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Old Bottles

I realised that I am a kind of wine snob when I moved to Joburg last year. (A year! I’ve been here a year. It’s been interesting, Joburg.) At a party I was asked if I wanted ice in my white wine. Having been raised in the Boland – one of South Africa’s oldest and most popular wine-producing regions – I know enough about wine to feel fairly strongly that it shouldn’t be diluted with water.

Most of my knowledge about wine I’ve learned thought being around my father and sister – whose blog you must read – and from spending a childhood in a region where we would spend Saturday mornings visiting wine estates in the area, where there were goats and ducks to feed, and my sister – an oenophile with strong opinions at the tender age of five – would have the odd sip from my father’s glass.

This was a time just before wine estates – and South African wines more generally – were marketed to foreign audiences. The standard guide to local wines – Platter’s pamphlet-sized annual rating of all the wines produced in South Africa – was only a centimetre thick. It’s now a dense, detailed compendium of a vast array of regions which had yet to come into being in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the Breede River Valley, West Cost, and Hermanus, for instance. It was a time when my sister and I could wander into the cheese room at Fairview, have a chat with old Mrs Back, and then see what wine my father was tasting.

Now, though, the winelands are a standard feature on tourists’ itineraries – after the delights of Cape Town and just before safaris in the northern provinces, quickly skipping over altogether more complicated Johannesburg. They have been used to denote a particular kind of South African-ness (or, more accurately, Cape-ness) of being at once part of an experience that is African and reassuringly European. They are Africa-lite.

The use of the wine industry to construct a version of national identity is not particular to South Africa. In When Champagne became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity, Kolleen M. Guy argues that, contrary to official histories of the French wine industry which portray it as forever having embodied the very essence of French-ness, the notion of French identity being expressed through its wine is a relatively recent phenomenon. As an international market for expensive champagne began to emerge in the second half of the nineteenth century – and as mechanisation of the wine industry allowed for increasing volumes of wine and champagne to be produced – the export of these luxury goods became increasingly associated with what it meant to be French.

These luxury goods were taken up to indicate France’s commitment to good wine and to good eating, as a prosperous nation which, although fully modernised, still relied on the work and wiliness of its peasants to produce goods for an international market. The idea of terroir was particularly important in constructing France as a nation with a uniquely perfect food culture: only French soil – and no other land – could produce wines as distinctive as France’s. These narratives hid fractures and changes within French society, as the new middle class sought ways to manifest their wealth and, they believed, their sophistication.

The opposite – the erasure of a winemaking tradition in aid of national re-making – has also occurred. For various reasons, I’ve recently been re-reading Robert Byron’s classic travelogue The Road to Oxiana. The story recounts his journey – on horseback, in cars, busses, lorries, and trains – from Palestine to Afghanistan, and from there to India, where the narrative ends. Although Byron’s interest in food is fairly limited, one of the most interesting and unexpected themes in the book is his commentary on local wines. Particularly in Persia, he comes across wines grown in the region, and of varying quality. He writes while staying in Shiraz:

Wine is another boon of the Persian South. Its fame has spread and etymologists argue as to whether sherry derives its name from Xerez or Shiraz. So far we have discovered three varieties here: a very dry golden wine, which I prefer to any sherry, though its taste is not so storied; a dry red claret, nondescript at first, but acceptable with meals; and a sweeter vin rose, which induces a delicious well- being.

In Azerbaijan he finds a wine which ‘tastes of a Burgundy grown in Greece. We have drunk a bottle apiece today.’

Gonbad-e Qabud, Maragha, Iran (from here).

Gonbad-e Qabud, Maragha, Iran (from here).

Iran has a long history of wine production:

Many believe this rugged area of southern Iran was the original source of the grape used to create the world-famous Shiraz wine – today produced in vineyards in California, Australia, France and South Africa. The claim is disputed by some experts, who believe the grape to have originated in France. What is not in doubt, however, is the central place of wine in an ancient Persian culture held dear by many Iranians.

Iran’s most revered poet, Hafez, wrote voluminously on wine’s virtues, as did several of the nation’s other prominent bards. Even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the famously ascetic father of the revolution – and an amateur poet in his spare time – composed verse praising ‘wine bearers and wine shops’, although it is widely assumed his references were allegory for the spiritual joy of religious belief.

The 1979 revolution banned the production and consumption of alcohol in Iran. Some religious minorities are allowed to serve alcohol at private gatherings, and there is a thriving trade in smuggled wine and spirits.

The Road to Oxiana was published in 1937, and it is in many ways a melancholy read at the beginning of the twenty-first century: several of the mosques, monuments, and tombs described by Byron have been destroyed during recent conflicts. And the relative religious tolerance he refers to has disappeared, particularly in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The odd presence of Persian wine in the book is a reminder of a more complicated past than the current regime would like to allow.

I don’t want to make a glib point about using food to understand common heritages and shared histories, but, rather, at this moment of stand-offs, of stupid, pointless attack and destruction, that it’s worth paying attention to how narratives of national strength and vulnerability are constructed. Like Persian wine, they are often based on erasure and distortion.

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Catherine #

    A beautiful folding in of ideas as this piece closes. Oddly sobering despite the content.

    July 22, 2014

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