Book Review: Drinking with the Valkyries, by Andrew Jefford

The mark of a truly great writer of journalism is his or her (or its) ability to expose a reader to a subject on which the person exposed might not have any real interest yet finds oneself enthralled and intrigued by the author’s ability to make the topic one of new-found fascination. I wish not to talk on behalf of others but will hazard a guess that Andrew Jefford’s writing has done this for those not having more than a cursory curiosity in wine or for people who chanced upon one of his articles or essays in the digital world of information overload.

For those immersed in wine for any number of reasons, Jefford has taken our vinous loyalty to new levels, providing further inspiration in the endless pursuit of knowledge and the searching for those drams of wonder and fascination that we are unable to muster ourselves.

Drinking with the Valkyries neatly and comprehensively brings together Jefford’s genius, affirming his position as an immortal in producing words, sentences and information that reflects wine’s status as, to use that well-honed Ernest Hemingway phrase, the most civilised thing on earth. And befitting a master writer, the experience of reading this collection of his writings leaves one not only enriched, but inspired and truly grateful for having one of his stature to be a part of this world along whose roads you wonder and whose rambling missives one is exposed to.

Running at over 300 pages and filled with a heady and comprehensive collection of columns and articles spanning an astounding array of diverse subject matter, a thorough analysis of Drinking with the Valkyries will best be left to a diligent and detail-obsessed doctorate student. Jefford has travelled the world of wine, seen it and heard it and, obviously, filled his cup from the taps connected to the landscapes offering the grapes and the souls of those making the wine. He has searched for the origin of wine with the help of archaeological digs producing clay vessels aged thousands of years and bearing fermented grape residue, as well as calling-on theories implying physiological relationships with alcohol that had been present before the advent of the human species.

He is big on geography. Whether it is the marly soils of Europe or the brush-scented wilderness of California; the burnt bushes of Australia or the small hot wet vineyard plots of Japan, the feel of soil and the scent of earth surrounded by mountains, valleys and open skies are a constant fascination. No surprise, thus, that the current topic of climate change is a profound concern having him constantly wondering where the planet is heading and what these effects will be not only on vineyard and wine, but on humankind itself.

As a wine professional also exposed to the world of wine marketing, competitions and journalism, Jefford has formed opinions on various ubiquitous aspects, including competitions, scoring, auctions, and food and wine pairings. These he storms with a sharp, piercing lance, never afraid to tackle convention and conformity, but in a well-argued manner bearing his familiar clarity of thought and modestly authoritative voice.

And then there are the wines, essays on certain wines that have moved and intrigued him, stuff that vindicates his obsession and hard-working commitment to the subject of love. Not necessarily the flash stuff, although those readers wishing a glimpse as to how the mind of Jefford interprets Romanée Conti and Le Pin will not be disappointed. Upon my reading, I found myself with an immediate desire to discover the modest white wines made from Picpoul, as well as from the Madiran region in south-west France. Too, Toshu from Japan.

If I were forced to lift a take-out or two, one would be Jefford’s opinion that we are missing a beat with our obsession with drinking older wines. The book’s title originates from a piece he wrote about the dramatic thrill offered by a vintage Port – arguably one of the last wine’s recommended as commendable in its youth:

“But you won’t fully understand it unless you have tasted it young, in its ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ stage, when it comes hurtling out of the glass and puts the screamers on you. Yes, it can be challenging. Yes, it’s black in the glass. It smells of steamrollered plums, strimmed nettles, Earl Grey and an accident with a pepper grinder, and it tastes like sweet, vinous magma. But it’s also the product of a company or a farm’s oldest, wisest vines, carefully cosseted, from long-proven vineyards, and usually made with a blend of largely indigenous grape varieties. Quality is quietly there, like a store of hydrogen, feeding its solar force. Don’t wait until later, when it’s become a red giant or a white dwarf: open that stellar bottle now. Wine offers no other experience like this.”

Andrew Jefford

Jefford’s writings offer catnip for those wishing to debunk theories usually resulting from lazy thought and opportunistic marketing, and here his piece titled “The Party’s Over” is of special importance. Relating to the influence of soil on the taste of wine, Jefford uses the studies of geologist Alex Maltman to show that while organic matter can influence a wine’s taste, rocks and stone and gravel don’t. “Minerality”, that overworked wine descriptor, has diddly squat to do with the vines’ rootedness in schist, slate, shale and those other geological features that mistakenly assume a connection between soil and taste.

As a non-believer of wine-scores, he speaks my language, dissing the relevance of numbers to assess wine quality in two simple sentences: “My view is that scores are foolish, philosophically untenable and damage wine culture rather than enrich it. What interests me in wine is not squabbling over vertical quality graduations but exploring the vast horizontal landscape of difference, which scores have no means of articulating.”

And what of this obsession with grape varieties, he asks? How can the individual and engagingly unique offerings of place, so wonderous in their diversity, be swept aside by corralling all wine into the category of cultivar:

“Are we really illuminating New Zealand’s Marlborough Sauvignon by continually benchmarking it against Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé? Mendoza Malbec is a different prospect to Cahors; Rutherford Cabernet and Margaux will never stroll hand-in-hand. Tasting Chablis is irrelevant if you want to make (or enjoy) a white wine that happens to come from Chardonnay grapes grown in Tuscany, Margaret River or Napa. China’s Cabernet Gernischt is ‘the same as’ Chile’s Carmenère –but in another sense it isn’t. The wine world begins to acknowledge this paradox, in fact, with the dual names ‘Syrah’ and ‘Shiraz’, or with ‘Pinot Grigio’ and ‘Pinot Gris’. Producers of each, in new global locations, carefully consider which name to use depending on the style of wine they wish to make (restrained or demonstrative respectively). We pay lip-service to place and origin, but we continue to organize our wine thinking, and build our wine aesthetics, around the superannuated and treacherous varietal model. Bring on the post-cultivar age. Origin and culture are what matters. Why make a fetish of what is no more than the third most important thing about a wine?”

If you are merely looking for food for thought, forget about this book. This is an ostentatious banquet, an enriching feast after which, greedily, you’ll still want more.

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