MAY 2024: A Bouquet of Memory

One of the funny things I do to pay the bills is write romance and marketing copy for perfume brands—essentially describing scented air to sell to you, dear Public. Really, it's not so different from describing wine. Like wine, perfume is full of terpenes (in the discussion of fragrance, terpenes are aromatic molecules derived from plants and insects) that evoke the scent of, say, honeysuckle or wet blacktop or dried leaves. Perfume makers or "noses," work with these compounds on a molecular level to simulate a field of wildflowers, a firelit room full of incense and rose petals, or an imaginary excursion down the Nile River in spring. The best winegrowers/makers and noses are witches of memory, casting complex spells of time travel and memory recall.

Our sense of smell is tied directly to our hippocampus, which is related to storing memories. Even if you can’t pinpoint the note—say, “cinnamon” or “violets in soil” with its signifier—your brain will whisk you straight back to drinking apple cider in early fall or breaking your grandmother’s potted plant when you were four. Just yesterday, I tasted a pét-nat from the Chapuis brothers with Kevin Wardell of Artisan, a distributor in town, and Cassandra Vachon, who works at the shop. With one sniff, I went straight to a snowy day in Ohio with the light waning toward sunset, specifically a snowy day before Christmas, before the winter starts to drag on—the anticipatory kind of day when cold is still novel and the time for holiday cookies is nigh. My tear ducts started to tingle with the wist and pine for lost things. I felt myself blushing at the vulnerability of remembering something so deeply buried while tasting wine in a public place. Cassandra, a Michigander with a magnificent ability for description, said, “I feel like I got caught with my hand in the cookie jar.” Gingerbread and molasses, she offered. Absolutely correct. All of that in one whiff of a little bit of wine on a Wednesday afternoon. 

This month, because we’re in the full flourish of spring (but actually summer), allergies, and sunshine, it seemed appropriate to think about florals specifically. One of the perfume brands I work with focuses on florals, so I’m primed to pinpoint them with some accuracy and nuance. I’ve found myself drawn to specifically floral wines this season and, whether or not guests have recognized it, they have been too.

Rogue Vine “Jamon Jamon” Itata Valley, Chile 2022

A perennially favorite producer at the shop, Rogue Vine is Justin Decker and Leo Erazo’s project out of the Itata Valley in Chile. A skin contact wine that is unfined and unfiltered, the Jamon Jamon is a cloud of white flowers just dripping with fresh pollen and sticky white resin laced through with the heady fragrance of crushed orange blossom. This is 100% moscatel, a grape that has the same terpenes as jasmine and oranges, and its new release is highly anticipated in New Orleans each year. I think it has something to do with jasmine season…

The thing we all have in common is New Orleans, which means we all have our own distinct memories tied to the first bloom of jasmine. Mine are all bound up with the pandemic, riding my bike to Audubon along quiet potholed streets, getting Covid a year later and realizing it only when I couldn’t smell the milky white flowers while I toted my very pregnant body down Phillip Street, and, later, walking my daughter around the Garden District, holding buds up to her baby nose, sending her first scent of jasmine straight to the old hippocampus.

Teutonic “Jazz Odyssey” Willamette, Oregon 2023

Two club volumes ago, when we were selling wine out of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, we featured Teutonic in the form of a Rauchwein, a German smoked beer inspired white merlot born from the forest fires of 2018 near the Columbia Gorge. This is the kind of mind-bending wine that Barnaby Tuttle makes in the Northwest United States. Mostly, he focuses on Alsatian grapes that range from riesling, as in his famous “Candied Mushroom” cuvée (available at the shop) to the Jazz Odyssey, a blend of riesling, gewürztraminer, and muscat.

These are some of the most aromatic grapes that exist in white wine. Gewürztraminer is tropical but strewn with delicate rose petals and jasmine. Muscat is all white flowers plus orange blossom and fresh laundry on the line while riesling is petrol, mineral, and pear. All together, these things smell a bit like New Orleans in the spring, and and evoke the same memory shadows as the Jamon Jamon. For me, it also feels a direct transport to the alleys of the town I grew up in, which were peppered with secret gardens of blooming rose bushes that poked through chainlink fences, resplendent purple lilac trees and sunshine-yellow daffodils that all seemed to bloom all at once on the first glorious day of summer.

La Miraja “Ruchè di Castignole” Piedmont, Italy 2022

It feels less common to experience florality in a red wine, which more often get linked with red fruits, leather, tobacco, earth and wood. Not so with ruchè. Ruchè is a dark-purple grape that calls the hills of Monferrato in Piedmont home. The love child of croatina and malvasia aromatica di Parma, ruchè is an old-fashioned oddball that has been overshadowed by nebbiolo and barbera, but has found cult love in the last decade or so with growers and makers devoting single-varietal bottlings to its charm.

One of these is La Miraja, a producer we have come to be very fond of at the shop. Produced in 11th-century armory in a 15th-century cellar by seventh-generation grape-grower Eugenio Gatti, the Ruchè di Castignole is very pretty wine. It’s a mouthful of crushed purple flowers and lavender-blueberry jam as Kevin Wardell (who sells this wine in town) described it. This is romantic wine, the pure, early love kind.

At the shop we the La Miraja Viognier on by the glass—also floral in a Sound of Music, running through the green hillsides with a crisp white apron flapping in the breeze kind of way. At St. Pizza, we have the chardonnay on, which is crisp, vibrantly sunny, and with a bit green-apple-crunch.

Scarpa “La Selva di Moriano” Brachetto Secco, Piedmont, Italy 2019

Scarpa is a legendary Piedmontese producer that front-pages its long cellaring times, and is best known for its dolcetto and barbera, the darling grapes of the region. Brachetto is another, lesser-known story. Historically, this black-skinned grape has been almost entirely devoted to the medium of sweet sparkling wine called Brachetto d’Acqui or Birbèt in the Roero region of Piedmont, not unlike Moscato d’Asti. This brachetto is in the “secco” or dry style, and showcases the unexpected beauty of an under-loved grape, with five years of age even.

What I love about brachetto is its balance of quiet strength and defined grace. It’s got herbal texture and musk—a self-assuredness—that is also elegant and pretty. It smells like garden roses to me, spicy and warm just after a bit of rain. The kind of thing that goes well with late afternoon reading, while you're just getting around to the thought of dinner, a thing that will take you from cozy, quietude into golden hour socializing. Brachetto is a new memory for me, one that will probably remain intertwined with tasting new things at the wine shop, attempting to put together a wine list at the tavern that would make people feel a mix of adventure and nostalgia.

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