What Is Wine?
( Originally Published 1907 )
IN every clime, and under every sun, from the very earliest periods of time of which we have any record, wine has been considered as one of the choicest gifts of a beneficent Providence, and in the old days of Biblical antiquity it was always looked upon, in conjunction with corn and oil, as a symbol of national well-being and material prosperity. The legendary and mystical associations which cluster round its history have inspired the poet's song and the orator's panegyric from time immemorial, and writers, sacred and secular, classical and modern, have been unanimous in eulogising its virtues and advocating its use. Among civilized nations wine has always been, and is still, closely connected, not only with religious observances) but with all festive and social ceremonies, both public and private, and that it "makes glad the heart of man" now, as in days of old, few people will be disposed to deny. Taken in moderation its pleasurable and health-giving properties are all but universally acknowledged, and experience seems to justify the belief that, as compared with the innumerable benefits it confers, the harm produced by its misuse is comparatively insignificant.
What then, it may be asked, is this wonderful elixir of life, which is almost as old as the world itself and yet is ever overflowing with the exuberance of youth; which restores and invigorates us when the powers of life are low; uplifts. and cheers us in days of sorrow and gloom; evokes and enhances our joys and pleasures; and which, by the inherent living force it is endowed with, gives animation, energy and inspiration to every sense and faculty we possess?
Precise definitions in matters of food and drink are difficult at all times, and particularly so in these days, but it is safe to say that wine is, or should be, a beverage derived exclusively from the perfectly fermented juice of the grape. The quality and nature of true wine, however, depend upon a variety of circumstances. The species-of vine, the climate of the region in which it is grown, the soil, the methods of cultivation adopted, the processes favoured for the treatment and maturing of the expressed juices, the vintage all have their influence upon the final product, and to a very large extent too, in many cases.
As a rule the most important feature about wine, from the ordinary consumers' point of view, is its alcoholic potency, but the stimulating power of wine and its use dietetically are by no means to be gauged by the amount of alcohol it contains. The volatile ethers and extractives exercise a great deal of influence upon its exhilarating powers, and, in this particular, wine stands alone amongst alcoholic beverages, for a mere admixture of spirits and water has a very different effect upon the human system, and, instead of being beneficial, is almost invariably harmful. The constituents of wine indeed, apart from alcohol, are surprisingly wide in their range, including as they do, in greater or lesser degree, volatile oil, ethers, grape-sugar, colouring matter, vegetable albumen, tannic and other acids, and tartrates; and the character of a wine is largely determined by the presence or absence of these constituents, or the proportion in which they are combined in any particular case.
It is through shutting their eyes to its complexity that the opponents of wine have strayed into one of their most mischievous errors. Many of the blood-curdling experiments to demonstrate the noxiousness of wine have been made by mixing food, not with wine, but with ardent spirits or with chemist's alcohol. Such a test is no test at all. A flask of wine, like a bottle of ginger beer, contains alcohol, but it contains many other things as well. First and foremost nearly all its bulk consists of rain-water, exquisitely filtered and distilled by the kindly sun and subtly enriched with vitality by the silent alchemy of nature. The man who drains a whole bottle of sound wine absorbs only a single glass of alcohol; and it must always be remembered that the alcohol of natural wine differs from the alcohol of the chemist's laboratory as much as bee's honey differs from chemists' saccharine or glucose. It follows, therefore, that when a sensible wine-drinker is confronted by scares and panics concerning the horrors of alcohol he re-mains unmoved, for he knows very well that his trusty beverage is not mere alcohol, but alcohol modified and corrected by the other and more abundant constituents of wine.
Broadly speaking, wine may be divided into three principal classes—natural wines, fortified wines and sparkling wines. The first class comprises those in which the "must" has been allowed to proceed to the utmost limit of its fermentation, yielding generally " dry " wines practically devoid of sweetness, such as Claret, Burgundy and Hock. These wines are light alcoholically and are usually considered to be the most whole-some for habitual consumption as beverages. Fortified wines, on the other hand, are those in which the fermentation has been arrested by the introduction of some form of spirit, and such wines are gene-rally more or less sweet, and of rather high alcoholic strength. Of these Port, Sherry and Madeira may be mentioned as representative examples. Sparkling wines, such as Champagne, are those in which carbonic acid is formed by an after-fermentation in the bottle, and they may be classed among the comparatively light alcoholic group, though their stimulating properties are relatively higher owing to the presence of the carbonic acid. These wines are either "Brut, or of varying degrees of sweetness, according to the extent of "liqueuring" during the process of manufacture, and, as they are wines that especially lend themselves to adulteration, it is very important to obtain them from honest sources.
The assertion is sometimes made that, taking the world over, more people suffer from the consumption of too little alcohol than from too much, and although this assertion may not be accepted without reserve by the extreme section of the temperance party, there is unquestionably an element of truth in the statement. It is, of course, quite credible that there are some people who may be better without recourse to any kind of stimulant whatsoever, but all experience seems to point to the fact that the majority of men and women, and especially those who have arrived at middle life, are much benefited by taking wine with their meals; and this view has recently been confirmed by a most important medical pronouncement on the subject.
It is especially unfortunate in this connexion that the word "stimulant" should have acquired a bad name. When one man tells another that a mutual friend "takes stimulants," both speaker and hearer rightly look grave, for they are well aware that successive drams and nips can only grant fits of false and short-lived energy, at the price of long-drawn reaction and collapse; but in these cases it is necessary to distinguish between spirits and grape juice, between the dram-drinker and the lover of good wine.
In the first place the reaction ensuing upon a few draughts of wine is much less marked and less trying than the reaction after indulgence in whisky, or even tea. In the second place a genuine wine-lover feels no inclination to imbibe grape juice both in and out of season. He drinks at meal times and when his day's work is done. Excepting a few indiscriminate champagne-drinkers, only the heroes and villains in romances and plays drain goblets of wine in order to inflame themselves to proud words, and doughty deeds. In real life, when the slight stimulation of wine has passed away, the sequel is not dullness and heaviness, but a genial sense of well-being. In short, the much-maligned reaction one hears so much about is merely an unfriendly name for one of the great charms of wine, and what wine's foes call its reactionary defects wine's friends call its sedative merits. After all the proof of the drink is in the drinking, and no amount of theoretical opposition can set aside the grateful experience of a hundred generations of men.
Wine being a valuable nerve and brain stimulant, it is, of course, quite in accordance with the nature of things that its abuse should be detrimental to those who indulge in it too freely. But a similar objection applies to many other things which are in themselves beneficial to the human race. We cannot "over-eat" ourselves, for example, without suffering more or less severely from the consequent effects; and if the excess becomes habitual, health may be permanently impaired.
Statistics all go to prove, how-ever, that in strictly wine-drinking communities not only is intemperance rare, but even where it exists the evil effects are comparatively unimportant. It is only in spirit-drinking countries that alcoholic excess is prevalent, and the effects become an element of serious import. If alcohol, as taken in the form of wine, is the potent poison that some extremists affirm it to be, it may fairly be questioned how it is that those countries that have always made use of it have not gradually decayed and died out. The principal nations of Europe, for instance, which lead the world in all that constitutes high and intellectual living, are very far indeed from being total abstainers; and the Jews, who cannot be accused of being indifferent to the fascinations of wine as a beverage, do not, after an existence of several thousand years, appear to have in any way suffered from it, or to have deteriorated in physique, mental capacity, or longevity.
How then can these unassailable facts be explained unless upon the assumption that wine was meant for our judicious use? Like all other good things it is of course liable to abuse, but it cannot, at least, be denied that taken in mode-ration it adds to the agreeableness of life, and, as has been truly said, whatever adds to the agreeableness of life adds to its resources and power.