Melvyn Minnaar: The sacred side of wine
By Melvyn Minnaar, 1 February 2024
A few days ago, just as news got out that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will now allow alcohol sales in the since-1952-teetotaller country, the Pope had some very nice words for a gathering of Italian winemakers at the Vatican.
In one of those very fancy halls in Rome, his Holiness praised wine: “Wine, land, agricultural skills and entrepreneurialism are gifts from God – the creator has entrusted them to us because, with our sensitivity and honesty, we make them a true source of joy.”
Amen, we all say. And again, to the other robed leaders of a different religion who decided that maybe wine is not so bad being around when tourists visit to pay their respects in Arabic or otherwise.
Today, first of February, another blessed event is taking place at Groot Constantia where the annual celebration of the first South African harvest centuries ago is being held. May it be a beautiful, colourful and meaningful day out there – and in the rest of the winelands where the new harvest is picking up steam.
Celebration, ceremony and ritual are so part and parcel of wine that the cultural weight of that special bottle or the sensational single glass of rarity cannot be missed.
Just think for a minute the gravitas required when an ancient Vin de Constance’s long-suffering cork is pulled from the odd-shaped brown flask. Or from that bottle of tawny that has stayed alive for the twenty-one years required, waiting in the dark for the ‘coming-of-age’ of a beloved off-spring.
Of all the varieties in which alcohol can be produced and offered, wine’s ancient roots deep in human history are the reason for its cheerful presence in our celebrations and ceremonies of life.
The most prominent of this, of course, is the place of wine in Christian church rituals where the symbolism is boldly exploited. (Even if you only think about it poetically and fantastically, the dramatics of changing water into wine at a grand Biblical wedding is a coup d’elegance in hospitality!)
The most foolish of all rituals, of course, is the ‘champagne shower’ from the triumphal podium that some winners seem to accept as their due indulgence and a glorious waste.
Perhaps the most blessed and enjoyed one is the friendly toast that a host proposes when opening a special wine to guests and friends over a sociable table.
Think of that wine as something that presents itself embodied with a great story, cultural suss, poetic provenance and a uniqueness of nowhere else.
This was on my mind talking to Johan von Wielligh, a congregation member, who keeps an eye on the rare vineyard that belongs to the beautiful, old Strooidakkerk in Paarl.
This 0.9-hectare plot, right across the church, is in the same league as the famous Le Clos Montmartre of the Sacré-Coeur in Paris: a real parish vineyard with wines produced for church funds – and hence blessed in numerous exceptional ways, limited to some 4 000 bottles a vintage.
Started decades ago, the vineyard had been planted with cabernet sauvignon from which some rosé too had been made in recent years under Blackwater winemaker Francois Haasbroek’s supervision. But leave-roll forced replanting of the vineyard last year (by Paarl wine personality Derek Clift). Wine-sussed members of the congregation advised that ‘Le Clos Strooidak’ take on a modernised personality. And so grenache noir and carignan were planted, 60 to 40 percent.
While there is a gap before the first of that holy blend comes on the market, Johan says they have some of the previous vintages. Of course, the church cannot be a wine-trader, but they usually, for now, offer a bottle or such in lieu of a donation.
Punters will notice that that newly-planted grenache noir is one of the grapes blended into the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. Those from the ‘Pope’s New Castle’ have a history dating back to the Burgundian 14th century. But surely the same blessings of the current Pope last week applies to that special parcel in Paarl.
- Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.
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