(Vinous) Complexity and Paradox in Burgundy

Pommard from the vineyards, 27th September 2013
Pentax K-x, 18-125 mm lens @ 73 mm, 1/125 sec, f/8.0, ISO 200.

Some places you can’t forget. They bury themselves deep within you, and refuse to leave. Everything else is seen in relation to them – for better, or worse. I grew up in London, and the brilliant blue of a clear winter’s day, or the oppressively leaden sky of a dismal summer day, is always with me.

One such place, for me, has been Burgundy. For one reason or another, I have always visited in late August or early September. Arriving by train, from London via Paris, you first notice how Burgundy still clings to summer, even as London sidles towards the grey drizzle of winter. Changing trains in Dijon, the local train to Beaune – historically, the wine producing capital of the region, where the major wineries had their bases – local stations and vineyards flash by, as well as woodland and cornfields.

Once in Beaune, it’s hard to know what to do. Most of the famous wineries require appointments, or are outside Beaune itself, in the smaller villages, in the cellars of medieval houses, or in concrete warehouses on the edge of the vineyards. Still, as Mike Steinberger said, “there may be different paths to wine geekdom, but they ultimately all converge in the same place—Place Carnot” – so you may as well head straight there. Place Carnot is, more or less, the main square of Beaune: its heart, and its centre. If nothing else, there are bistros and restaurants, and beautiful cakes at Dix Carnot.

This little square surrounds a small park; the tall buildings seem quintessentially French. Just a street off to one side is the Hospice de Beaune, often also called the Hôtel Dieu, with its elaborately decorated roofs made from coloured tiles. Once I’m sat outside Dix Carnot with some improbably elaborate cake, I know I’ve arrived. I can plan: what wineries to visit? Hire a car? A bike? (Yes, many of the villages south of Beaune are within comfortable cycling distance; to branch out further afield and see forests and monasteries, or even just the villages north of Beaune, a car is essential).

Frankly, Burgundy is a maze, and it will take you time to get your bearings. Take the time. Visit again. You will. I feel I am, slowly. For whatever reason, I have only visited in late summer or early autumn. I would love to see the Côte d’Or blanketed under drifts of snow, or with the first buds of spring just breaking. It is a tapestry of ancient villages and tiny vineyards, each with its own subtly different aspect on the hillside, its own soil, its own climate. Vineyards just next to each other can produce profoundly different wines.

The whole region itself teeters on the edge of several climatic zones: it is part continental, part oceanic, with warm weather sometimes coming up from Provence in the south, and cold from Germany or Switzerland in the north. Even the buildings, and the towns, can start to look Provençal at times, at others, they seem northern. Burgundy is a paradox, but a delightfully vinous one.

Cycling south out of Beaune, there are small roads that wind through the vineyards towards the village of Pommard. These roads are shared only with vineyard traffic, they are ideal for cycling. You cycle past stone-wall circled vineyards, the roadside edged with wildflowers. The track meanders on towards Volnay, then Meursault, and onwards towards Chassagne-Montrachet. I have never made it further south than Meursault, so far.

If you know something about French wines, these are names to conjure with. Pommard is known for robust, tannic Pinot Noir, its neighbour Volnay conversely for ethereal, light, perfumed Pinot. Meursault is known for its Chardonnay. Even without an appointment there are small wineries with cellar doors you can visit. Most will have wines from a range of villages, and it is instructive to taste a couple. Even where winemaking techniques are the same, the flavours and aromas differ dramatically between villages.

A place like Burgundy leaves you with many impressions, as you encounter different faces at different times. Looking back through my notes, I encounter everything from pages and pages of detail on viticultural techniques, to gripes about the weather, plans that have gone wrong, or meals that were more than memorable. Like, being forced into a small restaurant on the edge of Pommard for an unplanned lunch by unexpected rain: an inconvenience at the time, particularly since I was counting my pennies, but the sort of thing I would normally dream of. Or a meal at a small restaurant just outside the city centre of Beaune, with a shared, long table, where I ended up in deep discussion with several other diners, and did not stumble out the door until eleven pm. There were people from Japan, from Brazil, from Switzerland, from Holland, from America – and me, from Australia, via Britain. The Brazilians thought that the Europeans worked too hard, and didn’t live enough – something the Europeans objected to.

The conversation spilled out onto the street outside, and, in my head at least, followed me home. What does it say when you meet people you feel you’ve known all your life, but know you won’t meet them again? Such is travel, I guess.

The next morning, Beaune was as quiet as ever. That morning, I drove to Château-Chalon, leaving Burgundy behind for the foothills of the Alps. But, as always, I knew I’d be back.

 

Clos de Lambray, Morey-Saint-Denis, Côte de Nuits, 27th September 2013
Pentax K-x, 18-125 mm lens @ 40 mm, 1/100 sec, f/8.0, ISO 100.

 

This is a longer form of an essay I wrote for a travel writing competition (which I didn’t win!), organised by travel insurance company World Nomads. The version submitted can be seen here.

Vale, Summer!

Mt Wellington, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, 18th December 2016Mt Wellington, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, 18th December 2016 10:21
Pentax K-x, Sigma 18-125 mm lens @ 85 mm, 1/200th sec, f/7.1, ISO 100

 

It’s April already, and here in Australia we’re already bidding goodbye to summer as she flees northwards.  I cannot say I will miss summer too much, though that may seem heretical. Here in Queensland, summer brings humidity and far more heat than I can cope with. Autumn, and winter, will bring some relief.

But today I am looking back to summer in Hobart, last December. One day showed the particular contrasts present in one day. In the morning, I drove to Mt Wellington, risking life and hire car on the narrow road to the summit, constantly veering closer and closer to the edge to let large four wheel drives go past. By the time I was part way up the mountain, a steady sleet had set in. The top was coated in snow, like marzipan on a wedding cake. Eucalypt forest clung to the sides of the mountain, by the top, just moorland. It was exhilarating, and the view back to Hobart impressive, but within minutes I began to feel impossibly cold, and had to retreat to the car for warmth.

After lunch I headed for the easier life of the flatlands. Back in the lowlands, it was still summer. I drove towards Richmond, a Georgian village in the wine producing Coal River Valley. Here, there was sunshine, and warmth. I had come back from Winter to Summer — within one day, and fifty kilometres, we had changed season. It was impossible not to revel in the sunlight, and the warmth.

As summer retreats, I can at least be reassured that winter in Queensland will not be as cold as summer on top of Mount Wellington. I can look forward, at least, to woodfires and red wine, and reading. Winter always has much to offer.

 

Richmond, Tasmania, 18 December 2016Richmond, Tasmania, 18 December 2016 13:33
Pentax K-x, Sigma 18-125 mm lens @ 40 mm, 1/210th sec, f/8.0, ISO 125

 

Andouillette in Australia?

Andouillette isn’t really known in Australia. It’s a coarse-grained sausage made from tripe (particularly the small intestines, generally of pork, though veal used to be used prior to the BSE crisis); most sources at least comment on its strong odour. Tripe isn’t popular in Australia to begin with, any unusual or repellent aromas guarantee that it won’t make friends.

I first tasted in in Troyes — one of its spiritual homelands, the Andouillette de Troyes being particularly noted and admired by devotees. I had a plan to work in a small domaine on the Côtes de Bars, in the very south of Champagne. It didn’t work out, for various reasons, but we had a meal at Aux Crieurs de Vin. I had no idea what it was, but I loved the rich, gamey, porky flavour, and the soft, gorgeous, coarse-cut texture.

I encountered it again in a small café on Place Carnot, Beaune, whilst working for a mid-sized negociant there. This time I knew what it was, and a bit about its reputation. I have to admit, if it has a disagreeable aroma, I’ve not noticed — but then, I’ve never encountered it raw. And I’ve heard of people being so horrified by the smell, that they refuse to sit in the same room as someone else eating it. Honestly, I’m not sure why. Maybe they have particularly ultra-sensitive smell?

But all this adds up to a sausage unlikely to be found in Australia. I looked on the internet after coming back to Queensland from Beaune. A passing mention on a market trader’s website suggested I could get hold of it at one of the Brisbane markets … but they’d stopped making it years ago, due to lack of demand. Every now and then, I’d look again and find nothing.

Just last year, though, I had some more luck. Two restaurants in Melbourne seemed to have it, including France-Soir in South Yarra, and Paris Go in Carlton, albeit both as entrées, not as plats principaux. Presumably a butcher somewhere there was making andouillette for both places. But I’m not in Melbourne, and don’t often get there. Close, but still 1730 km too far!

Further searching found a place in Brisbane that specialised in Louisiana style cooking. Andouillette at some point made the long voyage to Louisiana, and became andouille, a smoked, spicey tripe sausage popular in Cajun dishes such a Gumbo. (Andouillette just means ‘little andouille‘, so the name change is completely explicable). French Andouillette it ain’t, but it’s a close relative, at least.

On a rare trip into Brisbane, I finally got to Creole Soul Kitchen on Boundary Street, Spring Hill. I wanted to try a dish which featured andouille, and I was also keen to try the Cajun style Po’ Boy sandwiches I’d heard of, but never previously eaten. Luckily I found I could order an andouille Po’ Boy with a side of gumbo. I ordered a beer, too, and waited for my meal.

It wasn’t an ideal day. November in Queensland is already hot and muggy, and with the full brunt of the wet season ahead, you know it can only get worse. As I waited, the results of the US presidential election were just trickling through, and a Trump presidency was rapidly shifting from being an absurd improbability to a terrifying inevitability. We live in interesting times indeed.

Creole Soul Kitchen, Spring Hill, Brisbane, Qld, AustraliaCreole Soul Kitchen, Boundary Road, Spring Hill, Brisbane.
iPhone 4s, builtin 4.28mm (~35mm) lens, 1/250 sec, f/2.4, ISO 50.

As predicted, andouille wasn’t quite like andouillette. This is no criticism, really, they’re different sausages, from different cuisines. It had some of the meaty, earthiness of the French andouillette, but seemed more domesticated, less sauvage. Still incredibly tasty though: worth the trip. The Po’  Boy itself I was a little disappointed with, being a touch on the bland side, but the Gumbo was beautiful: rich, earthy, spicy. Next time I might just have that. Or I might try one of the other Po’ Boys, too, but with a full serving of Gumbo. The beer, Blue Moon, brewed with coriander and oats, was beautiful, and perfect on a hot day. Billed as an imported beer, the bottle suggested it was in fact brewed ‘under licence’ in Australia. Not exactly a craft beer, but good nonetheless.

Lunch gradually dawdled to a conclusion, and I paid the bill, and left. I walked back towards Roma Street station. It was still hot and muggy, but at least I had been fortified with good food.

I’m still waiting till my next chance to try andouillette again, however …

Veracity in wine

2010 Metala Shiraz CabernetMetala Langhorne Creek Shiraz Cabernet 2010
Apple iPhone 4s, builtin 4.28mm
(~35mm) lens, 1/60 sec, f/2.4, ISO 50.

In vino veritas … but is there? I suspect the saying simply refers to wine’s infamous ability to loosen tongues, and that is not what interests us here. Wine, however, has its own truth, which is unrelated to the unguarded confidences of inebriates, that is perhaps universal and eternal precisely because it is so local and specific.

You might be seeing the idea that I’m dancing around here. Great wine reflects where and when the grapes were grown as much, if not more, than what happened to it once they got to the winery. They reflect the weather of the growing season, and the climate, soil, and aspect of their vineyard — or vineyards. (Must the impact of terroir be more dilute in wines made with grapes from a number of different vineyards within the same region? Or, even, from different regions?). As Henri Jayer said, “Vines each have typical aromas, small red and black berries and cherry for pinot, which can be found regardless of the region of production, but terroirs develop the potential of that extraordinary and still mysterious vine” (Rigaux 2009, p. 148).

That winemaking will have an impact is inevitable — grapes do not turn into good wine by themselves. Different techniques in the winery, and choice of oak barrels (or no oak barrels) will all have their impacts. But, hopefully, not enough to drown out the rather quiet voice of the terroir. Good winemaking may be about growing (or purchasing) good grapes and not messing them up in the winery, but there’s more to ‘not messing up’ than such a simple sentence implies!

All of this is a roundabout way to saying that great wine will reflect where it is grown, and this may lead to wines which are truthful to their site, but idiosyncratic. The wine pictured is a Shiraz-Cabernet blend from Langhorne Creek in South Australia. It is a big wine — full of the “muddy soulfulness of the Creek”, and the “eucalypt-and-mudcake” character that Philip White described as typical of the wine (White 2013); deep and opaque in colour, and 15% alcohol — and thus, perhaps, seems as far away from, say, a Jura Poulsard as one could get whilst still being a red wine. Yet, if each reflects where it was grown with some honesty, they could both be said to be true wines, great wines. They reflect the radically different sites in which they were grown. As Henri Jayer said, “From all this we should learn that typicity exists, that it shows itself in extraordinarily diverse ways, and we must respect that” (Rigaux 2009, p. 49).

None of this is to erase the individual preferences of whoever ends up drinking the stuff, of course. It’s possible someone more accustomed to Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Loire may not enjoy such a massive, full-bodied wine as the Metala. Or that someone who likes such wines may not like lighter reds. (Personally, I like both…). But is it possible to say that, whilst you don’t like the wine style, it is a true reflection of its terroir? And can a wine which is not from a great site be a true wine but not a great wine? As Jayer said, “When we taste a wine, we taste to see whether it has good typicity, and if it illustrates the general characteristics of its terroir ” (Rigaux 2009, p. 46).

 

Lucy Margaux Vineyards Jaspers Estate Pinot Noir 2010 Lucy Margaux Vineyards Jaspers Estate Pinot Noir 2015
Apple iPhone 4s, builtin 4.28mm (~35mm) lens, 1/20 sec, f/2.4, ISO 80.

Rigaux, J 2009, A Tribute to the Great Wines of Burgundy: Henri Jayer, Winemaker from Vosne-Romanée, trans. JK Finkel, Terre en Vues, Le Chatelet, France.
White, P 2013, Jimmy Watson Tropy Goes To a Wine, viewed 4/12/2016, <http://drinkster.blogspot.com/2013/01/jimmy-watson-trophy-goes-to-wine.html>.

Stuff…

Cluttered bookshelf

Stuff, it seems, tends to accumulate. The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system will always increase, something which becomes particularly evident when contemplating spring cleaning. As I am now.

I am envious of those who can do without ‘stuff’, and perhaps keep enough for their day-to-day needs in a suitcase. If nothing else, it simplifies moving. But how to apply this to books? Books always seem to be more than just ‘stuff’, they are fragments of knowledge and windows into other worlds — and other minds. But, they’re still physical objects, something that becomes intensely obvious when  you have to move them. A box filled with books quickly gets heavy!

The obvious answer is an eBook reader, like a Kindle. But I have too many old or unusual books, that will never be offered as eBooks. And nothing, for me, can replace a shelf full of books. Being amongst books offers a sense of security, and rootedness, that is hard to find.

So, how does one solve the problem of ‘stuff’…?

John Clare, “Dewdrops”

Diamonds, Morning, University of New EnglandUniversity of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia, 24th June 2006 16:54
Pentax Optio S45, 10.2mm (~61.4mm) on inbuilt zoom lens, 1/800 sec,  f/5.6, ISO 100

The dewdrops on every blade of grass are so much like silver drops that I am obliged to stoop down as I walk to see if they are pearls, and those sprinkled on the ivy-woven beds of primroses underneath the hazels, whitethorns and maples are so like gold beads that I stooped down to feel if they were hard, but they melted from my finger. And where the dew lies on the primrose, the violet and whitethorn leaves they are emerald and beryl, yet nothing more than the dews of the morning on the budding leaves; nay, the road grasses are covered with gold and silver beads, and the further we go the brighter they seem to shine, like solid gold and silver. It is nothing more than the sun’s light and shade upon them in the dewy morning; every thorn-point and every bramble-spear has its trembling ornament: till the wind gets a little brisker, and then all is shaken off, and all the shining jewelry passes away into a common spring morning full of budding leaves, primroses, violets, vernal speedwell, bluebell and orchis, and commonplace objects.
— John Clare

Fog, Upper Tooloom, Christmas

IMGP8351-1Wallaby Creek, Upper Tooloom, NSW, Australia, 27th December 2015 o3:52.
Pentax K-x, 18-125mm lens @ 30mm, 30 sec, f/8.0, ISO 12800.

I woke early — it was light out, and I could see clearly across towards forested hills. Early morning fog pooled in the valley, covering the dam, flirting with the hills. The light was diffuse, flat, pearlescent. It seemed as bright as day — a dismal, foggy autumn day, at least. As I watched, the fog gradually eroded away at the hills. I debated internally: was this worth a photo? Could I capture it?

Eventually, I gave in. The hills had all but disappeared. And it was not, I found, as bright as day. My first few exposures were pitch black. I had to ignore the light meter: 30 seconds, with the sensor sensitivity at its highest setting, were needed. The landscape seems lost in fog and grain: dreamlike, dreaming.

It was an odd day, that. The hills glowered in fog, which came and went, revealing and hiding the vista. By evening, the light went weird: first sepia, then purple, as the day faded into evening.

IMGP8393-HDR-1Wallaby Creek, Upper Tooloom, NSW, Australia, 27th December 2015 15:49.

IMGP8394-HDR-1Wallaby Creek, Upper Tooloom, NSW, Australia, 27th December 2015 18:53.

IMGP8416-HDR-1Wallaby Creek, Upper Tooloom, NSW, Australia, 27th December 2015 19:01.

Barcelona, 25th October 12:15

Seafront, Barcelona

By the beach. Cafés and bars all along the beachfront. People lie on towels. A young boy with crutches tries test the water, supported by his mother. Music from the bars. Out to sea, sailing ships cluster, their sails billowing. Two guys hawk shawls printed with stylised Indian designs of elephants and intricate abstract patterns. There are no takers. The constant swish of waves against the beach.

Back by the bar, in public seats, old men play dominoes, mahjong, cards. They smoke and argue, animated but amicable, their voices cigarette-hoarse.

The sun goes back beyond a cloud. Another kid builds a sandcastle. A woman has a massage. Helicopters circle.

Lisbon notes, October 2015

Alfama, 22nd October 2015 21:14Alfama, 22nd October 2015 21:14

  • The ‘m’ in Belém isn’t pronounced.
  • Alfama, winding, fractal-like, sprawling, tumbling towards the sea but never quite reaching it, is the old part of town. Being on a hill, it wasn’t destroyed by the tsunami that followed the earthquake of 1755. Baixa, the lowlying city centre area, was; and was rebuilt on a grid. It is more formal, more ordered.
  • The city, to Lisboans, is like a young woman. Is a young woman. Lisbon is always referred to as ‘she’, never ‘it’. Maria Lisboa. Alfama’s narrow streets are like her arms, holding you in an embrace.
  • St Anthony of Padua (Santo António de Lisboa in Portuguese) is Lisbon’s patron saint. His feast day — in June — is an excuse for a festival, a city-wide party, with stalls hawking food and drink all over the city. He is also the saint of mariners, of the poor, of pregnant women and of infertility, of travellers and of the unemployed, of seekers of lost articles, of shipwrecks and starvation.
  • The Torre de Belém (Belem Tower) stands out alone in the bay. From the Monument to the Discoveries, you can look past it towards the Atlantic. But it’s better close up. From the shore, you get a sense of its isolation from the land it is meant to protect. The river roils against its walls, fish pushed into crags in the sheer stone walls. If it is isolated from the land, it also seems alien in its riparian setting. Neither one nor the other.
  • The melancholic whistle of the traditional knife-sharpeners is meant to bring rain. They cycle from door to door, their knife-sharper pedal operated.
  • Fado is, perhaps, the music of Portugal. It is expressive of saudade – a peculiar kind of melancholy and nostalgia, a longing for lost love, or a lost homeland. It’s sad, but it’s happy too, as if looking back on a lost or almost forgotten joy. Fado is the music of immigrants, of wives left at home whilst their husbands were at sea. When much was banned or repressed under Salazar, fado was still allowed.
  • Fado is played with classical guitar and Portuguese guitar. The Portuguese guitar — somewhat like a cross between a lute and a mandolin — is tear-shaped, because fado is sad, the music of loss and longing.
  • Fado is the music of Alfama. At night, it spills out from the cafés into the winding backstreets, where nine hundred years of living have created a chaotic labyrinth of streets and houses. In its steeply sloped alleyways, people come and go, stare out of windows, stand in doorways and watch the world. Women hold conversations across the street, from one window to another. Even in October, the night is still warm, the air filled with a sense of the ocean.