'Everything you already knew about wine & never wanted to ask'
What's red or white or sometimes pink? It comes assortedly in cans, boxes, goatskins, amphoras, but predominantly bottles. No prizes for guessing.
From the antiquity of Homer's 'wine-dark sea' to the present EC wine lake, wine has flowed like water in Europe. Mountains of words have accumulated in its praise.
In truth, wine has launched a thousand ships, plying the oceans in their profitable trade. Its influence on history can hardly be overestimated.
Therefore, it's no great surprise that allusions to it are abundant throughout literature. What is surprising is how unspecific about their preferences were our poets of yore. Obviously they enjoyed a liberal libation of the vinous variety but alas almost nothing is known of what in particular pleased their palates. All the references are general.
No king sat in Dunfermline toon drinking the blude-red Chianti. Even Shakespeare is vague ('A Rosé by any other name would taste as sweet.') Now Bill the Bard was fond of his booze but the precise appelation of his usual at the Mermaid is not recorded. That Rabbie Burns & John Barleycorn (old whisky-breath) were bosom buddies needs no mention. His close acquaintance with Pierre le Vin ('Go fetch to me a pint o' wine') is less oft-quoted but nonetheless significant in illustration of the Auld Alliance. Even so, he failed to specify a Beaujolais Nouveau or Claret. Modern writers are hardly more helpful. James Joyce drank blanc plonk, yet his name conjures up Dublin's local genius Guinness rather than suave Soave.
I take some comfort in the supposition that our illustrious Great British Writers were, if anything, less discriminating about wine than even such a philistine as me.
Britain has its native wine (& what a shame it doesn't come in red, white & blue), but to a nation weaned, as we were, on ale & more accustomed to the hop than grape, wine must seem forever exotic.
Let your eyes roam along the row of bottles at supermarket or off-licence. From Greece to Italy, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Germany to France & Spain & thence to the New World & California. Travel with Vasco da Gama to the Horn of Africa, or to the Antipodes with Captain Cook (ancestor of the famous Thomas Cook, the Travel Agent.) Viniculture& the distribution & sale of wine is now world wide. Shopping for wine, you can go on a Grand Tour, both geographically & historically.
At home with my purchase, I'm an armchair explorer. I take a sip & am transported. Without stirring from my seat, on a winter evening, I can get a taste of the warm south. Much have I travelled in those realms.
As well as having different provenances, wines vary according to Vintage. Good years, bad years, mediocre ones. A two-year-old dry white wine (still in its infancy) is an altogether different kettle of fish than a more mature ten-year-old (both, however, will enhance a seafood dish.)
Some wines, like people, mellow & improve with age, while others pass their prime much younger, lose vigour & deteriorate. Generally-speaking, white wines don't keep as well as red. A centenarian claret may not yet be senile. Château Latour is renowned for longevity. Of course, there are no hard & fast rules. The lasting qualities of various wines differ with each year's weather & much depends on the individual vinyard.
Opening a bottle of wine, we can drink the fermented sunshine of years gone by. In some dark & musty nook or cranny of an old wine cellar may lie a bottle laid down last century, containing like a time capsule the captured qualities of the year & region that produced it.
According to archeologists (or should I say alcohologists?), in Asia Minor the practice of wine-making predated 6000 B.C. So, vin, vino, wein, wine, oinos (call it what you will) has been around a long long time. Humans have consumed it almost since the cradle of western civilization. In a sense, western civilization & wine are inseparable, so much has the latter influenced the former. Without wine, the history of Europe would have taken quite a different course.
What dubious judgements issued from the wine-befuddled brains of dipsomaniac rulers, what acts of tyranny were hatched in the leaden light of morning-after hangovers? We can only conjecture, extrapolating our own small indiscretions & errors resulting from a glass too many. But more & more the blood-stain looks like wine, when we consider the rape & pillage & sheer bloody murder, massacre & atrocity that must have been committed under the influence of a butt of sack.
Yet, before I start sounding like born-again Rechabite or blue-ribboned prohibitionist, let us remember the opposite is equally the case.
Far from being the demon drink, wine has the seal of divine approval. If you doubt me, look in the good book. Nowhere in the Bible does it actually state 'Blessèd are the bibulous', but it's full of advertisements attesting to the virtues of a modest tipple:
Wine is as good as life to a man, if it be drunk moderately: what life is then to a man that is without wine? for it was made to make men glad. (ECCLESIASTICUS)
Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake. (1 TIMOTHY)
To sip some vino is at worst venial (vineal, if you'll excuse the pun) when done as a worldly indulgence, while, taken for eucharistical reasons, is officially sanctioned & sanctified by the Church. So, the devotee of Bacchus is not necessarily heading for Hades or Hell; Heaven may well happen to boast a respectable wine cellar too!
There is a ritual surrounding the proper appreciation of wine quite as aesthetic in its European way as the Japanese Tea Ceremony. It brings tranquility into this high-speed world. Vignerons must bide their time till the grape ripens, wine-makers wait patiently while the wine matures. Likewise, we, the connoiseur-consumer, shouldn't be in too much of a hurry to open the bottle. To be enjoyed at its best, wine should be served at the correct temperature & red especially should be allowed to 'breathe' for an hour before drinking (wine after all is the product of an organic process). Then, one has to acquire the knack of wielding a corkscrew, easing the cork out - the ringpull is grossly abrupt in comparison.
Raise the glass to the light & admire the luminous jewelled beauty of liquid red garnet or rarest yellow amesthyst.
Holding the stem of your tulipe, lift it gently to your lips, inhale the flowery fragrance.
Finally, the wine has to be savoured slowly, reflectively, not gulped as in a yard-of-ale competition.
What else can offer so complete an aesthetic experience? Wine is a world of satisfying sensation, a delightful treat for the five senses: the tactile, sculptural quality of the variegated bottles; the mellifluous music of those names that roll so smoothly off the tongue (Rioja, Barolo, Moselle, Sonnelle, Mersault, Fleurie, Sauterne, Chablis); the subtle modulation of the colours, bouquets, tastes & by no means least the alcoholic effect.
There is a purple passage by the T'ang poet Lo-t'ung lyrically describing the powerful effects of powdered green tea, which mutatis mutandis, could be applied to the best of wines:
The first cup moistens my lips & throat; the second cup breaks my loneliness; the third cup searches my innermost being.... The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration - all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup - ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves.
Another poet, Baudelaire (not the most abstemious of men), said that we should always be drunk on wine or whatever. Whether we become slightly tiddly, a little inebriated, 'rat-arsed' or raised to an ecstatic state, wine has the power to lift us above the mundane rut of the tedious quotidian. The French (not a nation noted for complete sobriety) say that a day without wine is like a day without sunshine. Here, where the sky is often cloudy & it rains more days than not, vino is veritably just what the doctor ordered. It won't solve your problems but will sure help you forget 'em.
'Sex & Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll may have become the transitory slogan of a passing generation, but, in my prejudiced opinion, 'Wine, Women & Song' has more perennial appeal - wine being the perfect accompaniment to female company & music (no slur intended on women readers or teetotalers!) Whereas most drugs are illegal, wine has the legitimacy of immemorial tradition behind it. Even such an august ancient as Julius Caesar was able, without scruple, to declare in a memorable phrase that vino & videos were the vices for him! Latinists among us will be familiar with the famous declension: hic, hic, Hock.
Even if drunk daily (ambiguity intended), somehow wine is always special, never quite ordinaire, aristocratic almost. Of course, it's a luxurious self-indulgence. Water would serve as well to quench one's thirst. But life would be poor indeed if bare necessity were the only criterion. Some occasions seem to demand wine rather than water, a conviction demonstrated by the wedding feast at Cana.
True, wine consists of 80% water, but what a difference the remainder makes. What wonders the alchemy of fermentation works!
As it seems miracles are no longer possible (or at least not frequent), why not treat yourself to a bottle of your favourite?
Given the choice then, which would I pick? Being no connoisseur (& impecunious to boot), I must plump everytime for the most economical. (Chateau d'Yquem - a bottle fetched £40K at Christies recently - is unfortunately out of my price range!) Here, I could cite Montaigne for the locus classicus:
Diogenes was asked what wine he liked best; & he answered as I would have done when he said: "Somebody else's".
It's Greek to me, or is it cheek?!
Davy King (1983)