Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pleasure Principle and Wine

Sigmund Freud’s Pleasure Principle is well known, but his other small “contribution” to mankind, i.e. his unofficial discovery of Cocaine, is probably less so. He in fact became quite an enthusiastic user of cocaine, in addition to smoking a large quantity of cigars, up to 20 a day. He developed jaw cancer and had to endure 33 operations and eventually died of it.
I am not here to encourage the use of cocaine or cigars (as if people who used them needed encouragement).
Instead I am going to talk about some of my pleasure pursuits. I have from an early age been interested in music though I have never played any instrument except the “gramophone” if you can call it an instrument. It can also be said that I play these instruments by “proxy” through my children. I have always had a multitude of hobbies: photography, electronics (I built my own radios and valve amplifiers), and snorkeling to name a few. Arriving in London in the early 70s allowed for easy access to France and French wine and food remains one of my most pleasurable pursuits, though my interest in wines has now been extended to Port and other non-French wines.
In life one goes through difficult times and we Chinese are fairly philosophical about it – unhappiness is often viewed as something secondary to external circumstances such as loss and bereavement, political injustice (which has afflicted most of our families) and other life events that are beyond our control. Our classical poets wrote about such sadness and generally accepted what life befell them.
When life events do not go our way, some turn to religion, although more and more people nowadays turn to the “happy pill” (drugs). One can also seek comfort in Music, Poetry, Photography, Writing (and blogging), Painting, Fishing, Knitting, Travel and of course Food and Wine.
In Das Lied von der Erde, Gustav Mahler most famously set to music some Chinese poems (translated into German). One of the poems used was by Wang Wei, one of the greatest poets of the Tang Dynasty:


Dismounting, let me share your farewell wine  
Where, friend are you heading now?
Choking, fate has not been kind to me
Will retire to the southern slopes to seek rest

Enquire no more when I am gone 
Till the end of clouds, endless white clouds!

The benefits of moderate consumption of wine have been well documented by scientific papers and the popular press. However, the pleasure of visiting vineyards and tasting local wine and local produce and the regional cuisine is way beyond health pursuit. Given current concerns over the effects of a number of psychiatric drugs, we may have to have a fresh look at the meaning of sadness and happiness in one’s life.
Recently I had the opportunity to drive from the south of France back to London with my family. We decided to revisit some of our favourite vineyards and restaurants on the way. The great thing about France is the country’s ability to preserve regional styles both in wine making and cooking.

Our first stop was Rhone. Twenty years ago I visited Rhone and Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné was my favourite vineyard. One could get a bottle of their La Chapelle Hermitage for a very reasonable price then. It was a fantastic wine and Hugh Johnson in his pocket guide described it as a match for any wine on earth. How true it was and its current price also reflects that. Now I have to settle for Crozes Hermitage. This wine fortunately needs less cellar time and the sunshine and soil imparts a flinty and peppery flavour that is so typical of the region. It has that elusive softness on the palate.
It was just as well I did not go for the top price wine. Afterwards I was told by a good friend of mine that since the death of the old man Gérard Jaboulet in 1997, La Chapelle Hermitage has not really been the same. The last great vintage was 1996. Nowhere is tradition more important than in some of the top vineyards in the world. Chateau d’Yquem hopefully will never give up their traditional method.
The white we chose from Jaboulet was Pararelle 45, the name taken from its cellar’s latitude position. It is a white wine with 20% Viognier, a grape variety that gives white wines in the area its long and lingering after-taste. It will be great with many Chinese dishes and of course sea food and will hold its own even with fairly spicy seasoning.
The next stop was in Burgundy, arguably one of the two best wine districts in France. I was once told by someone whose father was from Bordeaux and mother from Burgundy that Champagne is that place in between that produces a fizzy drink. Well, that is French for you.

Now when in Burgundy, there really is no point thinking cheap and with my daughter’s rather well trained palate we headed to Puligny Montrachet. It was vintage time and the chardonnay grapes were coming in. It was a moving sight and with the glorious autumn sun just setting we tasted some of the finest that this area has to offer. Not the most expensive, as Le Montrachet will set you back quite a bit. I tasted some grapes and even two or three were enough to convince me that everything was working for this region. You could taste just about everything even in a few grapes. Some of you would have seen the photo of the reds in one of my previous postings. It was a bit of tongue in cheek putting up glorious burgundies for cooking, but it is what they do in the region when preparing the fabulous local dishes of Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq Au Vin.
The Puligny Montrachet we chose was from Henri Moroni (so were the reds). Their tasting room was rustic and not pretentious.

We spit our wines, not because they were bad, but it was the only way not to be intoxicated. It felt like such a waste but Madame even insisted that we should. We tasted Chassagne Montrachet some years back and they were great wines too. This time we decided to have a slightly different experience. I was surprised at how different it was. This wine has a superb vanilla, almond and citrus nose that is so assertive that just smelling it is enough to convince you that it is a must have. The colour is a brilliant light gold with that very typical green tinge, exactly the colour of those tiny grapes we tasted outside. Unlike some lesser wines, the nose converts to even greater flavour on the palate.

This is a pedigree wine at a fairly reasonable price, by that I mean much more reasonable than Le Montrachet.
What is to go with this wine? I have often felt that some of these great white burgundy wines are best enjoyed on their own. However, it will be perfect with Turbot, Halibut, Scallop and Bresse Chicken, one of the first French produce to have an AOC. (In The Cockroach Catcher, the child psychiatrist lamented that the excellent free range chicken that he tasted in his childhood days could no longer be found.) I recommend most of the seafood (if very fresh) dishes to be cooked simply steamed or seared with minimal seasoning like a touch of sea salt, fresh ginger and coriander. Similarly the best chicken can be just rubbed with sea salt, steamed and served with a delicate spring onion and ginger sauce in its own juice. In my view, food and wine should complement each other but the very best wines simply enhance the dishes.

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