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Updated: April 28, 2011 17:20 IST

Wine and nationalist sentiment

MUKUND PADMANABHAN
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Only English wine at the wedding reception of Prince William and Kate Middleton
Only English wine at the wedding reception of Prince William and Kate Middleton

Wine stokes strong provincial and nationalist sentiments because it is regarded not merely as a product but as a true expression of a region

Word is out that the wine served at the private reception at Buckingham Palace following Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding today will be English. Apparently, large quantities of Chapel Down — an inexpensive yeasty white that costs the equivalent of around Rs. 600 — have been already secreted at the Queen's residence.

Why select a wine that runs the risk of being disparaged in patrician circles as mere plonk? Yes of course, it does conform to the couple's idea of using the wedding as a platform to showcase “what Britain does best.” But there is probably a larger theme playing out here as well — one that has to do with wine and nationalism.

Wine has a long history of stirring up nationalist sentiment. The principal reason for this is that it is regarded as a kind of agricultural produce — vigorously influenced by local ecology or terroir. Yes, many do believe micro-climates play a vital role in shaping some hard liquors such as single malts, but this is a hugely exaggerated view.

If lowland malts are generally smoother, it is because they are triple distilled. The distinctive smokiness of Islay malts is a result of the introduction of peat smoke in the kiln. Production process influences single malts much more than its zealous marketers admit or its romantic enthusiasts imagine. Of course, wine is not totally immune to wine-making processes. But anyone acquainted with fermented grape can tell how a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is very different from its French cousin or why a German Riesling is just that — a German Riesling.

The Judgment of Paris — the blind-tasting contest in 1978 in which some of the best wines from French chateaus and their Napa Valley counterparts were entered — was not about which wineries were the best. For the Californians, it was about our wines against theirs. When the French wines unexpectedly lost out, all of Napa celebrated the victory.

Napoleon III's famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines — which continues to exercise an immense hold over wine consumers — was part of a grand nationalist project. Stung by the success of London's Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, he wanted to showcase the best French products in his 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris. Brokers in the wine industry were commandeered to rank the wines, which they ranked in five classifications of growths.

In the late 19th Century, the marketers of champagne used blatantly nationalist labels — from the monarchy to imperial expansion in Asia and Africa — to sell their products. Kolleen M. Guy's book When Champagne went French: Wine and the Making of National Identity recounts how “symbols of the nation — flags, battles, soldiers in uniform — were central images on these labels.”

The controversial wine documentary ‘Mondovino' relates how big multinational companies have promoted a uniform globalised style of winemaking (a kind of shallow but immediately appealing McWine) at the cost of traditional small wineries, which produce bottles that may have a rougher edge but are infused with character. In a way, it is a plea that terroir and individuality are retained in the face of this commercial onslaught.

Wine stokes strong provincial and nationalist sentiments because it is regarded not merely as a product but as a true expression of a region. When William and Kate sip on their Chapel Down — which incidentally has also produced a bubbly called The Union to celebrate their wedding — they may not have any epiphanic moments. But they are likely to be comforted by the fact that they are drinking their own wine as opposed to someone else's.

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