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30 March 2022

The Greeks were right about wine: it is the definition of civilisation

To paraphrase a graffito uncovered at Pompeii: the man with whom I dine can never be a barbarian to me.

By Nina Caplan

Barbarian is a word that has fallen out of fashion – understandably, since it’s not very polite, although our culture is hardly short of rude words, most of them much less interesting than this one. For the ancient Greeks, barbaroi meant any people who weren’t Greek. The understanding that those who are foreign to us were perforce uncivilised was reinforced later by the Romans, perhaps in part to deflect attention from the fact that they themselves were, according to that Greek definition, barbaroi.

To be foreign was also to be ignorant – an assumption that has trickled down to our own time. We forget that ignorance is often in the eye of the beholder. We are all phenomenally ignorant – how could we not be, with so much knowledge in the world? This is not a tragedy. It’s an invitation.

Last year, I pulled up a stool at the zinc counter of the tiny, friendly Barbary Next Door (BND) in Covent Garden in an attempt – ongoing and very pleasant – to lessen my ignorance about wine. BND is named for the North African region that the Berbers call home, and the shared etymology with barbarians is no coincidence. Those who’ve heard of the Barbary Coast will think of pirates, but piracy is as piracy does: Tunisia, Morocco and Algiers were French colonies, Spain and Holland dabbled, and Tangier was very briefly owned by England. Nobody thinks of herself as a pirate, but the difference between pillaging Berbers and, say, our own Francis Drake, who also ransacked the western Mediterranean, is hard to spot.

If I were going to despoil this part of the world, I’d begin with the wine. (Drake did, pinching nearly 3,000 barrels of sherry and starting an English craze.) I would do this to further my own education but also because knowledge of winemaking was the Greeks’ other criteria for not being barbarous. As Hugh Johnson puts it in The Story of Wine: “The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.”

Italy, France and Spain became civilised, at least according to that limited definition. “The man with whom I do not dine is a barbarian to me,” proclaims a graffito uncovered at Pompeii, while the Roman historian Justin – writing, admittedly, more than 200 years after the fact – praises his people’s civilising influence on the Gauls, giving equal weight to learning to live by laws rather than violence, and to pruning vines.

For their neighbours on the Barbary Coast, it was a little more complicated. Piracy really became an issue once the Christians chased the Moors out of Spain, creating a rogue – and perhaps homesick – population with a grudge, just across the water. Maybe they missed the wine. They were Muslims, but there is plenty of Moorish poetry that lauds the grape from, we can assume, first-hand experience. And after all, these were the people who invented distillation.

At BND, I tried Palomino from the Moors’ last redoubt, Andalusia. Left alone rather than fortified into sherry, Palomino is often a dull variety but Bodegas Cota 45’s UBE Miraflores is as tense and vibrant as a rapier. Caravaglio Chianu Cruci Salina is from the Aeolian Islands off Sicily, which also sheltered its share of pirates, perhaps in defence against the tendency of other ships to land and carry off the inhabitants. The wine is “orange” – that is, macerated for a long time on its skins – perfumed, almost chewy. I tried only one Moroccan wine, Les Trois Domaines Guerrouane white, although I know from visiting the country that it makes some lovely rosés. Those bottles just haven’t made it across the water yet.

The Greeks were right on wine, at least: it is the definition of civilisation, because the man with whom I dine can never be a barbarian to me. Conversing over a bottle, we discover our similarities. We taste the variety in wines from neighbouring countries and understand that difference is a delight but that tending the vine is universal and, from that, we draw conclusions – if we are civilised.

[See also: Our diets are international, but at the breakfast table, Britishness reigns]

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain