Bruce Anderson

The beauty of wine from the Rhine

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In an apparently benign — almost prelapsarian — setting, the Rhine is an epitome of the human condition. Scenery is rarely more beautiful or more glorious. Yet it can be equally hazardous. This is a river that arouses mysticism, and its temptations. By swimming in those waters, men seek to affirm their unity with the cosmos and their triumph over the natural world. But every year, a fair few swimmers end up in the mortuary. Their quest for mastery over nature ends with ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Almost as soon as men first emerged from caves, they began to beautify their dwellings near the Rhine, as well as exploiting its fertility. Around the time that the Babylon-ians identified the constellation of Aquarius, the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates were the first water–carriers of civilisation. In Europe, much later, that role passed to the Rhine. It was the great conduit, between the Mediterranean and the North Sea, Italy and Flanders: a thoroughfare of the arts, ideas and trade. And conflict. Bound to the wheel of the human condition, men yield to its brutalities as well as its grandeur. Riches breed rivalry, as the deadly sins run amok. Those fortunate to dwell near the Rhine and its affluence hoped for a peaceful indulgence in lust, gluttony and indolence. Rougher beings from less favoured regions would respond with pride, wrath and envy. There was an obvious synthesis: despair.

Civilisation means wine. Along the Rhine, the grape has been cultivated for millennia. After the war, when Konrad Adenauer was working to restore Germany to self-government, he took pride in his Rhineland origins. Almost using Rhenish as a libation to water the fragile roots of German democracy, he said that it was time for Germany to be governed by wine drinkers, not Schnapps drinkers.

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