On many evenings, with the children settled, and my wife returning the home to order after our offspring have bestowed a day’s chaos upon it, I sneak off to my study where I pour myself some wine and open a book. Recently, I have been dividing this sacral wine-time between studying Anthony O’Hear’s After Progress, reading Newman’s Loss and Gain, and meditating on sections of Francis de Sales’ celebrated Introduction to the Devout Life, written to aid the laity in the pursuit of holiness amidst their worldly toils. Wine is the perfect companion for my twilight mental pilgrimages, like Tobias’s dog, or, if it is a really good wine, like St. Raphael.
Not long ago, the wine of choice was a Coteaux Bourguignons (a new appellation) from Paul Fontaine, a non-vintage Burgundy found at an affordable price. If you are looking for something really special, this is not it. If, however, you are looking for a quaffing wine which possesses the power—when encouraged with a few salty pistachios—to transcend that base purpose to join you in noble thoughts, like those prescribed by St. Paul to the Philippians (4:8), this can do the trick. The wine is lightly oaked, probably with chips, which gives it a silky finish. Think apple and blackberry crumble in a bottle.
‘Burgundy’ can of course be said of wine in two senses. There is the Burgundy, which refers to any red made from Pinot Noir grapes wherever it is from in the world; thus, one can speak of a ‘New Zealand Burgundy.’ There is also the Burgundy, which refers to the region in which different grapes are (now) grown; for example, the Coteaux Bourguignons I was enjoying is made solely from Gamay, a grape associated with Beaujolais. ‘Burgundy’ and Pinot Noir came to be used synonymously because, up until quite recently, Pinot Noir was the only grape grown in Burgundy.
‘Burgundy’ can of course be said of wine in two senses
The great Cîteaux Abbey of the Cistercians, where St. Bernard was a monk, is in Burgundy, and it is not inaccurate to say that Burgundy as a wine region is a product of the Cistercian Order. Those monks cultivated that place into a land of fine wines, and they were utterly devoted to the fickle and delicate Pinot Noir vines with which they enjoyed a monogamous relationship. Indeed, the viticultural principle of terroir comes to us from the Burgundian Cistercians’ Dionysian science. The same grape type, with the same ancestry, can be planted 100 yards apart and bring forth utterly different wines due simply to the soil in which they were nurtured. Traditionally, when you were drinking a Burgundy, more than with any other wine you were encountering a very specific plot on the Earth, its soil made pleasing to God by the dedication and many prayers of countless holy men consecrated under the Rule of their holy father Benedict.
For these reasons, when drinking this new wine of the new Coteaux Bourguignons appellation, I was initially somewhat perturbed to discover that I was not drinking a true Burgundy, not in the sense of the term that has so developed as to ever honour those good monks. Indeed, this Gamay wine was too full-bodied to pass as a true Burgundy. This, however, almost gave it the character of what the Italians call a ‘vino da meditazione—good, then, for my purposes.
Nevertheless, sipping a Burgundy (in the literal, unpoetic, and therefore impoverished sense of the term) got me thinking about the importance of terroir. Perhaps the source of our many contemporary maladies comes from being insufficiently rooted in the soil, so to speak. We have largely forgotten concrete things, like earth, vines, wines, and pistachios, and have become hysterically obsessive over mere abstractions—abstractions that would be tolerable if they corresponded to something in the world, but this does not seem to be so with the abstractions tormenting us today.
Wine is to the hearth what liturgy is to the sanctuary
Indeed, last year we saw entire cities thrown into pandemonium over something as abstract as race. This indignation began over a murderous Minneapolis policeman, but by the time people were vandalising Stirling’s statue of Robert the Bruce, in Scotland that is, it had clearly ceased to be about the initial outrage. It is widely believed that an array of moral conclusions can be inferred from one’s allocation to the abstract categories of ‘white’ and ‘black,’ as if it were that black and white. I have, in fact, never met a white person or a black person; all the people I have met have been of different skin-pigment intensity, and I have found their skin-pigment to be their least interesting attribute. We undoubtedly need fewer fanatics and more terroiristes.
With Giambattista Vico, perhaps we ought to “look upon abstract categories as a well-bred girl looks upon love letters.” Our ideas, the possession of which indicates the nobility of our nature, have become our tormentors. There are only a few experiences left in the social machine of modern life that evade the abstract and impersonal criteria of categorization and utility, and those are hunting, mealtimes, and liturgy, all of which are threatened.
As Newman’s Loss and Gain helps us to see, the freeing of the truncated mind may begin with the experience of a profoundly incarnational liturgy, with chant, incense, beautiful vestments, candles, statues, mysterious gestures and postures, all filling and elevating the senses. We should be rooted in concrete things, rather than fetishizing abstractions. This is why it is so dangerous to cast out so-called liturgical ‘trappings,’ and to opt for a whitewashed liturgy centred on the transmitting of ideas through an inorganic vernacular—this is the last thing the modern mind needs.
Wine is to the hearth what liturgy is to the sanctuary. It has a ritual of its own: cutting the foil, twisting the corkscrew, drawing out the cork, pouring, swilling, smelling, sipping, contemplating (indeed, the imposition of the screw-top is like replacing the Canon with new prayers written on a napkin). Wine roots you in a specific place, fills the senses, accompanies you up to the sphere of ideas whilst keeping your feet on the ground, recalling you back to the soil each time you pick up the glass.
Sebastian Morello was trained in philosophy by Sir Roger Scruton, by whom he was supervised for his master’s and doctoral degrees. He is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist, and has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.