A Glass of Riesling and Time

Aug 25, 2009

In the novel, In Search of Lost Time, after the narrator Marcel soaks his Madeleine cake into a cup of tea, he takes a sip. He doesn’t expect anything from his day but suddenly, tasting the tea blended with the crumbs of the cake, his mind brings forth a volume of intellectual and emotional sensations. “And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disaster innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.”

And from this sip and another, the narrator embarks on an entire journey of memories: houses, an aunt in the country, streets he ran errands upon, Monsieur Swan, the Square where he ate lunch, country lanes his family walked - the entire village of his childhood. All is brought to life.

There is such a strong link between our senses and our memories - to time itself. Sometimes I find myself smelling the wet dust before a storm and I see myself in my father’s garage, awaiting a thunder storm. A few month ago, I dropped my head down to take in the aromas of an Okanagan Pinot Noir and suddenly, I’m 11 years old, at the end of a fishing dock on Rice Lake, outside Peterborough, Ontario. I could even see the rose-tinted sunset in the glass and then closing my eyes, the violet waters. It was evening; I’d stared so long at the water drifting and became so captivated, I fell in (to the comic surprise of my parents looking on).

Perhaps this explains our relationship with wine. Like wine, we are exposed to not only the elements, the seasons, but to the hours and years. We are tenuously connected to time. Vintages mean the world to many expert wine buyers. For wine producers, the time to pick the grapes is key. If they wait too long, they risk harvest rains, if they pick too early, under-ripe grapes. Time is a factor.

And then there is the time of fermentation, racking (separating the wine from sediment), the time spent in oak and bottles. The time shipped, the time in the wine store, the time of anticipation before opening a bottle, the time we enjoy it with friends and family, and the time we pause and wonder at the different aromas that in turn ask us to search and return to our sensory memories for the corresponding scents and tastes. Wine challenges us to remember, to think, to name, because the aura of these flavours cannot go on namelessly.

With time these flavours and characteristics develop just as we develop our own memories throughout the duration of our lives.

These thoughts come to me this evening. I take home a bottle of 1992 Riesling Spätlese from the Rheingau. I decide to make schnitzel, slicing up the pork loin, pounding it down, getting the panko crumbs ready, the seasoned flour – rosemary, thyme, basil and a dash of cinnamon. In the background I can hear Beethoven’s Sonata, no.30.

I find myself pouring a glass and staring long at the label, not expecting anything. 1992. I taste the honeyed-lemon, the kerosene apple and lush, viscous lemon.

The label fascinates me. It is obviously new, placed perhaps within the last few months. But the wine inside.

Where was I in 1992? What was I doing when these grapes were harvested?

I count back the years. I know I entered high school in 1994 (grade nine). So that meant, I was just entering Junior High Grade 7. The wine is a Spätlese so yes, this means the grapes were harvested later in the season, in mid-to-late October. I was born in October. What was I doing before my birthday? I seem to recall a girl named Erica with whom I walked home one evening. Her mother and mine had been friends once.

Memory shifts into memory. I see the autumn swathed streets, fallen leaves, Erica and me. It is the first time I ever walk a girl home. But she isn’t meant to be. At the Hallowe’en dance, a week later, she dances several times with another boy. But - no problem. There’s Sara waiting.

I sip the wine and continue to think about the past. For me, Riesling is the wine of harvest. It is the gold of autumn, the apples in their baskets, a sky scented with a far off smell of spices, a mineral soaked wind at a childhood brook. When I drink Riesling, I see only twilights of burnt leaves and suburban sidewalks muted with light afternoon rain.

Memory is the colour of gold.

At the dance, I hold Sara at arm’s length. It is the awkward dance of early adolescence

I pause, No, that doesn’t seem right. I couldn’t have been that young. It doesn’t make sense.

Shaking my head, recalculating the years, I suddenly realize I'm off a year, it wasn’t grade 7, it was grade 8. The remembrance shifts a year ahead. I’m in my parent’s rec room and it’s my birthday party. I am holding a girl named Lori in my arms. She sinks her head down on my shoulder. My eyes briefly water. The song “One” by U2 surrounds us in this brief interlude, flowing through us both as a hermetic guide and a ominous limit to our dance. Bono’s brooding, wincing vocals turn us and my other birthday guests clockwise.

It is not like with Sara (I can’t even remember the first song we danced to), in which I awkwardly held her hips, two flat hands against her sides while her limp hands rested on my shoulders, our heads averted; never once did we look into each other’s eyes. No, this is a dance I have lost myself into, the brief respite from my longing for Lori. I am still holding her.

How strange to find the year 1992 is still alive in a glass of wine. That such a liquid from grapes grown 17 years ago have found their way into my life and with it, the questions of those years. There’s nothing in my body from 1992. All the cells from that time have died. There are books in libraries published in 1992, but the pages aren’t alive.

What is?

Memories, yes, but even they change, become distorted, smoothed out because the details are hazed and we only want to remember the good – not the bullies, the tests, the crabby teachers.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata re-enters the room. I know I should be finishing dinner


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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.

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