Fermenting on Westeros

By Joseph Toman |

With the premiere of the seventh season of Game of Thrones, the noise around George R.R. Martin’s world has reached a malarial midnight. And, those in the alcohol trades are not immune to that fever. There is a cottage industry of everything from fictional wine maps to actual products (specialty beers and wines), to slipshod theme cocktails. People take things too far, my friends—especially when alcohol is involved. A close read into the regions’ ingredients, techniques, and preferences of this fictional world leads one to an unavoidable conclusion: the tasting palate of the Westerosi is truly obscene.

In our (real) world of sommeliers and cicerones (admittedly not one famed for restraint and humility), elegance should hold the highest office. But in a world where dwarf-penny brothels and the odd mummer show are the only forms of entertainment, ABV inevitably becomes the gold standard. Heavy-texture and high-alcohol rule the Seven Kingdoms as if Ser Robert Parker himself had ascended the Iron Throne. From the Fist of the First Men to the Summer Sea, one need only look to see the truth of it.

The Wide World of Fermented Milks:

The nomadic Dothraki warriors quench their thirst after a long ride with fermented mare’s milk. An astute observer might suggest that fermenting milk couldn’t possibly yield more than 2% ABV, even with chaptalization. Yes, that would be a lot of sweet kefir to quaff before catching a buzz. But, I’ll remind you that the Dothraki and their beloved potion reside in Essos, and not Westeros. Furthermore, kumis has been enjoyed by the peoples of Central Asia for over a millennium. Kumis’ unique mother is quite capable of producing high levels of alcohol in mare’s milk.

The wildings north of The Wall revere their “sour goat’s milk.” “Stronger than any ‘Northern piss,’” reports Tormund Giantsbane. (An excellent virtue and a marketer’s dream slogan.). However, I’m forced to wonder how these wildlings achieve such high alcohol content, when the only peoples with proven distillation technology are across the Narrow and Summer Seas. Some sort of fortification must be at play here, but any such fortifying as far north as the Haunted Forest must be the product of some form of fractional, or “freeze” distillation. Icehouse for the free folk, as it were. Hard pass.

Beer & Mead:

The beers and meads of the Northern Lords aren’t much more promising. The-stronger-the-better for the Umbers and Karstarks of the world. All of their tasting notes conjure memories of my unemployed cousin’s homebrew. Retched, cloying stuff.

Where are the lagers? Pilsners and Marzens? It’s certainly cold enough to foster the slow, bottom fermentation necessary for the creation of more refined, food-friendly brews.

The true brewing culture lies to the east, in Volantis. The sour, fruit-flavored beers that Tyrion and Ser Jorah encounter before the Black Walls were quite clearly lambics. And where lambics are made, a whole Belgian-style brewing culture must be close.

(Courtesy HBO)

 

Wine Country:

Westerosi wine country holds more diverse offerings. The wines just south of The Neck seem overlooked. Quite clearly the whites of River and Vale should rank amongst the most interesting offerings in the Realm. Sure, ripeness would be difficult to achieve at an altitude as high as The Eyrie, but with a growing season lasting a Long Summer, and proper slope plantings to maximize sun exposure, The Vale of Arryn could boast quality whites to rival the Wachau, Loire, or Mosul.

And nothing smacks so much of Loire as does Riverrun. An east-west river orientation and a wide variety of reds and whites makes it easy to imagine Clos du Tully Chenin Blanc, Blackfish Cabernet Franc, and Riverun Rosé. The vintages almost demand to exist.

Yet even Catelyn Stark herself thinks the wines of Riverrun thin. The small, tart grapes described by Martin could never make a great wine to the Westerosi mind. No doubt, their elegance is mistaken for weakness as also seems the case in the lands of House Lannister.

Casterly Rock conjures the Napa Valley of Westeros. The wealthiest swath of coast along the Sunset Sea in the far west, their wines are likely to be hulking, and most would be hoarded by the Lannisters. Good vintages would surely be prohibitively expensive for most, and the rest would be 15.5% ABV behemoths. When Prince Oberyn famously remarked that “the Lannisters’ women were too chaste, their food too bland, and their wines too sweet,” he was probably mistaking ripeness for sweetness. A common folly. But the Red Viper was on the right track with his tasting notes.

Further south in The Reach, the most fertile lands in the Seven Kingdoms, delicacy is again trampled under hoof. The Lords of Highgarden take a perfect continental climate, grow fantastic grapes, and vinify the grand crus of Westeros. And what does the author tell us these motley fools do with their juice? They add sugar and spices! What a fucking jape. Hippocras! Small wonder the Tyrells are getting their asses kicked. Admittedly, the famed “Arbor Gold” of House Redwyne sounds very interesting. I imagine a rich Montrachet, or maybe a dryer, less botrytised Chateau d’Yquem. But this is likely an anomaly.

The Dornish alone seem to really know what’s up when it comes to oenology. Dry reds. Power and finesse in balance. Hot days and cold nights. Sun-baked landscapes that conjure images of Cote Rotie and Priorat. The mouth waters . . .

(Courtesy HBO)

But perhaps we should be looking away from Westeros for the salvation of their doomed discriminations. Bring on Daenarys from the east, I say! Load heavy the hulls with lighter vintages and brews to educate the Westerosi palate at the point of a spear. True, the tasting notes from Meereen were not universally positive: Thin texture with an unpleasant, metallic aftertaste. But I cannot help but feel this condemnation of the grapes themselves is a mistake. The flaws described are plainly the result of an extensive brettanomyces infection throughout the winemaking apparatus in Slaver’s Bay.

Let’s be real here. Just take the wildfire to those wineries. Build anew. I’d wager some good juice will follow.

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