Culture & Wine #2 Rituals and Customs

Without cultural context wine is meaningless. When divorced from the human references that define the origin, style and quality of wine – the elements that underwrite its fundamental appeal – wine becomes entirely functional, a mere intoxicant, just as it was when spontaneously fermented grapes were first discovered by our ancient ancestors”

Richard Hemmings MW

Rituals and customs are those things that we do, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes ceremonially, sometimes small like touching wood for good luck or shaking hands when meeting someone. Equally a ritual or custom can be quite lengthy such as a wedding ceremony or a baptism or a celebration of something. In many cases of rituals and customs however ………. wine is involved too. In lots of professional circles finishing work early on a Friday is a ritual, I’ve done it myself thousands of times, followed by the customary visit to the pub or wine bar with colleagues before going home. Wine drinking really took off in a big way in England in the 1980s with City of London traders and brokers finishing work mid afternoon and spending the rest of the day in a wine bar! Also how about the ritual of the “toast”, raising your glass to someone or something in acknowledgement; and what’s in that glass ….. beer, tea, water …… no it’s wine! In ceremonies of celebration all over the world wine plays a major part. How about “wetting the babies head”? We know that in religious terms this means baptism, but there is now a long standing tradition or ritual involving an alcoholic drink, often wine.
Some countries have embedded wine so much into their cultures that it’s more than a mere artefact used within the culture ……….. it IS the culture. Greece, Georgia, Italy and France are the first four that come to mind and I have some experience of. Take a look at this short 2min video of the Chateau Clos de Vougeot in the Burgundy region of France.

The Château building of Clos de Vougeot, situated inside the original walls, was added in 1551 by enlarging a small chapel and some other buildings previously existing at the site. From 1945, this building has served as headquarters of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin and the chateau is currently leased to the Confrérie. The Fraternity of Knights of the Wine-Tasting Cup is an exclusive bacchanalian fraternity of Burgundy wine enthusiasts. It was founded in 1934 and has chapters worldwide. The primary aims of the organisation are “to hold in high regard and promote Burgundian produce, particularly her great wines and regional cuisine, to maintain and revive the festivities, customs and traditions of Burgundian folklore,” and “to encourage people from all over the world to visit Burgundy.” The organisations activities are generally scheduled around elaborate chapter dinners and other culinary events, at which Burgundian wines are served. At these events, it is customary for members to comment in detail about the history and characteristics of each wine or dish that is served, in order to promote “viticultural and gastronomic education”. So, how about THAT as an example of Culture and Wine reinforcing customs and traditions not only in Burgundy but worldwide?

Les Chevaliers du tastevin

There are also cultural festivals annually all over France, two of which we have experienced several times. The first is in the Loire Valley town of Bourgueil where the festival follows a Bacchanalian theme involving wine and food. From early morning in the town centre whole boar and lamb are being roasted on spits over huge charcoal braziers, long tables and benches are set up under shelter and tickets are sold for your choice of lunch ranging from barbecued sausage through to steaks of wild boar, and from a single course through to three courses. Then at any time after 12 noon you wander up to the seating area, present your ticket and tuck in. All day there are free wine tastings taking place from street stalls, a wandering oompah band plays for some entertainment and a “large citizen” is pulled around the town in a large cart and is symbolic of Bacchus himself. I just had to share a large glass with him of course!

Bacchus and me in Bourgeuil, Loire, France

Then there is the annual “veraison” festival where people celebrate the week when wine grapes start to change colour and ripen, always the first weekend in August in the village of Chateauneuf du Pape. It’s a splendid and colourful medieval festival taking place all weekend; there’s pageantry with folks in medieval dress parading, archery contests and demonstrations, knights in armour jousting, outdoor banquets in the warm evenings under floodlights, mock medieval weddings as some unlucky young couple are dragged to a central area for the fun to begin. Of course there are market stalls and wine tasting stalls throughout all of the streets of this tiny but influential wine village.

These two festivals are complete cultural activities where people celebrate their traditions that have lasted many centuries; it is like an explosion or outburst that says “we are who we are because of our history, our land, our music, our food and our wine”, and it is no coincidence that many of these festivals across France take place in wine towns and villages.

Now a third example, Georgia is a lesser known but perhaps the best country to highlight Culture and wine, not least because they have a valid claim to being the first country to make wine with evidence from 8000 years ago!

“Georgia’s winemakers are the guardians of wines oldest traditions”

Andrew Jefford
Georgian qvevri

Wine is so deeply embedded in the Georgian identity that to talk of Georgian wine culture is to talk of Georgia itself. Thanks to their distinctive grape-growing terroirs and 8,000-year history of winemaking. In the countryside, where most families still grow their own grapes and make their own wines, homes typically have a dedicated wine cellar, called a marani. Even in Georgia’s cities, urbanites who balance progress with tradition cultivate their own vines. The opening of a family qvevri—a buried clay vessel in which most Georgian households make their wine—is a celebrated event, a reason for feasting. Wine features in every meal, whether simple or elaborate.

Now, I’ve never been to Georgia but as a dedicated wino it’s high on my travel wishlist, Covid permitting, and to experience this culture that is so strong, so pervasive and long lasting. Wine with every meal seems like a fine cultural tradition to me, though choosing what goes with a Full English Breakfast could be a bit of a challenge!

I hope you’re enjoying and learning from these posts. In the next article I will review Wine & Faith, Beliefs, and Symbols. I have recently created a new Facebook page with a group Wine Culture for folks interested in all aspects of wine and culture. If enough like minded people join and engage there is a great deal we can learn from each other, wherever you are in the world and whatever your level of experience. So click the link Wine Culture to view it, join up, and let me know what you think 👍🍷

Many of the topics I am writing about have been gained across 50 years of my being a full member of the “winos fraternity”! My recent book, “It’s Not About The Wine” shows how wine related travels and an associated love of history, philosophy, art and culture have enriched my life in a meaningful way. Available now from the Amazon site of your own country.

If you live in Italy or would like an even deeper understanding of the connection between Wine and culture then hop over to Vinthropology for brilliant artwork and insights.

Categories: Culture & Wine, Masterclass, Wine

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8 replies

  1. When we visited Chateauneuf du Pape years ago, it was sleepy and quiet, unlike the festival atmosphere you have featured here – it was lovely to revisit in a different context.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is so much about wine that is ritualistic. Even the different steps of wine tasting is a sort of ritual. Maybe it has something to do with the mythological or spiritual quality of wine. Italy has a lot of food festivals as well. Usually in the summer, each town throws a festival celebrating a typical dish or ingredient from that area which has defined it through history and tradition. There’s always wine of course, but it’s infamously… rustic. For high quality wines there are trade fairs like vinitaly and Merrano Wine Festival. Not to mention the medieval and Renaissance festivals which are the best I’ve ever been to- must be the fact that many of the towns were actually built in the medieval. Like the ones you mentioned, they are excellent opportunities to experience the local culture first hand! We have a caretaker who is from Giorgia and she brought us some Georgian wine once. Very dark and rustic in the best sense of the word.

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    • I’d forgotten about the rituals “within” wine culture itself and had written exclusively about cultural rituals that involve wine. But you are right about tasting, and now I think about it, when I have been involved in cellar tasting from the barrel with my Rebourgeon friends in Pommard there is a ritual sequencing of how they draw from the barrel, inspect it visually for what seems like a long time, discuss it, then sniff it and discuss it. It’s like a ritualistic dance too between father and son! Also extremely technical that a wine novice just wouldn’t understand, a different language with a mix of French and English words even though both are 100% bilingual. I’m usually about 5 mins ahead of them having swirled sniffed and tasted before they even taste 🤦‍♂️

      Liked by 1 person

      • A ritualistic dance, wonderful! Wine does seem to have a sacred aura, that’s why I’m curious to read about its connection to religion and mythology. I’m sure I’ll find some points of interest in all the books you’ve recommended!



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