Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How Did We Ever Live Without This Book? French Wine: A History - Including 10 Things to Know About French Wine

For years we've had books about French wines, but never a book like this before. Rod Phillips' comprehensive book, French Wine: A History, is an absolute tour de force, sure to be an instant classic. I read an advance review copy, but the book just went on sale today.

(For those of us who follow organically grown wines, this book could, loosely, be said to be a history of organic wine, since all wine was "organic" until the last 100-150 years.)

To hear many modern French wine books talk about it, French wines consist of wines from Bordeaux,  Champagne, and Burgundy, along with the Rhone. These first three - historically the biggest producers of fine wines - account, as Phillips writes - for just one sixth of French vineyards and a small percentage of France's output. Instead, Phillips writes, we should pay broader attention to the rest of France:
"...most French wine produced today comes from Mediterranean France, especially from the broad Languedoc region that is the cradle of French viticulture."
Sound familiar? Just as Napa and Sonoma get so much press, it's places like California's Central Valley that do all the heavy lifting.

Uniquely, Phillips also puts Algeria in context, a region that's often neglected or disowned in most French wine books. But many, many French wines came from Algeria either as blends or a wholly sourced Algerian wines. The region was especially important during the period when phylloxera killed off most of the European country's vines. Phillips gives us the precise value of the African colony's contribution when he writes,
"...shipments of wine from Algeria to metropolitan France represented three times the combined wine exports of France, Italy and Spain in the 1930s and easily exceeded them until the 1960's." 
How's that for modifying existing views on French terroir during that period?

Author Rod Phillips is a historian, by profession, and a wine expert who is a wine columnist for the daily paper in Ottawa. His book covers wine grape growing and winemaking in France from 500 BCE when the Romans appear to have been making their first wines around Massalia (today, Marseilles).

But aside from that, there are juicy bits about, of course, the English and the French, Champagne and the court, the neglected Rhone region, and the recent invention of historical traditions in both Bordeaux and Burgundy by vintners anxious to create lines of historical legitimacy where there were none.

But the book's comprehensiveness is also part of its great value - Phillips gives us great chapters on the earliest years with details not revealed elsewhere (at least in English translations). The medieval period is as fascinating as any of the later eras. And the realization that the French revolution was responsible for the breakup of the great church-owned Burgundian estates that then passed into private hands. If only we had bought then...

I found myself underlining, underlining and underlining - there were so many Big Facts and Interesting Revelations in this book. One could easily write a lengthy review, but I will restrain myself and simply share:

10 Things About French Wine I Learned from Reading French Wine: A History

1. The First French Imports to Italy May Have Been in 79 CE

When Pompeii, a major wine producing area, was buried by the volcanic explosion of 79 CE, the Romans imported Gallic/French wines to Italy to make up for the shortage of Italian wines.

2. Vines Planted in Rows: A First in 1630

Before 1630, vines were planted as field blends and not in rows. Row planting did not really take off until phylloxera forced the French to replant, which was in the late 1800's.

3. Sauternes - A Dutch Treat

The Dutch ran things in Bordeaux during much of the 1600's, and it was on their watch that Sauternes were produced, making the sweet wine popular and famous.

They also made Cahors and its Malbecs prominent and sought after wines.

4. King Louis XV Forbade Vineyard Planting

Concerned that the craze for planting vineyards - which made a nice profit - might take too much land out of production that was needed for growing essentials like grain, in 1731 Louis XV issued an edict forbidding the planting of new vineyards without his consent. (The edicts were widely ignored).

5. In the 18th Century, Burgundy's Big Market Was Parisians not the British

In the late 1700's Bordeaux and Champagne were mostly exported to English, who paid twice the price for Bordeaux wines than the French did, while the wines of Burgundy were embraced by Parisian wine drinkers.

The finest wines of Burgundy - from Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot and more - were priced at just 50 percent above those of ordinary wines.

6. The French Revolution Revolutionized Vineyard Ownership

During the revolution, the state confiscated land owned by the churches, enabling citizens with money to buy land to snap up many of Burgundy's finest vineyards, which had been owned by abbeys. The largest was the 5,000 acres vines owned by the Abbey of Citeaux which were sold to wealthy buyers.

La Romanee, now of DRC fame, was among those auctioned at 1794. Wine from it was said to "restore life to the dying."

It was from this time onward that Burgundy's vineyards began being subdivided into smaller and smaller fragments.

The revolution also liberated wine presses, enabling anyone to make wine. Until that time, using the seigneur's press would cost you 5 to 30 percent of the wine you produced. And you couldn't use it during peak harvest times if the seigneur needed it to crush his own grapes.

7. Pas De Punchdowns

Winemakers in the 1800s were advised not to punchdown wines, according to a manual by Cade-de-Vaux.

Many winemakers also appear to have died from carbon dioxide poisoning during fermentation, judging from his warnings on carbon gas.

8. The Comet Vintage was Superb

In 1870 Donati's comet streaked across the sky; vintners proclaimed the wines from this harvest as notably superior.

9. The Railroads Revitalized Languedoc

By the 1850's, when railroads could transport wine to Paris in tanker cars, Languedoc's plantings and output rose exponentially, to 1.1 million acres producing, with higher yielding varietals, 400 million cases.

10. The American Import - Powdery Mildew - Debuted

There was no powdery mildew in French vineyards until the 1840s when it came to France from America.

And one last bit, which I cannot resist: in 1905, when there was widespread wine fraud with pernicious additives or wine made from raisins were widely distributed, vintners fought back with the slogan: "Long live natural wine [i.e. real wine]! Down with the poisoners!" - a sentiment that should still ring true today.


As excellent as it is, I do have a few issues with this book,. The subject of viticulture is only sporadically and tantalizingly touched upon.

It's unclear to me from reading it when copper started to be used, as well as sulfur, and when insecticides came into play. What kind of tillage was being done? When did tractors start to be used?

There is a brief, all too brief, mention of organic and Biodynamic farming starting in the 1970's, but not much detail about why and what the results and scope of it was.

Perhaps we can beg the author to write another book that will address this equally worthy side - the viticultural practices (and history of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) - of French wine history.

Final Note

This is such a grand and wonderful book that I would hope that someday it could be republished as a coffeetable book with lots of color illustrations and photos.

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