A draught of vintage
A Short History of Wine
Rod Phillips Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 416pp, £21
I thought that a symposium was an intellectual assembly convened to discuss some weighty philosophical topic, and was thus startled to discover from A Short History of Wine that, in ancient Greece, where the word was coined, a symposium was, in fact, a gathering "where the drinkers had sex with prostitutes, each other, or the serving boys".
Rod Phillips unearths several such gems in his effort to explain the story of wine "as a product, a commodity and an icon". Phillips is a professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he teaches a course in the history of alcohol - a subject that, in my day, we were obliged to pursue in the JCR and local hostelries, rather than in the lecture theatre. His academic background is evident not only in the breadth of his research, but also in his deadpan delivery. He has uncovered some astonishing facts and figures, but too often spoils the effect by stating the obvious or betraying an apparent lack of humour.
According to archaeologists, wine drinking started 7,000 years ago in what is now north-west Iran. Quite how the wine came to be made, nobody can tell, although it almost certainly happened by accident. Phillips makes the neat point that "wine is regarded as having been discovered, whereas beer and bread, for example, are seen as having been invented", and he speculates that it might simply have been a fortuitous fermentation among bags of berries picked by Stone Age man.
Having pinpointed wine's probable birthplace, Phillips pursues the trail to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. He follows the spread of wine to the rest of Europe, focusing on the pioneering viti- cultural role of the Church in the Dark Ages; on the threat posed by the rise of Islam in the 7th century; the growth of trade between England and France in the 14th century; the introduction of glass bottles in the 16th century and of cork stoppers in the 17th century; the role of Spanish explorers in taking wine to South America and that of Jesuit missionaries in taking it to North America; and examines the birth of port and champagne. Phillips also takes a short excursion into the world of distilled spirits such as gin and absinthe. It is a remarkably comprehensive journey, in the course of which the reader is constantly diverted by delightful nuggets. Did you know, for example, that in the 14th century there were 1,300 vineyards in England? Or that among Samuel Pepys's favourite tipples was a red wine from Walthamstow? Or that when Margaret, the daughter of Henry III, married Alexander III of Scotland in1251, the guests consumed 25,500 gallons of wine to wash down 1,300 deer, 7,000 hens, 170 boars, 60,000 herrings and 68,500 loaves of bread?
Phillips is particularly sharp on our ambivalence towards wine - seen as "the gift of God and also as the work of Satan" - where snobbery means that the proles are expected to drink beer while the nobs drink wine; where uncertain attitudes towards women decree that it is OK for the chaps, but not for the girls, to get pissed; and where religious fundamentalists, in whose own rituals wine plays a central role, preach temperance and prohibition. I couldn't help but smile when reading that, in the face of such religious nonsense, the French temperance unions kept their heads by demanding an increase in wine production, in the hope that it would wean people off the absinthe. As Omar Khayyam rightly observed: "If the lover and drunkard are for hell, tomorrow paradise will be empty."
Despite suffering from a slight lack of joie de vivre, from a dreary selection of black-and-white illustrations and an appallingly unhelpful index, this book should be on the shelves of any self-respecting wine-lover or social historian.
Jonathan Ray is the author of Everything You Need to Know About Wine (Mitchell Beazley, £7.99)