I would be willing to argue that there is no drink more social and more ritualistic than wine. It is a cornerstone of society, past and present. We have drunk wine together for thousands of years, and we will drink it together for thousands of years into the future. Only water has had such a regular seat at our dining table. Drinking a bottle has become ceremonial, from the sommelier decanting over candlelight, the pop of a champagne cork to mark a celebration, or the plonking of a table wine down to be quaffed and enjoyed over your nightly dinner. We seldom take stock of how important these aspects of opening and sharing a bottle of wine are, they come subconsciously. I believe it matters more than we think. I wish to highlight a few of the rituals which, both past and present, synonymous with enjoying this hallowed grape juice together.
It starts with us, whether quaffers or connoisseurs, professionals or hobbyists, all who find pleasure in drinking wine. That being said, only in company do we enact the ritualistic tendencies that wine seems to bring out of us. This brings me onto the Symposium, the ultimate wine ritual, where modern parallels can be drawn to the drinking culture found in Ancient Greece. Quite literally, the Symposium refers to “drinking together”, and the drink of choice was, indeed, wine. Not the wine we know of today, for it was heavily diluted, so attendees of the Symposia could conduct intellectual discourse, joke telling, poetry recital, and intercourse without feeling the effects of full intoxication.
Wine today still lies at the heart of drinking together. France created a wine classification born out of the culture of drinking around a dinner table, or drinking together with people. Unlike the Symposia, which was extremely aristocratic, the French classification that was created was designed for everybody. Indeed, it’s the lowest ‘ranking’, the Vin de Table. Crucially, wines could be non-vintage, with grapes made anywhere from around the entire EU in fact, so a plethora of styles were experimented with!
That was, until it evolved into the classification we have today, the Vin de France, where grapes must be from France alone. Some phenomenal wines come out of the Vin de France today, including Mas de Daumas Gassac, and Historical XIXth, a Cabernet-Syrah from Bordeaux’s Château Palmer, are perhaps the two most prolific VdF wines. Much like the wine of the Symposia, the wines of the Vin de Table were not central to the occasion, but contributed to the routine of dinner, or gathering. It’s not restricted to France, for Spain, Italy and even now England (though this would need a whole other article!) are making wines that do not adhere to their respective classifications, for the purpose of drinking them at the table and experimenting with different vinification techniques.
My ultimate wine ritual, a pure symbol of celebration and jubilation, must be the popping of a sparkling wine. Whether a birthday, christening a ship on its maiden voyage, or spraying one another on the podium of Formula One, nothing is quite synonymous with marking a special moment like sparkling wine is, and it’s always centred around people. Indeed, many critics and sommeliers hold Champagne and other sparkling wines in the same esteem as top quality still wines because of their vinous qualities, and I would certainly agree. However, I do not believe one would enjoy a glass alone with dinner, or alone at a wine bar - the beauty and fun of sparkling wine is in the celebratory, social element that transcends its vinous elements.
It has been widely noted that the alcohol from sparkling wines enters the bloodstream quicker, helped along by the CO2; making for the perfect aperitif and celebratory wine, starting as we mean to go on…There have been various occasions that I have amassed a huge line up of bottles in an evening, shared among friends, family and wine industry folk that haven’t seen one another in months, especially post-Pandemic. Such occasions, Symposia-esque in their rapid turn to revelry and jubilation (though in no means aristocratic!) have begun with a few sparkling wines. We have drunk wine together for thousands of years, in various forms. Many of us in the wine industry keep wine tasting strictly professional, for then it becomes about the wine. Aside from that, the bottles we open and the Champagne corks we pop matter little compared to the people we are sharing the bottles with.