It is hard to think of wine and not think of Europe and its influence on wine and the people who drink it. So profound is Europe’s impact, it hardly bears noting. But as the world quarrels about where Europe’s lines should be drawn, and I am still revelling in the pleasures of a recent sabbatical in London, I can’t help but reflect on Europe’s influence on wine and wonder where we’d be without it.
Even as a child in Australia, I learned that Europe’s influence was profound. Our parents talked of Ports and clarets and Rhine Rieslings and white Burgundy. Back then, the wines were unlikely to be the real thing, but the words still conjured a magic about a faraway place.
The magic was reinforced when my formal wine education started and I learnt the many stories about Europe that were stitched into the fabric of Australia’s wine history. The settlement of the Barossa Valley started back in Eastern Europe when persecuted Germans fled to the country bringing new farming and religious influence to the region. In Rutherglen, where the Murray River sluices its way like a giant serpent through the dry Australian bush, the traditions of Jerez and Portugal influenced a swag of winemakers to craft some of the world’s greatest, and most undervalued, fortified wines. There were the Swiss in the Yarra Valley and the Italians in the King Valley. Perhaps the most famous story of Europe eulogised in Australia is that of Penfolds Grange, when Max Schubert, having tasted the great wines in the châteaux of Bordeaux wanted to make something just as longlasting. Although we made our own wines, the stories came from somewhere else.
Over the years, the lure became too tempting and I set out to experience Europe for myself. The first time I went to Spain for wine was in 2013. Though the country was suffering from the financial crisis, the deeper complexities came from a century and a half of political, economic and agricultural disruption. Outside the major cities, the roads were empty and unfinished construction, abandoned buildings and shops loomed vacant. As I drove west across the country, I realised that we don’t always live among the best of times; we too can be written onto the most challenging pages of history.
And yet, emerging from this situation, winemakers and growers were performing a form of cultural preservation work — finding, protecting and cultivating indigenous varieties and winemaking traditions that had been lost or crippled under the previous conditions. In Valdeorras in north west Spain, a group of growers prevented the demise of the native white grape Godello. Around Villa Franco di Bierzo, old plots of the indigenous grape Mencia are being nurtured and cultivated to make some of the finest wines in the country. There were similar stories in Rioja, Priorat and Jerez. It is a complex situation and there is still much work to be done. But I did take heart from realising that, with every new vintage, progress is being made. And, more importantly, that culture is worth fighting for.
In Italy, over a long and lovely spring a few years ago, I was struck not just by the wines but by the human capacity for beauty. I spent weeks tasting wines and revelling in the general magnificence of Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto, noting and relishing the improvements in wine. Despite a long and intimate relationship with wine, Italy’s reputation for producing consistently great and beautiful wine is a recent evolution. Most attribute this, quite rightly, to greater understanding of site and place as well as improved winemaking techniques. But the human intent – to make great wines — should not be underestimated.
I took a turn around Florence one crisp spring evening. It was my first time in the city, so I allowed the winding streets and lanes to shepherd me gently around the city, along the wide brown Arno, across the rickety Ponte Vecchio, down lanes filled with gelato and lemoncello and tourist paraphernalia. At some point I wandered into the piazza del Duomo and was struck dead in my tracks at the sight of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the Florence Cathedral. I’ll not destroy the image by trying to describe it, but seeing it opened a cavern of joy in my chest. I believe it now to be awe.
The compelling idea about the Duomo – and every other glorious, emotional, dramatic piece of art in Florence – is that it was their maker’s intention from the outset to make the most beautiful thing possible. Not the biggest structure, not one with the greatest seating capacity, not one with the most space for advertising, nor the fastest, the most profitable or the cheapest, but the most beautiful. It was a reminder that humans have a great capacity to create and appreciate beauty. Given paint, we craft masterpieces; given music, we write symphonies; given tools, we build cathedrals. And given grapes and the right intentions, we make beautiful wines.
While Italy filled me with enough beauty to make my heart combust, Greece did the same for my mind. Despite 4,000 years of winemaking history, a wine-infused culture (“Wine is living,” “It’s in our DNA,” “It is part of our nutrition,” I was told) and a worship of wine embodied in the deity of Dionysus, Greece’s reputation for winegrowing is not what it used to be. Yet they do make wine and are very good at it. There’s the steely, racy and acidic Assyrtiko from the volcanic islands of Santorini, the plush and lush Agriogitiko from the Peloponnese and the structured, elegant yet powerful Xinomavro from Naoussa, as well as dozens of other varieties showing enormous potential.
Despite all this, the question for me was not whether they make wine or even how good it is but what happened to Dionysus? How do you go from having a god of wine (A god! Of wine!) only to find yourself 4,000 years later in the same great city having to remind people that, not only do you make wine, but you’re actually quite good at it.
I pondered this in Athens as I strolled around the dusty agora where Socrates and Plato had their infamous quarrels. One sunny afternoon I wandered alone on the site of Aristotle’s lyceum where the great mind ordered the cosmos. I drove out of town and climbed the side of Mt Parnassus to the ancient and haunting sanctuary of Delphi and saw the stone once believed to be the naval of the universe. On the drive back to Athens, about 20 minutes up the freeway but 2000 years chronologically, I visited a beautiful monastery from the Byzantine empire. Back in Athens, I took a wine at the foot of the Acropolis to watch the sunset on the Parthenon, a structure that as an icon of Empire, has been controlled, pillaged or bombed by whoever was ruling or trying to at the time – the Christians, Ottomans, Nazis and the English Lord Elgin. It was a timeline of events, a cast of characters and a series of ideas I could barely digest.
As I sipped my glass of Savatiano, the white wine from the nearby Attica region, and I watched the sun set on the Parthenon, it occurred to me that each of these monumental eras are — simply and complexly — human attempts to give order to the chaos and help make sense of the world. And inventing ways to be in the world is all humans have ever done.
This goes some way to answering my question about Dionysus. But not just Dionysus and why we had a god of wine and then we didn’t. But why ideas of beauty are replaced with ideas of efficiency. Why people are persecuted and flee abroad. Why importing a culture is seen as appropriate one century and worthy of conflict the next. Why the qualities of what we consider makes a ‘good’ wine changes over decades. Because ideas change and empires fall. And no matter how sophisticated the philosophies, how great the monuments or how beautiful the ideas, before the curtain comes down on one empire, a new one is waiting in the wings, practising its song and preparing to perform. Whether we’re ready for it or not.
This column first appeared on timatkin.com