Social lubricant, needless intoxicant or necessary ingredient? STUART WALTON asks if alcohol is vital to our enjoyment of wine.
In wine lies corruption. At its heart resides the wanton principle of spoilage that transforms ripe grapes from food to drink. Happened upon by our primordial ancestors, the power of alcohol in wine to alter consciousness was first accorded an , and then fully ritualised,
role in human affairs.
It changed our lives, and our cultures, forever. Of course, wine shares this intoxicating property with drinks made from other fruits and vegetables, from fermented grains, and those that are the products of distillation. But it is wine more than any other drink that has – in western cultures, at least – accrued an elaborate set of symbolic practices, and a formidable body of both connoisseurial and scholarly knowledge.
From a glass of Champagne to pop open before a grand gastronomic occasion, to the century-old bottle of Bordeaux with disintegrating label that goes under the hammer in the auction house, via a simple, easy-drinking drop to enjoy with a Friday night takeaway, there is a type of wine to suit practically all human experience.
And in all of these wines – among the exuberant primary fruit, the bracing acidity, the structuring tannins, the aromatic richness of oak or the luxurious blandishment of sugar – there is alcohol. We talk of alcohol as an element in the balance of wine’s flavours, noting (particularly in the past few years) that there appears to be rather too much of it around, but we don’t talk of it as intoxicant.
Or is it precisely because alcohol plays its role within the context of all these other factors that we feel we don’t need to remind ourselves that wine makes us drunk?
The saving grace of alcohol is that, while its effect is certainly fairly prompt, it isn’t instantaneous. It must be absorbed via blood vessels in the stomach wall and the small intestine, and then embark on its passage through the bloodstream to the brain’s fatty tissue.
It is only when its transit through the alimentary system is sufficiently rapid to outpace the liver’s capacity for filtering it that intoxication is the result. In the meantime, we are at liberty to bring all our sensory and aesthetic receptors to bear on assessing all the distinguishing factors of the wine in our glass.
Could we bear to live with wine that didn’t intoxicate? ‘I find tasting and drinking two very different experiences,’ says wine authority Jancis Robinson MW. ‘Alcohol is the enemy of the first and friend of the second. I think I could get about 80% as much pleasure from wine if it didn’t contain alcohol, because the tastes and textures are so wonderful.’
Indeed, those who taste wine in the course of their work often report that there is a mildly disorienting woolliness that takes over after about 100 samples, even after scrupulous spitting out, because some alcohol is absorbed through the blood vessels of the tongue.
But how about once the tasting is over and we have sat down to lunch? ‘Alcohol is indispensable,’ says Toby Peirce, proprietor of Quaff, an independent
wine merchant in Hove, Sussex. ‘It gives wine an air of hedonism – a very grownup and socially acceptable hedonism, but hedonism nonetheless. And it suppresses
inhibition so effectively.’
This, then, is alcohol’s first duty. It plays a social role, a point echoed by California winemaker Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards. ‘The full enjoyment of wine occurs in a communal setting, whether that be with a companion, with family or with friends. It is an experience enhanced by being shared. Within the limits of reasonable use, its mind-altering properties open us to others, and they to us.
From Plato’s symposium on, the warmth and joy of such gatherings would pale were alcohol not involved.’ But is it possible, beyond the inevitable cliquishness that surrounds wine aficionados, to distinguish the alcoholic properties of wine from those of, say, the proverbial ‘few beers’ that sustain much of the western male drinking culture? Peirce refers to the
gastronomic context in drawing this line.
‘Wine, if drunk in reserved quantities in its ideal pairing with a meal, can seem to have almost no effect at all. The alcohol can seem almost incidental, and thus it is more civilised.’
This is a physiological, as well as a social, function. ‘Wine is best enjoyed as a complement to food, which moderates the effect of alcohol on the system,’ says Draper. ‘Having wine with a meal, defined as a gathering of family or friends, can make a ritual of something that would otherwise rarely have that quality.’ There is some drinking of beer with food of course, but it is far more frequently taken unaccompanied, as is even more the case with spirits.
The aspect that is most difficult for the responsible wine lover to acknowledge – especially in the current climate of neoprohibitionism, in which alcohol is increasingly the agent of a complex of socio-medical problems – is that intoxication is, in itself, deeply agreeable
to the senses, and even to the emotions. ‘What it does so magically,’ states Robinson, ‘is add to our appreciation of the setting we’re in, the people we’re with, what they say, and so on.’
But that effect, surely, is essentially an effect that each individual is undergoing personally, and it is the fact that a number of these affected individuals are joined together that secondarily creates the magical social dynamic referred to by Robinson.For Draper, this is still more likely to happen with wine than with any other drink. ‘I believe most fine-wine lovers understand the idea of epiphany. You can taste a wine and think the equivalent of
“Oh my God, I don’t believe this”. You are carried away by the incredible complexity and quality of what you are experiencing. It can be beyond words. I think those epiphanies set wine apart.’ This experience described by Draper can be crucially enhanced by the onset effect of alcohol.
Peirce recalls a memorable reception on top of Table Mountain in South Africa, when heroic quantities of a millennial cuvée of Simonsig sparkling wine added to the delight of being reunited with his fiancéeafter a three-month absence. Intoxication, he recalls, certainly played its energising part in making the day unforgettable.
These, not the times you flogged yourself to a standstill staying late at the office to fulfil a work deadline, are the moments that a lifetime’s experience will do nothing to tarnish. We need to redefine our relationship with the alcohol in wine. It is an intoxicating drink. We are
adult humans, and intoxication is a pleasure to us.
It doesn’t have to disable us, overwhelm us, or incriminate us to admit as much. Robinson puts the point eloquently. ‘I would be delighted if I spent most of my non-working, waking time feeling as though I had just had one – just one – glass of wine.
Written by Stuart Walton