I like wine that’s Italian and red.
“I shall have a Barolo,” I said.
But I had to think twice
When they told me the price.
Now I favor barbera instead.
The cute verse is from the site OEDILF.com where an editorial team and a host of contributors are compiling a complete English dictionary with each word defined within a Limerick. Hundreds, possibly thousands of words are already treated there in this way. Start browsing and you’ll find it very hard to pull yourself away. Some are awfully clever; some just ordinary. The effort is almost heroic — in a Quixotic sort of way.
Limericks earn their living by providing a form into which we pour words. Like its low-rent sibling, the knock, knock joke, the scheme is nothing if not predictable. Once we hear the tuh tuh TUMP-itty TUMP-itty TUMP we know what’s coming. The expectation that the five lines of verse, once underway, will tumpitty-tump their way to a conclusion is part of the pleasure the Limerick provides. Alter the familiar meter, add or subtract a line, fail to adhere to the rhyme scheme and you risk losing your audience. ”Hey,” someone will say, “that’s no Limerick.”
I suppose if you were making an analogy to poetic forms, barbera would be something like a Limerick — a plebeian format that doesn’t rise to grand heights of expression or sentiment — while Barolo would be more like an epic poem, a serious theme expressed in a serious form like Longfellow’s dreamy dactylic hexameter (This is the forest primeval; the murmuring pines and the hemlocks) or Shakespeare’s march cadence blank verse (Yond Cassius hath a lean and hungry look). But the idea is that each has a tumpitty-tump of its own to guide both those who write such things and those who read them.
In the world of viticulture we have something variously called appellation d’origine protegée and denominazione di origine protetta. Briefly put, each is a collection of forms that wine can be poured into — the former being the French protocol, the latter Italy’s. Appellation law, wherever it exists, earns its living providing a set of familiar and approved patterns to which winemakers can tailor their wines.
The idea is that when a consumer hears Côtes du Rhone, for example, it’s like hearing “knock, knock.” He knows what’s coming. Should the winemaker disregard the traditional harvest dates, add an unauthorized grape variety, or fail to adhere to the minimum alcohol guidelines (all part of the prescribed pattern) he risks losing his audience. ”Hey,” some one will say, “that’s no Côtes du Rhone” — and that someone would be right.
The system works smoothly for winemakers and wine drinkers alike until someone comes along for whom the accepted forms are more of a hindrance than a help. The impulse to jump the fence and explore virgin territory is more likely to come from the vintner side of the equation than from consumers, although consumers become willing co-conspirators when they grow a bit weary of the expected and long for a fresh experience.
”Hey,” some one will say, “that’s no Côtes du Rhone” — and that someone would be right.
From the start, Central Bottle has had both a healthy respect for fine examples of traditional winemaking — let’s call it wine that rhymes — and a delight in the kind of fence-jumping and form-bending that results in bottles that either refuse to rhyme or, if they do, bump along at some idiosyncratic tump-itty tump we don’t yet recognize. There are any number ways for winemakers to go rogue in this way. Let’s quickly look at five.
Natural wines. The designation “natural” is a contentious one, so let’s just say that winemakers who work with a self-consciousness determination to intervene as little as possible as grape juice makes its way to a stable, palatable wine deserve to be thought of as working in a natural way. Natural wines have a rhyme scheme all their own, which is to say that, among other things, we see less consistency from one property to another even if they happen to be in the same appellation. Sometimes, wines made this way don’t show enough typicity (conformation to approved standards of taste) to be passed by appellation authority tasting panels, and thus may be denied the designation they otherwise qualify for. Natural wines may also fall into any of the categories that follow … or not.
Low to no sulfur wines. Additions of sulfur at various stages of winemaking are made with a view to maintaining bright fruit flavors, aromas, and colors and suppressing unwanted bacterial activity. Without it, the pristine fruit and perfect clarity that characterizes modern, commercial white wine would be impossible. Eschew sulfur and you open the door to all manner of microflora that can subtly or dramatically alter the temperament of your wine. Call these elements faults or happy accidents depending on whether you seek them out or avoid them as you would domestic Provolone.
White wines made like reds. In conventional white wine-making fresh grapes are pressed and the juice fermented apart from any solid matter. Red wines are made by crushing grapes so that fermentation takes place in the presence of all the solid matter (skins, pulp, seeds, sometimes stems).
The tannins and pigments this process extracts are what make red wine what it is. Give white grapes the red grape treatment and what you get is a white wine with flashes of the color, texture, and grip of a red. Tasting what are often called orange wines (for the amber hue they assume) can be a real paradigm shifter.
Wines in non-standard packaging. At this point, there’s nothing terribly exciting to say about bag-in-box or TetraPaks except this: we’re beginning to see the kind of wine we’re actually willing to drink appear in these formats. The disconnect for the consumer comes when long-established ideas about bottle and cork being the one true and unfailing guarantee of quality wine meets this new reality.
But it isn’t just consumers who are flummoxed. When Michael Schmelzer of the Tuscan wine estate Monte Bernardi turned to the TetraPak as a way to create a new line of value-priced Chianti made with purchased fruit, he was not allowed to label it with the designation (Chianti Classico) he would otherwise have been entitled to. Because it was not put in bottle and under cork as prescribed by the appellation rules, Schmelzer is forbidden from calling it anything more important than “Tuscan Red Wine.”
Unchaptalized wines. It’s not legal everywhere, but in most parts of northern Europe it’s perfectly normal and accepted procedure to add sugar to fermenting musts in years when nature doesn’t provide the ripeness required to raise alcohols to what are thought to be appropriate levels. Although widespread, the technique (called chaptalization after the its early 19th century inventor) doesn’t add anything BUT alcohol to the finished wine and for this reason some few winemakers have forsworn the practice.
Wine with lower alcohol can be charming and more drinkable; evidently this is the idea behind Loire Valley vintner Olivier Lemasson’s decision to forego it. Chaptalization isn’t required by any wine law I know of, but the tasting panel in Touraine rewarded Lemasson for his aesthetic decision by denying him the appellation status he would otherwise be entitled to. Instead of labeling his wine Touraine, he now markets it as Vin de France and is thus barred from indicating either the source of the fruit or the vintage.
Wines that don’t rhyme can be demanding. They require time and expertise to sell, and they ask consumers to still their impatience while old expectations are gradually displaced with new ones. Not every wine shop or every consumer is willing to make the effort. We do, because in the end we think that wine, like poetry or any other art form, has the obligation to progress even if that only means replacing one tumpitty-tump with another.
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