PACKING UP A CASE of wine for a Central Bottle guest recently, I reached back in to re-arrange a pair of wines so that the Argyros Santorini Assyrtiko wasn’t adjacent the Kuntz Mosel riesling. When the customer threw me a quizzical look I explained my behavior this way: These days, we’re trying not to put the Germans too close to the Greeks.
The quip refers to the resentment Greeks feel toward the austerity measures being imposed on them by their EU partners to the north. It’s no joke, of course, if you’re a Greek whose lost a job or seen her pension cut. For their part, Germans are scandalized at the extent to which Greeks have turned a blind-eye to all manner of private and public fiscal shenanigans over the years.
None of this would matter very much if the warring parties hadn’t thrown in their lot together in the Euro experiment, but they did, and now Germans, faced with bearing the brunt of an inevitably expensive bailout, are angry and indignant. Hence the extra attention required when packing up mixed cases at the wine shop these days.
To be fair, it’s not just Germany and Greece who are at daggers drawn. The entirety of the prosperous and populous states of the European north are putting the squeeze on their poorer relations in the south, with the predictable result that the putters upon are heartily resented by the put upon. It’s not clear whether northerners will be successful in their attempts to impose austerity (as it’s repeatedly called in the press) on southeners. But I can think of at least one instance – admittedly in the rather distant past – when northern Europe offered an austerity package the south was happy to take.
These days, trying not to put the Germans too close to the Greeks.
By the middle of the first century, the Romans had conquered all Gaul’s three parts and Britain and in doing so pushed the boundaries of their nascent empire (they were still a republic then) to the banks of the Rhine. By this time, the Romans had already been addicted to wine for three hundred years, at least since they turned a dietary corner by abandoning wheaten porridge to become a race of bread-eaters. “Bread,” Hugh Johnson has memorably said, “cries out for wine.” Thereafter, bread and wine became the basis of what we still call the Mediterranean diet and an important signifier of something called romanitas — that bundle of traits and habits that made one discernably Roman.
As part of a vigorous program of cultural imperialism, Rome introduced the wine vine into the northern reaches of Europe where it had never gone before. As wine began to flow from these high-latitude vineyards south to urban centers of the Mediterranean it was clear that here was something almost altogether new: wine that was more delicate and transparent than anything ever made in southern Europe. When Roman physicians first encountered it, they used the word austeritas – harshness or severity – to describe its unfamiliar, somewhat aloof character.
Wine was a subject of particular interest to doctors in the classical world both as an important element of diet and a therapeutic in its own right (Dioscorides’ first century Materia Medica identifies and sets out the curative properties of more than 80 kinds). Physicians scrambled to work these new austere wines into their classifications, and began to recommend them.
Here was something altogether new: wine that was more delicate and transparent than anything made in southern Europe.
By the second century these lighter, more digestible, and less-alcoholic wines were the height of cool among the Empire’s food snobs, eclipsing both the ponderously ripe crus of Campania and the sumptuous luxury cuvees of the eastern Mediterranean. Fine wine took on a new character at the same time its center of gravity shifted to the north and west.
It’s curious that even today individual experience seems to follow this historic arc. Those airy, savory, elegant wines from vineyards at viticulture’s latitudinal limits are often the last to appeal to wine drinkers whose appreciation of them comes only after initial flings with richer, fruitier California or Mediterranean versions. Our feeling is that some of the most exciting wines in the world – both white and red – derive from vineyards that push the limits of the possible, and that their cool reserve and aristocratic hauteur make some of the most thrilling food matches we know.
No need to impose an austerity program on us. We’ve rolled out the welcome mat.
Tasting notes from the margins of the possible . . .
Landron “Amphibolite Nature” Muscadet 2011. Rather pale limpid gold; some light ripe pear and mineralized aromas. Very crisp and tart – like biting into a Granny Smith apple. Not complex, but vivid and refreshing. Modest alcohols. $17
Gaspare Buschemi “VinOro” IGT Venezia Giulia 2011. Mostly pinot grigio with contributions from chardonay and pinot bianco. Pale straw hue; really lovely savory aromas recall lime, almond, and something bordering on mint. Really solid, satisfying, dry appley fruit here but its thrilling minerality that steals the scene. $17
Lageder “Vogelmaier” Alto Adige Moscato Gialla 2011. Charming and typical muscat aromas – but not too assertive, as is often the case. Palate s resinous and piney with notes at the herbaceous end of the muscat spectrum. Texture on the cushy side but there’s both shapeliness and structure here. $28
Lageder Romigberg Kalterese Classico Alto Adige 2010. Light ruby with orange tints. Aromas of high-toned red cherry fruit with herbal aspects. Some pronounced and pleasing earthy notes with fruit standing well behind. Lovely alternative to rose when the occasion calls for something with a bit more heft. $20
Burgaud “Cote du Py” Vielles Vignes Morgon 2010. Brightish, but delicate gamay aromatics. Palate also quite light but the cherry-tinged fruit , loamy grace notes, and lively acidity make for a bracing experience. Benefits from a chill and a nibble of something with a bit of fat. $19
Illahe “Bon Sauvage” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2010. Quite pale deep coral hue; lovely, perfumed, delicate pinot aromas; slight but shapely red fruits come with a garnish of loamy earth. The poise and balance here are spot on. Great zip and verve. $28
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