Balance, intensity and complexity: Matthew Stewart

Wine is essentially indescribable. You don’t have to be a poet or qualified in the wine trade to realize this, but if you happen to be both then it’s unignorable. You can describe how a wine is made; you can (with training and practice) describe the structural and qualitative factors that distinguish one wine from another or allow it to command a particular price-point; you can explain how a wine makes you feel or the memories it evokes. But you can’t describe the thing itself.

There are two main reasons for this: one is that we can only describe smells and flavours by analogy. Something can feel viscous, taste sweet and look yellow; but it can only smell like honey and have a flavour that sort of reminds us of nuts, vanilla and marzipan.

The other reason is that even the simplest of wines can develop flavour compounds a long way from their grapey origins. We might say that a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc reminds us of gooseberries; a young Chianti of sour cherries; a mature Paulliac of cedarwood and blackcurrant leaf with hints of dried fruit and leather; etc. But we know that none of these things is present in the wine: the action of oxygen (and in some cases oak) on grape juice has produced compounds that remind us of them. And although there are objective limits (e.g. if someone thinks a Chablis smells of mangoes then either the wine or their nose is faulty), the precise associations are very subjective.

This is why the language of wine labels, wine lists and wine bores is so comical. The experts either give very technical descriptions (“clear, medium lemon core with a pale lemon rim; clean nose, developing, primary aromas of citrus fruit with evolving hints of kerosene; dry…”) or else settle for “delicious”. There’s a gap in between where the poetry ought to be, but the flowery excesses of the marketing department (or Sebastian Flyte) only take us further from the thing itself.

All of which meant that when poet and wine professional Matthew Stewart wrote to ask if I wanted to review his pamphlet Tasting Notes, I jumped at the chance.

Stewart’s second pamphlet from the ever-excellent Happenstance Press consists of seven two-part poems, each pairing a single five-line stanza of adapted marketing copy with two five-line stanzas of offsetting lyric. Stewart works as a blender and export manager for Zaleo wines in Extremadura. The first four poems describe Zaleo’s wines, with the final three touching on viticulture, food matching and blending.

In the poems that directly deal with the wines, Stewart has neatly turned the “indescribable” problem into a virtue. The five lines of marketing copy set up a conventional view of the wine, then the closing ten lines allow the wine to speak for itself. The interplay between the two creates all kinds of subtle complexities.

The marketing stanzas are close to “found poems”, being adapted from real Zaleo marketing copy which Stewart has tweaked to make them work in his poems (a quick tour of the Zaleo website will give you the originals). The stanzas where the wines speak are somewhere between Anglo-Saxon riddles and miniature dramatic monologues, e.g.:

Just watch me after every sip.
My glycerine falls down the glass,
leaving arch after arch behind,
a silhouetted cathedral
where you’re worshipping yet again.

The beauty of these lines is the way they pair a startling image (turning the wine’s “legs” or “tears” into a metaphysical conceit) with a tone that ever-so-slightly suggests the wine may be poking fun at the reader. This tonal balance  is present throughout the book, never allowing any of the descriptions to take themselves too seriously, but equally never allowing them to descend into parody. The result is a collection that sidesteps the trap of conventional wine description and turns the sidestepping into a dance.

There are some beautiful observations in the book. Here are the middle lines of “Food Match”:

It glistens on the wooden stand,
a black trotter pointed upwards
as if offering a hoofprint.
Now cut a slice so thin that steel
is visible below the meat.

I could pull this apart and explain the mechanics of exactly how it evokes Ibérico ham so convincingly, but I’d prefer just to enjoy it. Then head to the nearest deli.

These aren’t show-off poems. The more you come back to them (the longer you let them mature in your memory) the more their intensity and complexity develops. I’ve been reading them daily for the past two weeks and they’re showing no signs of peaking anytime soon.

After the four wine riddle-monologues, the two poems about vineyards and food matching are written in an objective third-person. The final poem returns to the first person, but this time the speaker is a version of Stewart himself (identified in the “marketing” stanza as “our export manager” who “has been working / in the wine trade for over a decade”). Reviewing two blending wines he concludes “They quell each other’s weaknesses, / their bodies meshing and lifting. / Somehow I know this couple’s right.” This could equally stand as a structural image for the poems in the book.

I really enjoyed this collection. If you’re halfway tempted then I’d urge you to order a copy from Happenstance (for the princely sum of £4) before it sells out. And if you need corroborating evidence, John Field’s review is characteristically spot-on.

Now I need to stop writing this and get hold of some Zaleo wines and Ibérico ham…

Tasting Notes, Matthew Stewart, Happenstance, 2012.

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