It’s not what you drink that matters, says Andrew Jefford, but the meaning of what you drink...
What are you drinking for Christmas? As well-organized wine lovers, I’m sure you’ve got it mapped out exactly: grower’s Champagne (old vine, perhaps single vineyard); that long-treasured 1999 Musigny from de Vogüé, 1996 Grange or 1995 Shafer Hillside Select; maybe a bottle of `77 Dow or a half-bottle of `88 Yquem for some cheese, and Moscato d’Asti (the only choice) for the Christmas pudding.
I’ve no idea whatsoever what we will be drinking, since we won’t be at home this year. I may be allowed to put a bottle or two into the luggage (permission uncertain; gifts take priority); the rest will have to be bought from Tesco in St Leonard’s on Sea, the shining shop up the hill from where my parents-in-law live. What, though, might be ‘the perfect Christmas wine’?
The answer is any wine at all. Anything could be heaven: just ask those passing Christmas in slums, shanty towns or townships, those under siege, or those recovering from serious illness, the loss of a job or a home, or family breakup.
It’s not the wine in particular which matters, but wine in general, as a bringer of meaning at a time like no other. Whatever your beliefs, that is what Christmas is: a point of rest and restoration at an axial moment of deep darkness and cold — or exhausting light and heat.
Here are a list of the meanings which might accrue to whatever wine, grand or modest, that you have chosen to put on your Christmas table.
1: It focuses light. Depending on which hemisphere you live in, Christmas is either a time of illuminated darkness (the north) or coruscating natural light (the south). In either case, a table set around glasses or a decanter of wine has the ability to focus, channel and magnify that light. That’s one reason why glass is always chosen for wine rather than ceramics: not only does it allow wine’s colour to be appreciated, but that colour is then set glittering by sunlight, daylight or candlelight. This is a moment all the more precious for being fugitive. Wine is sheltered from light in its bottle, since light will destroy it; its lambent quality as we finally consume it makes for a celebration of light itself, the source of all life on earth.
2: It draws drinkers together. In most cases, Christmas means time shared with intimates: those woven into our lives, those in the best position to help and support us. The sharing of wine draws us together, thanks in large part to its symbolic force in the Christian Eucharist and western culture more generally. The Christmas meal might almost be a joyful counterpart, annually re-enacted, to all the intermittent ‘last suppers’ which punctuate our lives — those final meals with those who are going away from us in time or space, for better or for worse, for a short period or forever.
3: It brings warmth or refreshment. Wine is the alcoholic beverage which, in unadulterated form, can either warm or refresh (beers usually refresh; spirits generally warm). In a metaphorical sense, too, wine brings restorative force to the midpoint of the year, regardless of whether that means nourishing warmth in winter or cool ease and relief in summer. Alcohol is essential to wine’s role in ‘making glad’ the hearts of its drinkers.
4: It is a piece of the world. It’s rare that we talk of “wine”: wine always comes from somewhere, and the best wines come from somewhere very precise and very particular indeed. That’s its fascination: as we drink, we perceive a multiplicity of distinguishing differences, anchored in place. When we put a bottle of Chianti on the table at Christmas lunch, we’re bringing the Tuscan hills to our table. We swallow mouthfuls of fermented grape juice created by vine leaves and roots from Tuscan sunlight and Tuscan rain, in Tuscan soils. Wine at Christmas gives us the chance to honour our world by gathering in, celebrating and championing some distant but cherished part of it.
5: It is a piece of time. Christmas (for the non-religious) is a kind of communal birthday: a point around which the year turns for all of us alike, and by which we measure time passing. Wines in the main carry vintages, and the vintages of special bottles bear sometimes distant dates. Wine is therefore a piece of time in a way that no other item on the table ever can be. It’s hard not to cherish time: we have so little of it, and it slips by so fast. Wine helps.
6: It carries a signature. Wine is rarely a generic item, a commodity product; even simple wines carry a signature of some sort, and expensive wines carry sought-after signatures, signatures we revere. It is a crafted product of place. We drink the craft, too. The meal on our table wouldn’t be there without the work of farmers, but it tends to be the Christmas Day cook who gets (indeed deserves) the credit. It’s through the signed wine that we have the chance to thank the farmer: the artisan of seasons and soils.
As I’m sure we all do: Happy Christmas.