Heavy wine

In the festive season wine consumption increases, not meaning that we regular drinkers consume more (ahem!), rather that people who would normally pass on it enjoy a glass or three. We do not realise how lucky we are. Wine has been produced for the last 6,000 years, but it is only in 3% of that entire period that we have been able to drink it as a refined pleasure. For the previous 97% of those six millennia, wine was drunk not for pleasure, but because water was polluted. Wine, and beer in some countries, was the only liquid refreshment, sweet wine being the preferred tipple as it kept longer. Quantities of Bavarian steinwein still exist from 1540, the driest year on record when the Rhine ran dry, and wine was used for building due to lack of water. Wine was shipped all over the world in wooden butts, and the maritime traffic then has been compared to the oil tankers of today.

The only alternative to sweet varieties from Germany and Spain was red wine made anywhere in southern Europe, including the then-English territory of Bordeaux. Thin and turning to vinegar in a year or two, it was necessary to make it more drinkable by sweetening it. Unfortunately lead was the most popular additive, a sugary taste being obtained by heating wine in lead saucepans. It is impossible to guess how many deaths this caused, but certainly Ludwig Beethoven was a casualty; a recent analysis of his hair shows a high lead content. He had displayed signs of severe illness years before his death, probably due to his liking for wine at all hours, but again, water was not an option in those days.

We have to be very thankful that only in the last couple of centuries wine has been made available in a clean and drinkable manner, as indeed has water. It can now be drunk for pleasure rather than necessity, as it always is.