Tue 6 Mar 2007
I didn’t say that. It was Anthony Hanson in the first edition of his book “Burgundy,” published in 1982 in the old Faber & Faber series about wine regions. Hanson was trying to get at the essence of a particular quality about red Burgundy wines, made from pinot noir grapes, that other writers tiptoed around with such terms as “earth,” “barnyard,” “beet-root,” “old saddle” or, with Gallic flair (attributed to the great winemaker Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac), “your mistress’s armpit.” “Not always, of course,” Hanson continues, “but frequently there is a smell of decaying matter, vegetable or animal, about them.”
Quite an uproar ensued about Hanson’s forthright statement — “sacre bleu!” — and many of his critics said that he was wrong. In fact, researchers determined that some portion of ancient cellars in Burgundy were rife with brettanomyces, a versatile, resilient and highly undesirable form of yeast that thrives in old, dirty barrels and other cellar equipment difficult to clean and that produces spoilage in wine that to some degree smells like the qualities mentioned above but in a more or less unpleasant manner. More uproar — “zut alors!” — there goes the whole romance and mystery of Burgundy, flying out the window with a scientific and pejorative explanation; the essence of Burgundy is the result of a flaw!
The truth surely lies smack in the middle of those brutal assessments. Great Burgundy doesn’t exactly smell like shit; earthy, yes, “barnyardy,” of course, “your mistress’s armpit” (but apparently not one’s wife’s armpit), I dunno, but the unspoken factor in this issue so far is that all of these elements must be clean, scintillating, provocative, touching both a depth of minerality and an elevation of freshness with a hint, excusez-moi, un soupÃ§on, of autumnal dissolution and death.
So, anyway, these important matters were brought to mind because Sunday was a beautiful day in Memphis, a bit chilly in the shade, warm enough in the sun to require the divesting of sweaters, and featuring like a banner on high, a clear, brilliantly blue sky. The day was also almost windless, and we had about half an acre of last season’s fallen leaves to rake, blow, bag and get out to the street, an activity that took most of the day.
Now we have five dogs, and while they are often corralled in their own yards, they sometimes have the free run of the big backyard. To speak as frankly as Anthony Hanson, they shit. And the shit gets rained on and dissolves, gets dried by the sun, gets transmuted by time and the elements. It’s all profoundly philosophical.
And, while working in the backyard, raking, stooping, lifting, filling bags, occasionally came to my nostrils an earthy, organic, slightly decayed yet not unpleasant scent that reminded me of something. This phenomenon occurred often enough that I had to stop and think about it, probing my sense memory, and then it struck me: I was smelling something that had to do with red wine, something evoked by the combination of old leaves, some of them dry and some a little damp, scrapings of earth and the funky yet clean scent of dessicated dog shit. Voila! Burgundy!
The image of the bottle of old Burgundy is from monmillesime.com.