Make wine great again

Is it possible to make wine the traditional way? Or are people wearing rose coloured glasses about the wines of the past? Robert Joseph ponders historical wines.

Photo by Marco Mornati on Unsplash Copy
Photo by Marco Mornati on Unsplash Copy

The past is a foreign country. People make wine differently there.

According to recent figures, the number of students of history is dropping. In the US, according to InsideHigherEd the fall has been from 34,642 degrees in 2008, to 24,266 in 2017. 

At a time when populist politicians gain power by promising a return to illusory times gone by, it seems reasonable to worry about fewer young people wanting to learn from the past. 

In the wine world, we have our own abusers of history: those opponents of modern, ‘manipulated’ wines who would have us believe that in earlier centuries everyone drank natural wine made by peasants, whose work tasted deliciously of the place where it was made. Stated simply, they yearn to Make Wine Great Again: MAWGA.

Unfortunately, as Rod Phillips makes clear in his 2016 book, French Wines – A History, the past was rather less noble than the nostalgics would have you believe. 

In the sixteenth century, for example, the Swiss physician Félix Platter reported that, in the Languedoc, wine was “dark red and one drinks it well diluted with water.” He added that it never lasted more than a year before turning to vinegar.

In the Middle Ages, older Bordeaux, “although only six or eight months old, was considered inferior, and sold for less”. In August, September and October, as French wines began to fade in availability or quality (or both), the British began turning to Cyprus, Corfu, Greece and Italy for their wines. In France, as in Britain—in the cities, at least—wine was the preserve of the Bourgeoisie. The poor generally drank low-strength piquette made by adding water to grape skins after pressing. 

Phillips also points out that, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, wines were seldom produced by individual vignerons, but by merchants who blended the wines they sold. Merchants made their blends with “little regard to provenance or grape variety” adding brandy and other ingredients according to their recipe. Some recipes were more legitimate than others. In 1750, for example, it was discovered that 30,000 barrels of spoiled wine had been illegally ‘sweetened’ with yellow lead oxide and imported into Paris. Wines of mediocre quality were called “small-vigneron wines”. 

By the 20th century, this kind of behaviour was rarer, but blending with Algerian wine was commonplace. As recently as the 1950s, the colony produced 1.6bn litres, compared to 5.3bn from France’s own vineyards. In 1960, Algeria was by far the world’s biggest wine exporter, selling – mostly under Gallic labels – 41% of the global exports, compared to France’s meagre 14%. Some of that North African wine certainly contributed to the reputation red Burgundy had in the UK for being rich and alcoholic.

To learn this kind of stuff, you don’t need to study history of course. You merely need to read a few books. But to do that, of course, would be to undermine the MAWGA case.

Robert Joseph

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