PENTHEUS [to the guards]: Get hold of him; he’s mocking me and
the whole city.
DIONYSUS [to the guards]: Don’t bind me, I warn you. [To Pentheus]: I am sane, and you are mad.
Euripides’ The Bacchae is one of the most famous artistic portrayals of Bacchanalia. In a dramatic portrayal charged with symbolism and lyricism, it depicts how Pentheus, king of Thebes, is punished by Dionysus for refusing to recognise his divinity. Pentheus is torn limb from limb by a frenzied horde of Maenads, one of whom is Pentheus’ own mother, who then proceeds to bear her son’s decapitated head back to Thebes in a triumphal Bacchic trance.
It is not only a masterful and memorable exploration of the powerful twin urges inherent in human nature – the rational and cultured versus the instinctive and atavistic – but also gives us a clear picture of how Dionysus, god of wine, was perceived in ancient Greece.
Not for them the sanitised, jollified Bacchus of Rome; their Dionysus was something altogether darker, more amoral, a conduit not only to inspired liberation but also to the murkier realms of base human instinct. For the Greeks, or at least the more enlightened ones, Dionysus was a god to be feared and respected, but above all to be recognised.
It is interesting to note in this respect that the Greeks usually drank their wine diluted. This was the case, for example, in symposia, where a large ornamental vase known as a krater was used to mix the wine with water. This practice was considered a mark of civilisation and restraint; by contrast, drinking undiluted wine was seen as barbaric as well as unhealthy. Normal dilution ratios are thought to have varied from between 2:3 to 1:3 parts wine to water, which would have given an alcoholic strength in the final liquid of around 3-8%.
These days, it is not uncommon to see table wine at between 13-15% alcohol. There are many reasons for this. One is the increasing prevalence of vineyards in warm climates – the New World in particular – giving rise to higher sugar levels and hence alcohol. Because consumers increasingly demand soft, supple, approachable styles, viticulture the world over is increasingly aimed at promoting proper phenological (flavour and tannin) ripeness, resulting in higher alcohol wines.
Moreover, as a society, we are not the diluting type. The result is a quandary. Do we drink less? Or carry on as normal and risk the inevitable hangover and health issues that are the dogged pursuers of Bacchanalian excess?
As neither of these options is particularly appealing, I propose an alternative policy. There are many fine wines out there that naturally sport modest alcohol levels. Some of these are often overlooked in the modern era, which is a shame. All of the wines below, for example, are excellent examples of their kind: balanced, food-friendly and, most importantly, capable of being enjoyed in volume. Dionysus would approve.
Two bottles of each of the following:
1 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2005, Cuttaway Hill
2 Muscadet, Côte de Grandlieu 2005, Clos de la Sénagerie
3 Riesling QbA 2004, Schloss Lieser
4 Côte de Brouilly 2004, Domaine des Roches Bleus
5 Epico, Vino de la Tierra Manchuela 2004, Bodegas Eguren
6 Dolcetto d'Alba 2004, Giovanni Corino
Delivery charge (for orders under £250): £15
All prices are by case of 12 and inclusive of VAT. All orders must arrive with either cheque or credit card payment. Cheques to be made payable to Justerini & Brooks Ltd. Delivery charge applies to UK mainland and N Ireland; contact J&B for delivery elsewhere. Offer is subject to availability and J&B's standard terms and conditions, available on request.