Friday, July 31, 2009

Wine Tasting, Ancient Style (Assaggio del Vino, Antiche)

Who among us has never gone to a wine tasting party? We're talking about the kind in which the host wraps up bottles brought by party goers, then gives the secret bottles numerical identities, and paper and pen to the guests for writing tasting notes and voting for the favorite.

I enjoy being a bit bipolar in my reviewing technique, mostly for comedy, but if you are going to the trouble of reviewing something, why be bland about it?

If a wine happens to fall below average, I mock it relentlessly with the tasting notes. Things end up on my sheet like 'Old rotten saddle leather ridden by a leaky Cherry Kool Aid Man for weeks' or 'Everything that Cavit strives for, but worse and with a powerful cumin flavor and gorgonzola bouquet'.

But if a wine is better, I skew the results of comments wildly in the other direction. The prose on the notes quickly changes to the likes of 'A wine that thumps you on the head and demands respect. Complex lingering finish with vanilla and currant having just the right amount of French oak aging', that kind of thing.
All of it of course is rooted in a few grains of truth about the wine being tasted.

We have a wide variety of wine available today, but the ancients had a fair selection also. Wine came to ancient Italy from the Greeks at about 600 BC, and has been made there ever since. Pompeii itself was a major distribution port for wine, and if you go there today you can take pictures of the rows and rows of formerly wine containing amphorae like I did.

After Pompeii was destroyed in 79AD, the Romans got a bit protective of their wine trade a few years after that and had vineyards destroyed outside of Italy in 92AD under Emperor Domitian.

Here are some grapes I took a photo of in France near Chateau St. Maur last year that managed to escape Roman uprooting.

At this point, you might be wondering 'how did the ancients get the wine to ferment with no internet and readily accessible Home Booze Kit(tm) or yeast?'
Well, yeast occurs naturally on the grapes. There are recorded instances of birds eating overly ripe fruit and flying erratically into walls because they are over the legal intoxication limit for flying!

Anyway, as the Romans picked and stomped (not in the Country Western music sense), they left the skins in the amphorae with the juice and it happened all by itself. I would like to believe they were smart enough to just pour back part of a bottle into the new batches, so the strain of yeast would become more refined and specialized
over time.

Here is a picture of a remarkably well preserved ancient wine press in Israel, but some have also been found in Italy.

Some random Roman wine fun facts:

  • Senator Cato (contemporary of Julius Caesar) wrote extensively on wine, as did Pliny.

  • It's documented that sweet white wine was the most valuable in ancient times.

  • They used to sweeten some varieties of ancient wine with lead!

I think this weekend, I'll open up a really old vintage Italian wine, unleaded.
Hope yours is good too.

Quando vado a di festa vino (prova di assaggio), scrivo le osservazioni divertenti circa come i gusti del vino. La storia italiana del vino è affascinante.


  1. I loved the "'Old rotten saddle leather ridden by a leaky Cherry Kool Aid Man for weeks." It reminded me of an episode of "The F word" where Gordon Ramsey asked Sir Cliff Richard to identify the fine wine (Sir Cliff's wine being one of them) making it more difficult by hiding the bottles in a wrapper. The honourable sir found one wine particulary terrible and said he wouldn't even pay £8 for it. It gave Gordon immense pleasure revealing to Sir Cliff that it was in fact his own wine and called him out for ripping people off with £150 a bottle for something that tasted like vomit mixed with sour grapes. Yes, that will indeed go down well with a steak and potatoes, Sir Cliff.

    I like the photo of the wine containers; it evokes a feeling of nostalgia just looking at it. I would love to go there someday and see it for myself.

    La ringrazio per la condivisione di immagini :)

  2. Fascinating. To be fair, I haven't been to any of said wine tasting parties, but that's mainly because most people I know just guzzle whatever they can lay their grubby hands on..

    ...kidding, some of my pals do like fine wines...

    Me and you should go wine tasting some time. I'm not a good wine taster though. I know what I like, which ultimately boils down to Spanish (Rioja or Albali) or French (St. Emillion), with the occassional New World powerhouse. Not that I don't like others, but those are my favourites, everything else gets compared to them!

  3. Do you spit out the wine after you have tasted it or is that rude at wine tasting party?

    'Everything that Cavit strives for, but worse and with a powerful cumin flavor and gorgonzola bouquet'
    You are hilarious, I'm sure the Romans would have approved :)

    Have a nice weekend.

  4. I love going to wine tastings. It gives me the opportunity to enjoy a variety of different wines without being wedded to the entire bottle. I especially enjoy when the host pairs food with the wine.

  5. I haven't read your post yet [have to wait until I get to my desk], but I see Woody up there and can't wait!

    I just wanted to clarify something...since you are Mr. Smart Guy, I didn't want you to think I was an idiot...b/c your comment made me sound that way!

    What I MEANT was that I don't believe a person must take part in organized religion in order to have a relationship with other words, just b/c I don't go to church doesn't make me an athiest or an agnostic.

    Okay, The End. Expect another comment soon!

  6. Very interesting!

    I confess that I don't know much about wine tasting. Once I find something I like, I generally stick with it. Plus, I only have a few friends that are really into wine...and they're all older. The younger folks are all, "We'll drink Boone's Farm!" Dear gawd. I'm not that bad though. ;)

    Have a lovely weekend.

  7. the wine guy in my area actually sounds a bit like you do in his reviews- only I think he's dead serious. I'll forward his next email to you if I remember.

    Oh and woody woodpecker is more the the PCP type than a wine drinker.

  8. Ooo, I am SUCH a wino... wish I could have a glass of it!

    And Kristin let me know you donated to her cause- thank you SO much, darlin.

  9. Hahahaha, your wine notes are awesome.

    I've never done a wine tasting, I just don't care for wine. Now if they had a candy tasting party...

    ; )

  10. Ladytruth,
    I haven't seen that episode, but I do like watching Ramsey, very entertaining guy.
    Yeah, walking around in the streets of Pompeii and not having to imagine too hard how things were is amazing, you should definitely stop by there if you go to Italy.
    Di niente... : )

    Hah, great grubby guzzling imagery there. I'm certain you have great taste in wines.
    I'm always ready to invent an excuse for work to go wine tasting so let me know what parts of Europe you are going (I'm not very 'good' at it, but I make up for that with enthusiasm).
    I have not tried some of the ones you suggest, thanks for the recommendations! (Have had Rioja, but not the others).

    Dutch Donut Girl,
    Some people spit, I usually do not unless it is particularly bad wine (but not directly at the host because that would be rude).
    Heh, glad you like my mockery of bad wines, it is great fun. You have a great weekend too, and have some sweets!

    Peach Tart,
    I agree, the variety is wonderful and it can be kind of like solving a mystery. You are right about the food pairings too!
    Haha, what goes with Funyons and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese? (kidding, don't answer that)

    No, I understood you perfectly, I was just joking around with you. I understand that view.
    I'll be expecting another comment then. :)

    Thanks! I don't know as much as I should about wine tasting. My favorite wines are very smooth, non bitter, take a long time to fade away, have an earthy taste, and leave you feeling warm after the first sip.
    Boone's Farm *shudder* You have a great weekend too!

    That's funny, I'd like to read them. I do my thing mostly just to make other people laugh.
    Haha, yes Woody is fairly tweeked, wired, and fried...
    I'll check out that link when work is not so flipping busy.

    I'll send a bottle of my favorite.
    On the donation, you're welcome! That is a very worthy cause, if we all just pitched in a little...

    : ) Thanks, it's all done in humor.
    It's funny you mention a candy tasting, I was thinking about buying up several kg of exotic chocolates and having a tasting party.

  11. I like a guy who is willing to mock a bad grape!

  12. Sadly wine gives me a raging headache and giant red face after only half a glass. I'd like to enjoy it but I can't touch it. Pity me.

    I love the smell of red wine though. Yum!

    I bet you thought I was more "Thunderbird" kinda gal, no?

  13. I really enjoyed this post! It's like I was entertained but also learned something. On a Friday even! Very tricky...

  14. I am not a wine drinker so, naturally, I have never been to a wine party. Many of my friends drink wine and it always looks so...classy! This is why I have put it on my bucket sample different wines and try to find a favorite. I keep putting this item off...b/c I'm just not that into drinking it!

    As usual, I walk away from your blog feeling smart. Today it is Wine Smart! I love the little bird tale up there! I'm picturing a bunch of drunk birds flying around now!

    As to religion...thanks for the tweet and the re-comment! Mucho appreciado! (I don't know how to say appreciated...but i'm glad you don't think i'm a dunce!)

  15. I love your wine reviews, they are in turn off-putting, amusing and transcendental (not all three at once, necessarily) -

    I once took a wine-tasting course and invariably ended up liking the cheap white wine that everyone else was panning in multisyllabic distaste. So what do I know? Not much, alas alacque.

    Hope you will have a fabulous weekend, complete with the appropriate wine (whatever that may be!)

  16. WendyB,
    No bad wine is ever safe from my mockery.
    ps - I like a girl with excellent taste in jewelry and clothing.

    Vegetable Assassin,
    That is a raw deal to be unable to enjoy any wine. I hope that doesn't include Champagne and such also?
    I remember you are a margarita girl, no Thunderbird.
    You are right about the smell of red wine, *some* red wine that is.

    Call Me Cate,
    Wait a minute... it was 'like' you were entertained, but not really entertained? ; )
    I like your blog and twitter comments too!

    The surgeon general says 'drinking wine is classy'. I still like really mellow wines, not the bitter or 'tannic' ones. Or ones that smell like the sceptic tank of a slaughter house... oops there I go with my reviews again.
    Yep, everybody likes a drunk bird (bird not meaning a lady, in case any UK ladies are reading this).
    I don't think anyone I've discussed things with on blogger is a dunce. Wait, does that mean I'm the dunce???

    Thanks, I really enjoy your comments on kitchen retro. I kind of think we have a similar sarcastic humor gene of some sort.
    It's interesting to me that wine has been in human cultures for thousands of years. Oh, I'll find some appropriate wine and drink it appropriately. Probably while breaking up little cubes of marble. : )

  17. I've never been to a wine-tasting party, I'm not really a fan of wine to be honest. Margarita party? Martini party? I'll be there.

    And that random bird fact made me laugh. Poor poisoned birds!

  18. Tasting notes.. If I can find a pen I should try that sometime. LEAD? they really used to love that stuff back in the day. As a relative wine igno when compared even to budweiser drinkers, I am always impressed when I go to a tasting with someone who really doesn't just know wine, but tunes in to a person's uniqueness and asks lots of questions - makes it interactive. We had this happen last week in Chateauneuf du Papes and walked out of the store with 7 bottles :)

  19. Taylor,
    I used to be where you are, maybe wine is an acquired taste? For what it's worth, I would still go to a margarita or martini party. :)

    I keep a leather bound journal just so I never buy a bad wine twice. Never made it to Chateauneuf when I was around there last fall, but from your pictures it looks great (and they are highly regarded for sure). I'm looking forward to some of the fresh Chianti wines, the Veneto in general, and taking a nice tour around Florence in a few months.
    Your pictures and description of the place in Florence was epic.

  20. Remind me to invite you to my next wine tasting party. I'll make sure to stock up on the cheap stuff just for laughs.

  21. Wine is such a wonderful gift from the gods. I always thought if I ever went on one of those survivor type shows, the first thing I'd do is figure out how to make wine out of whatever fruit I could scrounge so I'd be popular and not get voted off.

  22. Bottoms up Eric! I tried a bit of the noble rot myself at the weekend - bloody good stuff!

  23. Chocolate and whine,
    Oh, I'll be reserving a whole chapter for your party then... :)

    That would far and away keep you from getting voted off. There are other reasons, but wine would be a big factor.

    Way to go! I like to nip a bit when nipping (marble and tile).

  24. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  25. Saoirse,
    Well thanks, very kind of you to leave the comment.