John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for March 31st 2012: Easter; Startling discovery: learning about & drinking wine encourages new brain cells; Top Ten Smart Buys
This week’s report features wines in the March 31st release, for which the main theme is Easter. I considered highlighting wines that really come alive about three days after opening, but having thought better, decided to focus on ten super buys from this rich release. I’ll then go on to provide comforting scientific proof that your passion for wine will make you smarter, sharper and improve overall cognitive function, as discovered in a recent upheaval of long-held but erroneous scientific dogma.
It’s beautifully sunny and 17ºC in mid-march as I write this, with the fever of spring conjuring mirages of fragrant flowers, green grass and the smell of spring rains on warm asphalt. Or, maybe I’m just reliving the experience brought on by the 2010 Muralhas de Monção Vinho Verde ($14.95). While this vibrant, crisp white won’t topple you over with complexity, it has the irresistible smell of spring itself, and my mouth waters and I dream of grilled sardines and fresh oysters as I recall the experience.
There were near-universal gasps of approval at the LCBO lab, a rare occurrence in the subjective world of wine, as writer after writer sniffed and sipped the 2007 Studert-Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling. This is the second time this same wine has been released, the first being in July of 2009. But curiously, the price has dropped from $24.95 to $17.95, and it appears to be a different wine altogether, or at least a different bottling run, as the AP number, the unique code handed out by German wine authorities for all approved quality wines, is different. (This information is thanks to the indefatigable Michael Vaughn, Canada’s most organized wine writer.) Whatever the case, now, and even more than before, this is an astonishing value not to be missed by fans of German riesling or even by detractors, as this could be the wine that changes your life. I’ve long contended that Mosel riesling in kabinett and spätlese-level ripeness offers the world’s greatest expression of terroir, even ontological proof of its existence, for the least amount of dough.
Even more floral and more unctuous is the 2010 Cave Spring Estate Bottled Gewürztraminer ($17.95). It’s an archetype of the grape, with rose petal and lychee perfume, off-dry but balanced palate and great length. And to round out the smart buy whites, try the2008 Amayna Estate Bottled Chardonnay ($25.95). You can just about see the Pacific from Garcés Silva’s vineyards in the cool Leyda Valley, although this chardonnay delivers substantial weight, alongside a fine mix of ripe orchard fruit and measured barrel influence.
Reds worth discovering and serving with your Easter lamb include the wonderfully pure, biodynamically grown 2010 Achaval Ferrer Malbec ($23.95). The balance and freshness are impeccable here, with the added dimension of wild violets to round out the flavour profile.
The parade of values from the south of France continues with Hecht & Bannier’s 2008 Côtes du Roussillon-Villages ($22.95). It is the very essence of the region with its deep, spicy dark fruit and garrigue flavours, easily as good as many châteauneuf-du-papes at twice the price. Very nearly as good but terrific value for money is the 2009 Gérard Bertrand Minervois Syrah/Grenache ($15.95), likewise full of spicy, minerally character and super length and class.
And finally, three more recommended wines to round out your Easter dinner options: the structured 2009 Flagstone Music Room Cabernet Sauvignon ($17.95), the refined 2008 Quita De La Rosa Tinto ($19.95) and the ultra-savoury 2008 Taurino Riserva Salice Salentino ($14.95). Hope fully this short list has you covered.
A Startling Discovery: Learning About, and Drinking, Wine Encourages New Brain Cells
About 20 years ago, around the same time as the French paradox caused a dramatic rise in North American wine consumption, a century-old scientific belief, as self-evident as gravity and as immutable as the speed of light, was unintentionally proved false by the song of a bird.
Over the course of the 20th century, neuroscientists came to believe that humans are born with a complete set of brain cells, and that once infancy was over, the brain stopped changing, evolving, and growing. A neuron lost was never replaced, resulting in a dwindling network of neural pathways that degenerated over the course of our lifetime; the waves of years slowly but inescapably eroding our minds, washing away our capacity to think and remember. How depressing.
That is, until Fernando Nottebohm, working at Rockefeller University in New York City, made his startling discovery. In an elegant study of birdbrains, not remotely aimed at disproving our fated neuro-degeneration but rather at unlocking the secrets of birds’ remarkable capacity to learn new songs, Nottebohm observed neurogenesis. He saw that new neurons were born regularly in parts of a mature bird’s brain, and that these new neurons were essential to the song learning process. His amazing results were at first marginalized by the scientific community, since avian brains were seen as irrelevant to mammalian brains, but the door was opened to an entirely new field of inquiry. Old papers from the ‘60s hinting at the fact were dusted off and re-read, and further studies on mammals were conducted. In time, the crushing weight of evidence would overturn the long-held dogma that the brain doesn’t regenerate, and an unavoidable conclusion was drawn: mammals, including humans, grow new brain cells with comforting regularity.
Others before Nottebohm had searched for evidence of neurogenesis, though most experiments ended in failure. What Nottebohm had unwittingly done differently was to study birds in their natural environment, as opposed to a laboratory, as others has attempted. Earlier studies on mice and monkeys trapped in cages in dreary labs surrounded by white coat-clad scientists showed no signs of birthing new neurons. Neurogenesis, it turns out, is highly dependent on your surroundings. Unnatural, uncomfortable or otherwise unpleasant environments cause stress, which is now understood as an even more insidious and effective killer than previously thought. Stress inhibits neurogenesis. Sleep deprivation, too, has also been shown to curb the number of newborn neurons. Yet more reasons to avoid stress and sleep more, as though you needed a reminder.
The flip side, and here’s where I’ll get around to my tenuous tie-in to wine, is that anti-stress activities increase neurogenesis. Though alcohol is known to unwind the body, resulting at least in neurons transmitting electrical signals in the same alpha waves-pattern as is observed when the body is relaxed, I won’t suggest for a moment that drinking wine increases the birth of neurons (in the same way that it increases other types of birth). In fact, I’m sure that just the opposite is true. No, I’m referring to other anti-stress activities. Enriching your environment, talking a walk in the woods (or the park) does wonders for the mind. Regular exercise is a proven new neuron stimulator. And yet another effective stimulator, as Nottebohm stumbled across, is learning. Acquiring new knowledge not only increases neurogenesis, it also makes newly born neurons live longer (most new brain cells die young) and integrate better into existing brain structures, effectively putting them into use.
So, why not do your neurons a favour while engaging in something you enjoy? The field of wine is vast and full of learning opportunities. And the homework is not at all stressful. There is also a further benefit to delving deeper into an enjoyable field, a type of virtuous circle or positive feedback loop: learning about wine not only stimulates the birth of neurons, it also directly increases your capacity to enjoy it, which in turn will encourage you to learn more about it, and on and on.
A further fact about neurogenesis makes the case for delving into wine even stronger: neurons only grow in the parts of the brain that happen to be most titillated by conscious wine tasting. Studies so far have shown that the greatest regions of neurogenesis are the hippocampus, the memory and learning center, and the olfactory bulb, where all aromas are processed. It appears that new olfactory bulb neurons are critically involved in odor discrimination and improved odor memory. At the same time, differentiating between smells, as wine drinkers are constantly doing as they swirl and sniff, actually increases the survival rate of newborn olfactory neurons.
In other words, repeated smelling and tasting of wine, coupled with ongoing learning about grapes, regions, places, producers and everything else related, plus travel to beautiful wine country under relaxed conditions, could very well increase your brain regeneration capacity. And you’ll inevitably end up enjoying wine a little bit more, too.
Well, that was a whole lot of scientific mumbo jumbo to reach a starkly obvious conclusion. But at least now you have rock solid, scientific evidence that your passion for wine is not only enjoyable, it’s good for your brain, too.
From the March 31, 2012 Vintages release:
John Szabo, Master Sommelier