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  • Writer's pictureEtienne Paumier

Wine pairing a photograph

Recently, I had the chance to participate in an original contest: pairing a wine with a photograph as part of the 2019 George T. Gamblin Memorial Scholarship. Here is how Margaret McCamic MW introduces the scholarship created in honor of her late father: "The George T. Gamblin Memorial Scholarship was established by his family in memory of his intellectual curiosity. It is awarded annually to a second-year Master of Wine student who demonstrates a particular appreciation for how wine taps into our creative senses."

For this edition, the exercise was to choose a wine pairing a depiction of a wild landscape photographed by Ansel Adams in 1942: The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. At first sight, the pictured evoked the Etna region of Sicily and one cru in particular: Pietradolce's Vigna Barbagalli. I enjoyed writing about it because I found it to be an interesting exercise and also because Etna is home to some magnificent wines that would firmly stand their ground compared to outstanding examples from Piedmont or Burgundy. Yes, Burgundy too and if you haven't tasted Etna yet, run for it.

The text below didn't win the contest (congratulations Nicholas Poletto!) but I am happy to share it. For the picture and winning submission, please visit the link below and thanks to Mary Margaret McCamic MW for the opportunity!

Chosen Wine Pairing Pietradolce, Etna Rosso Vigna Barbagalli 2012

Adams’ photography strikes me by its depiction of wilderness: an untamed landscape shaped by the forces of nature and enlightened by a spirituality emanating from that Olympian mountain shrouded with clouds. At first sight, this vision echoed with my mental representation of Etna wines and one of their finest examples in particular, Pietradolce’s Etna Rosso Vigna Barbagalli.

The firm tannic structure produced by these ungrafted vines struggling to yield grapes on the slopes of the volcano alludes to the rough and enduring nature of the landscape pictured by Adams. The bouquet of the Vigna Barbagalli is also reminiscent of this wilderness with its undertones of forest floor and smoke reminding of the unforgiving nature of its birthplace. There is an almost telluric power transpiring from this view of Wyoming that can only be matched by a wine produced in an equally majestic and intimidating place such as Mount Etna.

In the photograph, the chill sensation conveyed by this spine of snowy mountains resonates with the chiselled acidity that gives its backbone to the wine and signs this unique vineyard grown at 900m altitude. That sense of freshness is further enhanced by the citrusy edge of the wine suggested by delicate hints of pomelo and rhubarb while ethereal notes of red berries, rose and incense evoke the spirituality conveyed by the light piercing through the clouds. This is Nerello Mascalese in its purest form, intense and graceful at the same time, with a great persistence that gives a lasting impression of purity and inclines us to a reverent and admiring posture towards the force and beauty of nature in both the wine and the picture.

From the height where the image was taken, the view embraces a vast area where no presence or construction is perceptible therefore the point of view and the moment chosen are the only markers of human influence on the depiction of this scenery. That decision is an artistic choice made by Adams to represent a nature undisturbed by man as if it could only be tarnished by additional presence. Such commitment parallels that of Pietradolce’s Michele Faro who selects only large French tonneaux for the ageing of his wine in order to limit the oak influence and reveal the finesse of Nerello Mascalese grown on volcanic soil. In both cases, nature provides the base material but it is only through the prism of the photographer’s eye or the winemaker’s touch that its inner beauty can be revealed to us.

Finally, the river meandering through the landscape, leading us to the towering mountain reveals a journey one can already foresee as a magnificent struggle to reach the summit. Metaphorically, this represents the lifelong journey to discover oneself and be fulfilled. From that perspective, it is interesting to remark that the vines, some of which are centenary, were already planted in 1942 when the picture was taken and that it has taken them 70 years _a lifetime_ to achieve their finest expression. By analogy, the river also evokes the life of the wine as it springs with a youthful energy before taming its impetuous character through ageing in order to achieve harmony. The Pietradolce Vigna Barbagalli 2012 is not quite in the ardour of youth anymore but hasn’t fully revealed its full potential either and keeps us guessing where it might actually take us, much like the Snake River which destination remains out of our sight.

The nature depicted by Ansel Adams in his view of the Grand Teton National Park seems unalterable as if season after season, time will never change it but simply flow like the river through the vastness of the world. Yet we know this not to be true, and despite that false sense of eternity we know that we need to make much of time as the poet says. So, to seize the day and enjoy beauty while it lasts, I suggest to pour the wine and share a glass.

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