Quite right. Mystery is not a challenging concept in most areas of life. Where would we be without the riddle of the Sphinx, The Mysteries of Udolpho and the hunt for the Higgs boson (which the rest of us got excited about without having the first clue what a Higgs boson is)?
There is a sense of magic in the unknown, but for some reason we’ve been hell-bent on removing it from wine. Why? I suspect it stems from a sense of inadequacy. Somehow, many decades ago, a small coterie of wine bores managed to persuade the entire country that they should be embarrassed if they couldn’t find their way around a wine list. A subject that is highly complex, but also, frankly, pretty marginal when it comes to what you need to get through life, wine became a social stumbling block out of all proportion to its importance – and judging by the number of people who still apologise, shamefaced, for their lack of wine nous, to some extent it still is.
When are we going to get over this? It doesn’t matter how much you know. No one feels that a lack of knowledge of the English canon from Chaucer onwards ought to disqualify them from reading Lee Child or the latest Booker Prize winner, or from joining a book group. So why apply this standard to wine? Please, let’s forget about demystification, and knowing what we’re doing, because it’s taking all the fun away. Either it makes the act of choosing and drinking wine into work, a great task that most don’t have the bandwidth to deal with. or it persuades those who sell us wine into a reductive approach that, at its worst, diminishes it to the status of a factory-made, grape-based alcoholic beverage, which is a pity, because homogenisation limits fun.
It’s not necessary to understand the label to appreciate the liquid behind it. It’s perfectly fine to pick up shards of information here, magpie out a wine you love with an unpronounceable name there, or just to drink with total lack of discrimination anything that is white and cold and cheap, and not care about knowing anything at all.
There are plenty of places in wine where magic still thrives; show me a sommelier who doesn’t get excited about a “by the glass” list featuring trousseau and malagousia and something made in a hole in the ground in Georgia, and I’ll show you a branch of Wetherspoons. But we need more of this, and won’t get it unless we stop being embarrassed about lack of knowledge.
One of the pernicious effects of the Dark Ages of demystification was to put appellations, especially French ones, in the stocks and throw rotten fruit at them: “Too complicated. Old-fashioned. Just label every wine by grape variety.” Yet it’s only the possibility of information that enables exploration. Otherwise how do you know what’s different from what? Or that there might be something else there? I recently looked up one of my favourite inexpensive pinot noirs. It’s a light, sappy, savoury pinot, perfect for drinking slightly chilled as we head towards summer, from the Cave Saint Verny cooperative in the Puy de Dôme region in the Auvergne. It’s a place better known to paragliders and Tour de France enthusiasts than to wine drinkers, so this was the only wine from the area I’d ever tried, and until I searched, I didn’t know that the department takes its name from a young volcano on whose slopes the Romans built a temple to Mercury.
With wine, the more you know, the more there always is to know. The more you find out, the more the mystery deepens. I remember sweltering in 35C heat outside a winery in Naoussa as a Greek Orthodox priest blessed the grape harvest, using a bunch of herbs to cast holy water over the vineyard workers. There was so much I didn’t know – and there still is.
It is probably fair to say my sense of wonder at the beauty of this nebbiolo-like red grape, which once helped make wines from this region the most feted in the Ottoman Empire, increased in direct proportion to the number of glasses consumed over a big lunch. But I felt it again as I sipped a xinomavro (from a different winery in Greece) at home recently. It tasted all the better for it. As the rock star Marilyn Manson said: “Don’t ever empty the bucket of mystery.” Especially not if you’re pouring it into a wine glass.