Tim James: Barrels, bottles and Primo Levi

By , 21 September 2020

As I grow older (should I say: as I grow old?), I find myself often discarding new quarter-read books and turning to my bookshelves, or the library, for ones I’ve read before. And in an old favourite, recently, I found the following sentence opening a chapter: “I confess it not with pride, indeed with shame: my appetite for new books grows less and less, and I tend to reread the  ones I already know.” Despite Primo Levi’s admission of shame, which I share, it’s comforting to find that I have at least something in common with one of the people who will ensure that 20th century Europe will not be remembered only for its horrors – although Levi’s writings about his experiences of Auschwitz paradoxically contain those depths as well as his greatness.

Primo Levi.

The Levi book I’ve been reading is lighter than those about the Holocaust, however. It’s called Other People’s Trades and is a collection of short essays originally written for La Stampa, a newspaper in Turin (where Levi was born 101 years ago and died in 1987). It’s a marvellous book, more obviously so on each new reading-wise, finely written, fascinating and, above all, deeply humane in every sentence. My copy is a battered paperback that I’ve had for about 30 years, with the paper browning inwards from the edges, devoured by its own acidity. I daresay it’ll survive one more reading after this, should I be so lucky.

The connection with wine? At least it doesn’t lie in a preference for the already-known, as with books. Broaching unopened bottles is happily a necessity, and I find as much satisfaction in discoveries as in re-acquaintanceship.

I’m mentioning this splendid book here because of an essay which is largely about receptacles – though the subject prompts Levi to include some sobering thoughts about the benefits and harms of certain scientific experiments. He begins the essay by a possible definition of what makes a human being: “man is a builder of receptacles”. Fabricating a receptacle, he says, “is a clue to two qualities which, for good or evil, are exquisitely human”. The first of those is the ability to contemplate the future. The second “is the capacity to foresee the behaviour of matter: … we know how to foresee what container and content ‘will do’, and how they will react to each other, at the instant of their contact and in time”.

The nexus of container and content is really what the history of wine is all about – certainly its great achievements of the last few centuries. Not so much the making of wine – however fascinating and relevant the current debates and discussions over barriques and foudres of various sizes and woods, and other fermentation and maturation vessels of concrete, glass and clay, and how they regulate wine’s contact with its great occasional friend and eventual implacable enemy, oxygen. The very fact that winemakers are returning to ancient practices (albeit with a modern scientific understanding) like making wine in buried clay pots, suggests refinement rather than urgency.

Not so with post-vinification storage. I’m not aware of even the most radically “traditional” of winemakers wanting to sell or mature their “naturally made” splendours in vessels of leather, or pottery jugs, or earthenware bottles sealed with a lump of oilsoaked rags. In the 17th century, the glass bottle started its march to near-universal triumph as a container of wine (if the Romans used them, the practice long disappeared), especially as a consequence of a successful but ultimately troubled marriage with cork stoppers. Plastics or metal, or some new man-made material might yet come to dominate at all quality levels, but that’s not yet looking likely right now. The splendid inertness of glass (remember Levi’s note on “the capacity to foresee the behaviour of matter”) is what makes it so suitable for the short- or longer-term storage of wine. Its fragility and weight might, I suppose, count against it; and the question of how best to seal the bottle remains a source of contention.

It’s often suggested that the modern “standard” moulded bottle size of 750ml arose because of the capacity of a glass-blower’s lungs, which is a nicely humanistic thought; but the early bottles were of varying size and shape (an easy source of fraud: in Britain, to protect consumers, wine could not legally be sold in bottles until 1860). But nowadays, apart from the alert authorities, there’s nothing to stop the amazing proliferation of glass wine bottles of all sizes, weights, colours and shapes (what happened to the local one shaped – sort of – like Table Mountain?), further adorned with printed paper, metal foil, paint, wax, plastic and no doubt other materials.

Primo Levi lived most of his life in Turin, on the edge of the great winemaking areas of Piedmont. I can’t recall anything he wrote about wine and I don’t even know for sure if he drank it regularly, but I hope that he, as a good Italian, regarded wine as part of his life – and was grateful for living usefully near to Barolo and Barbaresco, wines which can benefit as much as any from sustained maturation in a container made of foreseeably inert material. But, doubtless, in what Toni Morrison called Levi’s “deliberate and sustained glorification of the human” he would have welcomed the great cultural achievement of wine. And, as a professional chemist, he would have welcomed the increased scientific understanding by human beings of one of their most characteristic products, and of its containment.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013

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