Purely Sensory: Wine Tasting’s Past
New year, new you?
January is traditionally the time where people take up a plethora of new hobbies, make a multitude of promises to themselves and resolve to live better, more fulfilling lives. Every year one such vow seems to stand out to me, the resolution to “drink less but better… and learn more about wine”.
This is clearly visible in my job as we get countless people signing up for our tasting events. Places are filled for events in February and March which we all know people won’t actually attend. It’s all part of that promise to yourself, to not just chuck the liquid down your throats – but to actually think about it as you do. You only need to search “wine tasting quotes” to see just how many cultural icons of human history have taken to tasting. (My favourite being “Beer is made by man, wine by God” – Martin Luther. Which almost certainly beats “We all need something to help us unwind at the end of the day. You might have a glass of wine, or a joint, or a big delicious blob of heroin to silence your silly brainbox of its witterings” from Russel Brand). But when did this fascination with wine as something to be assessed, thought about and tasted come about? Why has it captured the literary imagination in ways which other alcoholic drinks are only now discovering?
In Ancient Greece, being able to taste and talk about wine was vital to its popularity. Wine needed specialised merchants who would practice tastings and the art of appreciation. References to ‘Oinogeustes’ can be found as early as the the fourth century BC. This was all part of the culture of wine in Ancient Greece – wine transcended the normal, was subject to reels of poetry and literature and even inspired a God. It was quite simply set aside from all other beverages.
Across the Mediterranean, Florentinus, an early 3rd Century author in Rome, went to great lengths to draw up advice for wine tasters. Taste when the wind is to the north, he states, so the wine remains unchanged. Or if you’re an experienced drinker, taste when the wind is from the south because it effects the wine more – revealing its nature. He advised caution when eating and tasting – if too hungry then your taste is blunted, but if the food has a sharp or salty taste then this also effects the nature of the wine. Wine tasting in Rome was part of the culture of power, a badge of civilisation, it had to be done properly!
The Ancient world then, approached wine from a sophisticated and artistic point of view which wouldn’t be repeated for centuries, despite some attempts throughout the Middle Ages (The Medieval Battle of Wine). It was the Early Modern Period where wine really became something in England to define, and indeed be defined by. After the ferocity of the English Civil War, the new aristocratic order sought out the wines of the world – not just to drink them, but totaste. Charles II held a ‘cellar’ diary where he (or atleast his Yeoman of the Cellar) wrote extensive tasting notes. The noted diarist Samuel Pepys wrote tasting notes of wines he had tried and sent them out through his extensive letter writing to the great and the good of the day. It is from him we have the first ever mention of “Haut-Brignon” some 350 years ago. He described is as “ a good and most particular taste that I never met with.’ Glowing praise indeed.
Over two thousand years separates ourselves from these earlier sommeliers, and yet they are clearly obsessing over the same details us “winos” do today. Some people will swear by tasting in co-ordination with the moon’s passage, avoiding root days and drinking on fruit days. Other people will only taste alongside certain foods. Tasting notes, like those early attempts by Pepys, have become more and more expressive and accessible. Clearly our obsession with getting the best out of the grape is a deeply human never-changing. It will of course outlast January 2015, and for all those promises you make to yourself to drink better and understand more, history is on your side!
“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”
― Ernest Hemingway (left)