Hustle and bustle, laughter, elbows in ribs, not much room to manoeuvre, and lots of red wine, yes, you can guess, it was the Italian wine trade show. Were there lots of Italians present or was it the effect of Italian wine on Swedes? Either way, the atmosphere felt quite Mediterranean, which was very welcome on this icy cold day. And what better room for the show to take place in than the Grand Hotel’s Mirror room: gilded ceilings, gold panelled walls and vertiginously tall mirrors. Smiling benevolently from above, angelic faces adorned with bunches of grapes.
White clad tables were lined along the wall like a row of dominoes, with not numbers but bottles matching up between tables. On every table red wine. Hardly a bottle of white in sight. What’s more, not red for the faint-hearted, but full-bodied, highly alcoholic and pulsing. Ripasso, Amarone della Valpolicella, Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello di Montalcino. Every importer seemed to have a selection of these on his table. Bottles beckoned, promising to be better or more exciting than their equivalent on a neighbouring display.
Swedes I was told, like powerful wines. They can match them with many of their traditional dishes as well as with their flavoursome wild meats such as reindeer and elk. Ripasso and Amarone are great favourites.
I remember a time when Amarone was not drunk with food but rather at the end of a meal. With its rich flavours and high alcohol obtained from fermenting dried grapes, Amarone was one of those wines coined “vini da meditazione” (meditation wine) by the Italian food writer and activist Luigi Veronelli. Those were wines that were best consumed at the end of a meal, their dense structure, sweetness and high alcohol making them tricky to pair with food. Not that they require food: they are the perfect post-prandial beverage, to be enjoyed for what they are and how our being responds to them. And it is once the job of eating is over, that we can truly relax, properly talk, hold philosophical discussions and possibly meditate. The term “vino da meditazione”, however, came into existence a while back, in the 1970s. That was when table wines used to be between 11% and 12.5% abv, before alcohol levels started soaring in response to global warming and to the trend for picking grapes at maximum phenolic ripeness.
Does “vino da meditazione” have any relevance today? Table wines are now between 13% and 15% abv and they are meatier. Consumers have progressively got used to stronger table wines and many like some sweetness and residual sugar in their fermented grapes. Meanwhile, the appetite for Amarone has increased. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine online, the production of Amarone has more than tripled between 1990 and 2003. Some producers are able to maintain the alcohol content at 15% or 15.5%, but it can reach 17%. Ripasso, made from refermenting new Valpolicella wine with the pomace of Amarone, is not quite as potent as Amarone. Nevertheless, the fermentation process is designed to give more power, depth, alcohol and sweetness to ordinary Valpolicella. It is a robust wine but its usual alcoholic content is equivalent to many table wines, i.e. 13.5%-14.5%. The boundaries of “vini da meditazione” have blurred with those of “vins de tous les jours”. Both are consumed interchangeably. If not by all, certainly by the Swedes.
What can we deduce from this? Is it a case of, in the words of Cole Porter, “Anything Goes”? Is it a trend? Admittedly, habits have changed. Dessert wines are not as popular as they once were and a meal is not necessarily sealed with an inevitable brandy. Does a full-bodied, ripe, appassimento wine bridge a meal through to coffee? It would be a shame to think that there is no room for some sort of meditation over a glass of wine once plates have been cleared away. Maybe there is no longer time for this in the busy twenty-first century. The meal, the part where we chew, has become the focal point for communion, with coffee the cue to soon get up and go. Furthermore, if powerful wines are served throughout an entire dinner, there is a reduced likelihood of reaching any form of enlightenment, let alone coffee-time before self-combustion. If you want to meditate, forget alcoholic vapours. Roll out your yoga mat and get chanting “Om” rather than “Amarone”.