Can a Dionysian revel be improved with a little Apollonian logic? Or it is always good to round off a day in the library with an evening in the bar.

A couple of years ago I visited Nicolas Joly’s vineyard at Coulée de Serrant in Savennières, the Loire Valley, France. His wines are well documented as being some of the greatest, most intellectually pleasing, white wines on the planet. Joly is also one the wine world’s most vociferous exponents of biodynamic agriculture. And he is rather odd.
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When Joly and I walked out into the vineyard, passing the long-horned cows, I immediately noticed a row of Tuscan cypress trees at the far end of the vines. Their slim height was such a physical contrast to the row upon row of low-growing vines that the whole vineyard seemed to be transformed into a three-dimensional space. My eye, instead of looking down to find out about the soil, the rock and the vines roots, travelled up to the sky and sun above me. I became aware of the air and the rain.

I wondered aloud about the trees and Joly explained that he had planted them because he divides plants into ‘Apollonian’, or sky-reaching like the cypress trees and ‘Dionysian’ or falling to the soil, like the vines. He wanted the trees to balance the energies in the vineyard. This may all sounds like a load of new-age psycho-babble but when it translates into wine as good as Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2005 then I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides I’ve always been predisposed to indulge eccentricity.

However to really understand this idea I needed to remind myself of what Apollonian and Dionysian actually mean. When Nietzsche uses these two expressions in Birth of Tragedy he describes them as being:

Apollo (Apollonian or Apollinian): the dream state or the wish to create order, principium individuationis (principle of individuation), plastic (visual) arts, beauty, clarity, stint to formed boundaries, individuality, celebration of appearance/illusion, human beings as artists (or media of art’s manifestation), self-control, perfection, exhaustion of possibilities, creation.

Dionysus (Dionysian): chaos, intoxication, celebration of nature, instinctual, intuitive, pertaining to the sensation of pleasure or pain, individuality dissolved and hence destroyed, wholeness of existence, orgiastic passion, dissolution of all boundaries, excess, human being(s) as the work and glorification of art, destruction.
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Or very roughly speaking: intellect v emotion. So how does this translate into wine? Dionysian is perhaps more obvious. It is intoxication, it is en vino veritas, it is the abandonment of inhibitions, hedonism and feasting. But what of Apollonian: order, perfection, exhaustion of possibilities?  If a wine engages me intellectually and does more than just get me a bit tipsy and make me giggle then these ideas are pertinent. If I like a wine because of its aromas and flavours, because it has balance, character and personality, if it is more than just an alcoholic fix, then the idea of a wine being Apollonian is plausible. Anyone who gets addicted to wine because they are curious about how it will taste, where it comes from, how it reflects that place, how it will age, is approaching their glass with an Apollonian head. That fact that this intellectual stimulus comes hand in hand with some Dionysian intoxication is an added bonus. After all a day in the library is always more satisfying if it is rounded off by an evening in the bar.

So back to the vineyard is it possible that a row of ‘Apollonian’ cypress trees can increase the intellectual pleasure of the wine in the glass? I do know that adding other plants, so the vineyard is not a mono-culture, makes it less at risk of disease. I also know that anyone who approaches their vineyard husbandry with this amount of care is going to make a wine that tastes individual and has a complexity that a mass produced wine from a vineyard of uniform plants stretching for miles on sanitised soils can only dream of. I also know that gardens and theatre sets that are three dimensional rather than flat  are more pleasing and all encompassing therefore making them more convivial working environments.

As for a plant being able to channel something as metaphysical as Apollonian energy, I think the idea is so contrary to Apollonian logic that I need some Dionysian intoxication in order to even countenance it. But as I’m currently enjoying a very good glass of Coulée de Serrant, Roches aux Moines 2005, I am starting to get my head round it.

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