Wine - A Means to Beauty?

Mar 29, 2010

I've been thinking about a previous blog I wrote where I argued that wine wasn't art. On one level, I think it is true. We have Da Vinci, Beethoven, Dickens, Proust, Bach etc... I would call these individuals artists because they work in a realm where the private becomes universal, the personal is a vehicle to connection. We can still listen to Beethoven's Symphonies, we can go to an art gallery and see Da Vinci or Raphael or Delacroix and the hundreds of other essential artists of the past. We can still read Dickens and Proust. 

Wine is by far more transient when compared to works of art. If we've heard of famous vintages from famous growers, winemakers, chateaux, the experience is not primary. We don't drink the idea of wine. The memory of a great bottle may be similar to the memory of a wonderful performance or a lovely poem we once read, the only and major difference is we can in many ways return to that poem or see that play again or hear a recording of a great concert.

Wine by this rationale is a more temporal form of Beauty. There are no doubt many technical aspects, from viticulture to vinification, there is a realm of science, decision and accident in every step.

Perhaps we can't call wine art with a capital 'A'. But there is something else here.

What is difficult about Art is that at the very core of Art, there is no true absolute, no definable truth. Art is continually open to interpretation. What it is, its function, its boundaries, the definition continually changes, it is fluid, in flux. 

Wine is also in a state of in flux. The wine of previous centuries is different than the wine of today. What the Greeks and Romans consumed, I would hazard a guess that they would not appeal to modern drinkers. 

Wine also changes depending on year, country, appellation, grower, winemakers. Just the way that  the Sistine Chapel is intrinsically connected to the history of the Renaissance, Italian art, the work of a specific man with a particular approach, a given wine is a sacred result of numerous situations and circumstances. Wine is a special concoction, closer to alchemy than say spirits or beer.

So instead of seeing Wine as Art, that is with Wine belonging to the realm of Art, the way architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry all falls under the umbrella of Art, I believe Wine is its own world.

We have Wine and under that umbrella is Still, Sparkling and Fortified. Within the sub-category of Still we have dry, medium-dry, sweet and so forth. Also, there is again the question of origin, time, influences, weather, soil, grower, winemaker, the market... 

Wine belongs then to its own beautiful world. It is interesting to note that it was the Greeks who first placed the sense of sight and hearing before the tactile senses of touch, smell and taste. Aristotle once wrote that it is these latter three senses that can get us into trouble.

Ironically, Plato, Aristotle's teacher believe Art was false and illusory. In Platonic thought, there is a world of the Ideas. Each Idea is eternal. In the world of objects, our world, our reality, we have a chair that is based on the Idea of the eternal chair, the unchanging, the absolute. When a painter painted a chair, he simply painted a copy of another copy. Art was removed from the Truth. 

Is this to say wine is closer to Beauty and Truth than Art? I don't know. If we use the Platonic model, then Wine is closer to the Idea of Wine, the ideal, eternal as opposed to a work of art. Again, we have numerous particular wines under a single definition of Wine. 

The fact that our approach and experience of wine is entirely within the sensory of my subjectivity, i.e. whereas I can listen to a piece of music with a friend, watch a movie alone or with others, and read the same book, what I taste and appreciate is particular to me - no one else shares my palate. 

The appeal of wine is being able to share conversations about it; the sensation of art is not nearly as digestible as wine.  Art is known for its remove, its being distant from the viewer. We can be emotionally moved by a sonata or a scene in a play; wine enters our body, our bloodstream. 

And of course, it invariably goes to our head and heart in a manner unlike but sometimes not unlike Art.


But getting back to the matter of appreciation, what wine is to our palate is what music is to our ears, what a beautiful painting is to our eyes. I will still argue it is not Art but that it belongs to a world until itself. Within Art, we have thousands of variations. The same with Wine. In my mind, Wine cannot be judged by the standards of Art. The criteria for loving and appreciating Wine are similar to that of Art but they are related in that they find shelter in the realm of Beauty.

In Plato, there many ways of being introduced to Beauty via beautiful bodies, ideas until we arrive at Beauty altogether.

All in all, I think this is a better philosophical approach to Wine.


Limarí Valley and the wines of Tabalí

Mar 10, 2010

The majority of Chile's premium wine producing regions are found in the central portion of the country. From Aconcagua to Bío Bío, the wine we typically drink rarely comes from the northern climes. Maipo is famous for its premium Cabs, Ledya is fast gaining a reputations for its scintillating Sauvignon Blancs, Carmenere is finding a home in Colcahagua and the coastal range of Peumo and Apalta while Chardonnay is excelling in the Casablanca Valley.

But the north is a different story.

In Chile's distant past, before the Spanish, the Limarí was home to the various indigenous tribes of South America. The Incas, the Diaguita and Molle controlled the low hills and hotter, arid plains of the region. Whereas wine played a central role in the religious traditions of the European conquerors, hallucinogens such as peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) were commonly used in the rituals of these peoples (and reportedly still are today).

It was the Spaniards in the 16th century who first developed pisco, the brandy of South America. Peru, Chile and Bolivia continue to make this aromatic brandy using Moscatel (Muscat). But for the most part, when you mention Chile's north, table grapes and pisco have been the first thing that comes to mind.

Not oddly enough it was a pisco cooperative by the name of Capel that set up the first winery in the valley. Capel, in association with private growers, founded Francisco de Aguirre in 1993, a bodega that would become the Limarí's primary wine producer for over a decade. 

Mind you, the wines were hardly above average and only exciting to the extent that somewhat decent wines were actually being produced in the north. But what is important is that the company established the first structured foothold in the region. Francisco de Aguire's winery and vineyards were eventually bought out by Concha y Toro in 2005 after years of financial difficulties.

With Concha y Toro's takeover, the Limarí Valley has made some excellent progress. The wine giant is notable for its dedication to quality and has taken several detailed surveys of the coastal zone where the majority of international varieties are grown. 

On the positive side, the Limarí experiences a longer growing season than regions in central Chile. Whereas wineries of Maipo and Colchagua might bring in the harvest in early April, winemakers have noticed that remarkable vintages have been a result of May harvests. 

Tabalí winemaker Yanira Maldonado regards this as a plus. Just think of a slow roast, how complexity and character are imparted to one's cooking. The same could be said with the grapes. 

The wines also don't require acidification, a norm in Chilean winemaking practiced by those in Aconcagua and Central Regions of Chile. (In acidification, acid, tartaric typically is added to wine to adjust the ph levels.)

On the downside, there is a risk of oidium (aka powdery mildew - a fungus that attacks the green parts of the vine) caused by the humidity found in the morning mists. The other challenge is the soil, much of which is heavy clay. Vines need water but too much can be a substantial problem. 

Tabalí has been able to counteract the clay problem by irrigating less, allowing the soil to dry.


The winery is owned by both San Pedro (another wine giant) and Agrícola y Ganadera Río Negro - Guillermo Luksi, who also owns Río Negro not to mention a brewing firm with his family business, the Luksic Group, sits on the board of San Pedro. With these two big guns, it is unlikely Tabalí will be able to repeat Francisco de Aguire's previous problems.

The advantage Tabalí has had is not only on the financial end but the age of their vines. Between 1993 and 1998, Jacques Lurton, a French wine consultant was then working with San Pedro and advised the company on certain plantings. By 2002, the vines had matured to the point that San Pedro decided to bottle the wine under the new Tabalí label.

Tabalí Reserva Merlot D.O. Limarí Valley 2006
Varietal Merlot in Chile happens to be one of my favourites (amongst others). When I drink a Chilean Merlot I feel it compares well those of Washington and California as well as France. 

Gordon Stimmel of the Toronto Star gave this wine 90+ points (he said it  was easily worth $30 dollars). However, he rated the wine back in April of 2009. As much as this wine was mocha and vanilla, the flavours were muted and flat for me - the wine had either gone back to sleep or was on its way into decline (I would suggest the latter). I still got the blueberries and this wine would definitely pair with steaks but at this point, the wine no longer lives up to the hype. 

Tabalí Reserva Carmenere D.O. Limarí Valley 2007
Compared to the Merlot, this wine was fresher and firmer (and a year younger which probably makes an obvious difference). Immediately I got the black fruit, the roasted herb, the sweet pepper and chocolate. 

Wine and Spirits gave this varietal Carmenere 89 points back in June of 2009. The wine still has a pulse, a solid backbone made of good acidity and gentle tannins. From the tip of my tongue to the finish, the wine covered all the bases and I would recommend it over the Merlot. This is the wine to bring home for roast beef sandwiches, for deli platters and lasagna.

Richards, Peter, The Wines of Chile. Mitchell Beazley, London 2006. 
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


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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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