• Adrian J. Boas

On Wine and Water

Updated: Nov 1, 2018

My uncle, in his wry humour used to say that the only water he would drink in his whisky was that of Maroondah Reservoir, one of a number of sources supplying Melbourne and its suburbs with drinking water. My family occasionally debates the palatability of the various bottled waters. I suppose that I must have been born with a undiscerning sense of taste. To me water has no more flavour than it has colour or smell, unless of course, something has been added to it. The first time I really tasted water was when I stayed at a hotel in Hong Kong fifty years ago. As the tap water was not potable there was a jug of drinking water in the room. In reality it was, or so it seemed, a jug of chlorine with some water added to it.

If one has to add something to water, or water to something, better that it be wine. Like my uncle's whisky, wine in the crusader period generally was mixed with water. The amount sometimes depended on one's social standing. John of Joinville, the chronicler who accompanied Louis IX on his crusade wrote:

I had wine mixed with water issued to my servants, and gave the same to my squires, but with a lesser proportion of water. At my own table a large flask of wine and a bottle containing water were placed before each of the knights, so that he might mix his drink as he wished.*

But sometimes the addition of water to wine was not a matter of rank, but necessity. According to the thirteenth century traveller, Willibrand of Oldenburg, the famous Cyprus wines were so thick and rich that instead of drinking them they were sometimes consumed like honey on bread. And he considered that their strength was responsible for the rudeness of the local Franks, the shabbiness of their dress and their lustful behaviour.

The inebriation of the Franks that Willibrand is apparently describing, is hardly surprising. The Cypriot wine was quite good, and it gained an international reputation. It was about this time that the poet, Henri d'Andeli, recorded in his poem La bataille des vins (Battle of the Wines) that in a great competition of wines organised by the French king, Philip Augustus, the sweet wine of Cyprus won the overall tasting and was awarded the supreme title of "Apostle".

Probably the wine the Cypriots had sent to the competition was not the local wine known as Marea, as it is unlikely that it would have won a prize. More probably it would have had the judges hospitalised. Jacob of Verona, an Augustinian monk who visited Cyprus during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1335, wrote that although the Cypriot wines had a pleasant smell, they were very strong and unless mixed with water, were hardly fit to drink. As for Marea, if it were drunk neat, it would burn up a man's entrails. In order to drink it one had to add four glasses of water, and even then it was strong to taste.

I wonder if Maroondah water would have improved it.

*John of Joinville, Chronicle of the Crusade of Saint Louis, English trans. M.R.B. Shaw, in Memoirs of the Crusades, New York, 1963, p. 291. For the other sources see Excerpta Cypria: Materials For A History of Cyprus, trans. by Claude Delaval Cobham, Cambridge 1908.