It is rather difficult to attempt to convey the sensations arising from drinking a good glass of wine, especially if they are complex, all-involving, yet simple at the same time. Drinking wine can be experienced in various ways, but it is only when you actually pass through the various phases that mark this accumulation of sensations that envelope you and enhance the taste, that an otherwise “normal” action turns into something quite unique and special.
The first step concerns choice, primarily the type of wine, according to taste, season, and dish, if you are dining. Then you have to select the most appropriate wine glass: in general, red wine requires a fuller bowl, while white wine is best served in narrower, upright glasses. However, for the more discerning there is a wide range of shapes from which to choose.
The bottle has been opened in good time and the temperature is ideal. All you have to do now is serve it, and this is the vibrant moment when the wine comes into play. Observe the wine as it flows into the glass and slowly settles: a thousand hues generate the first sensations and a hint of what is to come. Only a small amount needs to be poured.
To judge the wine’s appearance, hold the glass up by its foot or stem so as to assess the wine’s transparency, and if appropriate, its effervescence. Then tilt it so that the wine thins out towards the rim. Now observe the wine’s colour. The wine you are tasting has its own particular colour range among an infinite possible variety of shades, and the best way to assess the wine’s true colour is to hold the glass against a white background, such as a napkin or white sheet of paper. Then straighten up the glass and you will see that the wine forms what is known as “legs” “and “tears” running down the sides of the glass, which provide clues to the texture and alcohol content of the wine. Then leave the wine to rest a little.
The wine’s fragrance is perceptible as soon as it is poured, and if the wine has some kind of unpleasant aroma, it indicates a flaw and so is not worth tasting. On the other hand, a wine’s pleasant fragrance is enticing, and once visual assessment has been completed, hold the glass to your nose and take a series of good sniffs, pausing in between each one. You will perceive the basic aroma linked to the more volatile aromatic molecules. In order to appreciate the wine’s full fragrance, gently swirl the wine in the glass: this will allow the alcohol to evaporate, carrying the heavier aromatic molecules towards your senses. This is where you can begin to fully appreciate one by one the wine’s complex array of aromas, and build up your impressions together with the visual information. Only one thing now is left to do, and this is the most important stage.
It is now finally time to taste the wine. Take a small sip and let it roll across your palate to concentrate on identifying the nuances of flavour. Everyone has their individual way to focus on the taste through their taste buds: it could be a slight movement of the head, cheeks, jaws and tongue. In a few seconds your tongue encounters a host of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, warm, astringent and effervescent sensations. While tasting you also breathe in and oxygenate the wine, exhaling through the nose so that the olfactory sense is also activated. This array of individual perceptions of sight, smell and taste and tactile sensations are then identified, but the final authentic sensation is provided by the interaction of these flavours and scents. The sensation of fulfillment is the awareness that we have discovered the wine’s hidden secrets and that this is the best way to enjoy the wine.
At this point a professional wine taster would spit out the precious liquid, ready to taste another variety, but we prefer to down the wonderful liquid, sip by sip, enjoying the sensation of warmth and well-being. If we are in the company of other wine connoisseurs we can also enhance our sensations by exchanging our impressions.
It is rather difficult to attempt to convey the sensations arising from smoking a good pipe, especially if they are complex, all-involving, yet simple at the same time. You can just smoke, without even thinking about it. However, just as the nectar of the grapes has so many nuances, so does tobacco smoke, only waiting to be revealed through the road to its discovery rather similar to that of tasting a good glass of wine.
The first step concerns choice, which is rather challenging considering the extraordinary variety of tobacco available, one’s own personal taste and context. In general, the finest tobacco is best stored in tins, and then you need a pipe, naturally the most suitable one for your needs. This is where the interplay between pipes and tobacco comes in, and where pipes and tobacco rules are generally more flexible than those for combining wine and glasses, for example (red/glass with large bowl, white/flute). Naturally, there are certain fixed combinations between tobacco blends and pipe models, but for the most part smokers are free to do as they like and all depends on personal taste, needs, habits and mood. However, each time the very fact that one can choose is a special pleasure, a creative, personal moment when one can decide which tobacco and pipe to use.
The tin is still unopened before us. There is an air of expectation in the air. We dwell on the colour, writing and design on the tin and then we open it. This is the vibrant moment when the tobacco comes into play. Even before we can see the tobacco, our fingers run through the blend while the tobacco’s characteristic aroma fills the air. We can immediately feel the degree of the tobacco’s moisture and texture, which varies according to its cut and other characteristics connected to its preparation. These are the first sensations, and others are hinted at when we take a plug of fragrant tobacco out of the tin.
The pipe is ready, but there is no hurry. If we take a pinch of tobacco and hold it against a light background, we can admire the range of colours that make up the tobacco, trying to determine the origin of the flakes. Rubbing it between our fingers, we assess its cut, flake size and features of a particular variety of pressed tobacco, and inhale sensuously the mottled mass, admiring the various nuances of the “raw” fragrance. However, the pipe is waiting and it is time to fill it. Packing the pipe is an art, which is expressed in a variety of ways. There are those who fill it methodically with small plugs of tobacco, and those who plunge the pipe into the tobacco, packing it to the rim and then adjust the content with a tap of the finger or tamper. After a final sniff we light it and enjoy the smoke.
A “slow” smoke” is the best way to enjoy and savour the tobacco to the full, taking light, frequent puffs, which allow the pipe almost to go out. In this way the bowl will not overheat and the smoke is cool, ready to overwhelm us with sensations. A small quantity of smoke can be drawn in, leaving it to roll around the palate for several seconds and then exhaled through the nose. Or else, after holding the smoke, it can be exhaled through the mouth and then air is drawn in again and expelled through the nose. Some smell the smoke that arises from the bowl to determine its aroma. However, smoke is to be savoured, above all. Halfway through smoking the pipe our taste buds are assailed by a host of flavours, like wine: from chocolate to cherry to bourbon. A chorus of delicate, hardly perceptible aromas. If the pipe is made of briar it is also the wood that contributes to the taste, the fragrance and flavour varying from pipe to pipe. This should also be taken into account when combining pipe and tobacco. However, it is the overall perception that counts, the sensory experience, those indefinable vibrations that only tobacco can activate and the joy of “understanding” thoroughly our blend in all its nuances. If we are in the company of other pipe connoisseurs, we can also enhance our sensations by exchanging our impressions.
Emotions are always difficult to define. Even more so if it is someone else’s sensations in another time and place. Astonishment, fear, excitement, and bewilderment? What did that man experience eight thousand years or more ago when he accidently drank fermented grapes for the first time? A drink that Siduri, “the woman of the vine, the maker of wine”, knows well when she encounters Gilgamesh, king of the Sumerian city of Uruk on his quest for immortality. Siduri invites Gilgamesh to enjoy life instead. These characters are to be found in the ancient poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, a series of cuneiform inscribed tablets dating back to the 18th century BC. It is the first text in which wine is mentioned for the first time, to be followed by many others representing the various Mediterranean civilizations.
On the other hand, it is not until Columbus and his discoveries that we first learn about tobacco smoking. What happened before can only be deduced from archaeological finds and oral traditions. However, when smoke from tobacco leaves was first accidentally inhaled around eight thousand years ago, reactions such as astonishment, fear excitement and bewilderment would have been similar to those when imbibing wine for the first time. In both cases, the inducement of an altered mental state by substances that were stronger and less sophisticated than today’s was evident and sometimes disconcerting. Thus, it was natural to be filled with awe before something that was hard to explain or master, and consider it as something supernatural.
The vineyard that was planted by Noah (or even Adam) was protected by Osiris, and offered to humans by Dionysus (Bacchus). Throughout the various civilizations wine has been associated with myths and legends, substances that were often reserved for priests and privileged people and linked to sacred rituals that mediated between the natural and supernatural worlds. The same was true of tobacco, being used in Mayan and Aztec initiation rites, and used to commune directly with the Great Spirit for the North-American Natives. Wine and tobacco became the medium for wisdom if used wisely and in moderation, the former in the enlightened conversations during the Greek, Etruscan and Roman Symposia, the latter used during social and political occasions under a teepee, the rising spiral of smoke sealing agreements.
We know just a little about the agricultural techniques used by the Native Americans to grow Nicotiana Rustica during Columbus’ time, which were based on archaic rules and rituals, and there is also evidence of primitive tobacco curing. On the other hand, we have a wealth of information for ancient populations as regards grape vine cultivation, distribution and consumption from various written and iconographic sources such as letters, accounts, registers, and technical and artistic documents. Two processes that are in some ways similar, but in others wholly different: one is thoroughly documented, the other can only be gleaned through hints, suggestions, echoes and occasional glimpses. Yet, in 1492 when three caravels from Europe penetrated a mysterious and unexpected world arousing curiosity and alarm in the natives, these two processes, plants and their products, these two stories were suddenly propelled into the same dynamic reality.
In the late fifteenth century, the first ships back from the “West Indies” brought back to Europe many hitherto unknown items. When tobacco arrived in the ports, brought by those who had learnt to smoke it in America, nobody knew of its existence and was unprepared for this strange substance which was “sipped” and then exhaled through the mouth or nose. On the contrary, wine no longer aroused astonishment, as it had been around for thousands of years and was produced in many European countries, well-rooted in local customs and cultures. Its wide range of types and refined production techniques had long gone beyond its original religious and elitist connotations to expand and have a significant economic impact. It began to play a major role in daily life, while it would take a hundred years for tobacco to become accepted and take root in the Old World, immediately disposing of its sacred ancestral links, going through a stage when it was considered a medicine, then finally becoming accepted as something to be enjoyed by smokers and part of “normal”, everyday life.
America’s encounter with wine passed through the Europeans who had arrived and settled there. Initial use was religious, as wine is an essential part of the liturgy, which then became a pleasant habit for many others. An attempt to plant European grape varieties initially proved arduous, especially in the north, as did the attempt to domesticate native wild grape strains, and it was only in the nineteenth century that positive results began to emerge. Tobacco, which had been part of Native American heritage for thousands of years, almost immediately drew the attention of the new arrivals who began to select the more suitable types and refine cultivation and curing techniques, paving the way for a future industry. Thus, what had been a powerful mediator between heaven and earth in America was soon turned into a pleasant, normal substance that we all recognize.
In short, from 1600 onwards tobacco and wine were both included in a range of consumer goods. Since then they have travelled by land and sea broadening horizons. They have passed through complex developments and processes made up of gradual change, sudden leaps and numerous problems to overcome. They have interacted with society often in the same sectors, public and private. Two seemingly different products, yet linked together through a series of affinities. Of course, there is a great difference between sipping a liquid substance and lighting up a rustling mass of fragments to get a bit of smoke. Nevertheless, in the mouth this smoke and wine both have a similar impact on our taste buds and likewise the pleasant sensations produced when assumed in moderation. The origins of this smoke and drink are complex, starting with a seed, then a mythical, magic plant, specific soil, climate, growing and harvesting techniques. Ripe grapes and aromatic leaves then undergo a series of processes, which are at once different, in relation to liquids and solids, but also similar, when referring to fermentation, refinement, seasoning and ageing. Finally, after journeying halfway across the world, wine and tobacco are delivered to us in attractive packaging. It is up to us to decide what to do with them, whether to leave them intact waiting for the right moment, savour them on different occasions, or else both together.
Combining wine and tobacco is certainly not new, having been done in various places and ages, either spontaneously or else following precise rules and traditions. One of the most common rules is to create an affinity between the two substances: a light, blonde tobacco to go with a good white wine, and a dark, strong-flavoured tobacco with a full-bodied red wine, for example. However, this is only the beginning. Combining tobacco to wine is a fine art which can only be achieved gradually, with patience and some effort considering that this a personal, subjective pursuit. Since this tasting is complex involving two substances, you will be more successful if you have some experience in experimenting with them separately. As the tobacco’s flavour lingers less than the wine’s, it is best to sample the wine first and wait a little before smoking your pipe. At this point, take your time to slowly savour all the nuances of the mixture of wine and tobacco. Then take another sip and puff, comfortably seated on top of the world, surrounded by Hittite princes pouring out libations, Mayan priests smoking from a tube, erudite banqueters at a Symposium drinking from wine cups, seamen on a merchant vessel packed with amphorae, the rowdy patrons of a French tavern, bedizened party revelers, wild worshippers of Dionysius, and the tobacco colleges at the court of the kings of Prussia…
photos courtesy of Tenute Pacelli