'When the Portuguese are really enjoying themselves, they sing and dance to a noise resembling that of a heavy bombardment, and in a festival in the mountains at Amarante I was completely deafened by the unceasing roar of about sixty sheepskin drums beaten furiously, broken by violent dynamite explosions.'
This is Warner Allen’s picture of the locals in the Douro region who enjoy letting off rockets with sticks of dynamite attached when celebrating. Any book that discovered a tradition like that has something interesting to say.
Since this book was published we know infinitely more about making wine and we have the perspective of looking back over 75 years of the wine trade, yet it is a surprising forerunner of today’s wine books. It includes maps of some wine regions and unusual ones like Jerez and the Douro, and simple, even primitive though these are, the realisation is there that they impart information quickly
As well the author appreciates that while he has consumed many great wines there is nothing like visiting the (wines origins) regions from which those wines came to fill out the taste picture. From this we get two valuable wine-travel essays on the Douro and Jerez and an interesting but lesser overview of the German vineyard regions.
Today’s wine writers know much more about the finer points of making wine and have a world wide knowledge but what most lack is what this author has in abundance; the understanding and perspective that comes from a prolonged exposure to the worlds great wine classics.
As for describing those taste experiences, the best writer today does not match the flair for description that Warner Allen displays. The chapter titled ‘Great Wines and Their Virtues’ is a sustained piece of writing of the highest level with lyrical passages of great beauty.
The six or seven pages dealing with the last of the pre-phylloxera clarets, the vintages between 1864 and 1878 may be the greatest passage ever written about wine.
The following passage illustrates the power of his writing although it has been chosen because for once Warner Allen is left speechless by the beauty of the wine.
“Chateau Lafite ’64 acknowledges no superior and, indeed, no equal. In magnum it may still be described as the divine idea of Claret in the Platonic sense, and, even in bottle, though the brilliance of its texture may just have begun to fade, it still defies criticism…..The beauty of Lafite ’64 is particularly hard to set down in words, because it holds so closely by the definition of the ideal Claret in which the general harmony of all qualities counts equally with the degree of excellence of each separate quality.”
Or consider this description of a Tokay Essence 1811. “It might be compared, almost without exaggeration, to the harmony of the sunset colours. Its extraordinary intensity belongs to a veritable attar of grapes, a quintessence of their most precious qualities. It can boast a Tithonus-like longevity. Nearly one hundred and twenty years old today, it should live another half century or more. The bottle can be opened and left indefinitely without apparent injury to the wine which has a radium-like power of emitting particles of perfume without exhausting itself.”
This book comes from an era when it was possible to know all the great wines. Table wines came from France or Germany and fortifieds came from Spain and Portugal and in some books madiera. The spirit after the meal was cognac. Nothing could upset this order and while mention is made of other regions these are really curios that are best sampled when travelling. As for cocktails they are a disease that has spread from America. Thus there is a limited range of wines that are the noble wines and coupled with this is the view that great wine means great age.
Books of this time had chapters devoted to fortifieds and cognac whereas today they get at most a few brief paragraphs or are not even mentioned. Cognac for example has been dropped from the current edition of the ‘World Atlas of Wine’.
This would surprise Warner Allen as the gods had set in place, he would feel for ever, what were the wines to drink. Despite incredible wine knowledge this is all contained within a finite boundary. Later in the book he turns to a favourite theme and devotes a chapter to the ‘Wines of Ancient Rome’ and like the rest of the book this is entertaining. It does not make him ask though if these wines could again be made in Italy, and is there a chance that great wine may come from other countries.
Another feature of this book is the display of erudition which takes the form of quoting poetry, references to Greek mythology, Latin and Greek prose, and numerous references to classical scholars. This was also quite common in wine books of this time and shows the small restricted audience they were written for and at times you get the feeling that likely buyers would have been well acquainted with the author.
As for the current wine writers view of relating wine back to terroir, the word is given two mentions both unflattering; the first is about the curious, unpleasant, terroir taste of a German wine, the other about the terroir taste of a cognac with its ‘curious rather earthy tang’.
The romance of wine is alive in this book and it’s imbued with the idea that wine is indeed the nectar of the gods and it is our privilege to have it given to us; at its best wine is an art and as such it may be for the best if we do not understand everything.
Well we never took that advice as we dissect every aspect of the wine business. What we have gained and lost is a bit early to say. There is no question the wine we drink on average is infinitely better but the mystery has gone and has been replaced by ‘The Idiots Guide to Wine’. We have though erected several other mysteries, or even religions, called ‘terroir’ and ‘bio-dynamic’ farming which should keep the unfathomable and romance going a little longer.