Saturday, June 23, 2012

The problem of Pinot Grigio

Last month, MFWC picked up a new member(s), the husband of a couple who are both in sales - call them the Sales Couple. SC has a standing order for Pinot Grigio, which created a challenge and raised a question.

The challenge is that the salespeople at MFWC's favorite haunts tend to regard Pinot Grigio as uninteresting, insipid and overpriced and therefore don't carry a lot of it. Fortunately, SC are flexible folk, which has meant that they've taken a crash course in Austrian whites - not a coincidence, it turns out. Astor Wines started them off with a 2009 Grüner Veltliner from the producer Neumayer that they liked, and then I selected the 2011 Christ Gemischter Satz, a crisp wine with a floral nose that's a field blend of grapes including Riesling, Grüner, Weissburgunder, Gelber Muskateller, Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The next week, Chamber St. Wines opted for another Grüner, the 2011 Ott Am Berg. SC seems to have forgotten all about Santa Margherita, the very successful Pinot Grigio that wine geeks love to hate.

That disdain puzzled me, since Pinot Grigio is merely the Italian name for Pinot Gris, a French grape that reaches its apex in Alsace and is also grown in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Moravia and even Oregon, where it is now the most widely planted white variety and second most widely planted overall after Pinot Noir. Alsace produces full-bodied Pinot Gris, as does Oregon; David Phillips, a sales manager at Astor, mentioned the Ponzi from Oregon's Willamette Valley as a nice, affordable example.  

Historically, Phillips said, Italian Pinot Grigios were similar to their northern cousins. The winemakers often allowed the skins to stay in contact with the pressed grape juice for a time after pressing, which gives the wine more flavor and richness. But in the 1960s and 1970s the popularity in the U.S. of Gavi, a white wine made in the Piedmont, led some Italian winemakers to produce lighter crisper wines. Pinot Grigio was planted primarily in the northeastern provinces of Friuli, Alto Adagio and the Veneto, and those winemakers found models in the wines of neighboring Austria, where Grüner Veltliner is the most commonly grown grape. Santa Margherita was particularly successful at promoting the style in the U.S., where Pinot Grigio became an alternative to Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, a style so light and ineffectual that it was almost wine for people who didn't want to be drinking wine. Planting of Pinot Grigio in Italy almost doubled from 8,600 acres in 1990 to 16,300 a decade later, according to the Oxford Wine Dictionary, and has continued to rise, according to Phillips. As production went up, quality went down.

As SC has discovered, Grüner is an excellent substitute for Pinot Grigio. Phillips suggested Picpoul, w hite from the south of France. Several MFWC members who asked for Pinot Grigio were very pleased with the Ambra Blanco from Ischia, an island off of Naples. But one MFWC member, a man of Sicilian extraction, echoed the geeks' criticism of Pinot Grigio when he said that Ambra Blanco "tastes like water. Italian soda, is what it is." Maybe he needs an old-school Pinot Grigio.    

Sunday, June 17, 2012

It's all in your mind

Drinking wine with any level of seriousness raises fundamental issues of perception. Is taste objective or subjective? What's the relationship between the locus of sensation and the mind? And so on. Once the province of philosophy, such questions have over the last century become the object of scientific inquiry. Thanks largely to the insights of James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered RNA and DNA, researchers have been able to study these questions at the molecular level for the last several decades.

Richard Axel of Columbia University won a Nobel Prize in 2004 for his work on the olfactory system and how the brain interprets smell, but he has not produced an explanation of his work for non-scientists. Eric Kandel, a colleague of Axel at Columbia and a Nobel laureate for his own work on the biology of memory, has. In Search of Memory is a surprisingly comprehensible history of scientific research into memory and the workings of the mind. Kandel makes his research on memory in Aplysia, a species of sea slug, intelligible and even engrossing. (He chose the species because its physiology - long, thick neurons, and relatively few of them - made the research into their workings easier.)

Modern neuroscience investigates how the brain's molecular physiology enables its plasticity, its ability to learn and change, to respond to experience. In the 1930s, the American scientist Wade Marshall showed that the cortex contains "precise maps of the body's sensory receptors," with the hands, the feet, and the face being larger on that figurative map than they are physically. Michael Merzenich of the University of California San Francisco significantly advanced that research in the 1970s and 1980s by showing that repeated use does increase the sensitivity of a given body part - in other words, increases the area of the cortex devoted to that body part.

That would seem to true for taste buds as well. The more wine you taste, the greater your ability to perceive changes in the wine and, perhaps, to describe them, a problem that Kandel would not have faced with sea slugs or Merzenich with monkeys. It's also true that the brain becomes less plastic as it ages. Does this mean that people "know" the smells they were familiar with growing up better than those they encounter as adults? It would seem so, analogizing to the violinists who began playing the instrument before age 13 and have larger images of their left hand in their cortexes than those who began playing the instrument after that age, but Kandel has other issues to explore.

In the process, he raised a number of fascinating issues in this drinker's mind. I often lament when I drink an unfamiliar wine - Austrian rieslings, for example - that I don't understand the smells the wine emits. In Adventures on the Wine Route, Kermit Lynch recommends that budding connoisseurs buy a case of a wine they like and study it as they drink through the twelve bottles. In doing so, the drinker is training his nose and therefore his brain to perceive certain smells and understand how the wine is constructed, just as children learn how narratives are constructed by hearing the same one over and over and over. But this in turn raises the question of how similar learning a language is neurologically to learning how to recognize a smell (quite similar on a molecular level, I think Kandel would say). The questions multiply quickly, even dizzyingly in reading Kandel's book.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mapping the wine trade

The devastation of the French wine industry by Phylloxera in the 1860s is a central event in the history of wine that affected what was already a global business. Charles Joseph Minard, a key figure in the history of information graphics, offered snapshots of that business in at least two of his works. Minard is most famous for his depiction of the losses that Napoleon's army suffered in its invasion of Russia, a chart hailed as a landmark by observers as distinguished as Edward Tufte. But for the most part Minard focused on the analysis of trade and transportation; in one chart, for example, he showed the almost immediate effect of the American Civil War on European cotton imports.  

In two of the 71 graphics he produced over the course of his long career, Minard analyzed the French wine trade. One shows the French exports in 1864 (see no. 49 in this list of his work); the other depicts the intra-French wine trade, in which pink reflects railroad transportation and green movement of wine along rivers. Paris dominates, of course, and Bordeaux and the southwest produce far more wine than any region and seem to outpace Burgundy by a wide margin. The map was made in 1860, just a few years before the discovery of phylloxera, the pest that devastated the French wine industry in the years after 1875. The concentration of the French wine industry around Bordeaux suggests the immense opportunity that the crisis offered producers in La Rioja, who seized it aggressively. Minard did not survive to chart that development; he died at age 89 in 1870 in Bordeaux, to which he had fled in fear that the Prussians would invade Paris.