Wine: A toast to prose

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There's a long history of sensory pleasure in pairing literature with wine

Photo / Babiche Martens
Photo / Babiche Martens

On this day 350 years ago, famed diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that he "drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan [Haut Brion], that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with". Pepys' epiphany with this top Bordeaux is one of the many references to wine that runs through his work, as well as that of numerous other writers, inspired by the liquid itself and the imagery it evokes.

Go back further in time and wine flows strongly through the literature of Ancient Greece. It's perhaps not surprising that a culture that worshipped Dionysus, the god of wine, and made some of the world's earliest examples, saw poets such as Homer inspired by the substance.

In Homer's Odyssey, wine appears throughout the epic poem, from the sea that Homer describes as "wine dark" to the musings of its hero on its effects: "The wine urges me on," Ulysses says, "the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken."

Wine also makes regular appearances in the plays of Shakespeare. These range from the role it plays in the excesses of a character like Falstaff, who eulogises the effects of a good sherry, which "ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit".

It also becomes associated with the horror in the tragedies through its connection with blood and disorder, as well as in the history play Richard III, in which a corpse ends up in a barrel of sweet wine.

It's perhaps the way that wine engages with the senses and the intellect that's seen it regularly used as a conduit for poetic and even philosophical communication. For Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh, "Letters are like wine; if they are sound they ripen with keeping. A man should lay down letters as he does a cellar of wine."

One of the greatest wine related passages can be found in James Joyce's Ulysses, in which a taste of wine awakens passionate memories in its protagonist, Leopold Bloom, and acts as an affirmation of life: "Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun's heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered."

Wine lover Ernest Hemingway also peppered his prose with wine. "Wine is one of the most civilised things in the world and one of the natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing which may be purchased," he wrote in his literary exploration of the bullfight in Death in the Afternoon, in which he makes an interesting analogy between the appreciation of wine and this controversial sport.

"Wine is bottled poetry," observed Robert Louis Stevenson, so it's perhaps no surprise that the two have regularly been blended. In Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal a number of poems feature wine, which is portrayed as something beguilingly delicious to an embodiment of the dark and the dangerous.

Some of the most beautiful verse conjuring wine can be found in Keats' Ode to a Nightingale, in which it forms a connection with the earth and place: "O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been/Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,/Tasting of Flora and the country green,/Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! O for a beaker full of the warm South".


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Wine also makes a great companion to a good book - here are fabulous wines matched with appropriate reading material.

Kumeu River Village Chardonnay 2009 - $20

With its notes of crisp citrus, almond and subtle savoury nuances, Kumeu River's entry-level example is easily one of the most elegant chardonnays at this price. Stockists include Glengarry, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Wine & More, Wine Circle, First Glass.

Morton Estate The Mercure Hawkes Bay 2010 - $18.95

Brooding dark fruit, smoke, spice and a meaty savoury undercurrent combine in Morton's great value merlot cabernet blend. From Countdown, Fresh Choice, New World, Pak'n Save.

Kamira Estate Brightwater Nelson Gewurztraminer 2009 - $18-$22

Beguilingly rich and unctuous, this medium-sweet gewurztraminer exudes notes of honey, lemon, rose, musk and exotic spice. From selected branches of Glengarry, and KaimiraWines.com.

- VIVA

- NZ Herald

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