Persian poets—Rumi, Saadi Shirazi, Attar, Hafez, Avicenna and Khayyam—were the opposite of bawdy. Their poetry was exaggeratedly floral and filled with lovelorn pathos. In Ode 44, Hafez wrote far more sensuous, indeed naughty, verses about wine, women and song. But Khayyam is better known in the West. He composed verses called rubai in quatrains: four lines set to the rhythm of aaba. Like the Japanese haiku, the rubaiyat, or collection of rubai, were all about succinctness, spontaneity and wit, according to the Princeton Encyclopaedia Of Poetry And Poetics. The rhythm was inspired by the exuberant shouts of playing children.
The Rubáiyát Of Omar Khayyám would have sunk into anonymity in his native Iran—and Khayyam, one suspects, would have been fine with that—were it not for a rich, eccentric Englishman named Edward FitzGerald who loosely, and, some would say, inaccurately, translated the Persian quatrain verses into English. The Rubáiyát Of Omar Khayyám was first published in the same year that another eccentric English naturalist published his magnum opus about the origin of species: 1859.
In short order, the Rubáiyát became a poetry sensation all over Europe. Bred on Shelley, Keats and Tennyson, Europeans found the imagery and soul of the Rubáiyát sensationally new. People memorized the verses in their entirety. Khayyam appeared on toothpaste advertisements, usually lounging on a seat, but always holding a glass of wine.
Why do we drink wine? For some, it is social. For others, it is a route to sophistication. For yet others, it is a way to access a culture and its history. Drinking a Nebbiolo or a Rioja is a good way to learn about Italy or Spain. For me, drinking wine is a way of taming my most elusive and primal sense of all: the sense of smell. I would like to be one of those people like Rajat Parr, a Kolkata-born boy who lives in the US and is one of the most respected sommeliers in the world. Listen to the Guild of Sommeliers Wine podcast and you’ll see what I mean. Some episodes feature male and female sommeliers who taste a wine blind and then identify the type of grape, region, and, heck, vintage, just through smell and taste. In fact, one of the world’s most respected wine tasters, Katsuyuki Tanaka, happens to be a teetotaller. He tastes and spits it out.
Indians, even those who are making great inroads in the world of wine, like travelling winemaker Nayan Gowda, are latecomers to the party. No matter how hard we drink or how much we know, it is hard for Indians to equal the ease of the French, Italian or other cultures that have been drinking wine for centuries. It is sort of like listening to an American talk about yoga. Us Indians may not be able to do a head-stand but hey, we own the form and the language. It is authentic for us to talk about pavana muktasana but try saying Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou without breaking a sweat.
If your goal is to improve your wine palate, there is no better way to do this than to articulate: to use your words. Any fool can drink. Any inept novice can swirl the wine glass gravely, smell, sip and nod like an expert. But to talk about each wine that you drink forces you to put scent into words—always hard to do, and especially hard with multilayered aroma experiences like wine, cognac or perfume. Are you really smelling hints of liquorice in the wine? What does stone fruit smell like? And how can I recognize the smell of berries when I have grown up in south India without smelling a single berry during childhood? This exercise forces you to pause as you smell the wine and figure out what you are smelling. Simply calling out words for what you smell is a start even if it sounds foolish. Pineapple, lemons, vanilla, liquorice, citrus, stone…these are the smells that imbue a wine. They are, like much of poetry, mere suggestions, but, boy, what a glorious whole they become.
Ancient Indians drank wine—copious quantities, in fact. They revelled and revered Soma, which some say is a hallucinogenic mushroom. And they wrote wonderful poetry. A towering poetic work is Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka, a ninth century treatise on poetics. Dhvani means resonance, suggestion, hint. According to Anandavardhana, and his acolyte Abhinavagupta, both Kashmiri, dhvani infuses the best poetry. A hint here, a shadow there, a taste of a suggestion. Just like the best wine.
So I sit alone in a darkened room in the long shadows of the evenfall. Before me is a glass of a wine that I am blind-tasting for the first time. I have asked my husband to pour me a glass without telling me the name of the bottle. I would like to at least figure out the varietal or the region. My friend, hotelier Priya Paul, once took me to a Delhi party where a waiter handed her a glass of red wine. She took a sip and said, “It drinks like a Tuscan wine.” And sure enough, it was a Chianti.
I sit in my bedroom with the poems of Khayyam by my side, a glass of wine placed in front, and an Abraham and Thakore scarf covering my eyes. Playing on YouTube is playwright Ben Jonson’s ode to wine, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” which inspired Rabindranath Tagore to compose his version, “Katobar bhebechhinu apano bhuli.” I like singer Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta’s version of both the English and Bengali versions because I like the fact that she owns up to her region with a giant red bindi while singing a quintessentially English wine song.
I take a sip and begin reciting—not poetry, but words describing what I am drinking: medium body, vanilla, stone fruit, berries, a hint of something smelling bad, yeasty, like yogurt. Is it a Pinot Noir? From Willamette Valley?
As it turns out, it is not. I have a long way to go to improve my sense of smell. I might as well read poetry in the interim.
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.
First Published: Fri, Mar 30 2018. 02 28 PM IST