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Jefford on Monday: Unpleasant wine, tipsy citizens

Andrew Jefford reads a recently published history of French wine...

Indefatigable Ottowa-based historian Rod Phillips published (via the University of California Press) a new book last year, called French Wine – A History.  I’m a fan of his fact-packed A Short History of Wine, published by Allen Lane/The Penguin Press in 2000 (and not so short either), so I’ve been greedily reading this new volume since I got hold of my copy.  Even the greedy, here, must work slowly.  If his book was a wine, you would say it was concentrated, dense and resonant – definitely worth keeping.

Phillips may not a storyteller, nor much given to grand theorising in the French style – but the nitty-gritty of social history is data accumulation, and here he is peerless.  Not all of the data is footnoted (sometimes a shame) but, if it were, the footnotes might well be as long as the book itself.  It’s a book to read for its unstoppable torrent of fascinating and often surprising details.

If you had to summarise its message, it might well be that the throughout much of the last 2,000 years in France, the French wine drunk by ordinary citizens was mostly unpleasant, and that many of those citizens were often, by necessity and seen with modern eyes, more or less tipsy.  The book is, thus, a useful corrective those who hanker back to some lost golden age of ‘pure’ artisanal wine production, before ‘the chemical industry’ and ‘technology’ had corrupted the ‘natural goodness’ of fermented grape juice.  That narrative is pure myth.  Every professional French wine taster of past ages would be in rapture at the choice, quality, safety and healthfulness of wine we enjoy today, and would gleefully exchange their thin, sour, stinking and deviant slop for the dark, scented, pristine, rich and structured French wines you can now buy without difficulty more or less anywhere around the non-Muslim world.  Here’s a small sample of what Phillips’ book will tell you.

Early years

French (or rather Gallic) wine consumption began thanks to Greek and then Roman intervention – enthusiastically: amphora fragments lying on the bottom of the river Saone suggest that early losses alone may account for between five and ten million litres of imported Greek wine, while in later Roman times around 12 million litres were shipped from Italy to Gaul every year.  One of France’s two most prestigious early indigenous wines, the picatum made from the Allobrogica variety grown around Vienne, was resinated – so French wine most probably began as retsina.

The church took over where the Romans left off, and Phillips quotes figures which suggest that most monks drank a litre and a half of ale or wine a day in the early middle ages, while lay people drank more.  Wine was much less strong then than it is now, but even at 8% or 9% that is more daily alcohol than I’d wish to ingest.  Imagine, though, what it was like to live in a world where the purity of water could never be unthinkingly trusted.  Bad wine was safer than dodgy water: that was one of the fundamental life lessons across Europe prior to the twentieth century.  The side effects of alcohol just had to be endured.

The Middle Ages

Burgundy was one of France’s early prestige wines and the monks creamed off the best for themselves

Wine production in France expanded during the Middle Ages, despite retrenchment after the loss of a third of Europe’s citizenry during the Black Death (again try imagining a highly infectious, incurable disease killing almost 250 million Europeans today).  Phillips emphasises, though, that French red wine as we might understand it was exceedingly rare prior to the C17, and that the dominant wine type in every French region during the Middle Ages was either white wine or ‘clairet’ – a kind of deep rosé made from field blends of light-skinned and dark-skinned varieties (the early C15 writer Olivier de Serres described its colour as “hyancinth tending to orange”).  Such wines were harvested when the earliest-ripening varieties were more or less ripe, so it would certainly have included underripe fruit, and would no less certainly have been thin, sour and usually oxidised by our standards, and acetic once it had been kept too long.  A sourer, weaker drink still called piquette was made by adding water to the lees and marc, and fermenting that.

Even luxury wine back then wouldn’t have won many Parker points.  Burgundy was one of France’s early prestige wines and the monks creamed off the best for themselves – but the wine served for a treat on feast days at Cluny was warmed, and flavoured with honey, pepper and cinnamon.

The quantities consumed continued to astound by our standards.  When the Duke of Lorraine went on the road in the late 1400s, he allowed for between two and three litres of wine per person per day for his staff.  Chambermaids in the town of Vernines in the Auvergne drank a litre a day; soldiers on sentry duty (sentry duty!) at the Ch de Custines not far from Nancy were allotted just over two litres of wine a day each; and students at a papal school in Aix-en-Provence enjoyed half-a-litre a day each.  Children of twelve or thirteen began work – and began to consume wine like working adults.  Tipsy working fourteen-year-olds would have been a fact of medieval life.

Renaissance and Enlightenment France

Once the catastrophe of the Thirty Years War (which wrecked Alsace and much of Champagne and Burgundy) was over, the C17 saw French wine make great progress, initiating both its international reputation for quality and its long struggles with counterfeiters and passers-off.  The fashionable sensation of sparkling wine production took form (Pepys was purchasing Champagne by 1679); high-quality French wine made an export stir (Pepys’ ‘Ho Bryan’ tasting note was jotted down in 1663); and the distilling revolution got underway (a million litres of brandy were exported from Sète in Languedoc in 1699).  Consumption roared ahead.  In February 1710, patients in the military hospital of Les Invalides in Paris managed somehow to get through 6.5 litres per day.

Yet it was only in the eighteenth century that some of the quality strategies which we take for granted (such as varietal plantings which allowed grapes to be picked at ideal ripeness) began to be instituted, and nefarious practices (like treating spoiled wine with lead to ‘sweeten’ it) questioned.  Much ‘wine’, though, remained horrific in quality.  In 1794, Phillips relates, the post-Revolutionary authorities in Paris analysed wine samples from 68 bars and taverns, and found that only eight of these could reasonably be described as wine.  The quantities reaching the city in the late C18, though, equated to between two to three litres for every man, woman and child per week, and soared further when the revolutionary government abolished taxes on wine in 1791.

By 1808 France had 1.68 million ha of vineyards, more than double today’s total, and it reached 2.28 million ha by the eve of phylloxera.  The writings of Jean-Antoine Chaptal (he of ‘chaptalisation’) and his collaborator Antoine-Alexis Cadet-de-Vaux are fascinatingly analysed by Phillips, and provide further evidence that wine for most at the end of the C18 were thin, weak, vinegary and oxidised when they weren’t actually toxic.

The Industrial Era

By the mid-C19, the Languedoc was producing around half of France’s wine: the ‘gros rouge’ which the workers of the early industrial revolution were encouraged to drink by the litre, as a kind of liquid food.  Then came the often-described catastrophes of powdery mildew and phylloxera.  Once grafting was accepted as a solution, France’s wine scene remained a catastrophic mess, since the ‘wine’ most drank was based at best on hybrids and crosses, and at worse on raisins, currants and refreshed marc which had been chaptalized (to raise alcohol) or plastered (to reduce acidity), and corrupted with additives like sulphuric acid, glycerine, a coal-tar dye called fuchsine, and even arsenic on occasion.  When replanting with vinifera varieties eventually came, the variety of choice thoughout the south was often the mediocre though colossally productive Aramon.  The result was overproduction and price collapse, followed by demonstrations and riots in Languedoc; meanwhile, early efforts to control fraud and move towards the appellation system were hastened by riots in Champagne.

Then came war.  Phillips fascinatingly tracks what seem, by today’s standards, to be the ill-advised requirement that French soldiers should drink a minimum of half a litre of wine a day (raised to three-quarters of a litre by 1918, by which time the French army was requisitioning almost half the country’s wine production): it was considered (in the words of viticulture professor Pierre Viala) a “food of the first order”, meaning soldiers who had drunk wine were “less fatigued” and “had more energy”. This soldiers’ wine became known as pinard – often Père Pinard or St Pinard – and cited as a reason for the eventual triumph over German forces.  The generous vintages of the 1920s and steadily increasing wine production in the French colony of Algeria meant that overproduction was soon once again problematic: French citizens were urged to drink ‘a barrel a year’ (over half a litre a day), and the French post office issued a Joan of Arc stamp in 1929 attached to a detachable sticker which read ‘Wine is a food’ – a medically backed, government campaign which continued throughout the 1930s.

The Modern Era

After many false starts, the appellation system as we know it today came into being in 1935 under the impetus of Joseph Capus, a visionary Bordeaux wine-grower who eventually become Minister of Agriculture and a senator; in reading Phillips’ book, it’s hard not to see this as the first unequivocally good piece of news for French wine since the end of the the Thirty Years’ War.  What is beyond the scope of the book, of course, are the centuries of subtle qualitative improvements put into place by those working in the vineyards of France’s leading wine zones, and evident both to those in those regions and to the wine merchants servicing the needs initially of the aristocracy and, from the late eighteen century on, the urban bourgeoisie.

There were further setbacks for France during its part-occupation by German forces in the Second World War; with the killing winter frosts of February 1956; and then with the Algerian War of Independence (Algeria, as a part of France, was in effect the fourth largest wine-producing region in the world in 1960, as well as by far the world’s largest wine exporter at the time).  Phillips claims that 50/50 blends of Algerian and Languedoc wine accounted for 40 per cent of what the French drank between the 1920s and the 1960s.

France’s modern wine world in effect comes into being in 1970, and the half century since then has been an enormously (if not unequivocally) happy time for French wine.  The French themselves now drink far less than they did (even in 1980, 50 per cent of the French population drank wine daily; the figure is now closer to 10 per cent, with over 40 per cent never drinking wine at all).

The world, though, has embraced top-quality French wine with huge enthusiasm: the export price of French wine is now double the global average, and top Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône and Champagne producers have become rich beyond their forebears’ wildest dreams.  The French wine we global consumers lap up is immeasurably better than that which most French drinkers have endured over the last 2,000 years, and can really only be compared to the sort of wine French aristocrats and the purple-robed church elite enjoyed in the past.  We are, this excellent book teaches us, all aristocrats now.

More Andrew Jefford columns on Decanter.com:

Jefford on Monday: Wine stories

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