Musical Refinement

Sometimes a tugged mental thread yields the most unexpected byways of learning.

This particular journey began the other evening, when I was listening to a French radio station, Swing FM, while sipping a glass of champagne. The music playing was a heavy Hammond organ thing, the champagne didn’t taste quite right, and fortunately, some small task diverted my attention. When I came back to my glass, the music had changed to a happier swing piece, Southern Sunset.

It could be because I’m not a big fan of the mighty Hammond, but I was sure the champagne tasted better once the organ blues song had ended.

The question mark that popped up above my head was: Did the music affect my experience of the taste of the champagne?

And because this isn’t the end of my story, the simple answer is: Probably.

Some studies have shown that the tongue is easily fooled. When wine drinkers were exposed to various kinds of music, from Carmina Burana by Orff to Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague, the subjective perception of a wine’s taste could change by up to 60% – cabernet tasted richer, chardonnay more zingy, and so on.

Chalk it up to cognitive priming theory. The brain can be primed to respond in a certain way by environmental factors.

A point to be noted in passing: If you are trying to impress with a good wine, or cover the faults of a bad one: Play the right

But could music actually change the way wine tastes, objectively (i.e. quantifiably)?

Again, according to some winemakers, the answer is: Maybe.

The sound frequencies of music played to vats of maturing wine are said by some to enhance the yeast activity during the fermentation process. I haven’t been able to find any studies which back this up, but the winemakers who play monastic chants and classical music to their vats seem persuaded.

And so to the end of my exploration today, the current apex of winemaking and fermentation sound techniques, the Sonor Wines speaker/vat technology.

Sonos Wines techology Illustration: Sonos Wines

Sonor Wines technology
Illustration: Sonor Wines

Created by a Viennese winemaker / musician, the claim is made that refinement of wine through music can be achieved through “a special speaker (…) placed into the tank or barrel to expose the fermenting grape juice to classical, jazz, electronic, pop or rock music. This method positively influences the maturing process of the wine and produces a better taste.”

My initial reaction?

It’s wondrous strange, and well, why not?

I don’t know if it works, I don’t know if it’s quantifiable genius or certifiable humbug, but on this dreary and rainy autumn morning, I’m happier for having found it.

Late Harvest

Image via

If you’ve ever felt the need to get to know your champagne from the ground up, now is your chance – the Champagne region started the annual grape harvest this past week, the latest start in over a decade. A late and cold spring, hailstorms and rain led to vineyards problems like coulure, unpollinated flowers and falling berries, as well as millerandage, unevenly developed grape bunches. Not to mention outright destruction when it came to a couple of severe hailstorms in late July.

Still, in light of the excellent weather for most of July, the Comité Champagne (CIVC) is predicting a harvest decline of only 4.5% compared to 2012.

A late season and smaller harvest don’t mean the final result won’t be excellent, however. According to Dominique Moncomble, technical director of the CIVC, “Since 1950, the Champagne region has seen at least twenty harvests that started after September 25, and several of them were some of the very best quality”.

The general attitude seems to be one of cautious optimism. Or maybe cautious hope.

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

Around 120,000 seasonal workers are employed for the harvesting of 34,000 hectares (131 sq. miles) of vineyards in the region, starting with pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, and moving to the later-ripening chardonnay blanc.

The pay, from what I can tell on the French employment website, is €9.43/hour, with some vineyards offering a bonus for quick pickers, and others paying by basket harvested. The harvest contract lasts for between one and two weeks.

So, if you have the inclination see grapes up close and really get the feel of Champagne, put on your boots, grab your tent, and get picking.

For those who like the notion of harvesting but only for a day, and who don’t mind having to paying rather than being paid for their work, I found this harvest party site – I haven’t tried it, but it offers an hour or so of vineyard picking, a tour, and a large vineyard feast.

Charonnay grapes Photo: Gayle Keck

Chardonnay grapes
Photo: Gayle Keck


Check out Been There Ate That For a good post on the harvesting experience.

Party Trick

Many years ago, a good friend pulled a little party trick and I learned it because I thought it was not only delightful, but a fun way to memorialize a good evening of excellent conversation: Wire bistro chairs out of the wire cage and metal disk.

Image: Web and Time Click on the image for the tutorial.

Image: Web and Time
Click on the image for the tutorial.

Some people use small pliers to make the chairs – my personal feeling is that a casual approach is best, something to keep the hands busy while the mind and mouth are elsewhere. I usually fashion a small bottle from the aluminum foil, perhaps a couple of even smaller glasses, and then add the cork itself with a small bit of napkin or tissue as a tablecloth to make an entire miniature.

Bottle Anatomy Image: Upstart

Bottle Anatomy. Click on the image to go to the interactive original image.
Image: Upstart

The invention of the champagne bottle, as I’ve noted in a previous post, was a prerequisite to the popularity of champagne. Prior to the 17th-century invention of the a glass strong enough to withstand the pressure of the bubbles in sparkling wine, exploding bottles were a regular hazard in champagne production.

The wire cage (‘musselet’) was invented in 1844 to keep the cork from popping out – prior to this, string was used. And prior to the introduction of of wine cork stoppers in the mid-17th century, oil-soaked rags were used to stop the bottles. The small metal disc that sits atop the cork is called a plaque de musselet, and there is a thriving collector’s market in them. (Really. Check this French site out if you are in the market for a new and obscure hobby.)

The rim of the bottle anchors the wire cage, while the foil – originally made of lead – is thought to have prevented mice from attacking the cork. This foil is now made of aluminum.

The cork of a champagne bottle, recognizable by its characteristic mushroom shape, is usually made of particle of natural cork – generally considered a sustainable crop. Studies claim that natural cork has a considerably smaller carbon footprint than either plastic or aluminum bottle stoppers. 60% of cork oak production is used for bottle stoppers. The corks look more like the image to the right when they are inserted – the mushroom shape comes only after being ‘popped’.

Raw champagne cork

Raw champagne cork

According to, the main body of the cork, called the manche, is made of agglomerated cork, while the miroir consists of between one and three discs of natural cork, affixed to the bottom portion that comes into contact with the wine.

As for the glass, the glass-making techniques that prevent the previous loss of between 20 – 80% of any given vintage also mean the bottles are heavy. Champagne producers, in the interest of reducing both costs and ecological footprint, are moving towards reducing the weight of the bottles from the usual 900 grams to 700 grams.

As as for the indentation, or ‘punt’, its purpose is to redistribute pressure so that the force of the gas doesn’t explode the bottom of the bottle.

And as any regular champagne imbiber knows, the punt is the perfect place to insert your thumb when pouring to avoid disastrous bottle slippage.


Northbound Spirits

I’m back from a great trip to Trondheim, Norway, the furthest north I’ve ever been. The unexpected cancelled flights and lost luggage of the first days were more than made up for by stellar weather, a picturesque Nordic town, forested vistas and long hikes.

Trondheimsfjord, seen from the Lade Walk. Photo: PK Read

Trondheimsfjord, seen from the Lade Walk.
Photo: PK Read

We found a retro pub by the river, right next to the Old Bridge, a book lined den of live music, readings and conversation.

Inside the Antikvarietat on the Verftsgate.  Photo: PK Read

Inside the Antikvarietat on the Verftsgate.
Photo: PK Read

The front part had snacks, cakes and light dishes, but the rear bar had a fairly extensive of Norwegian artisanal beers. I tried one, an India Pale Ale by Fyr & Flamme. And a bit of Linie Aquavit, that Norwegian spirit that is only sold once it has been sent on a ship in oak sherry casks from Norway to Australia and back, thus crossing the ‘line’ of the equator. I had my first taste of Linie back in my early twenties, and none since – it tastes just as good as I remember. Don’t know why we don’t have it more often. Potato-based and flavored with caraway, this particular aquavit has a nice richness compared to the others we tried on the trip, which were (for me) basically just strong shots of liquor. I’m open to being told otherwise.

Photo: PK Read

Fyr & Flamme, Linie Aquavit.
Photo: PK Read

Now, I know I usually focus on champagne and whisky, and truly, I am not much of a beer drinker, but the Fyr & Flamme (“Fire & Flame’) IPA was a fine drink by any measure. It was like a foamy, rich, malty glass of liquified pine forest. So much flavor, so varied and complex and herbal. Apparently, three different hops are imported from the USA to make this beer, so I suppose it’s not entirely ‘local’. And while I won’t be giving up my champagne any time soon, I would be open to other kinds of bubbly like this IPA.

Good whiskies and champagnes were available at some of the bars and restaurants we visited, but at prices so astronomical that it was a bit off-putting. I wasn’t able to locate any locally-produced whisky – I’d be interested to hear from anyone who knows something about Norwegian whisky production.

The Arctic Circle is only 500 km to the north, but we didn’t have time to cross that line on this trip. Ideally, I’d like to hop on a boat and head up through the Lofoten Islands and then northwards. After this visit, I am sure we’ll be back for more. And I’ll be writing more about it this week.

The banks of the Nidelva. Photo: PK Read

The banks of the Nidelva.
Photo: PK Read

Sober Expectations

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California Photo: PK Read

Spring vineyard, Napa Valley, California
Photo: PK Read

I saw recently that Napa Valley wineries had already started their grape harvesting season as of August 1 this year, almost two weeks earlier than the average, due to a short winter combined with a long and mild spring.

So I wondered whether our long, wet, cold winter, combined with a long, wet, cold spring and a massive hailstorm, had affected harvest expectations in our wine region of western Switzerland.

The answer, in a word, is: Yes.

Expectations for the Swiss vendanges – the wine harvest – are not high this year. The June 20 hailstorm destroyed around 6% of the Swiss vineyard crop within five minutes, affecting a potential 6 millions liters (1.6 million gallons) of Swiss wine. Harvesting isn’t expected for the remaining vines until well into September.

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm Photo: Les News

Swiss vineyard after a hailstorm
Photo: Les News

Over in the French Champagne region, about three hours north from where we live, violent hailstorms from July 26-27 destroyed large swathes of vineyards – some areas experiencing a 10% loss, others 100%, with an overall loss expected of around 30% of this year’s crop. The same holds true for the Burgundy region.

Hailstorms (and even a “mini-tornado”) destroyed vineyards, but to a lesser extent, in the Bordeaux region as well. The French and Swiss Ministries of Agriculture are looking into adjusting insurance strategies to allow for ‘climatic risks’ in the future, as the assumption is that extreme weather will only increase.

French language viticulture news stories make for grim reading these days. What’s left of the crop will be harvested late.

Photo: RTS Info

Photo: RTS Info

So I guess California’s Napa Valley was a winner this year in vineyard climatology.

As for my single, heroic muscadet grape vine, which usually produces around 20-30 kg (45-65 lbs) per year, I don’t expect we’ll get more than a few good bunches this season – the cold, the wet, the wind have all done their part and our vine is the barest it has been in almost twenty years.

I do have one good harvest story this year, though – the lavender I planted last year as a part of a bee and butterfly section has attracted a healthy colony of bumblebees, who come and harvest pollen every afternoon. Their loud communal buzz fills one side of the garden, an industrious song for the summer heat.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year – most colonies only number 50 or less, so I’m assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby.
Photo: PK Read

Hidden Treasure

Wild blackberries, the kind that stain my fingers for days after a long picking session, that leave me with scratches on my legs and arms from wading through large hidden patches, the ones that allow for long, lazy conversations with fellow seekers and which reward effort with the nirvana of a fresh blackberry pie and later, much later when summer is gone and tans are faded, fill my mouth with the sweet purple ink memories written on those days  in the form of blackberry jam – wild blackberries rank among my favorite of all fruits.

A hidden blackberry patch. Photo: PK Read

A hidden blackberry patch
Photo: PK Read

This hasn’t been a year for stone fruits, but I have hope for the blackberries. I went and checked on a couple of patches yesterday. I was relieved to find that this one, which hasn’t really brought forth much of interest over the past couple of seasons, is in bloom and is doing well. It’s nestled between two fields – one a cow pasture, the other a neglected orchard – a triangular bit of forgotten hedgerow that’s invisible from the small country road that passes it, and uninviting to those who do notice it. Perfect for picking. Fingers crossed, this place will be a treasure trove in about 4-5 weeks.

Hedgerow flowers Photo: PK Read

Hedgerow flowers
Photo: PK Read

Two of my best hedgerow patches – long, rangy stands of trees, brambles and bushes that stood between fallow fields – have been lost to housing developments over the past two years, and I fear that will be the fate of most of them. The fields and the hedgerows are all under tidy suburban lawns and charmingly names streets now.

Blackberry blossoms Photo: PK Read

Blackberry blossoms
Photo: PK Read

Another patch, one that looks inviting and proffers all its goods openly, as if it’s some free market stand, is actually a place I never use. I run by it every day, watch the berries ripen, watch them get fat, then watch as the bushes get picked clean by passers-by and birds. It’s a nice hedgerow, right out there in the open, but I wouldn’t pick from it. Why?

Golf course hedgerow. Buckets of berries here, but the trees along the golf course don't look very healthy. Photo: PK Read

Golf course hedgerow. Buckets of berries here, but the trees along the golf course don’t look very healthy.
Photo: PK Read

It’s in the rough of a golf course, and I also see how they regularly spray pesticides all along the perimeter.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Still, the bench on the other side of this hedgerow offers a good place to stretch, and sometimes to sit, to look out over Lake Geneva, and to dream of pies and jams to come.

Blackberry jam fixings from a couple of years ago Photo: PK Read

Blackberry jam fixings from a couple of years ago
Photo: PK Read

Another favorite is a Blackberry Bellini – fresh wild blackberry sludge with champagne or sparkling wine. Not bad, not bad at all.

Blackberry Bellini
4 cups fresh blackberries
sprig of mint
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ tablespoon sugar (optional)
1 bottle champagne, prosecco, or a bubbly, non-sweet cider for the non-alcoholic version
Mash the blackberries, mint, lemon juice, and sugar until the mixture is sludgy and juicy. Strain the pulp through a sieve (I like a bit of actual pulp in my drink, so I don’t use a fine sieve – just enough to keep out the seeds). Divide blackberry mixture evenly among serving glasses. Add the bubbly and stir just a bit – the juice will color the sparkling wine, the pulp will sink down to the bottom to be enjoyed at the very end. Spear or float a blackberry for garnish.

Kitschy hedgerow pinwheels Photo: PK Read

Kitschy hedgerow pinwheels
Photo: PK Read

Different Bubbles

Camel Valley Vineyard Bodmin, Cornwall Photo: PK Read

Camel Valley Vineyard
Bodmin, Cornwall
Photo: PK Read

I took the family to visit Camel Valley Vineyard in Cornwall last week, where we tried out every type of sparkling wine they had on offer. I stand by my first assessment – my favorites are the CV Rosè and the CV Cornwall Brut. The others – including an oddly satisfying pinot noir sparkling wine – were all good, just not quite my coupe de champagne. I like them as well as some of my regular champagnes, which is saying something, and it’s nice to know I can buy tasty sparkling wine in the UK while supporting local producers.

Also, the drive down ever-narrowing roads and through the Cornish countryside, over the Camel River and up to the vineyards, is a small adventure in discovery. After we left the winery, we headed out to our hotel for the evening, the lovely Lewinnick Lodge. A friend (a very good friend!) had made sure that a bottle of chilled Champagne (a Deutz brut) was waiting for us in our room, so we were able to do our own direct comparison – the Deutz had that unique chalky dryness of French Champagne, while the CV brut had a mellow roundess that was very enjoyable.

Twenty minutes from Camel Valley - the sea Photo: PK Read

Thirty minutes from Camel Valley – the sea
Photo: PK Read

Overall, sparkling wines are doing very well globally – for many, they have the pop of Champagne from France without the price. Italian prosecco is expanding in sales, and other countries (notably the United States, Australia and New Zealand) have produced solid sparkling wines for years. The name Champagne is only protected if the product comes from Europe – many other regions outside Europe use the word champagne as synonymous with sparkling wine.

Since English-produced bubbly currently only accounts for around 1% of sparkling wine sales in the UK, I guess you could say it’s a sector with a lot of growth potential. Variety being the spice of life, I know that when I am visiting the UK, I will be trying out some of the other local sparkling products, as well.

Champagne, Temporality & Spatiality

Infinite Bubbles Photo: Kath Fries

Infinite Bubbles
Photo: Kath Fries

It’s not that I can’t find my way around a given situation or place without champagne, because that is most certainly not the case. But I know for a fact that after a glass of champagne, I usually feel a bit more sparkle. It’s always gratifying to have my subjective feelings substantiated by science. In news that was gleefully reported, champagne – like red wine and blueberries – seems to be beneficial to various cognitive functions as well as maintaining a healthy heart.

From a article:

“New research shows that drinking one to three glasses of champagne a week may counteract the memory loss associated with ageing, and could help delay the onset of degenerative brain disorders, such as dementia.
Scientists at the University of Reading have shown that the phenolic compounds found in champagne can improve spatial memory, which is responsible for recording information about one’s environment, and storing the information for future navigation.
Champagne has relatively high levels of phenolics compared to white wine, deriving predominantly from the two red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are used in its production along with the white grape Chardonnay. It is these phenolic compounds which are believed to be responsible for the beneficial effects of champagne on the brain.
Previous research from the University of Reading revealed that two glasses of champagne a day may be good for your heart and circulation and could reduce the risks of suffering from cardiovascular disease and stroke.”
There’s not much I can add to these few lines that would be better news for champagne drinkers (or, for that matter, the champagne industry, even if they probably already knew this intuitively). I hope champagne will help me navigate the world for many years to come.
Image: The Levity Institute

Image: The Levity Institute

MedicalExpress article – Scientists reveal drinking champagne could improve memory
Study published in Antioxidants and Redox Signalling – Phenolic Acid Intake, Delivered Via Moderate Champagne Wine Consumption, Improves Spatial Working Memory Via the Modulation of Hippocampal and Cortical Protein Expression/Activation by G. Corona, D. Vauzour, J. Hercelin, C.M. Williams, and J.P.E. Spencer.
Study published in Antioxidants and Redox Signalling – Dietary (Poly)phenolics in Human Health: Structures, Bioavailability, and Evidence of Protective Effects Against Chronic Diseases by D. Del Rio, A. Rodriguez-Mateos, J.P.E. Spencer, M. Tognolini, G. Borges, and A. Crozier

The Champagne Mirror

12390037_sAccording to Spiros Malandrakis, Senior Alcoholic Drinks Analyst at Euromonitor International, “Champagne has historically not only provided a rather accurate mirror image of the prevailing macroeconomic environment, the category actually appeared to precede the boom and bust cycles – a fact making it the proverbial canary in the coalmine, raising the alarm before an upcoming downturn.”

So with 2012 Champagne sales down in France as well as in all the largest export markets – the United Kingdom, the United States – it comes as a bit of surprise to find out that the second largest projected growth market in terms of actual Champagne volume, coming in right after France, isn’t China or Brazil, or the United States. map_nigeria

It’s Nigeria.

Euromonitor predicts exports to Nigeria of up to 1.3 million bottles by 2017. While this remains a fraction of the 19.4 million bottles exported to the United States in the first three quarters of 2012, but nonetheless, Nigerian consumption in 2011 was valued at almost 8bn naira (US$ 47m) and is predicted to more than double by 2017.

It seems odd that in a country where over 60% of the population (160 million) live on less than US$1 per day and 40% don’t have ready access to fresh water, Champagne would be such an expanding market, but this has one simple explanation: Nigeria’s oil economy. There are vast oil reserves, and the wealth generated by oil sales accounts for the majority of the country’s government budgetary revenues, and almost all of its export earnings. The current government has undertaken a path of reform, aiming for a more mixed economy. After all, Nigeria used to be an agricultural exporter, but with the reliance on oil it has become a net importer of food. According to the World Bank, 80% of oil revenues benefit 1% of the population.

If Champagne sales are a reliable indicator, as they have been in the past, then Nigerians are in for a future of strong oil sales and popping corks. Or at least, some of them are.

Several articles stated that Nigerian hip-hop videos feature conspicuous consumption of Champagne, and I invite you to view this music ranking chart to check for yourself. Yes, many of the videos show Champagne, but that might be a factor of the hip-hop rather than the artists’ Nigerian origins. The video below isn’t particularly new and doesn’t have any Champagne bottles, but I thought it was catchy.


Euromonitor blog post – Champagne: Nigerian Chic and European Doldrums

The Guardian article – Nigeria’s love of champagne takes sales growth to second highest in world by Afua Hirsch

The Nigerian Voice essay – Champagne Nigerian by Prince Charles Dickson



Blossoms and Bubbles

Different types of wine From:

Different types of wine

I found this Wine Folly poster via Paul Dorset’s blog, so thanks Paul for the great pointer to a great wine blog. As it turns out, I’ve managed to try quite a few of these – and I think there are a few I’ve tried that aren’t listed.

For Mother’s Day, I will be raising my glass to all the wonderful mothers I know!

Here’s a bunch of flowers – I took this at a nearby friend’s house yesterday after an evening of – what else? – champagne and good conversation. The wisteria has burst out all over our area in eastern France and many walls are alive with purple.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

And speaking of purple and bubbles, NASA recently released this image of cosmic wind bubbles at the center of the Milky Way. Just thought I’d include it here.

Bubbles of gas and particles, 25,000 light years high – that emerge from the centre of the Milky Way, on either side of the galactic plane after being blown at supersonic cosmic winds during star formation. Go here for more information. Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center via New Scientist

‘Fermi’ bubbles of gas and particles, 25,000 light years high – that emerge from the centre of the Milky Way, on either side of the galactic plane after being blown at supersonic cosmic winds during star formation. Go here for more information.
Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center via New Scientist

Have a good Sunday!