“I hover over the expensive Scotch and then the Armagnac, but finally settle on a glass of rich red claret. I put it near my nose and nearly pass out. It smells of old houses and aged wood and dark secrets, but also of hard, hot sunshine through ancient shutters and long, wicked afternoons in a four-poster bed. It’s not a wine, it’s a life, right there in the glass.”
– Nick Harkaway, The Gone-Away World
The above may sound overly poetic—the ramblings of an eccentric artistic type, seeing the world though a rose colored glass full of burgundy wine. But as there is truth in wine, there is much truth in the idea that a glass of wine tells a story. Many stories, really.
Wine has been around since the Bronze Age, almost six thousand years, when once nomadic men planted their feet on terra firma and became more “civilized”. When they quit moving about constantly in search of food, they had scads of spare time on their hands. Since they would have to wait another six thousand years or so for the first video game console to be created, they spent their new found time planting crops, building more permanent dwellings, and developing some actual culture. It was during this time that people started making more earthen vessels. And you know what you do with earthen vessels, don’t you?
You fill them with wine. You could fill them with other things too, I suppose, but wine seems to have become very important very quickly in an increasingly civilized society.
The first winery appears to have been established in Armenia around 3500 BC, and 2 gallon pottery vessels have been found in excavated kitchens of that time, still containing wine resin. It became not only socially significant, but with the exception of the medieval Muslims, it was widely used in religious rites and rituals. God appears to have endorsed its use even for its physical and emotional effects:
“Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” – Proverbs 31:67
By the time of the Greek and Roman empirical times, wine had been elevated to art, and was being creatively cultivated, much as it is today. Growers carefully selected their grapes, and cross cultivated them to produce the results they were seeking. To this very day, many wineries are still using the same grapes that they have been using for hundreds of years, careful not to lose the flavors and essences on which they have built their brand.
Pick up your glass of wine, swirl it around, slowly and gently take in its scent. When you sip it, take the time to really taste it—-savor every nuance it has to offer. Is it heady, woody, fruity? Does it have undertones of tobacco, smoke, or chocolate? Each of those qualities has been specifically and purposefully developed by the makers.
And what about the year a wine is made? Why would a bottle of 1865 be worth more than a 1802 bottle from the same vintner? Because each vintage is affected by many things, including the year’s climate, the age of the vine, and the skill of the vintner. So even produced by the same vines, the quality and flavor of the wine can change from year to year.
So, truly, a glass of wine, tells a story older than the bottle from whence it pours.
“Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.”
– John Keats
Each time you drink a glass of wine, you write stories into future glasses. How you enjoy your next bottle will have to do, in part, with your memory of the one you drink now. Make sure it’s a story you want to relive.
If drinking wine is not your thing, or even if it is, try cooking with it. Wine can add wonderful, multidimensional flavors without adding fat, sodium or heaviness to a dish. Here are a few of my favorites.
Port Wine Brownies
Makes 24 appropriate serving sizes (12 for normal people)
This brownie is very moist, dense, and dark, dark chocolate. Chocolate and Port are wonderful companions. Although these are safe for kids to eat, and they won’t catch a buzz eating them, you may want to hide them for yourself and buy the kids some Ding Dongs.
12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 beaten eggs, beaten
1 cup flour
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup Dutch-processed cocoa
½ cup Port
½ cup Port Glaze (see below)
Preheat oven to 350*
Butter a 9×13 pan and line with parchment. Butter the parchment.
In a large microwave safe bowl, heat the butter and chocolate over medium heat for three minutes, stirring every 30 seconds, until melted and smooth. Add additional time in 30 second increments if necessary. Allow to cool for ten minutes.
Air is the enemy of a moist, fudgy brownie. Do not use a beater, and mix each step only until combined.
Using a rubber spatula, mix the vanilla and eggs into the chocolate. The mix the flour, sugar, and cocoa in until fully incorporated. Gently stir in the wine.
Pour into prepared baking pan, and bake for 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, and while still warm, brush the glaze over the top of the brownies. Allow to cool completely, or chill before cutting into squares.
3 cups Port wine
¾ cup sugar
Place in large saucepan over medium high heat until boiling. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until reduced by at least half—about 25 minutes. Glaze will thicken more as it cools.
**reducing wine to a thick glaze is called a reduction. You can do it with any type of wine, and without adding sugar. Reductions make decadent, wonderful drizzles for meats and seafoods, without adding fat, and very few calories. Use it sparingly—it has very potent flavor.
Angry Wild Boar Ragout With Mushrooms and Merlot
2-3 pounds of loin roast, cubed (domestic pork is fine)
¼ cup olive oil
4 cloves fresh garlic, chopped fine
1 pound porcini mushrooms, sliced
1 T crushed red pepper flakes (omit or reduce, if you don’t like heat)
1 bottle Merlot (750ml)
1 32 oz can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
½ cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
1 4 oz can tomato paste
3 teaspoons salt
To serve: 2 pounds pasta**, cooked according to package directions
**A very bold sauce requires a bold pasta. I use pappardelle, but any heavy bodied pasta will do. Fettuccine is the smallest you should use.
In a large Dutch oven over medium high heat, brown the meat in olive oil, in batches, until all of it has been browned. Return all of it to the pan with garlic and mushrooms. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring, until the mushrooms have softened. Add the entire bottle of wine, the crushed tomatoes, salt and the basil. Add the crushed pepper, if using. It will be an unappetizing shade of purple at this point. Don’t panic. Return to a simmer, reduce to medium low and simmer UNCOVERED for 2 hours.
Stir periodically, and add a little water if necessary to prevent burning. After 2 hours, stir in the tomato paste and 3-4 cups of water to make a hearty sauce. Simmer for 10 minutes, and serve over pasta.
Wine and Cheese Pizza
2 cups red wine, any type
2 cups grape juice
1 cup red or black seedless grapes, halved
1 thin pre-baked pizza crust—OR 6 split English Muffins
10 oz crumbled gorgonzola cheese
2 cups candied pecans, chopped roughly
Place wine and grape juice in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium high, and simmer until reduced to about ½ cup. Add grape halves, and cook for three minutes. Set aside to cool.
Preheat oven to 425*
Brush tops of pizza crust or cut side of English muffins with olive oil. Place on a baking sheet and toast lightly. Spread glaze over top of the crusts, making sure to evenly spread the grape halves. Divide the cheese and pecans over the crusts, and bake for 10 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before slicing/serving. May be served warm or at room temp.