The ‘Game of Thrones’ guide to wine
As it turns out, there is a huge overlap in the Venn diagram of people obsessed with wine and people obsessed with “Game of Thrones.” This shouldn’t really come as a surprise: We’re all nerds, after all. Some of us spend an entire paycheck on a rare bottle of Loire Cabernet Franc. Others spend that same money on a fur-lined cloak and plane ticket to a fantasy convention in San Diego. We all love to argue about really, really esoteric details, like whether the schist or limestone soils of St.-Chinian produce more expressive wines, or if it’s possible that Mr. Three-Eyed Raven himself, Brandon Stark, is actually the Night King (!!!) and the one who got us into this mess.
I confess, I’m one of those middle-of-the-Venn-diagram, wine-and-fantasy obsessives. (My first thought upon seeing Johnnie Walker’s “Game of Thrones”-branded “White Walker” whiskey was, “Ridiculous! Everybody knows that the Westerosi have not yet developed distillation technology.”) When, at a “Game of Thrones” viewing party, I asked my husband to pour me another glass of “Arbor Gold,” I inadvertently started an argument/fun parlor game that my friends and I have been playing ever since:
Is it possible to map the real world of wine onto Westeros?
We certainly have enough raw data to work from. George R.R. Martin’s novels, upon which “Game of Thrones” is based, are famous for being painstakingly if not insanely detailed. Martin provides maps of every corner of his fictionalized world, which mark not only the political boundaries between kingdoms but also topographical details like oceans, rivers, mountain ranges and deserts. Then there are his hyperspecific descriptions of climate, geography, even the soil of the various regions of Westeros.
If you are a person who loves to think about terroir — a word whose definition wine people are always fighting about but basically refers to what the wine writer Jancis Robinson calls “the unique confluence of land, culture, tradition and climate” that gives wines their regional character — then Martin’s novels are filled with tantalizing clues. Martin has admitted to being inspired by the culture and geography of medieval Europe for his novels, so when he writes about the sour red wines of Dorne, or the rich, golden wines of the Arbor, could he be hinting at real-world wines and terroirs?
I enlisted the help of some of the country’s foremost wine experts, as well as “Game of Thrones” showrunner D.B. Weiss, to figure out real-world analogs for Dornish Red and Arbor Gold and the wines of Westeros.
Before diving in, here’s some music to accompany your journey into the Westerosi vineyards.
Dorne: land of palm trees, Sand Snakes and my forever-and-always No. 1 pansexual spear fighter, Oberyn Martell (may he rest in power). Dornish Red is the ubiquitous red wine of Westeros — what Cersei glugs from her oversize golden goblets.
“If we’re using the European model, Dorne always felt Mediterranean to us, like southern Spain or Italy,” showrunner D.B. Weiss tells me. “This is why we went to Sevilla to shoot the Dornish sections.”
“The thing about Sevilla is that you’re really in sherry country down there, and it doesn’t fit the bill for any still red wine,” says Richard Betts, a master sommelier and author of the bestselling “The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.” Instead, he recommends heading east across the Balearic Sea to the very warm and arid region of Puglia in southern Italy, where just outside the town of Manduria, wines made from the Primitivo grape are classified by the DOC Primitivo di Manduria. “It is big, rich and fruity,” says Betts. He wins some key nerd points by reminding me that Dornish Red is alternately described as sour and sweet in Martin’s novels. “If we’re thinking about what Primitivo di Manduria may have tasted like in the past, during a less-sophisticated moment in winemaking, you could end up with something sweet-ish, due to a potential stuck fermentation, or even sour as the wine began its natural journey toward vinegar.”
Geographically, Betts’ recommendation makes a lot of sense. Puglia is the skinny heel of the boot of Italy — a peninsula, like Dorne. But the terroir of Dorne isn’t defined solely by its geography; the culture, traditions and history of the region play a part too. Jordan Mackay, the James Beard Award-winning coauthor of “Secrets of the Sommeliers” and The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste, notes, “In the real world, Martell is a name originating in Catalonia. Dornish people are proud, sensual, passionate, and feisty — very Catalan.” Perhaps the best analog for Dornish Red, then, is the wine of Priorat, along the northern Mediterranean coast of Spain. There, Mackay says, the wines are strong, dark and sometimes very tannic — the type of assertive wine you might expect from a Dornishman.
Jordan Salcito, sommelier and founder of Ramona wine spritzers, agrees. “The tiny, rocky, arid region in Catalonia is famous for inky red wines made of Cariñena (Carignane) and Garnacha (Grenache). But Priorat gets quite cold at night and doesn’t quite have the same sort of ocean exposure as Dorne.” Uh oh. The nerd gauntlet has been thrown.
“We know Dorne is a rocky, mountainous, arid peninsula in the hottest region of Westeros. Key defining climatic features include the Red Mountains, separating Dorne from the Stormlands, and soils that range from poor and rocky to red and white sand,” Salcito continues, bringing a salty tear of nerd joy to my eye. “Calabria, the ‘toe’ of Italy’s boot, is the most apt real-world comparison. Like Dorne, it is best-known for its red wine (it comprises 90% of the region’s production), it is separated from its neighbor region, Basilicata, by the Apennine Mountains, and it is surrounded by the sea on three sides. Calabria has been famous for its tannic, slightly sour, fruit-driven red wines since antiquity. It’s a natural inspiration for Dornish Red.” Salcito’s analysis combines the studied meticulousness of Samwell Tarly, besotted wisdom of Tyrion Lannister and confidence-inspiring certainty of the Khaleesi. It’s hard not to bend the knee to her and her conclusions.
That said, Rajat Parr — one of the most celebrated and award-winning sommeliers in the world — has a recommendation that is just too crazy to ignore. “Perhaps a Georgian red wine like Saperavi. Gamy, salty — kinda wild, but delicious.”
We’re far from the Mediterranean, to be sure, and Georgia does not have the same three-sided maritime exposure as Dorne. Even so, I love Parr’s idea. Georgia occupies a liminal space between Europe and Asia. Similarly, Dorne is geographically a part of Westeros but culturally is a universe unto itself. I also can’t help but think about how wine would be made in Westeros. The techniques and technology would be ancient. And, wouldn’t you know it, Georgia is thought to be the birthplace of all wine (there is archaeological evidence of winemaking there that dates to 6,000 BC). Even today, many Georgian winemakers use ancient techniques. “Someone who uses a pump to get wine out of the qvevri [the traditional clay amphorae Georgians use to store wine] would be considered high-tech,” says Alice Feiring, author and expert on Georgian wine. What’s more, Kakheti, one of Georgia’s most notable wine regions, borders the Garegi Desert — so it’s hot and dry, just like Dorne.
WHAT WE KNOW:
Mountainous, arid peninsula. The hottest region of Westeros. Rocky and sandy soils, maritime influence from the south and east. Home to the Martell family, most notably Oberyn Martell (the Red Viper of Dorne). Dorne was the last to join the united Seven Kingdoms, and the Dornish are known for being fiercely independent and proud of their unique, non-Westerosi culture.
WHAT THE MAESTERS SAY:
Primitivo (Primitivo di Manduria, Puglia, Italy) — Richard Betts
Cariñena/Garnacha blend (Priorat, Catalonia, Spain) — Jordan Mackay
Gaglioppo (Cirò, Calabria, Italy) — Jordan Salcito
Saperavi (Kakheti, Georgia) — Rajat Parr
On the TV show, red wine seems to be preferred over white for all of your Frey-poisoning, king-killing or goblet-chugging needs. But white wine is all over Martin’s novels — and it’s always Arbor Gold, a luxurious white cultivated on a small island to the southwest of the Reach. The Reach is the breadbasket of Westeros, its most fertile and wealthy region. Remember those stunning shots we got of Highgarden last season, all sun-dappled and resplendent? (Before, of course, the Lannisters marched in to rape/loot/pillage.) That was the Reach. “The Reach always felt like France to us, although we didn’t shoot there,” notes Weiss. “A bit more temperate than Dorne, in both weather and human disposition.”
A wealthy, southwestern region of France, home to the most iconic wines in the world? Sounds like Bordeaux to me — and to Mackay, who picks the golden-hued dessert wine Sauternes as his stand-in for the finest wine of Westeros. It’s a smart choice; if Martin indeed used medieval Europe as a model for his series, then there’s a good chance that Arbor Gold is actually a sweet wine (sweet wines were more prized than dry among royals of the era).
For those of us who aren’t keen on emptying our coffers for our next “Game of Thrones” viewing party (a good half-bottle of Sauternes can cost hundreds of dollars), Richard Betts has an alternative. “I would caution against just jumping to Sauternes. Instead, I’d think about white table wines that get really ripe and thereby ‘gold.’ While France could be the place, I’m actually feeling a point farther south: Lebanon, home to one of the truly great white wines of the world, Chateau Musar blanc. Rich, golden, profound; if I were a nobleman I’d be certain it was on my table daily.” Now this I like, especially because it syncs up with Martin’s description of Arbor Gold in the novels: “Sansa dutifully lifted the goblet with both hands and took a sip. The wine was very fine; an Arbor vintage, she thought. It tasted of oak and fruit and hot summer nights.” The Bekaa region of Lebanon, where Musar is located, is certainly known for its hot summer nights (the average August temperature is 93 degrees Fahrenheit). And yes, the Musar blanc has ripe fruit and notes from oak aging. There’s even a Bordeaux connection: Serge Hochar, the founder of Chateau Musar, studied with winemakers of the iconic French region before returning to his estate on the Lebanese coast to create elegant, age-worthy wines. Bordeaux-style winemaking in a temperate, sun-drenched, Mediterranean paradise? It’s Arbor Gold!
The only hiccup in all of these analyses is that the Arbor is an island, and island wines — whether from the Canary Islands of the Atlantic or Corsica and Greece in the Mediterranean — always have a distinctive, maritime profile. Once again, wine guru and Westerosi climatology expert Jordan Salcito saves the day. “The islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Mallorca all have compelling wine cultures and produce gorgeous, age-worthy whites from grapes like Vermentino and Viognier.” But Salcito is quick with a caveat: “None of these compete for ‘the greatest white wine in the world,’ ” which is certainly how one should think about Arbor Gold. Salcito’s hedge? “The Reach feels like the Loire Valley” — France’s chateau country, filled with lush, rolling hills and wealthy French aristocrats; I’m buying it — “so maybe Arbor Gold is an imaginary mash-up between Chenin Blanc from Anjou (a stunning, dry Savenièrres, which is long-lived, gold, floral yet dry and in perfect balance) and a white wine from one of those Mediterranean islands. It’s sexier to have this perfect wine come from an island.”
Salcito’s choice doesn’t exactly adhere to the rules of my parlor game. But when the game is to ask famous sommeliers and writers to pontificate on made-up wines from a made-up fantasy show, it’s hard to take the rules too seriously. All that matters is that come April 14, when I host my “Game of Thrones” Season 8 premiere party, we’ll have plenty of Dornish Red and Arbor Gold on hand and plenty to argue about.
WHAT WE KNOW
Lush and verdant, the Arbor is a “golden island” to the southwest of the Reach, which itself is considered the breadbasket of Westeros. The lords of the Arbor are House Redwyne (related to the Tyrells of Highgarden through Lady Olenna), one of the wealthier families of Westeros. By all accounts their hobbies include drinking wine, hosting tourneys and generally being fancy.
WHAT THE MAESTERS SAY
Vermentino (Corsica, France) — Rajat Parr
Obaideh/Merwah blend (Chateau Musar blanc, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon) — Richard Betts
Sémillon/Sauvignon blanc/Muscadelle blend (Sauternes, Bordeaux, France) — Jordan Mackay
Chenin blanc (Savenièrres, Loire Valley, France) — Jordan Salcito
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