The rise and fall of modern wine (Part 2)

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Mar 13, 2015

What follows is the second 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.


Aging implies the wine is worthy of being aged. Most wine, frankly, isn’t, and isn’t made to be. It is meant to be drunk relatively young. One of the great areas for wine that we think of as age-worthy is Bordeaux. Or, as the British call the wine, ‘claret.’ Eighteen-fifty-five was the year of the great Bordeaux classification, when the various Bordeaux chateaux were ranked as Premier Crus, second-growths, and so forth. It’s more complicated than that, as all but one of the reds was from Medoc, and none of them was from the Right Bank. In other words, the initial classification was quite limited in scope. But it is an important event in terms of ranking and status – basically, marketing. I use that term intentionally, as the rankings were done partly by reputation, but largely by market price, which was taken as an indicator of quality. However it was done, it is important as an early attempt to quantify quality in the wine world. An interesting footnote to this is that the Bordeaux classification rates the Chateaux, not the vineyard (which is what Burgundy eventually did). My point is that you can expand a Bordeaux Chateaux, which does happen, but not a Burgundy appellation.

Alas, shortly after the classification of 1855, things got complicated. In the 1860s, phylloxera, a type of louse that lives on the roots of the grapevines arrived from the US, and devastated European vineyards. It took some time to figure out what was happening, and the vast majority of vineyards in Europe were affected. Vines died, and wine production plummeted. The phylloxera problem was eventually solved by grafting European grapes onto American rootstocks, which are resistant to the pest. There is a debate whether or not this impacted the taste of the wine – in terms of the biology of the vine – but there are only a small number of vines in Europe that have grapes still on their original rootstock.

But all was not hopeless in the mid-19th century. Louis Pasteur finally figured out how fermentation worked, and also developed the process now known as ‘pasteurisation.’ The latter allowed for the stabilisation of wine, making it much less likely to go off in the bottle. The former allowed for a much better understanding of how wine was actually made – how the process of turning grape juice into wine worked at a chemical / biological level. This – eventually – also paved the way for such things as the eventual introduction of cultured yeasts, which are designed to be more predictable that ‘wild yeast’ but can also be used to impart certain flavours or aromas to the wine. This would in time come to be seen as opposed to the true concept of terroir, since it could override what the grapes ‘wanted’ to be.

Let me switch gears yet again. Take a look at the labels of a few wine bottles. The French ones will probably somewhere on the label something about an AOC. Italian ones will have something about a DOC or DOCG. Many if not most of them will say something like ‘Estate bottled’, or its equivalent in French, German, whatever. Both of these are, perhaps surprisingly, is a twentieth century development. Throughout most of its history, wine was not bottled by the producer. Rather, it was sold and then bottled by a broker, or négociant. This was fine as long as the system worked, and everyone could be trusted. But, alas, people are people, and can’t always be trusted. Blending of cheaper wines from other regions, or even lesser producers, was not unknown. In France, for example, at one point it was quite common practice to blend wine from northern Africa with French reds from some regions to give them a bit more body. Similarly, it was not unknown for Rhone wines to be added to Bordeaux.

To battle this, and attempt to improve quality more generally, the appellation system was introduced, first in France, in the early twentieth century. This is the system whereby you must meet certain standards – including, importantly here, of typical taste – to be labelled a wine from region X. Finally, the drinker could be assured that a Rhone wine would be made from grapes grown in Rhone, and in the more restrictive classifications, according to certain methods. This was eventually adopted by other European countries in various forms. Although estate bottling is not formally linked to the AOC system, the two usually go hand-in-hand. Estate bottling also helps ensures that your wine is made where it says it is, by who it says it is. In other words, while we may think of the appellation system as simply codifying tradition, it actually did the reverse. It challenged a long and inglorious history of bad and misleading wine-making. But, in time, it came to be seen by some as overly restrictive.

Switching back to science and technology, let us move to the early mid-twentieth century. Here, in the 1930s or so, we find another great technological innovation. This, if I had to choose an event, might well be where I put the start of ‘modern’ wine. The event? The introduction of temperature control to wine-making, and in particular, during the fermentation process.

The yeasts responsible for fermentation have a range of temperatures at which they are comfy. Too cold, and they go dormant. Too hot, and they die off. However, quite how the yeasts and the must (to give the grape juice its technical name) get along and the result of their collaboration depends on the specific temperature range. This was difficult, if not impossible, to control precisely before refrigeration was introduced. In a traditional cellar – deep and cool, with certain sized vats and barrels – cooling could happen naturally, and could be controlled and predicted to a certain extent. (If you know the heat given off during fermentation, the size of the barrel and a few other variables, if you can be bothered, you can work out the heat loss and resultant temperature.) But this wasn’t always ideal. There could be other problems as well. In the northern stretches of European wine-country, say northern France or Germany, it was not unknown in particularly cold years for the wine to suspend fermentation during the winter, as the yeast snuggled down to ride out the cold. Too hot and white wines in particular risk coming out rather bland and dull.

Temperature control thus meant you could fashion the wines you wanted to make much more reliably. Red wines are fermented at relatively high temperatures – 20-32 – to aid in extraction of colour and tannins from the skins. So temperature control isn’t that vital, but it is still useful to be able to specify within that range. It is more important for white wines, which are fermented at a much cooler temperature, 10-18C. This is done to preserve the aromatics, which are lost at higher temperatures.

So, in short, temperature control gives you much more control over the final product. It also, by extension, gives you reliability and consistency. This should not be underestimated in importance, particularly, but not only, in dealing with bulk wines, aka the cheap stuff. It is also a factor in more expensive wines, as it allows the winemaker greater precision in achieving his / her vision.

If you want to take a more negative view, this was the start of modern wine in both the good sense – you can go further towards guaranteeing quality – but also in a negative sense, in that it is an early step towards engineering wine, at the cost of letting the terroir speak.

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