Much of what the english writer’s moving finger wrote when he undertook his rather creative adaptation of the 12th-century Persian poet’s verses has passed into the rarefied stratum of the constantly quoted; yet few cut to the heart of the matter at hand as does this passage, which hints at the greater mystery that underlies the appeal of this delicate commodity, wine.
Of all the things over which brokers haggle, aesthetes pronounce, and poets crow from their pedantic perches, wine remains the most universally confounding and creatively satisfying. Neither Keats’ “realms of gold” nor the Scriptures’ “pearl of great price” can compare with a glass of claret for firing the imagination. Wine is capricious, imperfect, contradictory, moody, inconsistent, and often disappointing—at the same time that it is inspiring, intoxicating, elusive, surprising, maddening, beautiful, and (at its best) frequently unattainable. A good wine can turn (as most of us learn, sooner or later), and an indifferent wine can acquire character and depth with age. Wine tastes better or worse according to the company in which it is shared, and the more we drink, the more exacting we become in our demands upon it. Wine is distinctly human, and like our relationships with human beings, our relationship to wine can in subtle (and awkward) ways reveal us to ourselves—and to others.
For the initiated, opening, say, a bottle of Hermitage La Chapelle is a revelation of sorts—a complete and complex experience. It contains in the musty, fragrant spice of the bouquet a distant river mist; in its texture the softness of the celebrated silks of Lyon; and in its color, when the glass is held to the light, the deep-rooted red of the beets that fatten and grow sweet in Rhône’s rich soil. To sip the wine is to taste the earth on which both ancient Celts and Romans lived and struggled, and in which a hundred generations of them lie buried. It is to wander the alluvial plains over which the seven popes of Avignon presided, and over which the winter mistrals still blow bitter cold. The wine embodies the labors and hopes, past and present, of the men and women who tend the vineyards; we imbibe their way of living and thinking—their culture—when we drink La Chapelle as much as we do their method of making wine.
This age-old liaison between vine and humanity explains, perhaps, the popularity of winemaking regions as destinations: Travelers not only have the opportunity to take in the picturesque landscapes, admire the architecture, and sample the varied cuisine; they also have the opportunity to commune with the soil—and thus the spirit and heart of the people—through that region’s wines. For these sojourners, place subordinates itself to sense; the journey is a process of discovery, an opening of one’s mind to fresh perceptions. Wine—like painting or music—serves as a language for conveying the cultural identity of its creators. The fullness of fruit, ingenious progression of flavors, and easy accessibility of a Pinot Noir from the Sonoma region of California speaks to its makers’ enthusiastic inventiveness, willingness to experiment, and tenacious individuality. The statelier, more subtle, and earthy character of the same wine from Burgundy tells quite another story—one of tradition and heritage, pride, family, and a oneness with the terroir that is quintessentially Burgundian.
To the casual wine sipper, these scribblings may seem the result of too bounteous an investigation of the subject at hand. Still, even these as yet unenlightened souls will find food and drink for thought in visiting the four regions that make up this month’s traveler’s guide (“A Grand Tour of Grapes,” page 70). Each of these destinations—Languedoc, France; Wachau, Austria; Sonoma, California; and Marlborough, New Zealand—speaks radically different languages, oenologically and otherwise. Yet their varied bottles of Rieslings and Rhônes, once uncorked, decant a precious legacy, a creative essence, and a human vitality that will leave those open to such influences wondering, like FitzGerald, how the vintners could ever have parted with them.