Bacchus versus Vesta

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Ancient Romans were a very religious bunch, their second king the Sabine Numa Pompilius is said to have negotiated directly with deities on behalf of his people. King Numa was especially fond of the nymph Ægeria, a minor Roman goddess, possibly an aspect of the Goddess Diana. Ægeria was in charge of healing, sacred knowledge, inspiration, and prophecies. Numa Pompilius consulted with her in the compilation of the vast collection of laws, rules and rituals he set forth for the Roman people. For them, both personal fortunes and the State of the Nation were very closely intertwined with the fates and moods of a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, who themselves were dominated by the caprices of the Dei Consentes, twelve sibling Gods who, despite their title, rarely agreed on anything. One of these twelve was a Goddess known as Vesta.

Ancient Romans weren’t shy in reinventing other people’s belief systems to suit their needs, in this case tweaking the worship of twelve Greek Olympians, whose rites might go back as far as the Bronze Age Hittite Empire in Anatolia. Isn’t it ever so much more convenient to adopt a God here and there than to have to start from scratch? Especially since migration with one’s deities was a well-established phenomenon in those archaic times. Peoples then, as they are now, were forced to flee warfare and famine, or they moved for trade purposes, taking their accustomed Gods with them. King Numa’s people, the Sabini were most likely of Spartan origin and thus well acquainted with the Olympian Twelve.

Focusing on Vesta, though, or rather Hestia, her Greek version, she is not always included in this sacred circle of Super Gods. According to some source material, Hestia is said to have relinquished her Olympian throne in favor of Dionysos, who eventually evolved into the Roman God Bacchus, androgynous God of vine and wine. The Goddess of hearth and home should have voluntarily given up her exalted position for a (demi-)immortal stranger who sponsored falling down drunken weekends with raving mad groupies? Quality family life versus ecstasy?

Well, here in Aquitaine we have this enormous wine producing area, the largest in France as a matter of fact, called the Bordeaux region. Wine production in Aquitaine was introduced by occupying Romans in the first century. The locals took to wine making like ducks to water and the rest is history. Around here the notion that a virginal Hestia was so fed up with her ever-quarreling siblings that she preferred to quietly tend to the Olympic Flame and gladly make way for Bacchus, God of Viniculture, is a given!

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To learn a little more wine history, we visited the museum of wine and the wine trade in our neighborhood les Chartrons, which is the part of the city of Bordeaux where wine merchants had their storehouses or Chais near the docks of the river Garonne.

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A cadastral plan of the Chais:

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The role of wine merchants who actually prepare wines for their customers has changed significantly with the establishment of wine châteaux. To preserve the integrity of château wines, the entire production from grape growing to aging to corked and labeled bottles has to happen at the château property. The merchants are still part of the production of non-château wines, wines from cooperatives and table wines.

Over time, the rules and regulations of viticulturists and traders were refined and adapted to changing conditions. The official Bordeaux classifications for Crus or vintages were set in 1855 for the World Fair in Paris under orders from Emperor Napoleon III.

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Even though there have been classification changes since then, especially for Graves wines and the Saint Emilion Grands Crus, in the opinion of experts the whole system could do with an overhaul. Yet non of several attempts to reclassify the immense Bordeaux region with over 50 AOC designations and roughly 8500 châteaux had any staying power. The region produces from table wine to the world’s most prestigious and most costly wines imaginable, e.g. a Balthazar [16 bottle-equivalent] of 2009 Château Margaux sells for $195,000.00 at the Dubai airport duty-free shop. There are only three bottles in their custom oak cases available, so you better hurry. The conservative, traditional houses fear a possible drop in standing and won’t readily agree to proposals of reclassification.

To liken le quartier Chartrons to the Forbidden City might be a smidgen exaggerated!

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One of the exhibits in the museum is an oak barrel made from Quercus robur, a European white oak from the Tronçais forests, a 26K-acre oak forest that has been managed by the National Forest Services for hundreds of years. The forest was build up extensively during the seventeenth century to provide wood for the naval fleet. Q. robur and Q. petraea syn. sessiliflora are the favorite oak types not only to make masts but also for casks or barrels because their wood is very fine-grained and has few nodes. You may remember from my post on our neighborhood tipple of choice cognac, that it also requires Tronçais oak barrels for aging. The cask below was made by the coopers of the Sylvain Co. in 2006, using the wood from a Q. robur tree planted in 1656. Read the story of tree and barrel in this Red Head Oak Barrels‘ post.

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The museum provided a fair amount of particulars also on labels and the information they provide for the consumer.

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Strangely enough, there is also a display of sake and sake products in the wine museum’s Chai.

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We had our concluding wine tasting in this cozy nook with its apple green glow, before heading back out into the neighborhood.

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We made our way down to the quay where we caught a tram into the heart of Bordeaux. We had a few items on our agenda but abandoned all our plans without a single regret when we stumbled by sheer happenstance across the most elegant of façades belonging to the CIVB.

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The full title of this office in all its intimidating splendor is the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux, or simply the Bordeaux Wine Bureau. This private association represents the interests of close to 10 000 viticulteurs, wine producers, and 400 wine merchants in the Bordeaux region. The CIVB with its ample yearly budget carries a mighty punch in Bordeaux politics. The gorgeous building also houses the associated wine school and, as we were about to find out, the Bar à Vin an educational wine bar.

The waiters in this bar aren’t just waitpersons, they are sommeliers and wine counselors who will assist and guide you in your Bordelais wine exploration.

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You can choose a selection of cheeses and dried meats to accompany your wine choices, increasing your tasting fun even more as they and the different breads offered are also excellent.

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It not easy to recover from such a wine-centered day. Fortunately, the trusted tram network took us home safely!

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