If I am lucky enough to be in Vienna in the autumn then Theo will take me to the leafy suburb of Grinzing and we will settle into a heuriger to share a carafe or two of Gruner Veltliner, the local wine that’s as tart and green as a Granny Smith. A heuriger, or tavern, will indicate that it is open for business by displaying a bush (buschen) of pine twigs over the door, a practice once common in England (where the bush was of ivy) and now only remembered on the occasional pub-sign, but not however that of The Bull and Bush, which refers to Henry VII’s siege of Boulogne in 1492 and is a corruption of Boulogne bouche (blockaded). It was the Romans that introduced this most ancient device of the wine-seller into the far parts of its empire which is enshrined in the proverb, still current, that a good wine needs no bush. In Rome it was vine branches rather than pine twigs or ivy that were pinned over the tavern lintel in honour of the grape and in reverence to the God of Wine.
Wine’s origins are only conjecture but it seems likely that someone, perhaps somewhere in the Caucasus and several millennia BC, took a sip of the juice of a bunch of rotten grapes and experienced a brief moment of euphoria or perhaps a longer period of drowsiness. It was this mind-changing quality of the fermented grape, interpreted as divine, that made wine originally part of ancient religious ritual; it continues today in the Eucharist. As viticulture spread West people began to celebrate wine’s heavenly qualities and its blood association with libations and religious orgies, either creating a specific wine divinity or extending the responsibilities of an existing deity to include the grape vine. Robert Graves in The White Goddess tells us that the vine was sacred to Osiris and that the golden vine was one of the principal ornaments of the temple of Jerusalem.
When the vine cult reached Greece during the last period of the Bronze Age (1600 and 1100 BC), it came complete with its own God, Dionysus, his mystic history linked to the spread of the vine-cult. Dionysus had no contemporary apostles to record his past life and arrival in Greece but by all accounts he was a foreigner, almost certainly from Thrace (an area now comprising south eastern Bulgaria, Northern Greece and European Turkey).
The Greeks took to wine like ducks to water, excited by the fact that it superseded all previous intoxicants. Possibly on account of climate and certainly because of their skill in producing totally airtight amphorae, they became master winemakers with the vintages of Lesbos and Chios the most highly prized. The Pramnian from Lesbos, mentioned by Homer in The Iliad, became the most famous wine of antiquity and, like most other Greek wines, it was sweet, thick and tangy (from the resin smeared on the inside of the vats) and drunk diluted with water. Dionysus has long departed and no great wines are produced in Greece today, but if you can force down a glass of the omnipresent Retsina it will provide a clue to the taste of those ancient wines.
There were life-style adjustments to accommodate the new cult of the vine, for wine is a civilising agent and set the Greeks apart from the beer drinking barbarians, a thought endorsed thousands of years later by Martin Luther when he said ‘Beer is made by man, wine by God’. Symposia, (cheese and wine parties) became common while everyone, in a gruesome fore-runner of the ‘Trivia Night’, played Kottabos, a game where reposing diners flicked the lees in their wine cups at a target (a small statue on top of a bronze standard) while uttering the name of their lover.
As the importance of wine grew, not least because of its value as an export, so grew the profile and following of the Wine God. Hesiod, writing between 750 and 650 BC provided much needed details of the God’s origins, claiming Dionysus to be the son of Zeus and Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes, making him the only Olympian with a mortal mother. Semele’s death was quite spectacular; persuaded by Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, to demand the true identity of her lover, she was allowed a brief glimpse of the God before being consumed in his divine fire while, in the same instance, Dionysus was snatched to safety by his father. As a son of Zeus he became the half-brother of Hermes, the God of silk scarves and expensive costume jewellery. Not destined to remain in Olympus Dionysus roamed Earth teaching oenology and good humour for his other name was Charidotes, Giver of Charm.
Eternally youthful, dressed in panther skin, crowned with vine leaves and grape bunches Dionysus carries the thyrsus, a wand bound with ivy and grape vines and topped with a pine cone, which he wields like a bandmaster’s baton as he leads his thiasus, his inebriated, dancing retinue, lead by goat-footed Satyrs under the leadership of purple-faced Silenus, his mentor and the model for every drunken lecher from Gargantua to Falstaff and followed by a rabble of dancing, intoxicated Maenads. Wine is best enjoyed in company.
The worship of Dionysus followed the classic theme of seasonal death and rebirth, the God most active in springtime when the trees and vines burst into life and the whole world is intoxicated by desire. The Dionysian Mysteries used wine, dance and music to liberate the participants from the prison of everyday pre-occupation. Not much has changed in three thousand years except that the celebrations are now continuous and secular. The Wine God was popular because his religion embraced those marginalised by Greek society – slaves, foreigners and women. The dances and ceremonies performed by masked Maenads are believed to be the first birth signs of drama as an art form.
Dionysus was the God of Wine and Wine-making, of Religious Ecstasy, of Fertility (Priapus was a son), of Pleasure and, latterly of the Theatre; but he was not the God of Drunkenness, which was the lot of Silenus. The Greeks were well aware that the dangers of denial were equalled by the dangers of excess. In this piece of dialogue from ‘Semele or Dionysus’, a 375 BC play by Eubulus, , Dionysus says:
|“||Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture.’|
It was only a matter of time before the wine cult spread North from the Greek settlements among the coastal towns of Southern Italy and eventually Dionysus moved to Rome and changed his name to Bacchus. The Romans proved even better wine-makers than the Greeks whose wine soon went out of fashion after the first of the great Italian vintages, the Opimian which appeared in 121 BC, followed shortly after by the Falernian. By the time Augustus began ruling the Empire in 27BC vines were growing in the North of Italy and Rhaetic, the ancestor of Soave, became the Emperor’s favourite wine. In Rome the Dionysian orgies became the Bacchanalia, which unfortunately got out of hand because they are known from measures taken by the Roman senate to repress them in the third century BC.
There are no longer any temples dedicated to Bacchus, no statues to touch in the Forum, although he is still visible in the World’s major art museums in the form of paintings by Titian, Velazquez, Delacroix, Poussin and Caravaggio. Most representations of Bacchus record the moment he came upon Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, made her his wife and set her among the stars.
I can understand the economy of having a God of Everything but He is far too serious, much too busy to assist in those minor, instinctive, every day issues which seem important to us at the time. And so it is Bacchus that we turn to when opening a bottle of 86 Sassicaia, praying that the cork stays firm, that the wine has not lost its freshness and that it cements the conviviality of good company.
Although he may have briefly pointed the tip of his thyrsus in the direction of Bordeaux and the Cote D’Or, The God of Wine is the God of Italian wine. I feel he is at home in the organised pandemonium of his adoptive home, more comfortable among its trailing vines than between the clipped and manicured rows of French vines or in the soulless wineries of the New World.
When pleasantly astounded by the unexpected we say ‘O My God!’; the Italians still say what they have always said, ‘Per Bacco!’