All wines and wine-tasting events – no matter how exclusive, casual or intimate – benefit enormously from being held against a backdrop of great company and sparkling chat. We often get deep into anecdote-swapping sessions about wines and their history over a glass or two; after all, with a history of cultural significance dating back thousands of years, there’s a lot of rich and varied information on the topic to soak up!
For starters, here are just a handful of eye-opening wine facts and tales you might like to bring to the next party…
1. In terms of physical acreage, grape vines claim the largest total plantation area of any cultivated fruit crop on the planet (and they’re produced in almost every country of the world). It takes around 4-5 years for newly planted vines to be fully matured and ready for harvesting to make wine. A ton of wine grapes makes around 750 bottles, with each bottle requiring just under three pounds of fruit to make; this translates roughly into one ‘cluster’ of grapes, averaging approximately 75 individual fruits. Despite this, hardly any wines are considered to taste strongly of grapes – while almost all wine tastes predominantly of fruit, only a select few (say, Muscat or Concord) are widely acknowledged to carry a notable ‘grape’ flavour.
2. Wine has been a notable feature of many a key archaeological unearthing: when Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened by Howard Carter in 1922, for example, 36 jars were found to have been buried alongside the Egyptian boy king that contained traces of vintage red wine (indeed, some were labelled with sufficient accuracy that they could more or less meet modern labelling standards – one read ‘Year 5. Wine of the House-of-Tutankhamun Ruler-of-the-Southern-On, in the Western River. By the chief vintner Khaa.’) The oldest known unopened bottle of wine was found in 1867 during excavation of a Roman nobleman’s tomb near the German town of Speyer; dating from around 325 AD, the nearly 1700-year-old flask currently sits on display in the town’s Historical Museum of the Palatinate. One of the oldest ‘in use’ wine cellars of its age was carried aboard the Titanic when it sank, with a loss of some 12,000 bottles (many of which were vintage Champagnes).
3. Wine was so central to many ancient civilisations and cultures that many quirky rituals developed around it that survive to this day. The act of clinking glasses in a ‘cheers’ motion, for example, is widely reckoned to date back to Greek and Roman times, when a vigorous clashing of drinking vessels would result in some overspill into various neighbouring chalices. This was viewed as a symbolic, if not chemically reliable, indication that nobody present intended to poison anyone else’s beverage. ‘Toasting’ is rumoured to be so-called due to the once-popular custom of adding additional flavour to wine via the introduction of small cubes of spiced toasted bread. And for those liable to overfill their glasses, there was always the Pythagorean cup (also known as a ‘greedy cup’) – accredited to Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras of Samos, this is essentially a practical joke item that can only be filled so far before triggering a syphoning mechanism that drains the contents through a void in the stem.
4. Fear of wine is called oenophobia and it’s a real thing, in the sense that it’s clinically recognised. Those with a very mild aversion might simply be said to dislike wine, but for a number of sufferers there’s also an entirely psychological aspect that’s often attributed to perceived complexity and potential for embarrassment inherent to the process of selecting, experiencing and enjoying wine ‘properly’. Others develop oenophobia as a branch of a wider fear, namely methyphobia (the fear of all alcoholic beverages) – in this case, when not a direct result of a past traumatic first-hand experience, the fear tends to stem from the belief that poisoning or negative physical reactions will occur from drinking alcohol. The phobia can be so strong that proximity to alcoholic drinks causes physical tremors, respiratory problems and nausea, thus falsely reaffirming the belief for an unfortunate few.
5. Many subtle marketing ploys have been shown to exert a huge impact on how people choose and react to wines. Numerous studies have shown that customers are willing to pay more for wines with difficult-to-pronounce names or more ornate and historical looking labels, and will also tend to review pairings with food far more favourably when paying more for the same wine than they do at lower price points. It has also been shown that changing the background music style in stores and restaurants can influence which nation’s wines customers gravitate towards.
6. Wine is often rightly praised for its antioxidant properties, and red wine has a far higher antioxidant content due to being made with the grape skins included, unlike white varieties. However, if you’re drinking wine on that basis alone, you’d arguably be better off quaffing glasses of several other substances – soy sauce, for example, has over ten times the concentration of known antioxidant compounds in it that wine has. (Interestingly, like wine, soy sauce also develops and deepens in both colour and complexity over a certain optimal time frame.) In terms of wine’s less beneficial effects on us, studies suggest that two glasses of wine – and thus a resulting blood alcohol level of around 0.05%, the UK drink-drive limit – has an impact on our awareness and reaction times akin to 17 hours of sleep deprivation.