Wine opens and frees the mind

Alvaro Palacios was a frustrated bull-fighter but wine-maker par excellence.
PHOTO: Nk Yong

"Wine is about people."

That was the first piece of advice I was given when I began my interest in fine wine - short and sweet! It did not take me long to understand its significance. Mother Nature provides and determines the production of the wine - its type, quality, character and volume, etc.

A well-made wine reflects its origins; its grape varietal/s; the soil and terroir on which it is grown; and the weather during the growing season. Each wine also reflects the character and personality of the wine-growers, as well as their tastes.

When you have visited their wineries, met them, gone down into their cellars with them and barrel-tasted their wines, memories come flooding back of the wine-makers in their cellars, talking and discussing their wines with you as you taste from barrel to barrel.

How wine and champagne are made

  • This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows the Bouzy vineyards, in the northeastern French champagne region.
  • If ever there was a place destined to produce a cheeky tipple, it has to be the village of Bouzy in the champagne country of northern France.
  • People harvest grapes on October 23, 2013 in Irouguy, southern France, at the Arretxea vineyards of Michel Riouspeyrous to make the Irouleguy organic wine.
  • This picture taken on October 21, 2013 during the harvest shows wine grapes in a vineyard on a spoil heap in Haillicourt, northern France.
  • People work next to a container filled with Chardonnay grapes at the Veuve Clicquot Champagne House on October 9, 2013 in Bouzy, in the northeastern French champagne region.
  • A man drops Chardonnay grapes into a container.
  • A man drops Chardonnay grapes into a container.
  • "Pinot noir" grapes, used to make Bouzy wine, in the northeastern French Champagne region village of Bouzy. Bouzy however has another string to its bow, thanks to a group of dedicated producers who have opted to maintain, albeit largely as a sideline, a centuries old tradition of producing still red wine from pinot noir vines planted close to the northern limit of where the notoriously fickle varietal will ripen fully.
  • This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows grape pickers sorting "pinot noir" grapes, used to make Bouzy wine, in the northeastern French Champagne region village of Bouzy.
  • This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows grape pickers sorting "pinot noir" grapes, used to make Bouzy wine.
  • People collect grapes.
  • This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows winemaker Jean-Rene Brice shucking "pinot noir" grapes, used to make Bouzy wine.
  • This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows an oenologist pouring "pinot noir" grape juice, used to make Bouzy wine.
  • A woman works, on October 9, 2013 in the vatroom of the Veuve Clicquot Champagne House, in Bouzy, in the northeastern French champagne region.
  • A picture taken on October 9, 2013 shows a person holding a glass of red wine, from the Pinot noir grape variety.
  • This picture taken on October 7, 2013 shows winemaker Remi Brice smelling "pinot noir" grape juice, used to make Bouzy wine.
  • A person holds a glass of red wine, from the Pinot noir grape variety, used to manufacture pink champagne.
  • A man stands in front of tanks filled with red wine, used to manufacture pink champagne, in the vatroom of the Veuve Clicquot Champagne House.
  • Champagne vineyards are pictured in Verzenay, eastern France during the traditional Champagne wine harvest October 8, 2013.
  • The end of September start of the 2013 grape harvest was the latest in the last 30 years. Weather conditions permitted grapes in the vineyards to reach maturity and cool temperatures enabled an even quality of the fruit throughout the harvest.
  • Grape pickers harvest fruit from the vines at the Billecart-Salmon vineyard in Verzenay, eastern France during the traditional Champagne wine harvest.
  • A hands of a grape picker are seen as he harvests fruit from the vines
  • Grape pickers carry boxes full of pinot noir grapes from the vines at the Billecart-Salmon vineyard.
  • Grape pickers work at the Billecart-Salmon vineyard in Verzenay, eastern France.
  • A bunch of Chardonnay grapes
  • Grape pickers harvest fruit from the vines at a vineyard in Verzy, eastern France during the traditional Champagne wine harvest
  • Weather conditions permitted grapes in the vineyards to reach maturity and cool temperatures enabled an even quality of the fruit throughout the harvest.
  • A stone marker shows the logo of the Moet & Chandon Champagne house in Hautvillers, eastern France.
  • Billecart-Salmon vineyards
  • Boxes with Chardonnay grapes are pictured in the Billecart-Salmon winepress in Mareuil-sur-Ay.
  • Bunches of pinot noir grapes are pictured in the Billecart-Salmon sort area in Mareuil-sur-Ay, eastern France during the traditional Champagne wine harvest.
  • A worker handles pinot noir grapes.
  • Workers handle pinot noir grapes at the Billecart-Salmon sorting area.
  • A worker inspects a vat holding the liquid resulting from the wine clarification process.
  • A worker inspects the liquid resulting from the wine clarification process.
  • Rows of barrels are seen in the Billecart-Salmon winery.
  • A worker fills a barrel of Champagne in the Billecart-Salmon winery.
  • Billecart-Salmon Champagne bottles are stacked in a cellar.

These memories remain, packed into the recesses of your mind to be revived whenever you drink their wines. The wine becomes even more alive and meaningful to you. Yes, wine is about people.

The significance is even greater if you have walked the vineyards and navigated your way around the barrels in the cellars like those of Château Certan and Le Pin with the Alexandre Thienpont and his cousin, Jacques Thienpont, whose families own the Châteaux. A glass of Vieux Château Certan brings back memories of Alexandre with his soft, shy voice discussing the current vintage, the growing season, the specific qualities of the vintage and comparing it with past vintages.

Memories abound of Francois Millet, wine-maker at Domaine Comte de Vogue in Chambolle-Musigny, in his characteristic soft voice, proudly describing his wines; of Christophe Roumier at his Domaine quietly offering us a tasting from the Domaine's only barrel of the great Musigny. And Christophe telling us that he produces only 24 cases of his Musigny - which explains the astronomical price of Roumier's Musigny in the market-place today.

Read also: The differences between cheap and expensive wines

Then there is Egon Muller of Egon Muller-Scharzhopf in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, with his signature broad smile on his face as he welcomes you to his estate; soft-spoken Helmut Donnhoff and his wife Gaby, of Schlossgut Donnhoff, in the Nahe, Pablo Alvarez of Vega Sicilia, welcoming you with outstretched hand; Peter Sisseck, speaking characteristically almost breathlessly, as he shows you his wines; Alvaro Palacios, frustrated bull-fighter but wine-maker par excellence, enthusiastically describing his wines as you taste them with him in his cellars in Bierzo, Priorato, and Alfaro, and so on. These memories are indelible. They warm your heart.

Away from the Châteaux, Domaines, vineyards and cellars are the other friends and people, those who introduced and led you by the hand into the world of wine in those early days. Memories and thoughts of David Peppercorn, M.W., pre-eminent wine writer and author of a great monograph on Bordeaux wines, who together with his wife Serena Sutcliffe, M.W., and Michael Broadbent M.W., distinguished wine authority and writer, helped open the whole world of wine.

And opportunistically timely, Robert Parker, who burst into the wine world in the mid-80s with his Wine Advocate and 100-point score for wines, which immediately displaced the English five-star or 20-point scores as the 100-point scale is much more familiar and easier to remember - possibly because it reminded you of your examination scores in school.

Wine is about people, and people always also include those great chefs in whose restaurants you had memorable meals with equally memorable wines. Great chefs (and friends) such as Dieter and Elvira Kaufmann of the Michelin-starred Restaurant and Hotel Zur Traube in Grevenbroich; Joel Robuchon of L'Atelier in Paris; Tetsuya Wakuda of Waku Ghin in Singapore, etc.

Chefs such as Joel Robuchon dished up memorable meals with equally memorable wines.Photo: AFP

And then there are your family and the friends with whom you have spent many a quiet and happy moment sharing a bottle or two of your favourite wines, and better still, a new wine to experience and explore.

Wine is a journey which you do not walk alone. One cannot imagine anything sadder, or more miserable, than the person who sits by himself, alone, as he drinks a bottle of wine.

Wine myths to stop believing

  • Fact: Surprise! Wines can actually expire.

    Not all wines can age gracefully, and many soon turn stale after a year or two. Only about one per cent of all wines improve with long-term cellaring of five to 10 years.

    Photo: Pixabay

  • Fact: Wine prices are not only influenced by quality. Image - along with market conditions, demand and even currency fluctuations - influence the price.

    Less familiar wines from more unfashionable regions and producers can also offer surprisingly good, value-for-money wines.

    Photo: Pixabay

  • Fact: Don't judge a wine by its bottle.

    A heavier bottle certainly indicates that the winery has made a substantial investment in the packaging, but that doesn't mean that the wine itself is exceptional.

    And just remember: the cost of shipping heavier packing also costs more, which is factored into its final retail price.

    Photo: Pixabay

  • Fact: You don't have to confine your wine to only Western cuisine - you can drink it with Asian food too if you choose something suitable.

    Chinese food pairs perfectly with wines that have high acidity, lower alcohol and relatively understated flavours and aromas. The next time you dig into your stir-fry, try Riesling if you prefer white wine or Pinot Noir if you like red.

    Photo: Pixabay

  • Fact: Cork has been preferred choice as it allows small amounts of oxygen into the wine to help aid its evolution - an important aspect for reds.

    But this doesn't mean that wines can't mature well with screw-on caps.

    Photo: Pixabay

  • Fact: Beer, wine, and liquors all confer the same health benefits.

    Research has revealed that it's not antioxidants that protect against heart disease, but alcohol, which raises levels of HDL - also known as good cholesterol. This helps to reduce plaque formation and clots in the arteries to lower the risk of heart diseases.

    But of course, this isn't a free pass to load up on booze. Drink in moderation!

    Photo: Pixabay

  • Fact: While this is commonly believed, the reality is that not all cheeses pair well with wine. Heavy textured and strong-tasting cheeses overpower the tongue's ability to fully enjoy the richness and balance of a good wine.

    Pair your tipple with a softer, milder cheese like Brie.

    Photo: Pixabay

  • Fact: Uncorking a bottle does not sufficiently aerate wine as the narrow bottleneck restricts airflow.

    Pouring the wine through a decanter into your glass is a more effective way to let it breathe.

    You can also gently jiggle the bottle after opening it to fully aerate your wine and release its flavour and aroma.

    Photo: Pixabay

Do not forget also that wine opens and frees the mind - and tongue (Watch it!). Somehow there seems a greater clarity in your thoughts, a greater dimension, as if there is a vast open space within which to ruminate and reflect - and dream. Memories - both happy and sad - come flooding back, reminding you of who you are, and why you are there. It is a time to be silent too, as your thoughts and memories come flooding back, a time to thank your God for having smiled on you and yours.

"They also serve who only stand and wait," wrote the 17th century English poet, John Milton. Perhaps these lines could also mean: "They also serve who only stand and taste."


This article was first published on Jan 27, 2017.
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