It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Monday, January 13, 2014

An ancient approach to enjoying wine

I recently suffered through a slight, but enduring, case of stomach flu.  While it was no health emergency, it was a definite food and wine crisis, for it had a near lethal effect on my appetite, taste buds and palate.  For what little I could eat, nothing seemed interesting or flavorful.  Dining out came to an end, and “stomach-friendly” recipes like basic risotto and simple pastas moved to the fore.

Nevertheless, even those two old reliables seemed bland and uninteresting, and whichever wine I tried to match with them seemed unattractively sharp and alcoholic.  Additional salt, pepper and other flavorings upped the food’s flavor interest, but what to do about an alternate beverage?  Beer bloats.  Soft drinks and colas—let’s not even go there.  And while water is an acceptable lubricant, it lacks a certain “generosity” of spirit to be even an average food accompaniment.
But how about wine with water?  That is, wine diluted with water?  Why not, I thought? And so, at least for this oenophile, I did the improbable, I diluted a half tumbler of red wine with an ounce or so of water until the alcohol level diminished and the palate burn disappeared.  It was nowhere near being a Rosé; it was in the lowest tier of very light bodied, low-alcohol wines.  

By doing so, I borrowed a page from the wine drinking practices of the ancient Greek Symposia—those convivial gatherings of aristocratic males that encompassed a wide variety of activities including poetry readings, musicians and dancers, games and celebrations, philosophical discussions, as well an occasional sortie into the pleasures of the pillow.

To ensure that their intellectual capacities were kept in check, and not otherwise unduly liberated by Bacchus’ blessing, the participants typically drank their wine diluted with water.  Becoming inebriated they maintained, would make them no better than those “barbarians” to the North who spoke unintelligible gibberish and routinely got swacked on their heady, beer-like malt liquor.

While moderation was always central to ancient aristocratic life, the nature of their wines clearly called for measured gratification.   Their winemaking practices—which included enhancing and strengthening the final fermentation with a variety of additives, flavorings and fortifiers—yielded powerfully-scaled, palate-whacking wines that could age for decades. 

The massive and heady effects of such wines is hinted at in Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey, which details Odysseus’ captivity and escape from the cave of Polyphemus, the giant, one-eyed Cyclops.  Odysseus gets the Cyclops smashed on three generous servings of undiluted wine. (Twenty cups of water to one wine being the ratio for mortals.)  While he was dead-drunk, they blinded him with an oversized lance.  That and other ruses helped Odysseus and his men escape the following morning.  

Fast forward about 4500 years, and we find Harold McGee—well known, Curious Cook author of numerous kitchen science topics—analyzing the effects of watering wine, liquor and even coffee in his 2010 article, ”To Enhance Flavor, Just Add Water.” In it he notes, “It’s no secret that the alcohol in drinks can get in the way of our enjoying their flavors. When alcohol makes up more than 10 to 12 percent of a liquid’s volume, we begin to notice its irritating, pungent effects in the mouth and in the nose.”  

And commenting on Scotch whisky tasters, he offers, “Nosers have long known that diluting the spirit with roughly the same amount of water reduces the alcohol burn. And at the same time, strangely, amplifies the aromas.”  Watering down a California Zinfandel with nearly 15 percent alcohol, he finds, “A glass of the full-strength wine tasted hot, dense, jammy and a little sulfurous, while the diluted version was lighter all around but still full of flavor, more fruity than jammy, and less sulfurous.” 

Thankfully, at this writing, I have returned to the undiluted joys of regular strength wines.  However, I must confess that I have on occasion been spotted at my favorite restaurant enjoying a lusty pizza and a glass of Chianti---with several, very visible ice cubes floating in it.

Appropriately defused and chilled to my preferred temperature, my “Symposium Cocktail” is a very quaffable counterpoint to the hearty pizza.  I can’t, however, find the words to adequately describe the incredulous looks and disapproving stares from the cooks and food servers.   

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