Badass Beverage: The Wines of Middle-earth

Prepare for THE HOBBIT with, what else?, wine.

When the Lord of the Rings films were coming out, I had a friend at the local theater who would let us sneak into movies. For The Fellowship of the Rings, he sneaked us in after hours and we watched the movie the night before release. We had our own private midnight showing, and it’s still one of the best times I’ve ever had at the movies, just a room full of nerds, late at night and a little drunk, getting our minds blown by what we were seeing.

I must have gone to see it a dozen times that winter. And then we did the same for The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

Needless to say, I’ve been pretty excited to return to Middle-earth this week with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And, like I usually do when I’m excited for a particular film, I’ve been revisiting The Lord of the Rings.

And drinking lots of wine.

Gandalf the Grape.*

Wine appears a number of times throughout The Lord of the Rings, and always in conjunction with the wisest character in the films, Gandalf the Grey. Early in Fellowship Bilbo Baggins, upon seeing Gandalf again, offers to open a bottle of wine that had been laid down by his father, a century before.

Now, this may well be because Bilbo’s in a particularly generous mood at seeing his revered old friend has come to visit on his birthday. I myself have, more than once, in my cups and in good company, offered to open a bottle of wine or three that I had been cellaring for a special occasion (no occasion more special than sharing good wine with good friends). And opening an old bottle, especially one you have been cellaring yourself, is a real treat.

This past June, for example, I invited friends over for dinner on my birthday and we drank a bottle of 1983 Graham’s Porto. A very good year, almost as old as I am. So Bilbo’s elation at the prospect of opening a bottle of wine with that kind of age on it makes perfect sense to me.

Later in the film, Gandalf visits Isengard, seeking to consult Saruman the White. The two wizards discuss the discovery of the One Ring, and the growing threat of Mordor, while sharing a decanter of red wine.

After Saruman’s betrayal, we rejoin Gandalf the Grey in Rivendell, where he meets with Elrond to discuss the fate of the One Ring. Here again, Gandalf is plied with red wine, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s his love of the grape more than the Halfling leaf that has “dulled his wits,” as Saruman says.

There is one final appearance of wine in the films, and it coincides with Gandalf’s fall after his battle with the Balrog. Once the surviving members of the Fellowship escape from the Mines of Moria, they find safe haven in Lothlórien. There, the full weight of their loss hits the members of the Fellowship, and Legolas mourns the loss of Gandalf while reverentially carrying a decanter of red wine.

It seems fitting to me that wine is shared in private, portentous moments, and always with wise Gandalf. As though it adds weight to the events discussed, but also a sense of hope. After all, there is still time to enjoy a glass of wine with an old friend. It is a sign of the changing world, of the coming dark, that after the death of Gandalf the Grey, the wine never again makes an appearance in the films.

So What Was Gandalf Drinking?

Here, I had to make an educated guess about what the wine is like in Middle-earth. As far as I know, Tolkien never went into a tremendous amount of detail on the characteristics of the wine of his world, and Peter Jackson certainly didn’t either when it came time to adapt the material for the screen.

But because the world of Middle-earth is so heavily influenced by the history of Medieval Europe, because it appears that only the most affluent peoples in the temperate climates (Rivendell and the Shire were filmed on New Zealand’s North Island, while the woods of Lothlórien were filmed in the southern tip of the South Island; both offer prime vineyard land and are known for quality wine production), and because methods of preserving wine are sufficiently advanced (Biblo has a hundred year old wine in his cellar…you’d have a tough time finding a wine with that kind of life today), I feel comfortable drawing some conclusions.

If I had to guess, I’d say the wines of Middle-earth are probably similar in style and production to European wine as it existed between the 5th and 10th centuries, when vineyards were owned and operated either by various monastic entities (the Benedictines, in particular, were and still are known for their production of wine) or by wealthy aristocrats as a way to denote status. Now, wine-production methods have changed drastically in the last hundred years, never mind in the last thousand. The wine of the 10th century is completely different from wine as we know it today. So I guess we have to give up any hopes of drinking wine the likes of which Gandalf would enjoy.

But what fun is that?

So let’s journey to the old parts of the world, to the places where wine is still made in ways that honor tradition, using ancient grapes and ancient methods.

Let’s Go to Italy.

The most famous Italian wines are from Tuscany, where Sangiovese reigns supreme and offers Chianti, Brunello and the ultra-modern Super Tuscans, but we’re heading further North. Way up North, to the Dolomite mountains that kiss the Austrian Alps.

Up here, we’ll find lots and lots of good, inexpensive wine made from grapes that don’t really grow anywhere else in the world. Sturdy old beasts like Lagrein and the strange little Schiava, and white grapes that would be more at home in Germany. But what we’re looking for is Teroldego, the great grand-daddy of them all.

This is an ancient red grape, and the small handful of winemakers working with it are strict adherents to tradition. Foremost among them is Elisabetta Foradori, whose wines are a pure expression of the grape.

Teroldego is full-bodied, earthy and rustic. No ripe brambly fruit here, this is unmistakably a wine from the oldest winemaking regions in the world. Soft black fruit notes and a slight nutty bitterness play second-fiddle to the fleshy mouthfeel. It is the texture that lingers, more than the flavor, and this helps the wine cut through the salted meats and hard cheeses with which it's best paired. It’s a wine that drinks today like it has for hundreds of years. And though there have been experiments with new oak and chill filtration and carbonic maceration and all manner of other modern methods of winemaking, Teroldego truly excels when traditional methods are used. Pure wine, made by hand and by foot, that clearly expresses itself.

You may need to do a little legwork, but it’s a wine that is well worth tracking down.

There and Back Again.

With our journey to the mountains of Italy over, let’s head back to Middle-earth. As I mentioned before, and as you’re likely aware, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies were filmed in Peter Jackson’s native New Zealand.

New Zealand has a young but important wine culture, having piggybacked on the success of Australian wines during the wine boom of the 1980s and '90s. But unlike Australia, which has suffered of late, New Zealand has only continued to grow. Without question, their most important offering is Sauvignon Blanc, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a shop or restaurant that doesn’t offer at least one bottle from Marlborough. It’s a versatile and incredibly friendly wine, and examples from New Zealand tend to offer great value because they are usually inexpensive and consistently well made.

Though this is a grape that originates in France, most famously from Sancerre in the Loire Valley, it has really gained its following because of New Zealand. Here it grows better than anywhere else in the world, displaying a unique citrus character, and flavors of grapefruit and gooseberry that won’t develop elsewhere. It is a crisp, dry wine with a clean mineral character and bracing acidity that is perfect for the warmer seasons.

On a hot day, it’s better than a glass of lemonade.

But it’s also a solid choice for the cooler weather, as its lively style is a nice match for roast pork and baked ham, or with the richly flavored bay scallops that you’ll only find in the dead of winter. And because New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tends to be a little more full-bodied, it’s not something that needs to be served ice-cold.

So pick up a bottle or two of good Sauvignon Blanc, and stop at the store to pick up a cheese plate, maybe some olives and dried fruits, and some prosciutto di parma. Have some friends over (maybe one of them will bring a Teroldego!), put on some movies, and have a good time.

That’s what I’ll be doing as I look forward to heading back to Middle-earth this weekend.


*I’m so, so sorry for that pun.