A New Kind of Pairing: Wine and Poetry

Jun 25, 2009

I love wine and I love food. To be honest, my knowledge of wine is better than my knowledge of haute-cuisine. Fine dining is fine but so far my experience has been this: pay a lot of money to get a pretty little dish that despite its beauty, its taste, texture, etc… still leaves your stomach going ‘c’mon… that’s it?’

I know it is about taste, about presentation and yes, there is the snobby cachet of the celebrity chef who may or may not be yelling at his kitchen staff in the back. It seems when it comes to fine dining, you should eat before you go out.

But wine and food pairing is just one aspect of the greater pleasure of pairing. I’m thinking of the pleasures of the mind, the soul, the heart. I’m thinking: poetry.

I know what many English readers are thinking – groan, sigh…poetry. High school English class memories are not great to relive and I realize that poetry, and no offense - to American poets, to Canadian poets, to lovers of Shakespeare - but the English language is just not that passionate – most of the time. It is intellectual, beautiful but sometimes quite… pretentious.

Yeats, Housmann, Tennyson, Eliot, and Whitman are a few of my favourite English-speaking poets but aside from Whitman, the rest are not what I consider sensual. One can rarely associate sensuality with English lyricism. Images of pedantic university professors come to mind. Much too dry. Think ‘tweed blazers’.

So sadly, for me, the poets and poetry I love have come from far away, from other languages. The poets I love are translated. One day I would love to read the originals but for now I’ll contend with anglicized-European verse.

So for those who hated poetry but would love to give it a try, I recommend the pairings below. One must bear in mind that with wine and food, regional character plays a role. So if you are thinking Argentinean Beef, automatically you chose a Mendoza Malbec. New Zealand Lamb with Hawkes Bay Merlot. Etc… I apply the same principal in pairing poets with wine.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was one of the first poets of the Italian peninsula (you really couldn’t call it Italy because the country wasn’t unified until 1861) to use the language of the commoner, instead of Latin to write a work of great literature.

When it comes to his Nuova Vita (The New Life), a book about the poet’s awakening to love, written in prose and verse, I highly recommend a fun and innocent Chianti. Chianti is a blend of Sangiovese as the dominant grape with red Canaiolo and white Malvasia. It can be a rich wine with dollops of spice and yet there is a rustic, cherry tenderness. Dante wrote this famous work before exile, before taking on his famous work, the Comedia, often translated and famously known as The Divine Comedy.

In Nuova Vita he battles with the willful and stubborn god of Love after seeing his beloved, Beatrice, for the first time at the age of nine. The poetry is both intellectual and heartfelt, exploring the emotions, the embarrassment and qualms of falling in love. Drinking Chianti and reading this work, you will fully experience the blush of love, the soft but red-fruit melancholy of yearning and wonder. (Some good producers include Antinori, Frescobaldi, Ruffino, Ricasoli and Melini.)

Turning to the Iberian Peninsula, I highly recommend the poets Federic García Lorca (1898-1936) and the lesser-known Vicente Aleixandre (1898-1984). With Lorca, you can have any number of wines. For one, try an Olorosso Sherry with his famous collection, Romancero Gitano. Sherry from the region of Jerez is synonymous with the countryside of Andalucia. Lorca is the Spanish literary personification of the romantic Spanish past. His works exude sunburnt Moorish architecture, bullfights, flamenco and beautiful, almond-coloured Mediterranean women. Sherry is the wine of choice for bullfighters, a fortified wine with almond-fig flavours, not to mention the dark flesh tone of a beautiful senorita.

But I have to say, when reading “La casada infiel” (The Faithless Wife), I urge you to buy a beautiful bottle of a good Rioja Gran Reserva. This poem exudes the calm but ravenous darkness of the night, the sand, the far away moan of dogs, the rustle of rivers and the sensuality of sin. If you find the right bottle of Rioja, (great producers include Allende, Artadi, Marqués de Riscal, Montecillo, Muga, Marqués de Caceres and La Rioja Alta), you’ll experience a beautiful bouquet of cinnamon, strawberries, earth, leather and cedar.

A Gran Reserva, aged for 2 years in oak and three years in bottle is the perfect pairing. Smelling the leather of this wine you might smell the leather of the narrator’s gun belt and the earth of the lovers’ tryst. In my mind, I always imagine Penelope Cruz when I read this poem and in my mind, Rioja is the Penelope Cruz of wine – beautiful, complex and alluring. (If you can’t find a Rioja Gran Reserva, a tinta fino [tempranillo] from Ribera del Duero would be also perfect as the Tempranillo grape creates a deep, blackfruit rich wine with dusty spices.)

Vicente Aleixandre, too, was born in Andalucia in the south of Spain and belonged to the Generation of ’27. Whereas many of his peers either fled the country in the wake of the Spanish Civil War (Salinas, Cernuda, Guillen) or were killed (Lorca was executed by Franco’s troops, Hernandez died in prison), Aleixandre was apolitical and stayed in Spain. His poems are often regarded as ‘melancholic’ and sodden with desires.

My favourite is “Mano entegada” (Her Hand Given Over). The narrator examines his lover’s hands, how tender the skin feels but how impenetrable and truly frigid is the bone underneath the sensual surface. It is poem laden with layers of philosophy, longing and insight into relationships. I recommend a white wine from Rueda in northern Spain.

Why a white wine instead of a brooding red? Well, when I think of the poem, I think of Rueda, a plot of land that was once the frontier between the Christians and the Moors in the Middle Ages. There is a strange link between the narrator’s relationship to his lover and Rueda’s presence in the world of wine. The bone of the lover’s hand and the landscape of Rueda are both austere, impenetrable but what surrounds them, the beauty of the skin and wine brings us into a wonderful world of pleasure.

Verdejo, the grape of Rueda, was once used to make sherry-style wines. The grape naturally began to oxidize as soon as it was picked. Today, the grapes are rushed to a bodega under a layer of nitrate gas. The gas ensures freshness. Drinking a verdejo is drinking a moment of sunshine and reading this poem, one can feel the radiant beauty of the narrator’s lover.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) and Mosel Riesling make a wondrous German pairing. Rilke was born in Prague, Czech Republic then known as Bohemia. He traveled widely, meeting Leo Tolstoy in Russia and worked as Auguste Rodin’s secretary in Paris. You can taste the ethereal, the dreaminess in his poetry. There is a heightened majesty to his verse, a pensive quality culminating in the German word for longing, sehnsucht. The beautiful imagery and the tactile in his works give you a sense of the immediate and the infinite, especially in the New Poems.

A great start to a wine and poem pairing, would be his lesser-known piece “Dum im Voraus” (You Who Never Arrived). There is a Teutonic splendor to the poem. Images of stone bridges, of country gardens and streets abound. The narrator describes the solemn frustration of not being able to meet his beloved. This ‘beloved’, whether a person or a God, is forever eluding the poet’s grasp. The lines that send the most chills down my spine:

And sometimes in a shop, the mirrors
Were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
My too-sudden image.

These words cause me to think of the steep, dizzying vineyard of the Mosel River in Western Germany. I think of far away towns, the taste of autumn, of golden fruit, apples hanging with limp wings of leaves waiting for harvest – this is what happens when I drink a Mosel Riesling. I love my Rieslings with that steely sweetness and Rilke’s poem is a perfect companion. (Look for wines from such towns as Piesport, Brauneberg, Bernkastel, Graach, Wehlen, Urzig and Erden. Usually they have an ‘-er’ at the end of their title on German wine labels. For instance, you may see “Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett” on the label which means the wine is sourced from the vineyard of Juffer in Brauneberg. Also it should say QmP on the label signifying it is of the highest quality.)

Rilke’s early poetry would also be a suitable match with Mosel Riesling. During the history of German wine, the monks played a huge role in cultivating the grapes. Rilke’s Book of Hours, poems with a distinctly religious theme, would be perfect, as would be The Book of Pictures (the poem “Autumn Day”: “Command the fruit to swell on tree and vine;…/and press/the final sweetness into the heavy wine”) not to mention his later Duino Elegies which embody the mystical isolation of a poet lost in the world. Riesling is such a wine. It is philosophical, as if you are drinking something from far away, dreamy, bright but subdued – Gothic, but sheltered in cool wet shadows and rain-soaked sunlight.

I get carried away by both poetry and wine. A beautiful poem needs a gorgeous wine. Dante is to Tuscany what Lorca and Aleixandre are to Spain, what Rilke is to German literature just as the wine paired with their works exemplifies the landscape of their origin. There is a national character to wine and great poets. Wine and food are great when you have a physical appetite but when your soul and heart are hungry, let these recommendations be your guide.

Rilke in his study

Recommended Works:
- New Life – Dante Alighieri. Hesperus Press, 2003.
Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin writes the introduction to this excellent translation of the medieval poet’s work of love.

- The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. New Directions Publications, 2005
Introduced by W.S. Merwin and translated by a host of critically acclaimed poets, this is the best place to begin with Lorca.

- Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, Modern Library, 1995. Stephen Mitchell is the penultimate translator of Rilke. This volume includes handsome selections of the poet’s greatest work.


Post a Comment

About This Blog

My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

  © Blogger template On The Road by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP