Sean Thackrey :: Wine Maker

Sean Thackrey :: Wine Maker

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

This is the year of tiny yields and tiny berries, which of course produce red wines of unusual depth and richness, both from the lower yields and from the much higher percentage of skins - which is where color and flavor come from in red wines - to juice. Those in the image are from the 2015 Andromeda Pinot Noir, mostly about the size of peppercorns; I've never seen such a harvest before; the wine, just now gone dry, bears no resemblance in color to normal Pinot, yet seems at this point perfectly balanced, which is always what counts. May it remain so...

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Distinguish Trebbiano from Urine

In brief, how it is possible, and why it is important, to distinguish Trebbiano from urine.

Dr. Leonardo Fioravanti (1517-1588) a prominent Renaissance physician who spent many years learning to distinguish Trebbiano (wine) from urine, shares with us why it is important, and how it is possible, to make that distinction.

:: Molière could have done wonders with all this, and I believe it should be viewed as though he had, in full Renaissance costume, and in an opulent palace setting worthy of Palermo circa 1550.

:: In this excerpt, the author, Fioravanti explains the manner in which doctors should examine their patients, and also specifies what they must take care to avoid. He says that they should enter the patient’s room with all due gravity, seat themselves by the sickbed, examine the patient, and question him/her closely as to the progress of their illness; they should then ask for a urine sample, and should examine it diligently to ensure that it is human urine, and not a trick.

:: Fortunately, since one does not naturally think of urine as existentially tricky, if one thinks of it at all, he goes on to explain that when he first began his practice, he was called to cure a noblewoman suffering from a “painful ventosity of the body”; he entered her suite “with all possible gravity”, took the lady’s hand, examined her pulse, and asked for a urine sample. But a “a certain matron” who was present said that since this was an ailment common to women, it shouldn’t require a urine sample; however, if he would please prescribe a remedy, a sample would be ready when he returned that evening. He promptly ordered “three drams of gentian finely pulverized, in excellent wine,” which cured the patient then & there, to the amazement of all the ladies.

:: But that same matron, gossiping with the other ladies-in-waiting, said, “This doctor appears very young indeed, and while he’s done all very well on this occasion, I really don’t believe he’s already an expert in analyzing urine. By all grace I beg you to say nothing, but when he returns this evening, I’ll test him, by letting him examine a little Trebbiano wine, which is the color of urine; & we’ll see if he recognizes it.”

:: "And", Fioravanti continues, “that’s what was done. That evening, when I returned, they presented me with the ‘urine,’which was really wine; and seeing how yellow it was, I said to the ladies, ‘This urine, being as yellow as it is, signifies, according to Galen & other authorities, the coleric humor, and means that the patient suffers from anger.’ One of the ladies responded, ‘But by my faith, how could you have known? It’s the truth! That rogue of a husband of hers chases after women, gambles, and makes her so angry I marvel she’s still alive!’”

:: So having finished his examination, he left; but then of course the ladies-in-waiting were convulsed with laughter, and “the matter being between women, who are all or mostly all gossips,” (this according to Fioravanti), it was soon a story about town, and he leaves the reader to imagine how he felt, being scorned in this manner.

:: He responded by ordering that ten or so urinals be bought for his household, and every morning he had everyone in the household urinate, so that he could see the differences, as he expresses it, between urine, and urine. Then he ordered urine brought in from dogs, donkeys, horses, mules, and other animals, and made every examination of these samples it was possible to make, in order never again to be deceived in the matter of urine; “and I made an extraordinary study of this matter, and appropriately so; because I have since philosophised in various and diverse parts of the world, & many times I’ve found myself in some city, where tricksters have wanted to test me by showing me the urine of horses, or liqueurs, wine, vinegar, and similar substances, but their game was lost, because it was immediately & shrewdly found out, and never has anyone succeeded in becoming other than the object of ridicule him self, and the laugh has been on him ...”
(in, Leonardo Fioravanti, De Capricci Medicinale, Venice, 1564; link to the original text is, http://wine-maker.net/T…/Library_pdf.files/Fioravanti-R2.pdf)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Wine Notes III

What sparkles in wine is powdered light. 

:: "Sopra il detto del Galileo. Il Vino è un composto di umore, e di luce." :: A remarkably rich evocation of the sensuality of wine within the world of a late 17-century Florentine aristocratic intellectual, who was also one of the great prose stylists of the Italian Baroque. Among its many charms is the thought that what sparkles in wine is powdered light.

:: Including even the productions of fin-de-siècle Paris, it would be difficult to imagine a more bejewelled and aromatic prose that that of Magalotti; yet Count Lorenzo Magalotti (1637-1712), in addition to being a counsellor of state to the Grand-Duke of Tuscany, and so forth and so on, was a well-respected scientist, and secretary of the most important Italian scientific society of his day; his friends were such as Redi and Viviani, and his idol was Galileo.

:: But Redi would chide Magalotti for not realizing that his letter upon an aphorism of Galileo's, was really upon an aphorism of Dante's. In the rarefied civilization of such 17th-century Florentine aristocrats as were civilized, it was taken for granted that any scientist knew Dante by heart, in minute detail, and could give support to any scientific proposition by an appropriate citation from an unpublished Provençal poet, preferably from a manuscript in one's own library.

:: Thus we are not in the presence here of a scientist for whom the pencil-protector is the coat of arms, "reproducible results" (predictable manipulation) the only object of science, and the repression of all that is not, a defense of truth. That doesn't mean we're in the presence of a better scientist; but certainly one whose idea of science was different than ours, and certainly one to whom it would have been unimaginable to take pride in the narrowness of his field of knowledge.

:: For Magalotti, clearly, one of life's most desirable purposes was to refine the pleasures of living it, and science was simply one such pleasure, as was wine. To the point that when he came to combine these two pleasures in the following essay, it isn't entirely clear whether he meant more to be taken in earnest than to give pleasure to his friends.

:: If his object was to give pleasure, he succeeded, without question. It would be hard to think of another short essay that more sensuously evokes an atmosphere of late 17th-century Florentine aristocratic intelligence: passionate, yet ironic; refined, so with melancholy; aristocratic, but not proud. A Symbolist poet couldn't have invented a better Magalotti.

:: But if his object was to provide a scientific explanation of the influences of solar radiation upon grapes and upon the wine produced from them, then, I'm afraid, he succeeded in giving pleasure instead.

:: He asks what Galileo meant by saying that wine is a compound of light and humor.

:: For anyone in the wine trade, this is already pretty humorous; but we know he didn't really mean that. So we should ask what the word actually does mean here.

:: It means "moisture", as in "humid": umore.

:: It also means "temperament, disposition of mind, caprice", and in Magalotti's era was still used in this sense, which was the sense given to it in Roman medecine, particularly by Galen. And it would be one of the many pleasures of etymology to trace the path by which "humorous" ("all wet") came to mean amusing or funny, but this is beyond both my competence and my present object. I think it's sufficient to say that Magalotti (and Galileo before him, and Dante before Galileo) meant "humor" in this particular context to mean the "characteristic moisture" of a particular vineyard - a concept rather like terroir, except more intelligent - which, when acted upon by sunlight, produces wine.

:: So far so good, and so much for umore. As to light, Magalotti's theory is this: 

:: Light rays fall upon all fruits, yet grapes are exceptional. Why? Because they absorb more of the light that falls on them, just as black absorbs more light than white. How do grapes do this? By their pores, which are cunningly designed to trap light rays, just as certain bird or fish nets let birds or fish in, but not out. So, light rays, once trapped in the grape, cannot escape, and in their attempts, ultimately shatter to powder. 

:: But they shatter over time; thus, the rays which fall on the vineyard in late summer, being still intact & having lost none of their energy, boil forth when released from their prison by the crushing of the grapes at harvest, "whence the must conceives its heat, whence the boiling, the rarefaction, and the steaming." Whereas those rays which entered the grape early in the year, being shattered into powder, remain in the wine, emerging only when the wine is tasted, "making themselves felt upon the tongue, and palate, by the charming prickle of their many corners and twists".

:: Well, the same may be said of the letter itself, which also is charming in the prickle of its many corners and twists, but particularly in proposing that fermentation is simply sunlight escaping from the must, and that what sparkles in wine is powdered light. Whether Magalotti intended it to be, in addition, a monument in the history of plant physiology, is unkown to me, may at this point be unknowable, and may even be superfluous.

:: We know that it gave great pleasure to his friends, since Redi refers to it as "quella vostra lettera dotta e maravigliosa, dottissima ed elegantissima", and I think it gives great pleasure to us now: which is why I've transcribed it here, in its entirety.
:: in, Lettere Scientifiche, ed Erudite del Conte Lorenzo Magalotti. Florence, 1721. (but from a MS c. 1670?). Link to the original transcription: http://wine-maker.net/Thackrey_Library/Library_pdf.files/Magalotti_Light.pdf

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Wine Notes issue II

Wines that sparkled 200 years before Champagne was taught to do so.

:: Since we now think of sparkling wine nearly exclusively in terms of Champagne and its imitations, it is easy to assume that wine didn't sparkle until the Champenois taught theirs to do so, and found bottles to put it in.

:: But there is in fact a quite separate tradition, far older and more generalized, which is what this excerpt is about. Such wines were called vini raspati (vins râpés, etc.), and since they far predate the introduction of commercial bottling, were never intended to be bottled. They were household wines, intended to provide a pleasant drink for daily use, which they could still do in restaurants today, if anyone cared to go the trouble to make them. 

:: In a winegrowing district, it wouldn't even be much trouble, and depending on certain microbiological imponderables, might produce a very agreeable and lighthearted wine for many months after harvest. The idea, with innumerable variations - some of which Petronio discusses - was to take a clean barrel, remove the head, fill the barrel loosely with whole uncrushed grapes, fill the remaining space half with good older wine, half with fresh must, and close up the barrel. Once the initial fermentation was over, the barrel was kept tightly bunged, except when wine was drawn from it for use; each time that was done, the barrel was topped up with more wine (or even water) and re-bunged. So the only troubles here are that God is in the details, and that most of us haven't a clue how to remove and reset barrel heads. The second of these problems is solvable: several companies manufacture drums, and even barrels, with removable heads.

:: The excerpt itself is from Alessandro Petronio, Dell Viver delli Romani et di Conservar la Sanità, Rome, 1592, which is the Italian translation of the same author's De victu Romanorum of 1581. Petronio died in 1585, having practised medicine in Rome for more than 60 years. His translator, Basilio Paravicino, says it cost him more pain to translate the book than it would have taken to write an entire new one of his own; but this passage, at least, was worth the trouble. It is charming in itself; it tells us what a fad there was for sparkling wine in 16th-century Rome; and the author makes an earnest attempt to analyze why sparkling wine pleases us (and clearly him) quite as much as it does.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Wine Notes issue 1

A particularly interesting thing about the history of wine-making is that there isn't one.

Yes. Wine has been made for at least 10,000 years; yet no one has ever written, or at least published, a history of how this was done.

But why should that be surprising if wine has been made in France since at least the arrival of the Phocaean Greeks in ca. 800 BCE, has always been a major underpinning of the French economy, one of the glories of France and of French culture and creativity, and yet there's no word for wine-maker in French, which there is not?

So the history of wine-making is interesting for many reasons that have nothing to do with technique, and cut across vast expanses of history, sociology, national identity, the eternal games of the oligarchy, and as a reward for slogging through all that, even finally the history of pleasures, and how they change.

This interests me intensely, since it's the craft by which I live and opens out into such an astonishingly vast but secret garden where endless swaths of unanswered questions bloom in riotous profusion, while still untended and indeed unseen; so, being pretty well trained in elementary academic procedure, I thought, I'd better read through the source material first; and due to a birth freak rather like an aptitude for crossword puzzles, I have a certain aptitude for languages, and can read easily in all those I thought would be central to my search, at least at first.

For reasons I'll go into later, it turned out there really was no way to read the material without finding it myself, collecting it and actually reading it, to the genuine distress of some of my favorite rare book dealers, who felt that actually reading these things, instead of admiring them as objects, was a suspect trend not to be encouraged. But I wound up with the library I needed, that neither the Bibliothèque Nationale, nor the British Library, nor the New York Public Library, and so on through the rest, could provide; which was a library not based on nationalist collecting but on wine-making itself, wherever it was practiced and described, from the beginnings of literacy until the present.

Hopefully it will be understood why this is such a long-winded introduction to a series I'd like to pursue of short posts drawn from all this material; they will be called "Sean's Wine Notes" until I come up with something less blockheaded.

I'll start these posts with one tomorrow about the invention of "Champagne" by the British, who used the "méthode Champenois" for their cider at least 50 years before I have any evidence of its use in France…