By Rebeccah Marsters
Type “wine and…” into your browser search bar and what does the all-knowing Internet come up with to fill the blank? Wine and food, wine and roses, wine and chocolate, and, yes, wine and sex. Wine and romance seem to go hand in hand, but is there something inherently amorous about fermented grape juice? Anyone who has enjoyed a glass of truly amazing wine can attest that the experience transcends the taste buds and indeed enters the realm of the sensual, but why? If the romantic connotation of wine is just hype, then kudos to the companies out there who are exploiting and profiting from it, but upon further exploration, it seems that the sensual aspects of wine- from the scientific and physical, to the cultural and historical- may in fact be inherent in the drink itself.
Beginning on the surface, wine as an idea is sensual. Every clichéd romantic scenario involves it in some way, whether opening a bottle in front of a roaring fire, or sipping it in a dimly-lit restaurant. One reason for this is that wine is an economic signifier and expensive things are seen as romantic or alluring. In a culture where being ‘wined and dined’ is basically synonymous with having money thrown at you in the hopes of impressing, pricey foods and beverages are right up there with jewelry and roses in the toolbox of the modern-day Casanova. In ancient Egypt, priests and royalty enjoyed wine while the workers drank beer, and although nowadays the price discrepancy between the two beverages can be minimal, wine will always be seen as the classier, more posh choice, especially when looking to impress a mate. Even those who don’t swoon at displays of financial bravado can agree that a can of Bud by candlelight wouldn’t quite do the trick.
Another reason that wine finds itself as the spokesbeverage for those with prurient interests is that it’s conducive to sharing. One bottle, two glasses- the perfect amount for two, unless your date’s a lightweight, of course. No other beverage lends itself to this situation in the same way; beer usually comes in individual containers, and while you could each get your own cocktail, trying to share a bottle of vodka is not an advisable way to spend an evening. There’s also mystery involved in sharing wine. The process of uncorking the bottle, pouring the first few sips, not knowing what you’re going to taste- it’s like undressing, and the element of the unknown makes it all the more titillating.
Beyond the concept of wine being sensual, the experience of wine itself is quite literally of the senses. There are few things that we experience with every one of our senses, food and sex being the most obvious, but wine exceeds both in this category. With wine, there can be new and different perceptions with each bottle, and even each sip within that bottle. Wine is always evolving- as it ages, from vintage to vintage, as the weather changes- and there is therefore no limit to the amount or height of sensation that the next glass might provide. The sound of a bottle being uncorked is universally recognized, and whether the ecstatic pop of champagne, or the gentle squeak as the worm of the corkscrew enters a delicate cork, it usually means good things are to come. Visually, wine is sensual. Starting with the shape of the bottle, its curves and bulges that please the eye and invite touch, and then of course the colors inside the bottle. Pale gold, translucent ruby red, deep burgundy, watery rims, inky cores; wine not only invites us to admire it for beauty sake, but because the appearance reveals so much about what we’re soon to taste. Touch occurs in two locales: our hands touch the bottle, the cork, the glass as we swirl; the wine touches our tongue and body is detected here- creamy, viscous, almost oily, or thin, light, and fleeting. Again, to better understand the wine, this touch is necessary, and some even swish it in their mouths and hold it on their tongue, maximizing both surface area and duration of touch. At every step of this process, we are sensing the smells of the wine: the first whiff that comes up from the bottle upon uncorking, followed by the aromas that reveal themselves as the wine opens up in the glass. Usually these are food-related scents (fruits, vanilla, berries, chocolate), but there are also often musk, dirt, funk, and leather- smells of the body and of the earth. Taste is the sense most clearly linked to wine, and while it’s arguably the reason for drinking it in the first place, the above proves that wine can be a sensual experience long before it hits your lips.
Looking at wine reviews and descriptions, it is clear that those who are passionate about it really do experience it on a level akin to bodily, sexual pleasure. Adjectives such as seductive, supple, luscious, juicy, and racy might seem more appropriate for the bedroom, and these are just a few of the creative and abundant descriptors that have been applied to wine. But the connection between wine and the bedroom in the practical sense goes far beyond this. It’s no mystery where some of the aforementioned romantic evenings are headed, and wine has a role to play in this scenario as well. As with all alcohol, wine lowers inhibitions and increases confidence, two factors that encourage us to act on our physical attractions- and I haven’t even taken ‘beer goggles’ into account here. There are multiple reasons why alcohol can lead to sex, and with the exception of being so inebriated that we make poor decisions, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Simply put, wine is an intoxicant, and one definition for ‘intoxicate’ is to excite or elate to the point of enthusiasm or frenzy, language that readily lends itself to copulation- coincidence? The CEO of Taittinger Champagne said at a press conference that Champagne’s main competitor wasn’t cheap California sparkling wine, but Viagra. While this was clearly said in jest, the parallel between the two products speaks to the aphrodisiacal effects of each.
Using history to clarify this equation further, we turn to the ancient Persian fable of wine’s discovery. The myth involves a princess trying to end her life, but after gulping what she thought was poison, she finds herself not only still very much alive, but with a feeling of ease, no longer plagued by the anxieties that had troubled her before. The ‘poison’, of course, turned out to be wine, and I’ll wager a guess that this wasn’t the last time she partook of it. Nowadays, we know that wine relaxes us, and this may be another way in which it primes us for romance. Science has proven that when we’re stressed- as most of us are on a daily basis- our bodies are too busy producing stress hormones such as cortisol for our sex hormones to be fully pumping. It stands to reason that the relaxing effect that wine takes on the body and mind not only helps us unwind after a long day, but can also put us ‘in the mood’.
One can’t help but wonder, however, if there’s more to the wine-sex link than a mere lowering of inhibitions or relaxed state of mind causing us to jump in the sack. According to The Journal of Sexual Medicine, a study done by a group of doctors in Italy has concluded that red wine increases women’s sexual desire. The Telegraph reported these findings from Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, and apparently it has to do with the antioxidants in wine and their effect on the lining of blood vessels, which increases blood flow to key areas of the body. The article doesn’t go into great detail, and doesn’t explain why the increased desire is only experienced in females, but it’ll be interesting to see what, and if anything, develops from these experiments. If nothing else, I’d love to know more about how these Italian doctors went about conducting their research…
Despite all the inherently sensual qualities of wine, there are people out there who have taken it to the next level. We all know that sex sells, and it effectively sells everything from toothpaste to hamburgers (thank you Paris Hilton), so why not wine? Subtlety is clearly not the goal at Naked Winery and Orgasmic Wine Company, where one can only assume that bottles such as ‘Blazing Straddle Rosé’, ‘Foreplay Chardonnay’, and ‘Dominatrix Pinot Noir’ are not vying for points from Wine Spectator. California’s Erotic Cellars takes it one step further, with wines like ‘The Strip’ and ‘Barrel 69’ not even offering a clue as to what grapes are in the bottle- although one look at the label suggests who the target audience might be.
Unfortunately, these companies are missing the point; wine is sexy, and those who have to plaster a pole dancer across their bottle to feel that way might be better off with Viagra. The allure of wine isn’t overt and this is what makes it sensual. Whether it’s the chemical effects on the body, or purely a construct of the mind, it works. So take the opportunity to open a special bottle of wine with another person, and let the evening unfold as it may. In the words of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, “we will always have time to make love and drink Champagne”.
After receiving her degree in Art History from the University of Vermont, Rebeccah Marsters decided to go to culinary school where she completed an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales in North Carolina. After, she began an internship at America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) in Brookline, MA and was later hired full-time at ATK and now work as Assistant Test Cook for Cook’s Country magazine where I develop and test recipes and produce the food for the magazine’s photo shoots.