Uncorking the Past: The Fascinating History of Rivers of Wine

By | 27 June 2024

In this life and the next, a river of wine will always be charged with meaning.

By Stuart Walton

From heavenly paradise to tool of vigneron protesters, Stuart Walton follows the flow and significance of the river of wine.

According to the Qur’an, Jannah, the heavenly paradise that awaits the devout after death, will be irrigated by four rivers: one each of clear water, milk, honey, and wine. The non-Muslim may be surprised at that last one, but the paradisiacal wine river is a reward for having abstained from wine in the present world. And in any case, as the text indicates, the wine will be “delicious to the drinkers. No bad effect is there in it, nor from it will they be intoxicated” (Surah 37: 46-47).

It is comforting to know that heavenly wine will bear no relation to the bargain-bin Malbec that the observant Muslim has anyway shunned. The river of wine, though, is a tantalising image, one that seizes the imagination in the same way that visions of the perfect state embraced in the medieval Christian era. Nobody would want for water, it was thought, in the Land of Cockaigne, when they could dip a cup into flowing wine.

The 13th-century French Fabliau de Cocagne makes the topography of the Edenic realm crystal-clear:


It’s a pure and proven truth

That in this blessed land

Flows a river of wine.

This river I’m talking about

Is half red wine,

The best that can be found

In Beaune and beyond the sea;

The other half is white wine,

The best and finest

That ever grew in Auxerre,

La Rochelle or Tonnerre.

Better even than Burgundy’s finest, then. The bifurcated river takes a little effort of imagination—so does the whole utopian vision, of course—but then again, this is a “proven truth,” so it makes an insistent veridical claim on the reader’s or hearer’s credulity.

The image of inexhaustible plenty conjured by a river of wine has a negative correlate in the more earthbound or mundane prospect of the large-scale accidental spillage that can occasionally result from the bursting of barrels or the leaking of a tank. When wine was fermented in clay amphorae, it was on a relatively stable footing, but once the oak barrel began to be introduced around the fourth century AD, the whole enterprise of wine maturation and storage became distinctly more precarious.

The wine spill that occurred in São Lourenço do Bairro in western Portugal in September 2023 released over two million litres of red wine into the village. It is thought that a structural flaw caused the bursting of one vat, following which the massive torrent of wine that escaped knocked over a neighbouring vat. The wasted wine was part of the region’s excess production and was awaiting distillation, but the ruby-red gush—enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool—was soon rushing in full spate through the streets. Anybody worried about what the streets would smell like after the clean-up need have had no fear. According to the deputy director of the distillery, it was “good quality wine”—the kind, presumably, that is immune to acetification.

Something more like the paradisiacal river of wine was inadvertently created in Sonoma, California, in 2020, when a calamity at a Healdsburg winery released about 360,000 liters of Cabernet Sauvignon into the Russian River, turning it temporarily red. An environmental inspector who paddled out on it in a canoe apparently resisted the temptation to find out whether it tasted at all heavenly.

Not all earthly rivers of wine are created accidentally. There can be no more devastatingly effective way of sabotaging a winery’s production than by deliberately releasing it into the surrounding streets. That happened at Sète, near Montpellier, in southern France in 2016, when a group calling itself the Comité d’Action Viticole (Wine Action Committee) dumped over 50,000 litres of wine in protest at the incursion of cheap imported wine from further south into the retail outlets of the Midi. The river is said to have run inches deep outside the premises of a noted wine merchant whose shelves were partly stocked with some of the offending Spanish slosh.

In Spain itself, in February 2024, an intruder got into the fermentation room at the Cepa 21 bodega in Ribera del Duero in the dead of night, and—for reasons unknown—released around 60,000 litres of wine that would have gone into two of the estate’s premium bottlings. Wine can be seen in the CCTV footage flooding over the floor, the extravagant wastage making a critical dent in the year’s finances.

The river of wine in the Islamic afterlife will be served by heavenly wine stewards. In Cockaigne, one simply dunked one’s own gold chalice into it as it flowed by. Gushing down the streets, going to waste and staining everything in its path, it may more nearly resemble one of the ten plagues of Egypt.

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