February Gardening: A Hedonist in the Cellar, vinitor, viniculture, Black Sea, Ambrose Congreve,
Barely Wine from Australia
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“To be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine. To be happy for a day, read a book. To be happy for a week, take a wife. To be happy forever, make a garden,” quoth Ambrose Congreve, who died aged 104. He might have something there, many a gardener would concur.
You don’t have to be a vinitor, or vineyard specialist, to appreciate this but Queensland, Australia, Mike Hayes is just that. An expert one, too: after consistently snagging gold medals, last year his Symphony Hill vineyard was upgraded to a five-star winery by the Australian wine guru James Halliday.
Next month, Hayes will commence harvesting at least some of his grapes. He will do so sans clothes. This is the way he says it was done in the birthplace of viniculture thousands of years ago in ancient Georgia on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. The fruit similarly crushed under the feet of naked enthusiasts. Hayes says there is certain logic here: “Clothing made from animal hides would no doubt contain bacteria that would taint the winemaking process,” he told Des Houghton at The Sunday Mail of Brisbane.
Winemaking is indeed an ancient occupation. Traces of wine have been discovered dating back to around 8,000 B.C. However, it was not until 4,000 years later that evidence for the world’s oldest known winery was discovered by archaeologists excavating a cave complex in southern Armenia (Journal of Archaeological Science, January 2011). There were grape seeds from Vitis vinifera (the generic name Vitis is Latin for ‘vine’), desiccated grape vines, a wine press, a clay fermentation vat, and earthen drinkware. Numerous gravesites indicate that the caves may have played a ceremonial funerary role. The proximity to graves fits with many traditional of imbibing wine during burial rituals, says Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Science, vol.331 p.267).
Did these ancient oenologists harvest the fruit and crush them according the phases of the moon? We simply do not know. But Hayes thinks they might have. “The ancients believed the moon drew energy from the grapes and goodness from the soil – just as the moon pulls the tides . . . many cultures study the lunar cycles and engage in all kinds of mystical rites before harvest,” he told The Sunday Mail. He intends to try this himself and even, as in days of yore, ferment the resulting juice in earthenware jars buried in the soil. One cannot help wondering if Hayes is aware that rural Koreans used to prepare their beloved kimchi in the same manner, fermenting shredded cabbage redolent with garlic by burying it in pots beneath the soil.
When Jason and the Argonauts sailed into today’s Black Sea and voyaged east to discover the fabled Golden Fleece they may have returned with something much more valuable – Vitis vinifera plants and wherewithal to ferment the fruit into a powerful potion. Alas, ancient Greek wines were no better and may have been actually worse than their modern counterparts.
“Mellow and unmixed” was how Ulysses described Ismarian wine to King Alcinous. According to this authority one cupful of that wine to twenty of water was strong enough for any man.
But, queried Ernle Bradford (Ulysses Found: 1963), what type of drink was it that had to be diluted one part to twenty? Unfortunately the ancients apparently added all manner of substances to boost the syrupy consistency of their tipple. Honey, aloes, thyme, berries of myrtle and on occasion even seawater were freely added according to Philippe Diolé (1957).
Such might even have discouraged Father Noah who apparently stowed away a few jars of wine on the Ark. Having landed after forty days and forty nights of nothing but water, we have it on the best of authority that he over imbibed on vino, and lay perfectly pixilated naked in his tent.
Nevertheless, we must thank the Greeks for introducing wine making throughout their Mediterranean colonies, even around Marseilles, which they originally settled. To this day, coupling “France” and “wine” appears perfectly natural. Indeed, French archaeologists include the cost of cases of wine in their expense budgets.
“Wash your feet wife; we’re making wine today” is perhaps no longer necessary, despite Hayes predilection for stomping up a storm. The first improvement was to place the fruit in a bag that was then squeezed in a press. This was simply a long beam pivoted at one end. The bag of grapes was placed under the pivoted end, and the other end pulled down, forcing juice from the bag. As in so many fields, ingenious Romans improved on this, inventing the screw press, not much changed to the present time. Thus the origin of the query: what does a grape say when it is squeezed? The answer, of course, is that it says nothing – it just gives a little wine.
“Wine is as serious or as frivolous as we choose to make it,” wrote Jay McInerney in A Hedonist in the Cellar (2006). “Like sex,” he continues, “it has far too often been shrouded in mystery, hemmed in by taboo, obfuscated by technical blather and assailed by puritans, although its enjoyment is, or should be, simple, accessible and entertaining.”
So when it comes to popping a cork, or the plastic equivalent thereof, let us raise a glass to honour Mike Hayes and his fellow vintners, whatever their sartorial splendour or lack thereof. Throughout a fruitful history, they have brought us much appreciated refreshment at the end of forty days and nights navigation, a day in the garden or even several hours at the keyboard. Grandescunt aucture bibendo: by drinking, all things increase and grow.