“Puritanism: strictness and austerity especially in matters of religion or conduct”
The favorite one liner wine professional like to do is the ‘wine’s just a beverage, a simple agricultural product’ mantra trying to make wine easier for people intimidated by the number of crus within a radius of kilometer in Côte de Beaune. I’ve used that catch phrase more than my share. But as it happens, if you put emphasis on the history, wine’s not just an ordinary beverage. Though certainly mostly used for everyday consumption, it’s been utilized for religious purposes for quite some time. Its ties with things considered sacred are tight as a knot.
We need to rewind couple of thousands of years back to see the big picture. Though the initial connection of wine and religion is very much unclear for obvious reasons we do know that when primitive religions gradually evolved into monotheistic redemption religions with scriptures, wine already played an important role in them.
In the first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism, wine was used to put a friend of Zarathustra into trance that gave the fellow an epiphany where he saw himself ascending to heaven. Pretty celestial stuff.
Wine is also present in Quran how counter intuitive it may sound. All fairness it’s not completely clear whether the wine described in the texts had alcohol in it or not (that’s at least the favorite argument of mullahs) but the Quran does state, however, that there’s a river of wine flowing through the paradise so one could argue Allah knows a thing or two about the good stuff.
In the texts of old testament shared with Jews and Christians wine is all over the place with quite a number of examples. In the new testament one of the key miracles includes turning water into wine at a wedding making Jesus a winemaker. Wine played also an important role in the last supper on which Jesus went symbolically cannibal with his followers. The story doesn’t tell whether Judas enjoyed his wine turned blood turned wine more than the others.
So as Eurasian commodity wine is pretty much part of all the religions of the region. But what I find particularly interesting is the thought that maybe it’s not just about wine playing its part in religion but also religion playing its part in wine thanks to their intertwined history. This is where it gets interesting.
Anthropologists claim that in the early forms of religion there was no concept of sin the way we know it today. The notion of sin was coined later to support the notions of heaven, hell, redemption, omnipotent benevolent god and all that stuff invented after the high civilizations were build stone by stone.
Back in the good old paleo-days it wasn’t good versus evil in our minds or in the world. It was about sacred pitted against profane not virtue against sin. In those times purity equaled sanctity and profane equaled corruption of sanctity brought to you with an element of abomination to make it stick. You didn’t want to piss off the forces greater than yourself and you tried to avoid it with superstitious bans and rules very much fixated on the DO’s and DON’T’s governing the dangerous border between sacred and profane.
To get rid of the abhorrent contaminating corruption in ourselves and around us, we’ve used rituals of many sorts, magic, prayers and sacrifices (burning cattle. Or burning people. Especially dead ones. Sometimes not so dead). We still recognize the intuitive need to repel corrupt elements by taking action and to resort to black and white thinking while doing it.
If you’re like myself, non-religious scientifically minded person, you sort of think you’re vaccinated against all sort of spiritual fuss. Think again. Here’s why. Sometimes we, as wine drinkers, make wines the vessels of our spirituality without even recognizing it ourselves.
Interestingly enough, purity is the thing many of us seriously dedicated to wine are looking for in the glass. We are looking for the pure expression of terroir or pure expression of variety. We see purity as an intrinsic value. This is especially true with natural wines that are in a paradoxical way undogmatic dogma of purity in themselves.
When a wine is seriously impressive, we may call its taste ethereal, surreal or even out of this world. If you’ve ever seen someone having his first sip of Romanée-Conti (with a tight history with Christian monks like the whole of Burgundy), you know what I’m talking about. The taste is just a part of the equation. The wines hierarchical position at the very top of the symbolic system makes the moment special (which also explains why fake bottles sometimes get these 99 scores from respected critics). The moment is so loaded with significance it becomes a ritual by its own right. Almost like searching for answers on eternal questions in the glass, the silent, almost fervent, moment of the first sip is the moment the prehistoric man inside reveals himself to us.
Turning it the other way around: as wine idolators(sic!) we shun the idea of someone using semi-synthetic products like Mega Purple to give the wine some artificial color. Wines manipulated with tannin enzymes or aroma enzymes strike us as wrongness of epic scale. Someone has contaminated the sacred of nature with corruption of men. That’s a profane abomination for you.
This is quite telling: sometimes if we don’t know what we’re dealing with but kind of like the wine, we get anxious because our palates are not good at giving answers to questions concerning metaphysics. Is it corrupt? If we learn the truth our relation to the bottle may change.
Why do we react like this? I believe there are relics within our thinking carrying the code of the primitive era, bit like tailbones of a cognitive sort. My makeshift theory goes that because purity is still closely connected to the concept of holy in these primitive parts of our brain, we tend to see pure things also examples of sanctity and that’s why great wines can sometimes provide an experience best described as spiritually uplifting. Easy.
From time to time we dislike things “endangering the typicité” not because we want to hang ourselves on to some point of time in history when they passed the laws governing how a wine style should be made because we don’t really think in our right state of mind that the people in the 50′s where infallible like the pope and we know the tradition has changed pretty much constantly. We are against change because we sense a rupture that may put purity at risk.
This is why we don’t have a problem with English using Champagne varieties or Napa doing Cab. In our mind there was a void before the somewhat dangerous by nature alien elements came and therefore there was nothing to be corrupted. This is also the reason why some arguments made against the use of international varieties in Chianti are deep down Tower of Babel arguments.
This is not to say that Chianti Classico 100% Sangiovese couldn’t in fact be better than one including Syrah. Absolutely it can be. And to be clear: this is neither a justification for spoofing wine with industrially produced chemical shortcuts meant to make things easier for the producers (in my opinion that shouldn’t happen without total transparency along with it, but oh boy).
So in the end, what is this rambling about? It’s about the point that sometimes stances we firmly take don’t have much to do with taste, ecology or morals. Sometimes they are just channeling paleolithic intuition within us. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.