“I think of reading while writing like bodybuilding, first you bulk up, then you cut.” Author Gurnaik Johal’s insights on how to make the most of inspiring reads before you come to the page made us all think. About process, about finding the right time to write, about why he knows so much about bodybuilding… It was just one of the many rich anecdotes and exchanges we had through our evening of tasting and talking, the first Read Between the Wines with the author present and possibly (dare we say it), the best.
The Festival of Creativity (brought to life by University of Exeter’s MA Creativity as part of Exeter Art Week) hosted two days of events in June, and we were proud to be on the bill. Kaleider Studio hosted us in their stunning venue, and the reader/tasters came to the table ready to sip and discover.
We put reading between wines, literally, starting with a first tasting then inviting Johal to read from his award-winning story ‘Arrival’, which Galley Beggar – the story won Galley Beggar’s 2021 Short Story prize – described as “a great, compact but also wonderfully expansive story. It feels complete in and of itself – but it also opens up a whole world of speculation and wondering about the rest of the characters’ lives.”
He wasn’t wrong. The story encouraged us to explore how lean prose can be the most evocative, how characters can live beyond the page and how sometimes the story exists where you least expect it. It also gave Lucy Howdle, our wine enthusiast and guide for the evening, plenty to work with as she chose three wines to pair with Johal’s words.
So here they are, in all their glory along with a few notes from Lucy on why she chose them…
Grape: 100% Riesling
Grown at a higher altitude with a more moderate climate, this wine is produced by the Lodge Hill vineyard. Jim Barry purchased the land for the vineyard in 1977 as he was sure it would produce some of the best Riesling in the Clare Valley. The bottle itself is worthy of note, a typical Riesling bottle, long and thin for ease of transport on the rivers of Europe (this wine was typically produced on the banks of the Rhine). Pale to straw yellow, with subtle green highlights at the edges, it’s dry and lively, with a long, silky finish.
Aromas / Nose
Mouth-wateringly dry and clean, this wine has a complexity that lingers. It’s refreshing and citrussy but with a slight hint of something almost akin to petrol on the finish.
Why did Lucy choose it?
“We started our evening’s wine pairings with quite a literal one – the petrol note is very typical of an Australian Riesling, especially from the Clare Valley. It’s the result of a chemical compound called TDN that forms as a bi-product of aging, which is sometimes seen as a fault but often adds an interesting flavour as the wine ages. In a story centred around a car, this felt like an obvious place to start. But also it’s a very fresh and ‘open’ wine, which fits well with the sense of freedom the couple experiences in the story.”
“ When thinking about the sparseness of the story it can be helpful to think of it not as a dish itself, but as a recipe. The story is the leanest means of transferring information that can hopefully be reconstructed into an emotional reaction for the reader. ”
Grape: 100% Gamay
Fleurie is a well known Cru Beaujolais wine appellation for red wines from the Gamay grape variety. It’s in the south of the very famous Burgundy region. Fleurie literally means floral – although that’s also just a coincidence as it’s named after the area, not the flavours. This wine comes from a 17th century family of winegrowers who have worked tirelessly since 1964 to come up with the best wines in Beaujolais and Mâcon to reveal the essence of the finest terroirs from each appellation. It’s a light, silky and supple wine, with characteristic florality, bright with blueberries and red fruit.
Aromas / Nose
This is a grape that actually smells more than it tastes, quite different in the nose to on the tongue.
On the palate, this wine is medium to full-bodied, softly textured, light on the tannins although full of young fruitiness.
Why did Lucy choose it?
“This wine presents differently to the character it has underneath, which connects with the idea of finding and living a life different to your reality for a while. It’s a light, fresh red that would work brilliantly on a picnic (just like the couple goes on in the story), but more than that, the flowers on the nose made me think of the idealised version of that picnic, a day that lifts you out of your life even if the actual experience of it isn’t the same.”
“ "It's been so fascinating to think in terms of the story's flavours and characters and mapping that to the wine in the glass. Imagine having a pairing on the back cover of every book! I'd like to do that with the novel I'm writing now. 'Pairs well with a Xinamavro'. That would be brilliant!" ”
Grape: 100% Xinomavro
Often compared to Pinot Noir, Xinomavro means ‘black acid’, which is a beautifully evocative name for a wine. It’s Greece’s finest red grape, and one found across much of mainland Greece. Its home is in Naoussa in Macedonia (just west of Thessaloniki), where it’s the only permitted variety in the Naoussa PDO – Greece’s first and most famous PDO. Xinomavro produces wines typically pale in colour (thanks to its thin skins), but high in acidity, tannin and alcohol, with wonderful aromatics and capacity to age. Tonight’s wine is made by Apostolos Thymiopoulos, a man widely recognised as an expert in the art of crafting great Xinomavro. His vineyard has 15 to 25-year-old vines planted on schist and limestone-clay soils in Naoussa. The Thymiopoulos family have been growing grapes in the Naoussa region of Greek Macedonia for generations with a low intervention approach, but it was Apostolos’ father Sergios who began growing them commercially to sell to local wineries.
Aromas / Nose
This tastes like a delicious cross between Barbaresco / Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. Rich and complex with aromas of red and black fruits, accompanied by characteristic tomato and olive fragrances as the wine matures, Xinomavro is a very savoury wine. You’ll feel a continuation of the tomato leaf smells in its flavour too. There’s also a beautiful dried flower note on the finish.
Why did Lucy choose it?
“A more abstract connection to the story with our final wine– this one is about identity. Xinomavro is gaining popularity and is often called ‘the Greek Pinot Noir’ – but it’s very much its own thing. From an identity perspective, it’s quite interesting that this wine and this grape has more success when it’s not itself – when people see it as something else. I thought that had a connection with the characters in the story, who they can be, who they feel like they are and how they realise the potential to shift the distance between those two things.”
Images: Alicia Kelly
Gurnaik Johal’s ‘Arrival’ part of his debut short story collection We Move (2022, Serpents Tail) is available from bookshop.org and all good book shops now.
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