Under the Umbrian Sun

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IMG_3092Tuscany gets all the attention from vacationers heading to Italy. Go there if you like tour buses, hordes of curio shoppers, and high prices. If something about that doesn’t appeal to you, Umbria is right next door—undiscovered, relatively inexpensive and simply gorgeous.

We arrived at the villa we are sharing with friends on Saturday after the usual travel frustrations, which were quickly forgotten, erased by the charm of this hilltop estate located a half hour from Perugia.

IMG_3103Umbria is a region of steeply sloping hills thickly carpeted with oak and olive trees, vineyards, and bursts of color from the wildflowers encouraged by the late spring rains that are now receding in favor of brilliant, sunny mornings,  warm, hazy afternoons, and breezy, chill evenings.  The forests hum with life, the air permeated with the fragrance of rosemary and the scent of assorted blossoms, and birdsong drowned out only by the sound of your own footsteps. This is a different kind of travel for us—rooted in one place rather than dashing about, seeking repose rather than revelation.IMG_3095

After a day of rest and recovery my first activity was preparing a welcome meal in the Italian style—a multi-course dinner for six that unfolded over several hours and which included a variety of antipasti—roasted eggplant salad, salmon foam served over radicchio, and a bean spread and truffle-topped bruschetta—mushroom risotto, pork braised in milk with roasted potatoes, and creamy gelato drizzled with limoncello. Wine stars included a lovely Fiano di Avellino and a Taurasi,  both from Feudi  De San Gregorio secured by Adam and Joey on their brief tour of southern Italy.

But20190603_173506 this part of Umbria is known for its Sagrantino. My introduction to this little known varietal was a 2006 Della Cima from Villa Mongalli. Age had softened the notoriously tough tannins and this wine made a favorable first impression—it’s Chianti on steroids, cherry and earth but with muscle and concentration. The winery that figures out how to tame the tannins when young will put this varietal on the international stage.

Day three included a truffle hunt. It’s early June, several months away from prime truffle season. But in this part of Italy they harvest summer truffles—a less expensive, less flavorful version of the Burgundy black truffle which will not be available until September. IMG_3121

Female pigs were traditionally used to hunt truffles because they have a good sense of smell and respond to a male sex hormone which is part of the chemical make up of truffles. But the use of pigs here is outlawed because they destroy the truffle beds which must be preserved if the beds are to be productive in subsequent years. Thus, dogs trained to lay down when they smell the truffle are used instead.

I expected an arduous and likely unsuccessful trek through wilderness in order to find the truffles. But truffle hunter Massimo knew the general location where truffles are likely to be found and Yuma the truffle dog dutifully followed his commands, successfully discovering several truffles in the first half hour of our hunt. Yuma received a treat after each success but the dog seemed to need little encouragement, plunging into the hunt with tail-wagging enthusiasm whenever Maximo pointed at the happy hunting grounds.IMG_3124

Alas, despite the successful hunt and stimulating hike, the results were a bit disappointing. Summer truffles are not nearly as aromatic or flavorful as autumn truffles—they have a faint nut-like flavor and subtle earthy aroma but lack the explosive pungency of the black or still more powerful white truffles.

IMG_3127The culinary discovery of the day was actually the wild asparagus that Massimo harvested for us.

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On The Road Again

montefalcoWith my semester behind me, today we head for Italy—two weeks at a villa in the countryside near Perugia studying Sagrantino di Montefalco up close and personal. If you’re unfamiliar with Sagrantino, it’s a bold, concentrated tannic beast with woodsy, mushroom aromas. We should be drinking more Sagrantino in the U.S.

Then we head to Juneau Alaska for the International Food Blogger’s Conference, followed by a few days to get road worthy before heading across the U.S. towards Eastern Canada.

Since I’ll be stationary in Italy instead of madly dashing from one place to another I might be able to maintain a regular blog schedule while in Europe. That would be a change.

Ciao!

The Dangers of Wine Education

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wine educationWine education has become a necessity in the wine industry, not only for people entering the industry but for casual wine consumers as well who want to learn more about what they’re drinking and need help navigating the remarkable complexity of the wine world. This is of course a good thing. Knowledge about regions, varietals and methods opens our senses to subtleties in a wine that might go unheeded if we didn’t know what we’re looking for.

But there is a danger lurking in all that education.

Through education we can become so invested in wine-cultural codes, clichés and conventional interpretations that we are no longer truly tasting wine—we’re tasting what we think we should be tasting,not what’s in the glass. Wine tasting is cognitively penetrable—our beliefs about a wine can influence what we taste. Too much top down processing can lead us to reject wines that don’t fit conventional categories.

As wine lovers we should be trying to render taste-able what has been covered up by convention. This is in part what makes natural wines exciting. They don’t conform to the rules, at least until they become the new orthodoxy.

Burnham and Skilleas, Wine and Aesthetic Experience

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ecstatic wine drinkerIn trying to nail down a conception of aesthetic experience appropriate to wine appreciation, it might make sense to begin with the view of Burnham and Skilleas in their book  The Aesthetics of Wine. It is the most comprehensive treatment of the topic available. However, I think it is fundamentally misguided since it appears to exclude from the realm of aesthetic experience the kinds of everyday interactions with wine that I think are central.

Burnham and Skilleas usefully refer to various tasting practices as distinct projects. Analytic tasters trying to identify a wine in a blind tasting, a wine critic describing a wine to her readers, or a sommelier trying to pair a wine with a particular dish are each involved in different projects because they have different aims that require quite different competencies. Most importantly according to Burnham and Skilleas, they are focused on different aspects of the wine and thus each project has a different intentional object. However, they argue that none of them are necessarily having an aesthetic experience. This is curious because it seems apparent that many tasting projects involve some degree of aesthetic appreciation.

Aesthetic experience for Burnham and Skilleas is a function of engaging in an aesthetic project and this involves acquiring the competencies to recognize distinctly aesthetic properties such as elegance, harmony, complexity and intensity. And one does so by participating in a variety of practices—choosing the proper glass, deciding on a tasting order, decanting, etc.—which highlights those aesthetic properties. Their point is that tasters separately interested in identifying a wine, describing it, evaluating its typicity or pairing it with food need not attend to these aesthetic properties, going so far as to assert that tasters engaged in these projects with wine from the same bottle are tasting different wines.

The absurdity of this latter point is an indicator that something has gone wrong. In fact I would dispute their main claim that the project of identifying the origin of a wine, describing it, judging its typicity or pairing it with food need not focus on aesthetic properties. For instance, it’s perfectly appropriate when blind tasting a medium body, high acid wine with distinct earth notes to argue it’s likely Chianti rather than Brunello di Montalcino because it lacks elegance or complexity. Anyone describing a notably complex wine who doesn’t mention or imply that it’s complex is simply not accurately describing the wine. Food pairings will also sometimes depend on features such as complexity or intensity.

My point is that the apprehension of aesthetic properties can be part of a wide variety of different tasting activities. Thus, it makes little sense to isolate an aesthetic project in a way that excludes this variety.

Furthermore, their way of defining aesthetic experience in terms of a project rules out the everydayness of wine which I have argued is crucial to understanding wine aesthetics.

They are quite explicit that a necessary condition of aesthetic experience is having a variety of the competencies that define an aesthetic project including the capacity to describe and evaluate a wine using the vocabulary and tasting skills possessed by professional wine tasters. This rules out casual yet attentive drinkers from having an aesthetic experience and implies that a whole range of everyday experiences that one might think are aesthetic are not. The kinds of experiences that wine lovers often refer to as an “aha” experience—that moment at which one recognizes the consummate beauty of wine and its potential for further engagement—are deemed “proto-aesthetic” because the people who have such experiences often lack the fully developed competencies of professional wine tasters or connoisseurs.

However, it isn’t at all obvious that basic aesthetic properties such as intensity or elegance cannot be recognized by people who may lack the vocabulary or developed competencies of the connoisseur. After all, people who report on their “aha” experience are not simply claiming to enjoy the wine—they find it thrilling, awe-inspiring, etc. Clearly they are tasting something out of the ordinary beyond mere liking. Burnham and Skilleas are right that the apprehension of aesthetic  properties are not simple perceptions but involve holistic judgments about relations among properties of the wine. But elegance or intensity are not so difficult to discern that attentive drinkers with modest levels of experience must miss them. After all, music lovers can be deeply moved by a piece of music without the capability of following the score or articulating genre characteristics. No doubt having such competencies enhances the aesthetic experience but their absence doesn’t preclude the experience from being aesthetic.

This idea of an aesthetic project that requires various competencies and practices is useful for articulating the structured, reflective nature of wine appreciation. Burnham and Skilleas deploy it successfully to show that the casual dismissal of wine as a serious aesthetic object is misguided.

But we can’t use this notion of a project to define aesthetic experience because it orphans too many apparently aesthetic experiences.

Ageing Report: Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Oakville 2006

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grothI was not overly impressed with this wine when it was released. The dense fruit, obvious oak, and striking acidity were overbearing making the wine seem almost rustic. But time has been very, very good to it. It is now a seamless beauty, a sumptuous marriage of elegance and lip-smacking flavor.

Deep, rich cedar frames ripe blackberry, dried cherry, and quiet fig notes. Vanilla, forest floor and nutmeg round out the complex aroma profile. The oak notes are beautiful right now, well balanced against the fruit but vibrant without commanding too much attention.

The palate features a gorgeous evolution, the fruit full and round passing into coffee and tobacco at midpalate where it quickly acquires dynamic range due to shapely acidity which enters early, and a broad, expansive foundation from well seasoned tannins, the texture a blend of powder and cashmere. The medium length finish is mouthwatering, highlighting a trace of charcoal and finally dried licorice as it dwindles with languid ease, solemnly and steadily forsaking us.

The wine moves with lush dignity, large enough to be called magnificent without being grandiose, relaxed, self-assured and large of spirit, it resonated with the lush, generous voice and melody of K.D. Lang’s Constant Craving.

Note: The 1985 vintage of this wine was the first Napa Cab to receive 100 pts. from Robert Parker. It is drinking at its peak now. It will certainly last another 5 years but may not improve.

Score: 94

Price: $123

Alc: 14.9%

Budget Wine Review: Nieto Senetiner Malbec Lujan de Cuyo 2017

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nieto senetinerMade from grapes lovingly harvested from vineyards in the Andes, approximately 3000 ft. in elevation and from vines descended from the Ancients. But alas it’s all for naught. It’s a mouthful of sour.

Fresh but thin on the palate, with a background of wood hints and reticent chocolate. Bright acidity emerges at midpalate providing a juicy moment, but it turns tart without generating life or interest. The sourness continues on the finish with soft tannins that don’t provide sufficient counter-weight. A versatile food wine but there is not enough pleasure for sipping. This is not what you want from Malbec.

The nose is pleasant enough—blueberry with some red fruit inflections, loam and a vanilla halo. But the wine feels tense and uneasy with understated hostility like Bloc Party’s Banquet.

Score: 83

Price: $11

Alc: 13.5%

Zeroing in on Wine as an Aesthetic Experience

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wine aestheticsThere are many things that people do with wine. We drink it to get drunk, drink it distractedly at a social gathering because everyone else is doing so or because it generally contributes to the atmosphere of good cheer. We can drink wine to impress someone with the weight of our bank account. We use wine to quench thirst on a hot day, provide warming sensations on a cold evening, or wash down food. I mention these together because they all share a common feature—you can engage in these activities without paying attention to the wine. While these activities may be part of a larger, holistic aesthetic experience, to the extent they don’t involve paying attention to the wine, they are not aesthetic experiences of the wine. They don’t have the wine as an intentional object.

By contrast we can engage in a variety of activities that do involve paying attention to the wine. They generally fall under four categories—description, identification, evaluation, and appreciation.

A WSET student sitting for an exam must describe a wine (or several wines) in order to pass the exam. If she is tasting blind and must draw inferences about the origins of the wine, she is engaged in identification. If she is required to assess the quality level of the wines she is engaged in evaluation. A winemaker tasting a barrel sample to see if it’s developing volatile acidity or a wine merchant deciding which wine to stock are also engaged in evaluation, as is a taster assessing whether a Riesling from Mosel is typical of that region. What is peculiar about these activities is that although they require focused attention on the wine they don’t depend on the taster having an aesthetic experience. These activities are not necessarily incompatible with having an aesthetic experience but they can be competently performed without the experience being aesthetic.

Appreciation however is another matter. When a wine tasting activity involves the appreciation of a wine, it is always at least a candidate for an aesthetic experience. This is why describing, identifying or evaluating a wine is compatible with appreciation. We can describe, identify, or evaluate a wine while appreciating it as well. But appreciation is distinct from these activities. Appreciation is of course the most widely practiced wine tasting activity. It is what most wine lovers do when they drink wine with friends, enjoy a wine with dinner or attend a wine tasting.

The puzzle is to nail down what it is that makes appreciation an aesthetic experience. How does it differ from identifying, describing or evaluating a wine when these are not part of an aesthetic experience?

Wine Review: Argiano Rosso Di Montalcino DOC 2015

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argiano rossoThis “baby Brunello” is no twaddling tot. It offers a compelling semblance of Brunello charm for half of the cost.

Simple at first blush, bright red cherry and freshly turned earth are the keynotes against a restrained oak background. But with air, it turns dusty and  develops a licorice aroma amidst darker, dried fruit. Decanting is a good idea.

In the mouth it’s juicy and the oak raises its voice a bit. The fruit begins to dry out at midpalate becoming leathery, and the texture turns very firm from midpalate into the finish,  a long, fluent, expansive evolution that produces a burst of strikingly mouthwatering acidity against some bristly  tannins to remind you this is country wine. An earth-toned medium body with plenty of sinewy flavor.

100% Sangiovese from the lesser blocks of a solid, affordable Brunello producer. Aged in 1 year old French oak barriques and larger Slavonian barrels.

Refined without being polished, it has an earnest, earthy dignity and hard won elegance like Patsy Cline’s Walkin’ After Midnight

Score: 90

Price: $24 (available at BevMo)

Alc: 14%

The “Everydayness” of Wine and Aesthetic Experience

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people drinking wineIn giving an account of the aesthetic value of wine, the most important factor to keep in mind is that wine is an everyday affair. It is consumed by people in the course of their daily lives, and wine’s peculiar value and allure is that it infuses everyday life with an aura of mystery and consummate beauty. Wine is a “useless” passion that has a mysterious ability to gather people and create community. It serves no other purpose than to command us to slow down,  take time, focus on the moment, and recognize that some things in life have intrinsic value. But it does so in situ where we live and play. Wine transforms the commonplace, providing a glimpse of the sacred in the profane. Wine’s appeal must be understood within that frame.

Thus wine differs from the fine arts at least as traditionally conceived. In Western culture, we have demanded that the fine arts occupying a contemplative space outside the spaces of everyday life—the museum, gallery, or concert hall–in order to properly frame the work. (A rock concert venue isn’t a contemplative space but it is analogous to one—a separate, staged performance designed to properly frame music that aims at impact and fervor rather than contemplation) With the emergence of forms of mechanical reproduction this traditional idea of an autonomous, contemplative space is fast eroding allowing fine art (and just about everything else as well) to invade the everyday.

But wine, even very fine wine, is seldom encountered in such autonomous, contemplative spaces. It is usually encountered in the course of life, in spaces and times where other activities are ongoing. Formal tastings exist but are the exception. It’s rare to taste wine in a context where casual conversation is discouraged.

Of course, the “everydayness” of wine will vary depending on the kind of wine tasting activity in which one is engaged. Enjoying a glass after work or with dinner; with family and friends at social gatherings; or visiting a winery on the weekend—these are fully embedded in a commonplace context. For wine professionals and connoisseurs, even focused, analytic tasting may be an everyday affair. Pulling a special bottle out of your cellar to celebrate a special occasion or to have a rare and remarkable experience is less routine. In these cases the experience begins to acquire some of the exclusiveness and autonomy of art appreciation. But even in these cases the venue and companions are likely to be familiar and the occasion a multifaceted affair where some other activity accompanies the wine tasting.

In order to make sense of wine appreciation we need a conception of aesthetic experience that can accommodate wine as an everyday object. Conceptions of aesthetic experience drawn from the fine arts may not be appropriate.

Budget Wine Review: Chateau Le Marin Bordeaux 2012

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le marinWhere is it written that all wines must be happy? Grim and cynical can be interesting.

Scents of barnyard and tire rubber reign over the dark plummy notes. The palate opens with robust but angular dark fruit encased in burnt wood. It then finds its gravelly essence at midpalate where hard acidity conspires with grainy tannins and bitter herbs to raise a visceral chorale of discordant voices. Medium body, medium length,  it’s vin ordinaire in the style that reaches back to the days before everyday wines were fluffy bunnies.

Strangely appealing, a taste of rustic Bordeaux is always worth $9

A blend Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon.

I think Iggy Pop’s I’m Bored does bitter justice to it.

Score: 85

Price: $9

Alc: 14%