Wine as art and mystery

There are winemakers who pride themselves on being artists of a kind. One such recently told me that, although winemaking is great (“wynmaak is bitter lekker!”), he wished that he could also draw – perhaps partly an admission of the marginality of wine as an aesthetic, expressive medium.

It’s a tricky subject. But if “beauty” is an intrinsically aesthetic category, Terry Theise is clearly committed to wine as art (there’s bad art too, debased imitation and kitsch). “Not too many things convey beauty to us in a form as pure as wine’s”, he says in his book Reading Between the Wines (University of California Press, 2010; about R185 bought online).

“Wine is music in the form of water” – that’s a smart aphorism, and if you can imagine accepting it, and exploring its meaning and significance in a number of areas (Theise defends elitism, attacks globalisation, scoring and blind-tasting, deprecates varietalism, etc), this book offers much richness. If you feel compelled to resist such imaginings, but wine is important to you, then perhaps even more is this a book you should read, because some new vistas might be opened up.

I realised it was a book for me as early as the Introduction, when Theise tells how British writer Hugh Johnson introduced him in his youth to the poetry and emotionality that wine can evoke. He quotes Johnson talking of fine wine from Germany’s Saar region, with “every mouthful a cause for rejoicing and wonder”. I myself learnt through Johnsonian cadences to love German riesling before I had scarcely drunk it, when he wrote of wines “unsurpassed anywhere on earth … clean as steel, with the evocative qualities of remembered scents or distant music”.

This is emphatically Theise’s tradition, but his little book (189 pages) is not quite all composed of such heady stuff. He notes that cellar and vineyard work is hard and sweaty, and that winegrowers talking together seldom wax poetic, but rather discuss the mundanities of their craft (art?). His prose is pretty straightforward too (even indulging a little too often in earthy references to baseball, sex and the like to indicate that, OK he might be effete, but he’s not a “raised pinky” sort of guy).

Percurrent, however, is the passionate conviction that wine can be a soulful, aesthetic and even mystical experience, as well as allowing for sensuality and unpondered deliciousness.

Theise is an American importer of the kind of wine he loves: that is, “modest” and unshowy wines from small artisanal producers (families, he likes to insist) in Europe, wines that transparently express their geographical origins. The enemy is the concentrated, powerful, often oaky, sweetly ultra-ripe style associated less with place than with homage to the power of the American critic Robert Parker.

Theise effectively dismisses the possibility of any wine he’d find lovely or interesting coming from the New World. He seems unaware that there are – few, but now more – wines being made in places like America, Australia and indeed South Africa that resist his geographical split, but do meet his subtle criteria for validity.

It’s easy to forgive that closed-mindedness where there’s so much insight and thought-provoking delight. I wish this book were compulsory reading for student winemakers – even if ultimately rejected, its claims should be confronted by all who dare venture into these mystical, musical waters.

First published in Mail & Guardian, 10-16 December 2010

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