Inventing Wine – the history of wine debunked

Ancient amphorae at Domaine Gerovassiliou in Greece

Ancient amphorae in the wonderful wine museum at Domaine Gerovassiliou in Greece

I love history and part of the pleasure I take in wine comes from this interest. Anyone who has attended one of my courses or tastings – and if you haven’t you really are missing out on something – knows that to me wine is closely intertwined with history. It has always seemed to me that there is a cultural identity and rationale for all wines and wine styles. This is by definition stronger in Europe where wine making has been a part of the landscape for far longer than it has in new world regions.

A glimpse of how it was - Priorat 1997

A glimpse of how it was – Priorat 1997

For a long time though I have questioned whether we get it quite right and if these identities are as strong as we like to believe. In the wine world we take for granted that there is a continuum from the Ancients to now. Wine originated somewhere near Georgia, Transcaucasia, and spread from there to the Greeks and Romans who took the vine and wine making to other parts of the Mediterranean and, more importantly France.

But in truth I know how great the improvements in grape growing and wine making have been in my time in the trade. So, I wonder how true this continuum really is? I have suspected that wine in the past was very different from how it is today. I am certain it is riper, cleaner, fresher, fruitier and technically better than at any previous point in history and many developments have made it that way.

I certainly like the idea of being in touch with the ancients when I drink wine, that feeling of beeing at one remove from the Roman tending vines in Campania or the monks of Clos Vougeot when we drink a modern wine from those same slopes, but how true is it?

The original wine press at Clos Vougeot, still in occasional use

The sixteenth century wine press at Clos Vougeot, still in occasional use

I do wonder, given how recent many of the things are that we think of as traditional. Fish and chips and eating chocolate only appeared a few years before my grandfather was born while Indian food must have been entirely different before Portuguese sailors brought the chili to Asia and Italian cuisine must have been similarly unrecognisable before the tomato arrived in Europe. As for wine traditions, I am well aware that contrary to the dry examples we expect today, Entre-Deux-Mers and Savennières were sweet until the 1950s.

Recently I discovered a wonderful new book on the history of wine. It questions many things that marketeers want us to believe and constantly made me look at many aspects of wine afresh:

Inventing Wine Cover ImangeInventing Wine: a new history of one of the world’s most ancient pleasures
by Paul Lukacs
Published by Norton at $28.95 / £20.00
Also available from Amazon.com as well as Amazon.co.uk and Waterstones in the UK.

Reading Paul Lukacs’s book has reinforced my suspicion that in reality there is very little link between wine as we know it and what was consumed in the past. Nowadays we choose wines for different reasons and we expect different things from them compared with wine drinkers of yesteryear.

Paul Lukacs points out that today’s well made wines in fact have very little in common with the rudimentary liquids our forbears drank. Central to this fascinating book is the realization that for most of history wine has not been drunk out of choice at all but nessecity. What’s more there has been little to chose between wines from individual places as they would all taste unpalatable to our modern palates. Indeed unless one was lucky enough to drink it very soon after harvest, all wine would have tasted sour and unpleasant throughout much of history. As Paul Lukacs says, wine was simply “a source of nourishment and inebriated escape.” Therefore it was not until quite recent times that wine came to be enjoyed for its taste, but for what else it could provide. Wine was mysterious, early man could not understand how it was made and so it was widely believed to have magical powers and to be a link to the gods, a view that persisted for thousands of years. What is more water was largely impure and dangerous to drink, so wine was the safer option, whatever it tasted like.

The evolution of the wine bottle was crucial to the development of wine as we know it today. These are at Domaine Gerovassiliou in Greece.

The evolution of the wine bottle was crucial to the development of wine as we know it today. Before wine could be bottled and sealed with a cork it was a race against time to finish the cask before the wine turned completely sour.These examples are at Domaine Gerovassiliou in Greece.

The mention of Pliny as being more a connoisseur of resin than the actual wine was a fascinating insight into how awful ancient wine must have tasted for the flavourings to be so important. Pliny’s writing about the characteristics of the different resins though did put me in mind of how we discuss oak today – and although it does other things, surely most oak is merely a flavouring for most modern wines?

Lukacs makes a pretty convincing argument that true modern wine as we understand it has only emerged from about 1660 onwards when Arnaud de Pontac began selling his wine as the product of a single estate. This wine was Château Haut-Brion and Samuel Pepys tasted it on Friday 10 April 1663, memorably recording in his diary; “drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.”

Another glimpse of the past, vino rancho ageing outside in demijohns, Castille 1997

Another glimpse of the past, vino rancio ageing outside in demijohns, Castille 1997

It was only handful of wines though that could become such vins fins, as they needed to command a high price and be sold to consumers who were happy to pay that price. Most consumers had little or no choice about what they drank until many hundreds of years later when technology was finally applied to even the most ordinary wines – I well remember how basic Jumilla wines tasted during the 1970s and would not like to experience them again. Broadly speaking until quite recently, in historical terms, a high quality wine was one that had few or no defects. Only relatively recently did it come to be seen as one with “particularity and provenance” – the concept that came to define vins fins. It was these different characteristics – or particularity – that made some wines more famous and sought after than others.

I found it especially illuminating that the word terroiris actually a recent one, certainly less than a hundred years old and not the ancient term that I had always assumed. Which begs the question if the concept existed before the word and if so, how did they explain it?

What is more wine does not exist in isolation, so this book touches on social history generally. The urbanisation and secularisation of Europe, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, beer, spirits, tea, coffee and chocolate and the industrial revolution all play their part in the story, as do more modern developments in wine making and globalisation.

A modern winery in Bordeaux 2012

A modern winery in Bordeaux 2012

This is no holiday book for the average consumer, you need to be interested and it leans towards an academic style – indeed I much preferred the content to the writing, but Paul Lukacs’s story of how fine wine – vin fins as opposed to vin ordinaries – slowly developed in various places from the seventeenth century onwards is a fascinating read. I certainly feel enriched and better informed for reading this book. It seems to have something new to say on every page and puts a great many things into context that have perhaps been falsely romanticised for too long.

8 thoughts on “Inventing Wine – the history of wine debunked

  1. Thanks for this.

    I’m a huge believer that wine is a lens in to culture and that culture is the top of history for any place.

    I’ll look at the book. I do have a propensity though to connect that which interests with that which is interesting to read so I’ll see if I can enjoy the writing as well as the subject.

  2. Thanks Arnold, I quite agree with you. That is how I have always seen it, but read the book and you might be surprised by how recent such concepts really are and how recent even traditional wines are. As for the writing, it is readable, just a little learned in style perhaps. I hope you enjoy it.

    • On my Kindle and in the reading cue.

      Been reading “The One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka, the source of the Savage Agriculture movement. Was drawn to it after tasting some Rose from Eric Texier and some wines from Hank Beckmeyer of La Carine Farm. Influenced Cornellissen as well.

      As a strong believer in the natural approach this intrigues but reading wise it is a challenge to drag myself through it honestly.

  3. Another book I have been reading on the earlier history of wine is ‘Uncorking the Past, the quest for wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages’ by Professor Patrick McGovern, who describes himself as a bio-molecular archaeologist. No a bad title, I feel! The first chapter, too, is ‘Homo Imbibens, I drink therefore I am’, which appeals to the Monty Python fan in me.

    • That does sound interesting, I will seek it out some time. I love a witty title, Stuart Maconie’s book about northern England, Pies and Prejudice is one of my favourites.

  4. History, another point for Old World Wine against New World Wines. Although it doesn´t make Old World wine taste better, unless you’re reading a book about Roman Empire while having a glass of wine 🙂

  5. Pingback: Rioja’s Heart of Oak | Quentin Sadler's Wine Page

  6. Pingback: Wine of the Week 71 – a warming and delicious Spanish red | Quentin Sadler's Wine Page

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