Wine lovers know that wine is so much more than a drink, but how to explain the love of wine to those who do not already share it?

When you uncork a bottle of mature fine wine, what you are drinking is the product of a particular culture and tradition, a particular soil and exposure, a particular climate, the weather in that year, and the love and labour and life of people who may since have died. If you know how to read it, the wine, like a book, will speak to you of all those things and more.

The wine is still changing, still evolving, so much so that no two bottles can ever be quite the same. By now, the stuff has become incredibly complex, almost ethereal. Without seeking to blaspheme, it has become something like the smell and taste of God. This moving mirror, this transdimensional distillate, will send shivers down your spine. It will make you burst into laughter. It will knock you right out of yourself, release you from the abstract and self-absorbed prison of the mind and redeliver you into the magic and mystery of the world as though you had just been reborn. Remarkably, every wine that can do this does it in its own way, meaning that there can be no end to your journey.

To get the most out of wine, you will need to sharpen your senses, and you will need to deepen your knowledge. By wine, we become more aware of our senses, and we begin to develop them, especially the neglected, almost vestigial, senses of smell and taste. By awakening our faculties, we begin to experience the world more intensely. We also begin to experience it in a different way, almost as though we were a different kind of animal. Through wine, I have learnt a great deal about geography, geology, agriculture, biology, chemistry, gastronomy, history, languages, literature, psychology, philosophy, religion… By wine, I have communed with, and actually visited, many parts of the world—and should add that wine regions, with their gardened slopes and goldilocks climates, make for the most agreeable destinations. Blind tasting has accelerated my development. It has also taught me about the methods of the mind, and, in the process, made me less bigoted, less dogmatic. On so many levels, wine offers a medium and motivation to apprehend the world. It is, ultimately, a kind of homecoming, a way of feeling at home in the world.

Wine is also an ideal vehicle for alcoholic intoxication, serving to loosen the mind and dissolve the ego. Wine brings people together, helps them be together, and be inventive together, as in the Greek symposia and Roman convivia, in which measured drinking could lead to expansive elation and creative conversation and the voicing of disruptive ideas and perspectives. Wine also played a central role in the secret rites of Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed above all at ecstatic union with the divine—an idea that has survived to this day in the sacramental blood of Christ. Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy. He was an important god—no doubt, in certain periods and places, the most important—and most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox.

Let me paint a picture of a Dionysian orgy. The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revellers wearing masks and, well, not much else. Closing the parade is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god stirred in with ribaldry and obscenity. Having arrived at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze may have been interlaced with other entheogens (substances that ‘generate the divine from within’). Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping.

The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BC, the Senate severely restricted it through the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus (‘senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia’). According to the Roman historian Livy, the decree led to more executions than imprisonments, with many committing suicide to avoid indictment. Illicit Bacchanalia persisted but gradually folded into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (‘Free Father’), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to merge into him. The 4th century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival.

The Dionysian impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual Apollonian order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion—and blind tasting, with its emphasis on reason and deduction, as an attempt to unite the Apollonian and Dionysian and attain to the ever receding dream of civilization. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes the Dionysian impulse as a primal and universal force:

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dancing we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy kept it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force. It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner. In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective.

‘Ecstasy’ literally means ‘to be or stand outside oneself’. It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Einstein called it the ‘mystic emotion’ and spoke of it as ‘the finest emotion of which we are capable’, ‘the germ of all art and true science’, and ‘the core of the true religious sentiment’. More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and, indeed, no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience. Letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world. Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

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© Neel Burton

Georgia consists of some 70,000 square kilometres encased between the Black Sea to the west, the Greater Caucasus Mountains to the north, the Lesser Caucasus Mountains to the south, and Azerbaijan to the east. To the south, the country borders on Turkey and Armenia, and to the north on mighty Russia. About 40% of the population of 3.7m lives in the capital of Tbilisi.

Although fairly compact, Georgia offers a great diversity of soils and climates. The Greater Caucasus Mountains shelter the country from cold northerlies and, in their lee, can give rise to warm and dry foehn winds. The west is mild and wet, with as much as 2,500mm annual rainfall in Batumi on the Black Sea. The east with its valleys and plateaus is dry and more continental, with a greater diurnal and annual temperature range. Tbilisi, for instance, receives just 500mm annual rainfall. Harvest dates vary according to the local grape varieties and conditions: broadly speaking, the harvest begins in September in Kakheti in the east and wends its way westwards.

Our word ‘wine’ may ultimately derive from the Georgian gvino. The Caucasus, and Georgia in particular, is often regarded as the cradle of wine, which, according to the archeological evidence, was being made in the region some 8,000 years ago. Wine occupies an important place in Georgian culture: it is said that the tendrils of the vine inspired the curly forms of the Georgian script. Still today, Georgians throw elaborate feasts moderated by a tamada or toastmaster, who by his art, and calling upon that of the guests, turns wine drinking into an act of life and death.

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It is said that the tendrils of the vine inspired the curly forms of the Georgian script.

In the 19th century, phylloxera ravaged the country’s vineyards. For most of the 20th century, Soviet winemaking emphasized quantity over quality, prioritising high yields and high yielding varieties such as Rkatsiteli. In 1991, the Republic of Georgia declared independence from the USSR. Still, Russia remained the major export market, accounting for some 80% of Georgian wine sales. From 2006 to 2013, Russia imposed an embargo on Georgian wine imports. With most of domestic demand met by home winemaking, exporters had to turn to more demanding markets and compete on the international stage.

The bulk of Georgian wine exports, though entirely competent, are what the Georgians themselves call ‘factory wines’, while the country’s real reputation rests with its much more rare kvevri wines. UNESCO lists the ancient practice of kvevri winemaking as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. A kvevri is a large, turnip-shaped earthenware vessel used for fermenting, ageing, and storing wine. Its interior is lined with beeswax, and its exterior is coated with lime for sanitation. In most places, it is buried or part-buried for insulation. Traditionally, it is topped with a wooden lid and sealed with clay. The harvested grapes are lightly crushed and entered into the qvevri, often along with skins, seeds, and even stems. Fermentation is natural and there is no temperature control: the wines are rich, vivacious, and characterful, but there is considerable unpredictability and variation from vessel to vessel. ‘White’ wines are amber or orange from sustained skin contact, though to call them ‘orange wines’ can lend to confusion. Kvevris entered into the international consciousness in the 1990s when some Italian winemakers ‘discovered’ them for the West and started using them.

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Rkatsiteli made in tank vs in kvevri

There are well over 400 different grape varieties in Georgia, of which 38 are commercially cultivated to make wine. The most popular include Rkatsiteli (‘red stalk’), Mtsvane, and Chinuri for the whites; and Saperavi (‘dye’), Tavkveri, and Chkhaveri for the reds. The most prevalent variety by far is Rkatsiteli, which is often blended with the more aromatic Mtsvane. Though a workhorse grape, Rkatsiteli is versatile and capable of high quality, especially in qvevri. The most prevalent black variety is Saperavi, a teinturier grape that is high in colour, acidity, and tannins. The overwhelming bulk of Georgian wine is made from indigenous varieties, often in a blend; of the international varieties, the most notable is Cabernet Sauvignon.

Georgia counts 45,000ha under vine spread over 10 viticultural regions. There are a total of 18 appellations, of which 7 are for dry white wines (Gurjaani, Kakheti, Manavi, Sviri, Tibaani, Tsinandali, Vazisubani), 4 for dry red whites (Kvareli, Mukuzani, Napareuli, Teliani), 1 for both dry white and dry red wines (Kotekhi), 3 for semisweet red wines (Akhasheni, Khvanchkara, Kindzmarauli), 1 for white semi-sweet wines (Tvishi), 1 for sparkling wine (Ateni), and 1 for fortified wine (Kardenakhi). Most of these appellations are based on Rkatsiteli or Saperavi. Manavi is based on Mtsvane, but can include some Rkatsiteli. Khvanchkara is based on Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli; Sviri is based on Tsolikouri, Tsitska, and Krakhuna; Tvishi on Tsolikouri; Ateni on Chinuri, Goruli Mtsvane, and Aligoté; and Teliani on Cabernet Sauvignon.

A full 14 of the 18 appellations are in the eastern Kakheti region, which accounts for almost 70% of the country’s vineyard area and 80% of its wine production. Kakheti is located in the valleys of the Alazani and Iori Rivers. Its capital Telavi is a two-hour drive out of Tbilisi, crossing by the scenic Gombori Pass. The region is noted for, among others, its ‘cinnamonic’ soils, sandy clays with a high iron content and reddish colour. The picturesque hill town of Sighnaghi (or Signagi) is home to Pheasant’s Tears, a seminal producer of kvevri wines.

Of the remaining four appellations, Ateni is in Shida Kartli (Inner Kartli), Khvanchkara and Tvishi are in Racha-Lechkhumi, and Sviri is in Imereti. Mountainous Imereti in the west is the second most important wine region after Kakheti. It is especially noted for white wines made from Tsolikouri, Tsitska, and Krakhuna, among others. In Imereti, qvevri are called churi, and the regional tradition is for much less skin contact, leading to lighter, less astringent wines. Khvanchkara, a semi-sweet red wine made from Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli in Racha, is famous/infamous for being the favourite of Stalin, who was born in this land of plenty.

Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

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In 1831, the French scholar and diplomat Esprit Marie Cousinery wrote that ‘The wine of Naoussa is to Macedonia what Burgundy wine is to France. I am in a position to say that the wine of Naoussa is the best in the Ottoman Empire.’

Naoussa is a hill town to the west of Thessaloniki, overlooking the plain of central Macedonia. In myth, the area was home to Semele, the mother of Dionysus by Zeus. When Semele perished, Zeus stitched the foetus Dionysus into his thigh, whence the Dionysian epithet dimētōr: ‘of two mothers’, or ‘twice born’.

At the nearby temple of the Nymphs, Aristotle tutored future leaders including Ptolemy, Cassander, and, most famously, Alexander the Great. It is said that Aristotle prepared for Alexander a special edition of Homer’s Iliad, which inspired the young prince to model his life on that of the demi-divine Achilles.

The 500ha of Naoussa are the spiritual home of the most noble black grape of Greece, Xinomavro (or Xynomavro, ‘sour black’). Vineyards are interspersed with orchards at altitudes of 150 to 400m on the southeastern slopes of Mount Vermio (2050m). The soils are far from uniform, and include patches of limestone, clay, loam, and sand. Although summers are hot and dry, autumns are rainy and erratic, and winters cold and snowy, leading to considerable vintage variation. Sheltered, sloping, and south-facing sites are favoured to protect against spring frosts and maximise sun exposure.

If the soft and rich Agiorgitiko is a courtesan, then Xinomavro is a hermit, and a very prickly one at that. Yields are capped at 70hl/ha, but ambitious producers might aim for half of that. Like the light coloured Barolo, with which it is often compared, Naoussa is structured and savoury with high acidity and tannins, although, as with Barolo, there is a more modern style that requires less time in cask and bottle. I haven’t tasted a large enough sample of Naoussas, but so far the wines that I have tasted seemed more herbal and more ‘churchy’ than either Barolo or Etna and with a more pronounced tomato note.

The Xinomavro of Naoussa can be compared with that of Amyndaio 20 miles to the west, which, owing to higher altitudes, is typically fresher. Other PDOs that use Xinomavro are Goumenissa to the northeast, in a majority blend with Negoska; and Rapsani on the lower foothills of Mount Olympus, in an equal blend with Stavroto and Krassato.

Santorini, one of 18 islands in the Cyclades, lies some 70 miles north of Crete, and consists of the remnants of a massive volcanic eruption that took place some 3,500 years ago and destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete. The centre of the former island collapsed into the volcanic caldera to form a central lagoon.

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To cope with the hot and dry conditions and very strong winds, the vines are widely spaced (<2,500 plants/ha) and trained into an idiosyncratic basket shape (kouloura). Shoots are woven around the canes of previous years; after twenty years or so, the basket is cut off and another one is started from the same plant and root system. The basket traps humidity, and protects flowers and fruit from the sun, wind, and sandblasts. The baskets are able to sit on the ground because the young volcanic soils are inhospitable and there are no weeds or insects to contend with. As the soils do not contain any clay, they are immune to phylloxera: root systems can be centuries old, and vines are propagated by layering. However, yields are very low and all vineyard work must be carried out on hands and knees, making this a very expensive and potentially unsustainable form of viticulture. The nearby island of Paros, which is also buffeted by strong winds, has evolved a comparable training system called aplotaries, with the canes left to crawl on the ground.

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Santorini is reputed for its crisp, dry, and mineral Assyrtico blends made from a minimum 75% Assyrtico completed by Athiri and Aidani. These ageworthy wines, with their notes of lemon and stone fruits, combine high acidity with high extract and moderately high alcohol, and, on occasion, a touch of oak. A richer, more exotic style called Nykteri is made from overripe grapes, with some skin contact and barrel ageing.

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Most famous, at least historically, is the sweet vinsanto (‘wine from Santorini’, not to be confused with the Italian vin santo) made from a minimum 50% Assyrtico completed by Athiri and Aidani. Vinsanto must be aged for at least 24 months in oak. It can be made as a vin doux naturel, from late harvested grapes sun-dried for 12-14 days and fermented to a minimum of 9% alcohol; or as a vin doux (vin de liqueur) to a minimum of 15% alcohol. It is amber in colour with notes of dried citrus peel, apricots, raisins, figs, and sweet spice, together with high acidity and a touch of minerality.

 

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Wittgenstein famously claimed that games could not be defined. But in 1978, Bernard Suits more or less successfully defined a game as ‘a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’.

In that much, sports resemble games. They also resemble games in that they take place outside of ‘real life’, and in that they have no tangible product: when they do have a tangible product, such as fish in angling, then this is largely incidental, and the fish are returned to the river.

There are games like scrabble or monopoly that are clearly not sports. But are all sports games, as Suits claimed? While many sports like football and golf are also games, some sports like running, skiing, and rock climbing are not so obviously games other than in that they are voluntary and unnecessary. In ordinary language, we speak of ‘playing football’ or ‘playing a round of golf’, but not of ‘playing running’ or ‘playing skiing’. But if we are running from a lion, our running is neither a game nor a sport.

Culture and politics aside, what is it that makes a sport a sport? If scrabble and monopoly are not sports, then this is surely because they do not involve any physical activity, or because physical activity is not their primary purpose and any physical activity incurred is merely secondary or incidental.

In 2015, the English Bridge Union (EBU) challenged a decision by Sport England not to recognize bridge as a sport, a decision with consequences since it would deprive bridge from government and lottery funding. The EBU lost their High Court battle on the grounds that bridge does not involve physical activity any more than, as Sport England argued, ‘sitting at home, reading a book’.

But physical activity on its own is not enough. The primary purpose of working out on a cross-trainer is physical activity, but this is classed as exercise rather than sport. What is needed for sport is not physical activity per se, but skill in the exercise of physical activity, with some athletes going so far as to test the limits of human performance.

In 2005, Sport England recognized darts as a sport, presumably because darts involves skill as well as physical activity. By that account, video gaming, although targeted at a representational world rather than the real world, might also make the cut. Chess on the other hand is probably not a sport because, although it involves some physical activity, this physical activity is not particularly skilled, and, in any case, is not the primary purpose of chess. It is perfectly possible to get someone to move our chess pieces for us and still be counted as playing chess: in that much, the physical activity associated with playing chess is not central or even secondary but merely incidental.

If I, as an amateur, decide to go skiing for a couple of days, is my skiing exercise or sport? The answer depends on my own attitude, whether I am skiing primarily to keep fit, or for the sheer thrill of pushing myself or simply being in the world: and I think that this potential for thrill, for exaltation, for a certain kind of joy—rather than just panting and sweating—is an important part of what makes a sport a sport.

Well what if I meet a friend and we race each other down the mountainside? Does this competitive dimension make my skiing more of a game and therefore more of a sport? A person who develops a certain skill, whether in skiing or in baking or in any field of human endeavour, naturally wishes to measure that skill in competition with others who also lay claim to that skill. It is this competitive aspect that makes many sports so compelling to watch, although competition is by no means essential to popular spectator sports such as gymnastics and figure skating. What’s more, a sport need not make compelling watching to be counted as a sport: angling, cricket, golf, canoeing, and weight lifting are probably not the most exciting to watch, but are nonetheless sports.

Wine blind tasting is one of my favourite pastimes. Fiercely fought competitions are popping up all around the world, and some of these competitions even have audiences. So can blind tasting be counted as a sport? Scrabble and monopoly are not sports because they do not involve any physical activity, but blind tasting clearly does involve some kind of physical activity, namely, tasting, and, as the name suggests, tasting is its primary purpose and not merely secondary or incidental. Moreover, this physical activity is highly skilled, and, in some cases, can be said to test the limits of the human body.

It might be objected that the physical activity involved in blind tasting is not locomotor but gustatory, involving not the musculoskeletal system in tandem with the cardiovascular system but ‘passive’ senses such as olfaction, taste, and touch. It might further be objected, and this is an argument that I myself have made, that the real limitation in blind tasting is not in the tasting apparatus as such but in the cognitive appraisal of the wine, and thus that blind tasting is more like chess than snooker or darts—although it must be said that snooker and darts also involve an important cognitive element. Finally, it might be added that the thrill or joy in blind tasting lies more with the cognitive aspect than the tasting aspect, although that does depend on the wine.

But unlike with chess, with blind tasting it is not possible to delegate the physical component: you cannot get someone to do the tasting for you and still be counted as blind tasting. In that much, blind tasting is more of a sport than chess, which the International Olympics Committee already recognizes as a sport.

As any athlete will attest, cognition is an important part of any sport: why create arbitrary distinctions between the primarily physical and the primarily mental, or between the musculoskeletal system and the specialized senses? Are the nose and the tongue and the brain not also part of the body? And are they not also trainable, fatiguable, fallible, mortal? Chess, bridge, and maths have their associations, players, teams, training, rules, competitions, professionals, spectators, drama, and tears—everything, in fact, but a skilled, primary physical activity. And blind tasting even has that.

Now pass me a napkin.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting