The rise and fall of modern wine (Part 1)

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Mar 5, 2015

What follows is the first part of a lightly edited version of an informal talk I gave recently at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. I’ve divided it up into three parts due to its length. Given that this was an informal presentation, I didn’t bother referencing it. In this version, I’ve added a few suggested readings at the end of the last post.

It is not uncommon to hear people say that wine is a living thing. There is a fair amount of truth in such a statement. Wine changes once you open a bottle, and changes throughout the course of an evening, assuming it lasts that long. In the bottle, it also goes through a life – from youth to maturity to over-the-hill. Further, the period from fermentation to bottling is known as the élevage, the same term used in French to talk about the raising or education of a child.

But wine as a category also is a changing thing, if not quite perhaps living one. What I want to cover here is some of the ways wine as a product has changed in the last three centuries or so. This will necessarily be impressionistic, stopping at the highlights, as it were, and I’m not even going to cover all the key points. As much as wine is a living organism, it is also a product of technology, and changing technologies are among the influences on how wine tastes.

Hence my title of ‘modern wine.’ What I’m planning on covering in the three centuries or so I’ve just claimed is not only how wine has changed, but how technology has made this possible. I’ll end by wondering – as others do – if we’ve gone a bit too far in terms of technology.

Having said I’ll cover the last two hundred years or so, let me prove myself a liar by going back even further, albeit very briefly. Wine-making goes back 7000 or 8000 years, at least. However, wine from back then would probably taste little, if anything, like we are used to. Stuff (to use the technical term) – spices, honey, resin – was added to it. It would probably have been cloudy. It was probably sweeter than most wines you’d drink today. It was sometimes made from raisins, not fresh grapes. Even more recently, wine would have tasted differently, and was often cut with water. Most importantly, it went off quickly.

This last point – wine spoils quickly – was a major problem throughout most of history. Air, or more precisely, oxygen, helps wine develop, but also kills it off. This is not a problem if you have a full barrel, but as soon as you open the barrel to get the wine back out, you’ve let air in. While glass has been around for ages, it wasn’t until the early 18th century that glass bottles became strong enough to be used on a regular basis for wine storage. It was at roughly the same time that cork was introduced as a stopper. (Before, wood, among other things, was used.)

The use of bottles and corks, along with sulphur dioxide as a preservative, made a substantial shift in certain approaches to wine possible. Simply put, bottles are relatively small, discrete containers. Corks are relatively simple, but robust, stoppers. This combination allows one to keep wine for longer than possible when tapping a barrel. Once a barrel is open, it goes off relatively quickly. You can’t drink some and put the rest away for a few years. But you can drink a bottle or three and put more away. So, in other words, bottles and corks allowed wine to be aged, and drunk later in its life. (Although, like today, back then, most of the wine was drunk young. The vast majority of wine bought in the UK is drunk the same day.)

Glass bottles, once they became strong enough, also allowed champagne to increase in popularity. Legend has it that Dom Perignon, in the seventeenth century, added bubbles to champagne. This, alas, is a legend, but bubbly champagne does indeed date from around then. But it would have been in barrels, which is fine if you are really thirsty, but not so much for the long-term storing of bubbly.

It would take more time before bottles were strong enough to regularly stand up to the pressures of champagne. Before they did up to a quarter of the bottles of champagne produced were lost to breakage; in other words, more often than not, to the bottles exploding. One final point on champagne for now. It was in 1815 that the widow Cliquot, a champagne maker, developed what is known in English as riddling – the process of removing the sediment of a bottle of champagne without losing the fizz. Let me pause here at the start of the 19th century, and move us back in time, but onto another issue: taste and terroir.

Terroir, as you doubtless know, is derived from the French term for land. It refers to ‘the taste of place,’ as it has been put by the anthropologist Amy Trubek, among others. This includes not only the effect of the soil, but geography, rainfall, and cultural practices among other things. This has long been associated with wine. At least as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, some regions were known for the quality of their wines, whatever they tasted like. But it was really in the Middle Ages, in France that the concept of terroir really took off. It was here, in Burgundy, that monks first paid attention to the ‘fact’ that wine changed in taste not only by region, but also by vineyard. The concept of terroir had landed. It was a concept that from that time forth would be debated and even derided (particularly by New World winemakers in the late 20th century). But it couldn’t be ignored.

Terroir is worth thinking about because it implies something else: an appreciation for differences in taste. I have not yet seen any work on the history of wine descriptors, but it seems reasonable to guess that as terroir became more important, so would being able to describe the ways wines differed in taste.

David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, in his work on taste, quoted Cervantes’s Don Quixote from the start of the 17th century. Cervantes tells a story of two people, who asked to comment on a barrel of wine (note –barrel, not bottle!), disagreed on the taste. Both liked it, but one said it tasted a bit of leather. The other said yes, it was a good wine, but flawed in that it tasted of iron. When the barrel was finished, an iron key tied to a leather thong was found at the bottom. Cervantes was poking fun at wine snobs, but the point here is that such terms were already being used, and there were already wine snobs in the early 17th century. So taste has long been an issue for wine – including, it seems, the idea of a correct taste.

But let us return to the start of the 19th century. 1811 to be precise. This year is important in wine because it is considered to be one of the first truly great vintages. Leaving aside bulk or ‘branded’ wine, all wine that comes (largely) from a single growing season has a vintage. The quality will change from year to year depending on things like weather and pests or diseases of the vine. A good winemaker, if they want to let the wine ‘speak’ can ameliorate, but not completely do away with vintage effects. Others, if they want, can often engineer away some of the problems.

1811 was notable because after several years of poor vintages, things came together for wine, not only in France, but in Germany as well. Here was wine that was worth talking about. And people did. Vintage becomes much more important from here on out. If we want to date modern wine to a single year, this would do as well as any.

But we aren’t there yet. A few more things had to happen in the 19th and 20th centuries first. I’ll cover these in the next post.

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