For the love of wine

Wine has been enriching the human experience since the beginnings of civilisation. From ancient Jordan or a wedding at Cana to 1960s Cambridge or South Africa, wine remains a constant throughout history.
The wedding of Cana, the miracle of the wine, by Giotto (1267-1337). Credit: 
DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI  via Getty Images.
The wedding of Cana, the miracle of the wine, by Giotto (1267-1337). Credit: DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI via Getty Images.
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‘Freedom and whisky gang thegither’ proclaimed Robbie Burns. The same could surely be said for freedom and wine — indeed, for civilisation and wine. There are, however ambivalences. At its best, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘wine is bottled poetry.’ But it is not always at its best — or rather, its drinkers are not; Jekyll can turn into Hyde. Wine mirrors the ambivalences of the human condition. All good drink is more-ish, but ‘more’ is not always a good idea. Any oenophile should aspire to claim, with Winston Churchill, that he had taken more out of wine that it had out of him. To express it in even grander terms, those who love wine should hope to anticipate the pleasures of the celestial regions while keeping original sin at bay.

That might seem a miraculous harmony, but miracles and wine can also go together, as in Christ’s first miracle, during the marriage at Cana. That had two notable aspects. First, it concerned wine. Second, the account in John’s Gospel shows the Virgin Mary in a new light. This is not the tremulous girl of the Annunciation, nor is it the Mater Dolorosa of the Crucifixion. This is the Yiddishe Mama of yore, brushing aside Her Son’s disclaimer and generally giving orders all round. A charming scene, which led to a jolly wedding feast: a happy and untypical interlude before the journey to Gethsemane, and to Golgotha.

Yet there was an earlier non-divine miracle which also involved wine. Although the miracle-workers’ names will remain unknown, at least in this world, it was one of the great prehistoric agricultural discoveries. There is a story which is often read to small children, about a farmer whose pigsty caught fire, killing all the animals. The farmer, very upset, touched one of the carcases and then thrust his burnt finger into his mouth, to cool it off. There was a delicious taste. As time went on, the farmer and his friends realised that they did not have to burn down the pigsty in order to enjoy roast pork.

There must be a parallel with wine. When the delicious grapes had ripened, it would not have been possible to eat them all at once. Some would have been stored, in hollowed-out tree trunks or even in primitive earthenware vessels. As a result, many of them would have been crushed. When this was discovered a few months later, the negligent fellow who did the storing might have been in big trouble, until someone tasted the resulting fermented juice. 

The earliest wine was made from wild vines. But sometime between 8000 and 5000 BC  (the archaeologists are still arguing about the dates) in modern Turkey, Syria and Georgia, vines were cultivated. This practice spread gradually throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and was associated with the growth of trade. In Thucydides’ words, ‘The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.’ 

From early on, the fruits of the vine were associated with religion. The fall of the year, the life-threatening harshness of winter, the rebirth of life-giving fertility in the spring: explanations for these phenomena were at the core of most ancient religions. The death and rebirth of Osiris, the kidnapping of Proserpine followed by her partial release – it seems certain that in the mind of the ancients, this would be connected to the destruction of grapes, followed by their resurrection as wine. Scholars are still arguing about what actually happened during the Eleutherian Mysteries; the annual initiation ceremonies held by the cult of Demeter. That secret cult was good at keeping its secrets. There have even been suggestions that its initiates developed early forms of hallucinogenic drugs. But it seems self-evident that in rituals to glorify Demeter, Proserpine and the fertility of the earth, wine would have been included.

It certainly formed a crucial part of Jewish ceremonies, such as the Passover. As well as Jesus, who produced the first great wine, Cana grand cru, Judaism also supplied the first wine-drinking hypocrite. After everything that he had gone through—stuck on a boat with all those beasts—Noah could hardly be blamed for getting sloshed. On one occasion, he ended up in his tent, no doubt snoring his head off, and naked. His son Ham saw him thus unattired. This was hardly a crime on the scale of Susannah and the Elders, but when Noah came to, no doubt in the grip of a stonking hangover, he cursed Ham and his posterity. That was poor behaviour on his part.

We know more about the ceremonies associated with Dionysus and Bacchus—the same Gods in different languages. Dionysiac and Bacchanalian: the words survive to describe events which lead up to drunkenness, licentiousness, and general mayhem, concluding in orgies. The end of the evening would have resembled a cross between Oxford’s Bullingdon Club and Leicester Square on a Saturday night. Nudity would have spread well beyond Noah. In both Athens and Rome, the authorities made attempts to suppress or at least regulate these outbreaks of misrule. That prig Livy was especially disapproving, but versions of the bacchanals survived until the Christians were able to suppress paganism.

A quarter of a millennium before that, a great Emperor, Antoninus Pius, commissioned the finest-ever architectural tribute to the glories of the grape. In what is now Lebanon, his magnificent Temple of Bacchus still stands as part of the temple complex at Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley, which is appropriate for two reasons. First, wine has been cultivated there from earliest times: probably more than three thousand years before Antoninus Pius’s benefaction—indeed, it still is. At least three major chateaux, Ksara, Massaya and Musar, have continued to produce serious wine during the worst of Lebanon’s travails. The vignerons must be fed up with jokes about a touch too much cordite in the ’09, et al. Second, here again the pleasures of the human condition are juxtaposed with its horrors. One of Massaya’s best wines is Les Terrasses de Baalbek. The vineyard overlooks the temples. It also overlooks the Hezbollah encampment across the road. Thus far, there has been peaceful coexistence. But the Hezbollah lot regularly fire off a few rounds, a feu de joie as it were, just to remind everyone that we are in Lebanon. The wines of Bekaa travel well: the joie of Hezbollah less so.

Today, officially Islamic cultures are hostile to alcohol, which is surprising, given the Koran’s extensive borrowings from the Talmud. Some experts claim that only two or three verses in the Koran do refer to wine, and that they concentrate on denouncing intoxication. The art of the Islamic world does not always show the same aversion. In some of the Omayyid hunting lodges in Northern Jordan, there are frescoes. After a strenuous day’s chase, contented-looking chaps are relaxing while diaphanously clad women bring round trays of goblets. It is unlikely that those goblets contained diet coke. But in later centuries, puritanism triumphed, though often mitigated by hypocrisy. 

Christianity followed Judaism in its use of wine. It is central to the Eucharist: ‘This is My blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’ Is there a more dramatic, more moving phrase in any literature or liturgy? Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. Yet there is a problem. Tertullian encouraged his fellow-Christians to set a good example to their pagan neighbours, who would then marvel at ‘how these Christians love one another.’ That might have been true in the Gospel of Perfection but it never existed. For centuries, Christians were ready to slay other Christians for taking a different view of the Gospel of Love. Christ allowed His blood to be shed, as He proclaimed during the first Eucharist but soon His followers were spilling each other’s. Around the time of the Reformation, there were fierce arguments over the nature of the Eucharist. Was it Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation or merely symbolic? In those conflicts, Christian blood was shed: Christian flesh, tortured and burned. Christians are heirs to a great spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic heritage.  Music, art, architecture, glorious language, profound theology, and above all, redemption; Christ’s Cross is their salvation. Yet still, ‘The troubles of our proud and angry dust/Are from eternity, and shall not fail.’ The wine of the Eucharist inspired sin, as well as forgiveness.

Wine is also the handmaiden of talk. As the evening unfolds, that can range across a wide horizon, from profundity to nonsense. In my experience, it is helpful if everyone imbibes at roughly the same rate. Then all jokes are funny, all banalities are insights.

I developed a life-long love affair with wine at Cambridge University in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Although college cellars had been nurtured by pastoral care from generations of dons, undergraduates were sometimes allowed access, at bargain prices. In those days, most Colleges had Fellows who felt that there was enough scholarship already in their chosen discipline so that any contribution from them would be otiose and they could concentrate on being good college men. That role included teaching undergraduates, usually very well, and often entertaining them, often generously. Any Platonism almost always remained Platonic.  

These men’s tastes had been formed when good wine was cheap. As prices began to rise, there were complaints. I remember one elderly don almost calling for sack-cloth and ashes. ‘If you ever want to drink anything decent, you young men will simply have to become…’ at that point, there was a pause before his whole frame shuddered and he emitted a howl of lamentation: ‘bankers.’ His wine merchant had just told him that the latest vintage of Latour would cost £60 a case. 

There were also bargains elsewhere. In those days, the University Arms hotel was a hideous modern excrescence: a disgrace to its name. (It has since been replaced by something a bit better.) Once, I was walking back to College when the heavens opened. To avoid inundation, I darted into the hotel, the nearest thing to an Ark, looked with disfavour on a pint of gaseous beer and picked up the wine-list with no expectation of pleasure: just for something to read. Blow me: 1945 Latour and the same vintage of Lafite, seven pounds ten shillings each. I phoned an oenophile chum and discarded the beer. We ate the simplest food, something like cold roast beef, that the kitchen could not ruin. The wines were sans pareil. A few days later, we thought that we would repeat the experience. I called the hotel to book a table and ask the sommelier to open the wines when he thought it appropriate. ‘Sorry, Sir: those bottles are no longer available.’ Looking back, our enthusiasm during the first innings probably set off alarm bells and led someone to do some checking. How maddening. Talk about sack-cloth and ashes.

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of tasting the ’45 Latour once again, courtesy of Simon Berry-Green at Berry Bros. It was majestic. I would be tempted to compare it to the highest peak in a massive mountain range or to Durham Cathedral seen from below. But attempts to describe great wine in words almost always fail and often read like parodies. Perhaps one should restrict description to a single phrase: the finest wine that I have ever tasted.

In the 1980s, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the US. The Americans were still discovering wine and as a result, residual naivete created bargains. In the great year of 1980—I was on current affairs TV business —I had been using the 1976 Pontet-Canet as a table wine in one hotel. P-C had not yet acquired its super-Fifth growth status, and that was a light vintage. But it was ready to drink, pleasant, and cheap. The inevitable moment came. A waiter announced: ‘Sorry, Sir: we’ve run out of that.’ As I reached for the wine-list to find a substitute, he continued: ‘We do have an earlier year left. Don’t suppose you’d be interested.’ ‘What year?’ ‘1966’ That was a much better vintage. I tried not to look eager while saying casually: ‘Knock a couple of bucks off the price and I’ll give it a go.’ Great fun which also applied to homegrown American bottles.

In 1980, high UK interest-rates had sent the pound to around $2.40 and a lot of Washington restaurants had not yet learned to prize Californian wines. It was a good time to discover them. Alas, after Ronald Reagan’s apotheosis, the Californians hit town. Their wines became deservedly fashionable and inevitably dearer. Although many of them would still have been too young, the older vintages were quickly consumed, and their replacements were as ready as green strawberries. Meanwhile, the British government had understood the need to relax monetary policy. By early 1982, the pound was virtually at parity with the Dollar. In Washington, there was still plenty of good wine, but the bargains had gone. 

In South Africa, one could also benefit from a weak currency while observing a fascinating and wonderful country beset by anfractuosities, oscillating between hope and tragedy. In the Cape, abetted by Huguenot immigrants, they had been making wine for three hundred years. Around Stellenbosch and Franshhoek, with vineyards surrounded by mountains, the scenery is achingly beautiful.

I spent many evenings in gardens near Stellenbosch, praising the excellent bottles as we tried to work out how South Africa could move to majority rule without sliding into chaos. That quest continues. Some would argue that even thinking about South African wine was escapism and that all energies ought to have been devoted to politics. But as a Russian Grand Duke is reported to have said, between the revolution and the firing squad, there is always time for a bottle of champagne—or in this case, cabernet sauvignon. Housman wrote a light but also serious poem, in which the first line reads ‘Could man be drunk for ever.’ In that case, we gather, all would be well:

                         But men at whiles are sober

                         And think by fits and starts,

                         And when they think they fasten

                         Their hands upon their hearts.

There was, and is, plenty of that in South Africa.

But there are more relaxed regions. Five years ago, I visited Gagnard-Delagrange, an excellent Burgundian wine grower where we were enticed with a 1980 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er cru. It had been made by the great Jacques Gagnard, now dead. His daughter Marie-Josephine, approaching eighty, presided with an authoritative twinkle. She sent her grandson to the cellar to fetch the wine, bottled before he was born.

We were worried. 1980 was not an outstanding year. Would the wine have survived? The colour was yellower than seemed healthy. What would one say if it had died in the bottle? The atmosphere was more tense than the matriarch realised. But our anxieties were wholly unjustified. The wine was delicious. O, we of little faith. In the most civilised region on Earth, the tasting had turned into an epiphany: another tribute to the glory of Burgundy, and to the good sense of the Psalmist:

                                And wine that maketh glad the heart of man.

May that continue, world without end, Amen.

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