The Wine Critics of Early Islam

Early Arab poets loved wine. So much so that they gifted us an entire language for the enjoyment of it

The Wine Critics of Early Islam
Poems in praise of wine/ Getty images

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The most famous poem in all of Arabic literature, penned by the pagan prince Imru’ al-Qays around one century before Islam, happens to contain what must be one of humanity’s oldest surviving wine reviews.

This epic, 81-line autobiographical ode, which legend holds was affixed to Mecca’s Kaaba along with several other poets’ magna opera in honor of their literary genius, is a vivid recollection of its author’s escapades through the Arabian desert, with passages ranging from boasts about sexual conquests to an extended paean to his horse. It’s in the closing lines, as he depicts the aftermath of a violent rainstorm that the poet likens a noisy flock of birds to a group of rowdy drinkers:

It was as if the larks of the valley, at dawn
Had supped a fine, peppery vin de goutte

The Quran tells us the wine in paradise, by contrast, has the heady aroma not of pepper but of the perfumes musk and camphor.

The Prophet Muhammad’s preferred poet, Hassan ibn Thabit, compared one wine of Capitolias (in modern-day Jordan) to “succulent apple, freshly picked” in a famous ode defending God’s Messenger.

A century later, in Damascus, the sovereign of the Muslim world, the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid ibn Yazid — who was said to enjoy a glass or two — dutifully echoed the Lord in citing notes of musk in the vintages he extolled in his own scandalously impious verse.

As for the undisputed master of classical Arabic wine poetry, Abu Nuwas (an Arab court poet of the libertine Abbasid Caliph al-Amin in Baghdad, and a character in the One Thousand and One Nights folk tales), his prodigious sensibilities could detect scents ranging from pepper to saffron to sweet basil to ambergris.

If much of this sounds familiar to wine drinkers today, that’s because it should: the words “musk,” “pepper,” and “apple” are liable to be found on the backs of bottles anywhere from Napa Valley to New Zealand. (One doesn’t hear quite so much about “ambergris” and “camphor,” it’s true, but they’re out there all right: readers curious to sample a literal taste of heaven might try the 2006 Château Malescot St. Exupéry from Bordeaux, which promises “notes of graphite, black currant liqueur, incense, and camphor.”)

To describe wines in terms of their fragrance and flavor — and to do so by comparison to things like fruits, spices, and herbs — is now so common a practice as to pass without question. True, we may chortle at the more outlandish experiments of the genre, as when the illustrious American wine critic Robert Parker writes of a wine’s “crushed seashell” and “melted asphalt” notes, or when the certified Master Sommelier Ian Cauble hailed the “new rubber hose” and “freshly-opened can of tennis balls” aroma of a Clare Valley Riesling in the “Somm” documentary.

Here, too, the bards of early Islam could hold their own: one wine reminded Abu Nuwas specifically of “Lebanese” apples, while another gave off the “musk of Darin, with a whiff of tar.” (Darin, a port outside Dammam in today’s Saudi Arabia, was once famed for its perfumes.)

So accustomed have we become to this style of wine writing that we fail to understand how recent an arrival it actually is in the West. Up until the late 1970s, the way one was expected to talk about wine was to give it human, even emotional, characteristics, often imbued with class and gender traits to boot.

Thus a wine might be “bold” and “masculine,” with “noble breeding;” or perhaps “seductively feminine” and “beguiling;” or else “vulgar” and “uncouth.” One 1846 Hermitage was, in fact, “the manliest French wine” the Victorian critic George Saintsbury had ever encountered. You might sniff your Chianti today and feel morally certain you’re smelling dark cherries, leather, and cigar leaves. If you were doing the same 50 years ago, though, you might be no less assured that what you had in your hand was in fact a boisterous, rather temperamental little chap; a bit of a cynical curmudgeon; a misanthrope who ought to spend another year or two brooding in the cellar.

It was this that Evelyn Waugh so imperishably parodied in “Brideshead Revisited,” when Charles and Sebastian stumble upon a stash of aged clarets in the latter’s country castle, and, sampling them over the course of several hours, are inspired to the following dialogue:

It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.
Like a leprechaun.
Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.
Like a flute by still water.
… And this is a wise old wine.
A prophet in a cave.
… And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.
Like a swan.
Like the last unicorn.

And so it went, up until the publication in 1976 of “Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation” by Professors Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler of the University of California at Davis, who advocated doing away with the waffle about “breeding” and “manliness” in favor of ostensibly more meaningful, objective comparisons to fruits and the like. The professors’ rather esoteric tome, packed with mathematical formulae and tables of statistical data, might have remained respectably obscure had it not left an impression on the aforementioned Parker, the superstar American critic who invented the 100-point scoring system and has had his prized nostrils insured for $1 million. It is to Parker’s towering omnipresence more than anything else that we owe the ubiquity of our current idiom.

Yet there was nothing inevitable or predestined about this, and it certainly didn’t happen without a struggle. From the outset, the new winespeak met with great skepticism, not to say ridicule. Evelyn Waugh’s own son, Auberon — a novelist in his own right, as well as a professional wine writer — panned it as yet another unwelcome trans-Atlantic import. Baffled to read an American reviewer in the 1980s speak of “cherry and smoke” notes in a pinot noir, Waugh remarked, “I have been eating cherries all my life, and breathing in smoke for much of it, but I have never found a Burgundy which tasted of either — let alone of tobacco, perfume, rose petals or lavender. If I found one of my wines tasting of any of those things I would send it back and demand an explanation.”

To this day, many remain unconvinced. In his 2004 book, “The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey through the Wine World,” Lawrence Osborne writes that “the cheery jargon of aromas and tastes, the blackberries, tannins, phenol contents, flowers, tars, and so on, is little more than an airport-novel language that tells you nothing about wine.” A 2007 paper by the Princeton University economist Richard E. Quandt, who edits the Journal of Wine Economics, was titled, “On Wine Bullshit.”

So it is, in fact, much more unlikely an accident than we realize that we have come to echo the odes of old Arabia, and indeed the Islamic holy text, when waxing about the musky pepperiness of our port and pinotage.

That is, unless it is no accident at all. Might it indicate, actually, that after centuries of trial and error we have at length arrived at an enlightened, truly perceptive understanding of the subject? Just as the Arabs, inheritors of the ancient wine cultures of Phoenicia, Byzantium, and Persia, were to perfect their judgment at the peak of the Abbasid Golden Age? This may not be so fanciful. Laugh at Cauble and his “new rubber hose” all you like, but he did correctly identify the unmarked glass in front of him as a Clare Valley Riesling, much as his mentor Fred Dame managed to determine not just the wine but the precise vintage (1995 Côte-Rôtie) of an unlabeled vessel in the third installment of the “Somm” series. Whatever else this is, it cannot be mere bullshit.

At the same time, it would be idle to deny there is plainly a marketing element to it all; the lyrical language telling drinkers — then as now — what we want to hear about our wines. In an incisive 2003 essay called “Wet Dogs and Gushing Oranges,” the professor of English and former wine columnist Sean Shesgreen argued the lingo appeals first by conjuring an idyllic fantasy of country life for depressed city-dwellers; and second by associating wine with the healthy lifestyle, as though by knocking back carafes we really were ingesting boysenberries, figs, and other vitamin-packed super-fruits sure to extend our life expectancy. “Here at last is a natural medicine that keeps the doctor away, but promises to gratify the flesh, not mortify it,” he wrote. “Reinvented as those fruits and vegetables touted by physicians and governments as the best defense against cancer — not to mention heart disease, dementia, and hip fractures — wine metamorphoses into one of the most powerful prophylactics in our pharmacological arsenal.”

As it happens, some early Muslim physicians, such as the famous Ibn Sina (known to Renaissance Europe as Avicenna) and Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, did recommend wine for its salubrious properties; al-Balkhi called it “the most beneficial” of all beverages, period. Abu Nuwas once joked that he drank on the orders of the caliph’s personal doctor, Jibreel ibn Bukhtishu:

I asked my brother, Abu Isa
Jibreel; a man who’s rational
I told him, Wine delights me
He said, Too much is lethal
I said, Quantify it, then
He said — and his word’s final:
I’ve found that Man’s Natures
At root are quadruple
Therefore, four for every four
Each Nature gets a cupful
Never exceed that number
For therein lies trouble

Everything in moderation, then, as our own doctors are fond of telling us today. As for the pastoral fantasy aspect, Abu Nuwas famously scorned the austerity of the desert romanticized by Imru’ al-Qays’ generation but would still often urge his fellow metropolitan rakes to get outside Baghdad’s city walls for boozy picnics on the floral banks of the Tigris.

The Quran, too, describes the afterlife’s wine being served in lavish gardens of fruit astride gushing rivers. The identification of wine with the great outdoors and the wonders of nature is yet another parallel, then. With so many of the same attitudes, impulses, and associations, is it any wonder we and the Arab drinkers of old should have ended up with the same words, too? At any rate, we can surely draw cheer from this happy echo down the ages, and from seeing wine flow across time, borders, languages, races, and religions to remind us of our common humanity and civilization in the way that only it can.

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