Rhapsody in reds, whites and crus

May 25, 2007

Cultivate an appreciation and you'll find that wine can challenge your mind, says Barry Smith.

Recent empirical research has confirmed the long-standing view of Bordeaux University that drinking red wine is good for you. The latest results from the US suggest it benefits the blood and the body in general.

But what about the mind? Not just in the sense that well-functioning brains require healthy bodies. Is your drinking actually an exercise of the mind? Well, if it isn't, it should be.

The American research concerns moderate drinking, and that means maximising the pleasure you take in what you are permitted to drink. So it is crucial not to squander your alcohol quota on dull, shapeless wines. Quaffing the familiar but unchallenging leaves you craving more than they can provide.

Feeling the instant alcoholic effects of a big-performing red, meanwhile, may lull you into submission. But staying at the peak of pleasure for longer, with a quickening of the senses, requires wines that are complex and harmonious. Fresh, lively, character-filled wines make you sit up and take notice; they slow you down, compelling you to attend, as a beautiful passage of music can force you to stand still and listen.

Selecting better wines will give you more of what you are looking for, satisfying you before the effects are felt. A balanced wine never shows its alcohol. It intoxicates us by its precision and finesse.

So how can one find such treasures? Well, it takes knowledge, experience and concentration. Any fool - any fool with money, that is - can buy a wine that garners the plaudits of enough critics to warrant a steep rise in its price tag. But for you and me, sharing an exquisite pleasure means seeking out a rare bottle that will surprise and delight. To do this you must taste widely, not merely sticking to something you had before and quite liked.

After all, would you eat exactly the same food night after night? Wines should be tailored to the moment: the quality of tasting experiences is highly sensitive to mood. They should suit what you plan to eat. Curiosity and experiment will turn up surprisingly good pairings.

Discover the characteristics of wines you like - and dislike. Find out what they are: learn to recognise the smell of vanilla, the buttery texture of some white wines, the oak that can irritate the gums. Attending to wine's components can tell you about a grape variety, the quality of the fruit, the methods of the maker, the age or vintage of the wine. It will begin your journey through what is the same and what is different.

In choosing, think beyond the choice of country to the region; beyond the region to the style; beyond the style to the individual grower. When you discover a well-made bottle from a particular domain, explore what else they have to offer. Look for small producers and natural wines. Confess your ignorance - this is not your field - and ask reliable wine merchants or wine waiters to recommend something interesting: they'll appreciate the challenge. Come to know how a typical wine from a certain grape or region should taste, and you'll start to recognise better and worse examples.

Concentrate on what you are drinking and seek out gentler wines. Those who cut down on salt report tasting subtle flavours anew, like hearing previously drowned-out voices. Their perceptions become finer, more discriminating and the judgments quicker and keener. You will have more to gain from less overwhelming effects. Biodynamic wines made with a minimum of handling will stay livelier, longer; they have a life and a nerve to them missing in industrialised wines. The highly individual, careful winemakers are passing on their subtle craft to you: their work gives expression to what nature gives them and what they know. And when you recognise what is delivered in those wines, by coming to understand them, you are able to celebrate them as achievements. At that point you notice what's going on in the wine and not just in you. Now you have the heart of the wine, and if it is honest, you will have something true rather than flattering. Seek out such bottles and you will immeasurably improve your drinking.

Some may think that pouring a glass at the end of the day is all about switching off. It may signal the moment for relaxation, the comfort of a small reward, or an essential fix. But it is also an opportunity for a rarer experience, for a deeper pleasure, for trading the ridiculous and petty for something sublime. So take your time, take care in choosing.

Serve the mind and the fineness of your own experience. It will be good for you and I'm sure you have earned it.

Barry Smith is a senior lecturer in the school of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, and deputy director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London, School of Advanced Study.

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