Most of us are familiar with the unsettling experience of a waiter offering us a sip of wine in a restaurant and expecting us to pass comment. Nowadays, I just nod and say “yes, that’s wine”. Of course, what the waiter wants is for you to confirm that the wine has not corked.
Many of us will also know a self-professed connoisseur who can talk at great length about their wino experiences. But, when you drill down into the detail of what they are saying, you realise that (in the words of Basil Fawlty) they “don’t know a Bordeaux from a claret!”
However, taking wine making and consumption as a symbol of status is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it culturally specific. In fact the relationship between Man and the vine is well-established. Some scientists believe that the missing link between apes and homo-sapiens was a hominid called homo-sapped who liked nothing more than settling down by the fire with a casket of crude fruit wine imported from the beer-brewing monkeys of Borneo.
Well, that’s not true. But this is…
What is the Vintage? Chateau Armenia, 4000BCE
Archaeologists have dated the remains of a winery in Armenia back to around 4,000 years BCE; the relics include grape remains, grape press, vats and jugs. It is the oldest known winery, but of course the knowledge of wine making may date back even further than that.
The oldest bottle of wine on the market is an 836 year old Greek red wine that was last sold at auction in 1993 for $100,000,000. If your bar bill comes to nine-figures then you really need to ask some serious questions about your drinking habits.
However, the oldest existing beverage is a white wine living in a museum and is 1,650 years old. It was found in a Roman grave near the city of Speyer in Germany. Museum staff are hesitant about opening it – some scientists don’t want to open it because they are unsure of how it would react with the air; others scientists just want to wait till the next World Cup.
“Bacchanalian” is a term used to describe any form of drunken revelry; it derives from “Bacchus” the Greco-Roman god of the grape, wine making and wine drinking. Bacchus (or sometimes “Dionysius”) was the most popular of the ancient gods and resident of Mount Olympus. According to myth he had a human mother, came from either Ethiopia or East Asia, was often half-naked, and after being torn apart and eaten was later reborn in Zeus’s thigh.
His cult appeal resulted in annual wine festivals and processions in which the women danced wildly and the men proudly displayed their “little brothers” for all to appreciate. Surprisingly some scholars have drawn comparisons between the Dionysian cults and Christianity, noting the symbolism of wine in both and that both stories involve a young idol who dies and comes back from the dead. But, I suppose we’ve all felt like that after a couple of bottles though.
Drink Rice Wine and Rise Whine, You Wry Swine
Western grape wine is not very popular in East Asia. Not unsurprisingly, rice wine is a wine made from rice; specifically, the conversion of fermented rice starch to sugar. Rice wine is of Chinese origin and is not the same as Japanese Sake. Sake is fermented like beer (brewing) whereas rice wine is fermented in an enzymatic process.
Not only is rice wine making a Chinese invention, but it seems that grape wine may also have been developed by the Chinese. Because grapes were scarce in ancient China, the drinking of grape wine was an expensive and rare treat reserved for the emperor and important officials. A little bit like swans in the UK today.
Perhaps of most import to the alcoholic expert is the fact that rice wine has a higher alcohol concentration than beer, grape wine, and sake. This may be the perfect solution to the rising unit price of beer – instead of getting tanked up on cans of larger, just have a few swigs of rice wine!
Restaurant reviewer Jasmin Blunt became interested in wine making when the recession first began to bite. At first she thought home-made wine might reduce her grocery bills, but demand from neighbours and guest-speaking on home-brewing has turned a hobby into a profitable side-line.