Ritual is important – what would life be without it? Wine rituals, spiritual rituals, wedding ceremonies, mitzvahs, funerals… Society is replete with rituals, and they all serve a purpose.
Wine rituals serve to remind us that wine is more than just something to drink with food; it’s a celebration of life with hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years of tradition behind it. While the basics of wine rituals are globally pretty consistent — inspect, swirl, smell, taste — many cultures add nuances of their own to the process.
When drinking wine in China, for example, the toast is an important element of the experience. So much so that refusing to participate is considered an affront not only to the host, but to the other guests as well! Also, after clinking, you must drain your glass and then turn it over to prove that you did. Wasting wine is rude, you know, so gān bēi, or “bottoms up!”
If you go to Sweden, you’ll probably need to toast there, too, but whatever you do, make sure you look your toasting companion in the eyes! Folklore has it that this tradition began with the Vikings, who held their drinking buddy’s gaze to ensure the other person wasn’t secretly withdrawing a broadsword for nefarious purposes. To propose a toast in Sweden, look the other person in the eye and say “skål,” maintaining eye contact throughout the ingestion process.“Skål,” by the way, means “shell” or “bowl,” as apparently Vikings once found it humorous to drink from the skulls of their vanquished enemies.
There are also wine rituals surrounding the drinking of Port. This may be partly because, early on, Port was mainly consumed by the British, who love their ceremony and traditions. The most entertaining example I’ve come across is the passing of the decanter. I know that doesn’t sound exciting, but the ritual of passing the decanter can only work if everyone participates. If one person at the table, for whatever reason, fails to pass it along, the poor, thirsty folks further down must sit politely and wait. Asking for the decanter to be passed is a serious faux pas! One way to politely hint at it, however, is to ask “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” Two theories regarding the bishop to whom this question is attributed, Henry Bathurst, speculate whether he let decanters collect at his elbow so he could drink more than everyone else or if he simply fell asleep at the table. I say the former possibly led to the latter!
Regardless of which rituals (if any) you observe — the swirling and sniffing of wine, the pull of a cork, the pop of champagne, the clinking glasses of a toast — they all have their meanings and their place in the fabric of wine appreciation. In fact, some psychologists believe they actually make the wine taste better, at least to the one doing them, so swirl, sniff, and clink away, just don’t forget to pass that decanter!