they offered it with a portion of strong cheese that limited the ability to taste other flavours.

 

 

I try to avoid the phrase “al pan, pan y al vino, vino” which, behind its innocence, often hides, or so I thought, a belligerent pretension. English speakers make it clear in their way of saying it: “to call a spade, a spade”. I stood by the belligerence, as I wrongly identified “spade” with the Spanish “espada”, that is, “sword”, falling into the trap of the false friend. You can check it at:

http://falsosamigos.com/2012/07/spade%E2%89%A0espada/

“Spade” therefore comes from the Germanic “spate”, which is a non-belligerent spade – it seems to have been particularly used by beer brewers, as the brand name of one of them attests – or also a fork. However, let it be said that in a Latin dictionary I found “spatha” referring precisely to the swords used by the barbarian peoples of the north, because the Roman sword was called “gladius”, hence gladiators. It should also be noted in my defence that the English call “spade” the suit of “espadas” (swords) in the Spanish deck of cards and its equivalent (?) “pique” in the French deck.

In short, writing is always making mistakes. If you are interested in further muddling up the issue, you can check Wikipedia, and even the following page which blames the muddle on none other than Erasmus of Rotterdam’s translation of Plutarch’s Apothegmae:

https://wordhistories.net/2018/07/21/call-spade-spade/

Since this is getting too long, as is my nature, it does not seem appropriate to make a further selection from among the hundreds of proverbs that exist. For that reason, I am only going to dwell on two (already mentioned) because of their relevance in the context of MacRobert & Canals: “El pan cambiado y el vino acostumbrado”[i] and “Donde buenamente quepa, viñador, planta una cepa”[ii].

The former is to say that when it comes to bread, we like to try new things, but when it comes to wine, once the taste is established, there is no one who wants to change it. This is, of course, what we young wineries complain about, the difficulty of changing the habits of wine consumers. As we know, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”, so we have friends who own century-old wineries who complain that today their customers, like society itself, are only looking for the latest novelty. The big wineries do not complain about anything, but rather about the nuisance that the small ones are.

The latter saying, of course, dates from before the mechanisation of the countryside. Yields were those natural to the land, and not those forced by artificial means. Proof of the truth of the saying are the plantations in our vineyards of “El Barranco del San Ginés”, in Laguardia, and El paraje de la Virgen, in Lanciego, the former declared a singular vineyard, the latter in the process of being declared one.

It seems to be a scientifically proven fact that the size of the butts of draught and pack animals has been the most accurate yardstick for measuring widths throughout history. It determined in its time – the sum of two butts – the width of the carts and carriages pulled by them, from there it went on to railway wagons, and consequently to the width of roads and railways, then tunnels, and naturally to the objects transported, even war rockets themselves. We can only add the Italian saying: “sè non è vero, è ben trovato” (if it is not true, it is well found).

[i] Change the bread, but drink the customary wine.

[ii] Where it fits, vinedresser, plant a vine.

 

There is no doubt that this size determined the way the vines were planted when horses and mules were essential working tools; respecting the necessary distance and the distance derived from their inevitable contortions and turns, the vines were planted where they would fit. The square was used rather than the row, because the plough passes thus left less space to complete the work by hand with the hoe. Yields were obtained by the accumulation of vines – rainfall was the other variable to be taken into consideration – and there was no question of chemically forcing the production of individual vines. To a certain extent, the slopes were not bothersome, as there was no way of levelling them.  In El Barranco we have found that the width is 1.40 metres, while in Lanciego it is 1.60 metres, not all the butts are of the same size as we know, although on the other hand it could also happen that it was a lake or tank already built -the capacity of these was usually adapted to the land owned-, which determined the quantity of grapes that could be produced and therefore the number of vines that had to be planted.

* In fact, having finished these lines, rummaging through old books, I came across “Los refranes de Baco” (Bacchus’ Sayings), a splendid and well-ordered collection by Luis Hermógenes Álvarez del Castaño, published by Libros.com, in its second edition of March 2014.

 

The book we are dealing with in this issue of Wine and Letters is entitled: “FALSE MYTHS AND TRUE LEGENDS OF THE WORLD OF WINE”. Its author is Antonio Tomás Palacios García, Winemaker and Doctor in Biology, published by AMV Ediciones, in its second edition of 2018.

 

 

The book we are dealing with in this issue of Wine and Letters is entitled: “FALSE MYTHS AND TRUE LEGENDS OF THE WORLD OF WINE”. Its author is Antonio Tomás Palacios García, Winemaker and Doctor in Biology, published by AMV Ediciones, in its second edition of 2018.

The author is very well known in the wine world, not for nothing. Apart from the studies mentioned in the preceding paragraph, he is well versed in all areas, from winemaking by land and its air, by sea and its sea bed (sic, just as it sounds), through research, chemical and microbiological analysis, to teaching both as a university lecturer and as a trainer in private companies. And although it is not mentioned on the back cover of the book, he is very much at ease, perhaps I should say experienced, in the field of marketing.

The book is aimed, as the subtitle indicates, at “consumers and professionals”. And indeed, the former will find in it the ‘affective’ chemistry that will help them learn to enjoy themselves more, and the latter the scientific chemistry that will help them in their decision making.

It contains forty-one points, and a “bonus track”, which is a love story between the beautiful Berry, the grape, and the heroic Saccharo, the mushroom, of whose mutual fruition wine is the glorious son, a love and erotic relationship which, like all self-respecting mythical relationships, needs its Cupid, a god, in this case in the form of a human being, who brings these two protagonists into relationship, controls and enriches their productive relationship.

 

 

Obviously, we cannot pretend here to summarise the content of each of these forty-one points, however succinctly. The issues dealt with in them will be of interest to all wine lovers. Nature and man in winemaking, sediments and filtration, oxygenation, ageing, smell and tasting, definition and verbiage, ecology and fraud, enjoyment of wine and “superfluities” (as Manolito, Mafalda’s friend, would say), winemaking science and homeopathy, healthy and dreamed-of effects of wine, price and value, “terroir” and mineral perception, pairings, ageing…

 

 

The author delivers what he promises: he debunks myths and affirms truths with scientific belligerence and unbridled passion for his work and its results. Some of that passion rubs off on us – long live wine! Although he warns us against romanticism. The market is the market, and if it does not enter the market, the winery is not a winery, or will soon cease to be one.

The book’s teachings could be condensed into the following axiom: respect man as much as you respect nature. He finds profound incongruity in asserting that the more nature acts and the less man works the better the wine, whereas the natural destiny of grapes without human intervention is to die in the form of vinegar.

 

 

From the very first pages, it is argued that it is “human intervention” in the vineyard and later in the winemaking process (winery) that determines the quality, personality and differentiation of the final result. In this effort, it must meet the demands of consumers, and therefore the fashions dictated by prescribers, which only technology and scientific innovation are capable of following. We can perhaps here raise our eyebrows in a questioning gesture. Pages later, after addressing the issues of decanting, sediment and filtration, he concludes that the winery’s technical decisions to maintain the sensory integrity of the wine should not depend on fashions or trends, but on the chemical and microbiological knowledge of the product. Contradiction? I don’t think so, I would rather say balance, proportion, fair measure, respect… (One reads about practices such as this kind of molecular deconstruction/reconstruction of the must through a process of reverse osmosis, and one cannot help thinking once again that nothing good can come out of “perfectionism”, no matter how many points it gets).

 

 

This same scientific vocation is reaffirmed later on; a firm commitment to environmentalism should not exclude technological modernity, rejecting what he describes as ravings, such as homeopathy in winemaking, or the use of cosmic energy or esotericism; we will not enter into the debate here and now, we limit ourselves to sharing the assumption that the fact that a wine is defined as natural does not imply that it is good. It also combines “terroir” with winemaking technique, and tradition with technological innovation…

In short, three hundred and thirty-one pages of love for a job well done and well founded, which will contribute to increase your winemaking culture, therefore your resources to appreciate the “nature” of wines, and ultimately your desire to put that culture into practice, which is what really matters: to drink wine always in a balanced way and in the best of company (both personal and nutritional).

I.- Ferran Centelles, who worked at the legendary El Bulli restaurant between 1999 and 2011, won the 2006 Ruinart prize for the best sommelier in Spain and was awarded the National Gastronomy Prize in 2011, among other merits, has written a book for his fellow sommeliers.  Those of us who are certainly not experts on the subject should be pleased about it. We can hope that some of his teachings will be absorbed by the recipients, and therefore have a beneficial influence on us when we go to enjoy ourselves in their restaurants.

Because at the end of it all, after all the studies, tests, analyses, intuitions and conclusions about which wine, in perfect synergy with the food served, is the one that, theoretically and empirically speaking, will provide, objectively speaking, the greatest pleasure, the sommelier must go one step further. He must capture the exterior atmosphere and the inner messages of the customer, in order to obtain the same result, although now subjectively speaking, that is, he must be able to sense which of the possible wines that his knowledge dictates to him, will provide the greatest satisfaction to the consumer at that specific moment. Of course, if in order to do so it is necessary to know a lot about the psychology of customers, it is infinitely more necessary to know about wines.

The title of the book, already indicated, is “Which wine with this duck?” (¿Qué vino con este pato?), an approach to the essence of pairings. Here the duck lends itself to a play on Spanish words: obviously we are thinking of “dish” (plato). Perhaps the author is referring to different categories of ducks, for it is precisely one of them, the “Apicius duck”, which, when served with Banyuls wine, is the beginning of the modern theory of pairing, the pairing of contrasts. If the author had preferred a historical perspective, he would probably have resorted to the “eel” (anguila), for which he gives one of the earliest written references to pairing: the Romans were particularly fond of it with a good Phalernum from the region of Naples. But with eel it is more difficult to achieve synergy and perhaps even rhyme.

 

 

II.- Inevitably, at the beginning of the book, the author is busy trying to give a name to the object of the book. Pairing  (in Spanish: maridaje). It seems that nobody likes the word “maridaje”, but it also seems that everybody, including the author and the author of these lines, have resigned themselves to the fact that they cannot find a better word. Harmonisation, concord, association… sound good, but they do not fit the purpose at all. Spanish words ending in “aje” that are expressive of an action sound forced, and furthermore, in the case of “maridaje”, this seems to contain an annoying gender perspective [1] that could not be further from reality, since its essence is not the assimilation of the couple to one of the factors, but the sublimation of both. That the union of drink and food is better than the sum of both elements separately. I will stick with the second definition of pairing given by the DRAE (Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary): “Union, analogy or conformity with which some things are linked or correspond to each other; e.g., the union of the vine and the elm tree, the good correspondence of two or more colours, etc.”. Can there be any more seductive pairing than this symbiosis between the vine and the elm?

The aim of “pairing” is therefore to improve the result by the sum of factors. It follows, as the author will gradually discover, that the versatility of wine is its most precious virtue when it comes to pairing.

[1] Maridaje is derived from marido. In Spanish marido means husband.

 

 

III.- In a certain way, the book traces the history of the evolution of the technique of food and wine pairing from the moment when the inadequacy of the commonplaces about it inherited from the past was perceived.

However, it should not be said that these inherited basic criteria, handed down in the domestic sphere from father to son, have lost their meaning. At least they remain for us laymen as general guiding principles. It is not unreasonable to respect that whites go better with fish and reds with meat, or sweets with dessert – except for that cloying foie gras with Sauternes, nowadays in general decline -, or that the order should be from lesser to greater in terms of colour, temperature or alcoholic strength. Factors that facilitate the choice also remain valid. For example, the adaptation to regional wines, once almost inevitable, is now more voluntary. And above all, the subjectivity of taste; there are colours to suit every taste, and wines too; we can make little mistake by firmly following this principle.

 

Of course, such simple pairings cannot satisfy wine experts, and even less so if one considers the evolution that food, especially restaurant food, has undergone in the last few years.

IV.- Ferrán Centelles then reviews the people who have had or are having most relevance in the evolution of the theory and practice of food and wine pairing. Most of them have published some kind of work, which is included in the very interesting bibliography that the book contains.

Each milestone in that evolution is a story. A story of people, conversations and journeys, which make the book a pleasure to read, and to follow. I take the liberty of making an organic and light-hearted classification.

Thus, he deals in the first place with:

  • the “imagined” pairings with Rafa Peña and Mireia Navarro (Gresca restaurant),
  • Tim Hanni’s “food pairing for the ‘diner’ and not for the ‘dinner’“,
  • the “family pairing” with Evan and Joyce Goldstein;

Then with:

  • the “methodological pairing” based on the elements of “contraposition and conformity” of wine and food, by Gino Veronelli and Pietro Mercadini, culminating in “Il Vino”, Enrico Bernardo’s restaurant where, in his most audacious proposal, it is the wine, the only object of choice on the part of the diner, that decides his meal.
  • The “unfathomable pairing” of El Bully’s forty dishes, a challenge for which our author, who was largely responsible, managed to achieve oriental calmness through Jeannie Cho Lee, who provided the panacea of “versatility”, and to find inner peace through Jancis Robinson (“The obsession with achieving the perfect pairing sometimes creates too much pressure”) and her husband Nick Lander (“The fewer rules, the better, don’t be intimidated by the pairing”).

 

 

However, he continues his research with,

  • Robert J. Harrington’s “pyramid pairing”, who places the basic tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and “umami” (“savoury”, the basic taste in Japan, today, by extension of sushi and derivatives, of universal rank, the result of monosodium glutamate) – at the base of a pyramid for the coordination of the elements, “texture” – the fat structure – at the middle level, and “aromas” at the top.
  • Pierre Chartier’s “molecular pairing”, which could be described as an “inverted hierarchy” because at the base of his pyramid are the “aromas”, determined by the “dominant molecule”.
  • the “cross-cutting”, synthesis or “combined” pairing about which our master author does pronounce himself: “in the pyramid, all the elements are of equal importance”.

 

 

to finish with,

  • – the “integral pairing” or “relativity of pairing” of Josep Roca (El Celler de Can Roca restaurant), no pairing is suitable if it does not connect with the customer, so it is necessary to know all the rules and regulations on pairing in order to be able to break them with full knowledge of the facts for the greater satisfaction of the diner.

IV.- And what happens then, once all the possibilities have been analysed, with the artichokes that we all know are “inmaridables”, that is, impossible to pair? “The artichoke on the defendants’ bench” is the title of the chapter that deals with it. (Also sitting on the bench are vinegar, asparagus, eggs and chocolate – the latter to my surprise; we are back to tastes and colours: in my view, a very dark black chocolate with a powerful purplish red wine is to die for. However, a product that I learnt about thirty years ago in the kitchen of one of the most prestigious wineries in the land of the Rioja is not seated on that bench. The sign hung on the wall read: “Warning: Do not serve wine with leeks, especially if you are an expert”. I don’t know whether the sign or the kitchen, I mean, are still there, but the winery is still going strong; thus, the saying should be applied).

 

 

Allied with his friend, the aforementioned Rafael Peña, who prepared artichokes in seven different ways (raw, boiled, grilled, battered, fried, pickled, in broth), he paired them with nine Spanish wines of different profiles (cava, rosé cava, light and full-bodied whites, medium-bodied rosé, powerful red, oxidative, amontillado, txakoli). Sixty-three possible combinations to get rid of the undeserved bad reputation. Surely you will find at least one that fills you with good sensations. Preferably avoid red.

 

 

V.- By way of conclusions.

If it is a pairing in a restaurant, trust that the sommelier has read Ferran Centelles’ book to the best of his ability.

When it comes to home-cooked meals, follow his advice. And… rehearse, rehearse, rehearse… in other words, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. And if it happens that a wine does not work with the food, you know that mistakes teach you more than successes and that nothing tragic is bound to happen, as Jancis Robinson herself says: “It’s amazing how something as absorbent and neutral as bread can act as a neutraliser”.

There is some unanimity on the Internet that Roald Dahl published Taste in The New Yorker magazine on 8 December, 1951. I have also found some pages that tell us that it had previously been published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1945. The year is always very important when talking about wines, so this first publication is suspicious since one of the wines mentioned (or tasted) in the book is precisely from the 1945 vintage; perhaps the author was updating the vintage according to the date of publication. The clarification remains for anyone who likes doing research.

 

Download the full text of the original story here: Taste by Roald Dahl.

If you are more of a listener, I recommend Aaron Lockman’s dramatization: Aaron Reads: Taste by Roald Dahl – YouTube

There is a Spanish translation: “La Cata”, by Iñigo Jáuregui, carefully edited by Nórdica Libros SL, with magnificent illustrations by Iban Barrenetxea in 2014, which is now in its tenth reprint.

You can also find on the web many other stories by the author, whose sense of humour is proverbial. Some of them are related to eating and drinking, which is what interests us most here; among the children’s stories, I can suggest the one about the Anteater, literally fed, this type of bear, by the peculiar English pronunciation, and among those for adults, Lamb to the Slaughter, which shows us the extra gastronomic usefulness of his leg.

Let me say no more about them, because I don’t want to spoil the stories for you. With this one –Taste– it is truly difficult to do so, because I am burning with the desire to tell you why I consider it a masterpiece. My intention is probably futile because as soon as you open any webpage about it, they will spoil it for you. I want to avoid that, and therefore I will limit myself strictly to the aspects that concern us here, which are those related to wine. I will divide them into four sections: (01) the wine taster and the wine supplier, (02) the act of tasting, (03) the language of tasting, and (04) the wines tasted

(01) THE CHARACTERS:

Here you have the members of the table, according to Iban Barrenetxea’s apt image. We will refer exclusively to the main characters that you can easily identify.

 

 

The proponent of the tasting, that is to say, the host, is

  • a stockbroker. To be precise, he was a jobber in the stock market, and like a number of his kind, he seemed to be somewhat embarrassed, almost ashamed to find that he had made so much money with so slight a talent. In his heart he knew that he was not really much more than a bookmaker – an unctuous, infinitely respectable, secretly unscrupulous bookmaker – and he knew that his friends knew it, too.

So, he was seeking now to become a man of culture,

  • to cultivate a literary and aesthetic taste, to collect paintings, music, books, and all the rest of it.

Knowing about wine was part of it, and he seemed willing to do anything to be recognised for his ability to choose good wines.

The taster is a famous gourmet; he is defined almost as a true professional,

  • He was president of a small society known as the Epicures, and each month he circulated privately to its members a pamphlet on food and wines. He organised dinners where sumptuous dishes and rare wines were served.

A geek, as we defined him in the first of these letters? Perhaps… Would we today consider a geek someone who describes the custom “to smoke at table” as “a disgusting habit”? Surely not; and who refuses to smoke “for fear of harming his palate”?

In any case, a true wine tasting professional. At that moment he becomes

  • Somehow, it was all mouth – mouth and lips – the full, wet lips of the professional gourmet, the lower lip hanging downward in the centre, a pendulous, permanently open taster’s lip, shaped open to receive the rim of a glass or a morsel of food. Like a keyhole, I thought, watching it, his mouth is like a large wet keyhole.

In short, two oenological archetypes: the connoisseur, who cannot bear to be told that he does not know everything, and the upstart, who cannot bear to be told that he knows nothing.

(02) THE TASTING:

The host first pours a thimbleful of wine into his glass, literally “tipped” it, as the wine rests in a wicker basket with the label facing downwards – the typical “ridiculous” basket – and then fills the glasses of the others. Filling here means “filling up”, i.e., what I understand to be up to the top, maybe not to the rim of the glass, but it looks like the typical filling up of a money-making restaurant that tries to make you drink wine (taking out even the second bottle, as soon as they see that the level of consumption has dropped). Such an overflowing glass, so pretentious and vain in its senseless measure, prevents the wine from tasting and smelling until it reaches its rational measure. Perhaps an insinuation in this case, like so many others scattered throughout the text, about the host’s lack of knowledge and surplus wealth.

In any case, the glass was not so full that it prevented the taster’s nose from entering, the act with which he begins his “impressive performance” – and it was indeed quite a “performance”!

 

  • The point of the nose entered the glass and moved over the surface of the wine, delicately sniffing. He swirled the wine gently around in the glass to receive the bouquet. His concentration was intense. He had closed his eyes, and now the whole top half of his body, the head and neck and chest, seemed to become a kind of huge sensitive smelling-machine, receiving, filtering, analysing the message from the sniffing nose.

For at least a minute, the smelling process continued, then, without opening his eyes or moving his head, Pratt lowered the glass to his mouth and tipped in almost half the contents.

He paused, his mouth full of wine, getting the first taste, then, he permitted some of it to trickle down his throat and I saw his Adam’s apple move as it passed by. But most of it he retained in his mouth. And now, without swallowing again, he drew in through his lips a thin breath of air which mingled with the fumes of the wine in the mouth and passed on down into his lungs. He held the breath, blew it out through his nose, and finally began to roll the wine around under the tongue, and chewed it, actually chewed it with his teeth as though it were bread.

After a little sip and a lot of talk, as we shall see below, he continued with his “performance”.

  • Again he paused, took up his glass, and held the rim against that sagging, pendulous lower lip of his. Then I saw the tongue shoot out, pink and narrow, the tip of it dipping into the wine, withdrawing swiftly again – a repulsive sight. When he lowered the glass, his eyes remained closed, the face concentrated, only the lips moving, sliding over each other like two pieces of wet, spongy rubber.

And the little sips continued until the end of his memorable performance.

 

(03) THE LANGUAGE OF WINE TASTING:

The descriptive language of wine would surely need many instalments of this series of wine and letters. Today it is a highly standardised language, at least very recognisable among experts or professionals in the sector. The eighties of the last century are often referred to as the time when this need to establish parameters of understanding was felt, even if these were abundant in metaphors and plastic images.

Roald Dahl, if we think about the date of publication of this short story, turns out to be a pioneer in the matter and points out the reasons for this need that was later felt to understand one another. Already at the beginning of the story, when describing the taster, he tells us that

  • he had a curious, rather droll habit of referring to it as though it were a living being.
  • ‘A prudent wine,’ he would say, ‘rather diffident and evasive, but quite prudent.’ Or, ‘A good-humoured wine, benevolent and cheerful – slightly obscene, perhaps, but none the less good-humoured.’

And at the start of the tasting itself:

. ‘Um – yes. A very interesting little wine – gentle and gracious, almost feminine in the after-taste.’

establishing a gender parameter that was then repeatedly used until, like everything else, it was revised. We will have to come back to this on another occasion.

 

(04) LOS VINOS:

Three wines were scheduled to be tasted, at least three wineglasses per person rested on the dinner table, ready for a feast. However, one, the last one, was not tasted. A sweet wine? A port with the dessert? A surprise with the cheese? We know that there was a lot of shiny silver, but not the nature and distribution of the cutlery, so there is no clue as to the destination of that third glass, of wine of course, as that is what it is called. A real shame, known as it is by its own admission the extent of Roald Dahl’s cellar. It would have been appropriate and interesting to know his taste for that final moment, for I am convinced that he was depicting his own tasting in the story. For particular reasons I exclude champagne altogether.

Of the two wines we have left, one is not really the subject of a tasting. It is drunk, even swallowed without compassion, but not tasted or analysed. And it was certainly not worthy of such mistreatment; it was a Mosel, a Geierslay Ohligsberg, 1945, the product of a purchase that the host had made the previous summer in the same small village of Geierslay, almost unknown outside Germany. He also explains that his choice was not only for that reason, but because it would have been barbaric to serve a Rhine wine before a “delicate claret”, which is what a lot of people “who don’t know any better” would have served:

  • A Rhine wine will kill a delicate claret, you know that?

So, a Riesling, almost certainly from that area of the river called Middle Moselle, a vineyard planted on the extreme slope down to the water itself, facing west to receive every last drop of an elusive sun, and with a dark, heat-absorbing slate soil, dry and immediate drainage. A personal weakness!

 

This brings us to the “claret”, which we are told from the outset is the wine to be tasted. The image that this word literally conveys is not very accurate. The “claret” is a typical expression to refer to a Bordeaux -although later by extension it was applied to wine from other areas, such as Burgundy, and even Rioja itself-. This is the wine produced in the Aquitaine region. Such a reference was coined centuries ago, perhaps from the same time that the duchess Eleanor gave it to her “English” husband Henry II, the first Plantagenet – in addition to giving him five children that she had denied to her first husband, King Louis VII of France, who had repudiated her for it. Indeed, even today the English still very much include Bordeaux wine as part of their empire, and of their eccentric idiosyncrasies.

From the beginning of the story, it is clear and obvious that the wine to be tasted could not be any other.

The host explains the purpose of the tasting beforehand; it is a matter of locating the hidden origin of the wine, its producer, the “terroir” in short. Insofar as it is not one of the famous great wines, such as Lafite or Latour, he understands that the expert could at best locate the district it comes from, i.e., whether it is St Emilion, Pomerol, Graves or Médoc, but each region has several communes, and these in turn have many, many small vineyards; it is impossible for a man to differentiate between them just by the taste and smell of the wine. And he does not mind adding that the wine comes from a small vineyard surrounded by other small vineyards.

With such a background, our taster prepares himself for the tasting, body and soul as we have seen.

He eliminates the regions of Saint Emilion or Graves, as the wine is “far too light in the body” to belong to one of them.

It is obviously a Médoc.

Once here, he excludes Margaux – it lacks the “violent bouquet” that Margaux has -, and he excludes Pauillac – because unlike the wines of Pauillac, “it is too tender, too gentle and wistful”. And here the personality of the wine taster speaks at length:  The wine of Pauillac has a character that is almost imperious in its taste, And also, to me, a Pauillac contains just a little pith, a curious dusty, pithy flavour that the grape acquires from the soil of the district. No, no. This – this is a very gentle wine, demure and bashful in the first taste, emerging shyly but quite graciously in the second. A little arch, perhaps, in the second taste, and a little naughty also, teasing the tongue with a trace, just a trace of tannin. Then, in the after-taste, delightful consoling and feminine, with a certain blithely generous quality that one associates only with the wines of the commune of St Julien.

This is a Saint Julien, so there is no room for error. Once here, it is necessary to fix, let’s say, the category. It is not a first growth, it is not a second growth, it is not one of ‘the greats’. It lacks the quality, the strength, the radiance. Maybe a third growth, but no, it is definitely a fourth, even if it is from a great year.

Within the “quatrième cru” of Saint Julien, the tannin in the middle taste, and the quick astringent squeeze upon the tongue, takes us to the small vineyards of the Beichevelle area. But not Beichevelle itself, somewhere nearby, perhaps Château Talbot? No; a Talbot comes forward to you a little quicker than this one, besides if it is the ’34 vintage, as he thinks, it could not be. A vineyard close to both, almost in the middle. And it can be none other than the small Château Branaire-Ducru, and the 1934 vintage. Charming little vineyard, lovely old château, so well-known that he cannot conceive why he did not recognise it at once.

 

Bordeaux Wine Regions

It is not appropriate to reveal whether the wine has been guessed correctly or not. Our intention, as we said, was limited to pointing out some characteristics of wines that I hope will be of interest to you and to invite you to participate in a story that, as the classic saying goes, both instructs and delights.

We come to an end, but not without completing the oenological references, as the Moselle is served with fried whitebait in butter – how can we not long for the similar ‘chanquetes’ from the Bay of Cadiz, but fried in olive oil and washed down with a manzanilla sherry from el Puerto? -, and the Bordeaux would naturally be served with a piece of roast beef and a vegetable garnish.

 

Panoramic view of the Ebro as it passes through El Cortijo, a district of Logroño. If you look (very) closely, you will see that it has just passed under the two surviving arches of the Roman bridge of Mantible. To the north, the meander encircles the well-known Finca de San Rafael, that reddish clay-ferrous plain, where the vineyards of Contino (more to the east) and the Vineyard of Lentisco (towards the west), and their respective wineries, as well as some other vineyards, are located. That part is Alava, in the Laserna district of the town of Laguardia.

In the background, the Sierra de Cantabria, where you will have distinguished, towards the centre, the Picota or León Dormido, and further to the east the Sierra de Aras, as you know them from our first letter. In front of this mountain range, an unmistakable green spot is the Cerro de la Mesa. It will obviously remind you of Table Mountain, of our history and imagotype. On the north side of this hill, hidden from our view, is the Viña Real winery, also owned by CUNE like Contino, a very interesting work of the French architect Philippe Mazières.

It is one of the many meanders of the Ebro to which our book refers.

The book in question is Ignacio Peyró’s (https://ignaciopeyro.es),  “Comimos y Bebimos. Notas de cocina y vida” (We ate and we drank. Notes on cooking and living) published by Libros del Asteroide (www.librosdelasteroide.com) in 2018 (*).

 

 

As chance would have it, we started with it. It contains some sixty articles, five for each month of the year, except for a couple of months that have four and three that have six, of which wine is the protagonist in several, and a guest artist at the table in practically all of them.

A little before life was put on hold, I was tempted, for reasons of little relevance here, to devote myself to writing short articles on gastronomy. A friend (perhaps presumed) in order to encourage me, gave it to me as a gift, but reading it entirely dried up my barely born resolve in the conviction that I could not add anything to what had already been so well said. (The only trace of that intention remains in an unpublished article that was a premonitory “Praise of the Ephemeral”. Perhaps one day, if I overcome my modesty, it will become part of these letters, because the object of praise was precisely “the figs from the vine”, as fleeting as life, as intense as it is).

Even if what paralysed my will was the certainty that I lacked the author’s knowledge and gift of the written word to make readers enjoy what he had made me enjoy, I must admit that what angered me was the unabashed practising hedonism of someone who, as can be seen on the book’s cover, is the same age as my son.  It is well known that what really hurts are the truths that one receives from life. How much time wasted on my part!

As I say, wine is the protagonist of a number of articles. Thanks to them, we will be able to learn how poets anticipated cardiologists in extolling the virtues of wine for the heart -although all immoderation is unhealthy, if you will forgive me this stomach-turning moralising. We will also be able to participate in the anguish (always) and the overflow of kisses (with no identical frequency) that are experienced in each harvest; we will be able to observe the psychological relationship between virility and white wine, get to know a port that we will never know biblically, or appreciate the differences between Bordeaux and Burgundy to conclude that it is always the insistence on comparisons that prevents enjoyment.

Here we will refer in particular to one whose title we have taken as our headline, and which poses the Hamletian question of whether to be or not to be a wine snob. That is the question.

The author describes the sufferings that being a wine snob entail and against which he warns us. A sum of losses: of tranquillity, of money, of friends… a constant state of anguish for the wine that we will not be able to taste, for the wine that we are aware of tasting before its due time and that tastes more and more like the uneasiness of how it would have tasted then, on the lookout for corked wine, for the unfulfilled expectations.

We are not going to wallow in anguish. By and large, everyone has experienced that passions tend to generate more heartaches than moments of pleasure. In spite of everything, in spite of all these anxieties, even that of the final touch, which is nothing less than that of ending up writing texts like this one, even so, the author generalises, so much suffering will be worth it, in exchange for the glory of those ephemeral moments.

We all know that a sense of humour is the best way to face a ridicule that is as inevitable as it is conscious. Let us drink and enjoy wine, and learn from it and with it. When knowledge expands, so do the pleasures, and, of course, the displeasures of unfulfilled expectations. But lukewarmness has never left memorable memories. Let us not shy away from practising rituals, however apparently snobbish they may seem, but let us flee like the plague from perfectionism, a sterile pretension if it is our own and disheartening if it is that of others.

In any case, perhaps the best thing about this book is its capacity to stimulate hedonism and the epicurean and vital passion in which it imbues us, as much for the substance of its content as for the intelligence and originality of the way in which it is expressed. How could we, the beneficiaries of “La tierra del Rioja”, not get overenthusiastic when we read: It has been said, and not in vain, that the best wines in the world come from the most beautiful vineyards in the world: the Duero Valley, Priorato, Burgundy, the slow meander of the Ebro that ‘girdles and ungirdles’ La Rioja! (sic due to the absence in the quote of mythical areas such as Bordeaux, Tuscany or the slopes of Etna. But it is to the greater blessing of those included, which are and are there).

In the smallness of the warehouse where we make our wines, located in an industrial area no uglier than any other, which only has the prestige of the presence of a renowned winery, “Olarra”, we have written, as our website says: ““If we cannot buy a Château in Bordeaux, or inherit land in Burgundy, the only thing left to do is to prove that it is possible to make a Rioja that is at least as good as the wines from there”. Obviously as good does not mean the same. We are Rioja, we love our Tempranillo and we do not pretend at all that it is similar to Cabernet or Pinot noir.

And with that momentum that the exhilarating reading turns overwhelming, we are ready to affirm, also unabashedly, that El Barranco del San Ginés 2015”  is, now that time has refined it, a wine comparable to the best that can be produced in those regions, provided that it is drunk with no less conviction and spirit than those used to taste the (affordable) myths.

 

Barrica del Barranco del San Ginés

Bottle of Barranco del San Ginés resting in a French oak barrel.

(*) Forgive me this interruptus that is quite snobbish (DRAE: “Person who imitates with affectation the manners, opinions, etc., of those whom he considers distinguished”) or perhaps (also) of pedantic (DRAE: “It is said of the conceited person who makes an untimely and vain boast of scholarship, whether he really has it or not”), but I can’t help it if the title of the book reminds me, perhaps not gratuitously, of Joseph Conrad‘s “Notes on life and letters” I will certainly not have another occasion to bring up in these letters, whose content tends to be oenological, this writer, to whom I profess a great veneration and not so much because his novels abducted me in my adolescence and relieve my senescence, but because, damn it! he began to learn English in his twenties, with an obvious proficiency that has eluded me.

Read at the end, where it is placed, this interrupting note, also serves us to comment in all modesty that the author of the article we are referring to, if he is also an auto-biographer, is not, strictly speaking, in dictionary terms, a “snob”, since everything he tells us is of his own making, without alien affectation, nor is he “pedantic”, since his scholarship is not conceited, nor is it untimely or vain. At most, he could be labelled a “geek” (DRAE: “Person who practices a hobby excessively and obsessively”). The concept is quite well understood; if, as the author says, in every invitation to lunch or dinner you insist on bringing the wine yourself (because you are afraid of what you are going to be given), you take the time a week before to beg, demand, control that the wine rests in a suitable situation that avoids unsettled lees and warmth, and when the time comes you try to hoard the bottle under the unconfessed pretext that only you understand it, you are a real wine geek, and maybe you can even be proud of it