History of French wine
The history of
French winespans a period of at least 2600 years dating to the founding of Massaliain the 6th century BC by the Phoenicianswith the possibility that viticultureexisted much earlier. The Romans did much to spread viticulture across the land they knew as Gaul, encouraging the planting of vines in areas that would become the well known wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, Languedoc, Loire Valley and the Rhone.
Over the course of its history, the French
wineindustry would be influenced and driven by the commercial interests of the lucrative English market and Dutch traders. Prior to the French Revolution, the Catholic Churchwas one of France's largest vineyard owners-wielding considerable influence in regions such as Champagne and Burgundy where the concept of " terroir" first took root. Aided by these external and internal influences, the French wine industry has been the pole bearer for the world wine industry for most of its history with many of its wines considered the benchmark for their particular style. The late 20th and early 21st century brought considerable change--earmarked by a changing global marketand competition from other European wine regions like Italy and Spain as well as emerging New World wineproducers like California, Australia and South America. Robinson, p. 281-283.]
There is archaeological evidence to suggest that the
Celts first cultivated the grape vine, " Vitis vinifera", in Gaul. Grape pips have been found throughout France, pre-dating Greek and Roman cultural influences, with some examples found near Lake Genevabeing over 12,000 years old. H. Johnson "Vintage: The Story of Wine" pg 82-89 Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN 0671687026 ] A major turning-point in the wine history of Gaul came with the founding of Massalia in the 6th century BC by Greek immigrants from Phocaein Asia Minor. By the 2nd century BC, Massalia (by then known as Massilia) came under Roman influence as a vital port on the trade route linking Rometo Roman settlements at Saguntum(near what is now modern Valencia in Spain). Roman presence and influence in Massilia grew as the settlement came under attack from a succession of forces including the Ligurians, Allobrogesand Arverni. Eventually the area became a Roman province first known as Provinciaand later Gallia Narbonensis.The early Greek settlers brought a distinctly Mediterraneanoutlook to viticulture in Gaul. To their understanding, vines grew best in the same climate and area that would support oliveand fig trees, therefore most of the early vineyard planting was in the warm, Mediterranean coastal areas. In 7 BC, the Greek geographer Strabonoted that the areas around Massilia and Narbocould produce the same fruits as Italybut the rest of Gaul further north could not support the olive, fig or vine. [Strabo, "Geography" 4.2.1.] Under Roman rule, in the century and a half BC, the majority of the wine consumed in the area was required by law to be Italian in origin, [ [http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/wine.html Encyclopaedia Romana: Wine and Rome] .] as the distribution of fragments of wine amphorae found throughout Gaul after about 100 BC, especially along the coasts and rivers, suggests: some of the earliest amphorae, from the 2nd century BC, bear Iberian shipper's marks, indicating that distribution of wine predated conquest. [ [http://www.athenapub.com/amphora1.htm "Documentary Amphorae", "Athena Review" 1.4.] It wasn't till the first century AD that there was record of Gaul's wine being of any note or renown. In his "Natural History" (book xiv), Pliny the Eldernoted that in the region near Vienna (modern day Viennein the Rhone wine region), the Allobroges produced a resinated wine that was held in esteem and commanded a high market price.
It was also during the late first century BC/early first century AD that viticulture started to spread to other areas of Gaul — beyond areas where the olive and fig would grow, where a suitable variety was found to be the "biturica", the ancestor of
cabernetvarieties. [ [http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/wine.html Encyclopaedia Romana: Wine and Rome] .] The high demand for wine and the cost of transport from Rome or Massilia were likely motivators for this spread. Archaeological evidence dating to the reign of Augustussuggests that large numbers of amphorae were being produced near Bezierin the Narbonensis and in the Gaillac region of Southwest France. In both these areas, the presence of the evergreen holm oak, " Quercus ilex", which also grows in the familiar Mediterranean climateserved as a benchmark indicating an area where the climate was warm enough to ensure a reliable harvest each year.
Expansion continued into the third century AD, pushing the borders of viticulture beyond the areas of the holm oak to places such as Bordeaux in
Aquitaniaand Burgundy, where the more marginal climate included wet, cold summers that might not produce a harvest each year. But even with the risk of an occasional lost harvest, the continuing demand for wine among the Roman and native inhabitants of Gaul made the proposition of viticulture a lucrative endeavor. By the 6th century AD, vines were planted throughout Gaul including the Loire Valley, the Île-de-France (Paris Basin) which included the areas of modern day Champagne, as well as Brittany.
decline of the Roman Empirebrought sweeping changes to Gaul, as the region was invaded by Germanic tribesfrom the north including the Visigoths, Burgundians and the Franks, none of whom were familiar with wine. The invaders set up kingdoms in Aquitaine, Burgundyand Île-de-France. By the time that Charlemagneestablished his kingdom in the late 8th century, power in France was polarised between south and north: unlike the Mediterranean south, where grapes were easy to cultivate and wine was plentiful, the more viticulturally challenged regions of the north saw wine as a luxury item and a symbol of status. The influence of the Christian Church (which had been largely permeated throughout the region since the 6th century) also enhanced the image of wine in France as it became an integral part of the sacramentof the Eucharist, though the discovery of a second-third century silver wine dipper as part of temple votive depositat Pont-de-Leyris [ [http://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/HD/gaul/ho_47.100.29.htm Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 47.100.29] ] reminds us that wine was an integral part of pagan rites as well.
From the Dark Ages through the Age of Enlightenment
Carolingian era, a new system of land development emerged that was intimately tied with the spread of viticulture in Medieval France. Under this system of " complant", a farmer could approach a land owner with uncultivated land with an offer to plant and tend to the area for a contracted amount of time. After the given length of time, half of the fully cultivated land would revert back to full control of the original landowner while the remaining half would become the farmer's under the condition that a percentage or " tithing" of each year's crop would be paid to the original land owner. Under this system, many areas of France were enthusiastically and efficiently planted with little cost to the land owner; such as the Poitouregion near La Rochelle. The modern day Loire Valley wine of Quarts de Chaumederives its name from the use of this practice back in the 15th century when the Abbey of Ronceray d'Angersowned a large portion of uncultivated land (chaume) which it contracted out to growers in exchange for a fourth (quart) of the wine produced on the land.
Middle Ages, transportation of heavy wooden barrels of wine over land was a costly and risky proposition. Wine regions close to easily navigable rivers, such as the Loireand Garonne, found the possibility of trade to other regions and outside of France more attainable and profitable while more isolated and landlocked regions like Burgundyhad a harder time developing much of a trade market outside their region. Port cities like Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Rouenemerged as formidable centers of commerce with the wines of Gascony, Haut Pays, Poitou and the Île-de-France. During this period, political climates and alliances played a substantial role in the trade of French wines to other European countries. The 1152 marriage of Eléonore of Aquitainewith Henry Plantagenet, the future Henry II of England, was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between Bordeaux and England. Wine Tourism in France " [http://www.winetourisminfrance.com/an/grandesdates.htm Landmark dates in the history of French wine] " Accessed: July 12th, 2008 ] The 1295 Auld Alliancebetween France and Scotlandagainst England gave the Scots ample access to French wines for themselves. At the height of its power, the Duchy of Burgundyincluded the southern parts of the Netherlandsand Flanders--introducing the Dutch to the wines of Burgundy.
The 1305 election of
Pope Clement Vwas followed by the move of the papacyfrom Rome to Avignon. During this time, the wines of the Rhone and Burgundy region received a higher profile due to their preference by the Avignonese popes. When Petrarchwrote to Pope Urban V, pleading for his return to Rome, he noted that one obstacle to his request was that the best Burgundy wines could not be had south of the Alps. Following the prominence of Burgundy wine during the Avignonese papacy, the Valois Dukes of Burgundytook a keen interest in leveraging the region's wines into power and status. The Duchy would become one of the most powerful in France and very nearly it own kingdom--fueled in part by the prestige of the region's wines.
The 14th century was a period of peak prosperity for the Bordeaux-English wine trade that came to a close during the
Hundred Year Warwhen Gascony came `back under French control in 1453. Following the expulsion of the English, Dutch wine traders took on a more prominent role in Bordeaux. The Dutch were avid traders, buying wine from across Europe (particularly the Mediterranean countries) for trade with Hanseatic states, and were eager to capitalize on the potential of the French wine industry. For most of the 16th and 17th century, the Dutch traders would play an intimate role in the fortunes of the French wine industry. "(See Influence section below)".
Age of Enlightenmentsaw an increase in the study and application of winemaking methods with University sponsored studies and treatise on wine related topics. In 1756 the Academy of Bordeauxinvited students to write papers on the topic of clarifying wines and the advantages or disadvantages of using egg whites as a fining agent. In Burgundy, the Academy of Dijonsponsored study on ways to improve the quality of Burgundy wine. In the vineyards, vignerons began focusing more on which grape varieties performed best in different areas and augmenting their plantings to capitalize on their findings. R. Phillips "A Short History of Wine" pg 190 Harper Collins 2000 ISBN 0066212820 ]
From the Revolution to Phylloxera
Following the French Revolution there was an increase in the amount of poor quality French wine being produced.
Jean-Antoine Chaptal, the Minister of the Interior for Napoleon, felt that a contributing factor to this trend was the lack of knowledge among many French vignerons of the emerging technologies and winemaking practices that could improve the quality their wines. In 1801, Chaptal compiled this knowledge into a treatise "Traité théorsque et pratique sur Ia culture de Ia vigne" which included his advocacy of adding sugar to the wine to increase alcohol levels--a process now known as chaptalization. Chaptal treatise was a turning point in the history of wine technology as it synthesized the knowledge current to the beginning of the 19th century.Robinson, p. 153.]
By the mid 19th century, the wine industry of France enjoyed "Golden Age" period of prosperity. A new class of consumers, the
bourgeoisie, emerged as a strong market for wine and other culinary products. The Gironderegion of Bordeaux, in particular, enjoyed a swell of interest from both the Parisian market as well as its steady trade with England. For the 1855 Paris Exposition, Emperor Napoleon IIIcommissioned the Bordeaux merchants to come out with a ranking of the region's wine estate. The 1855 classification of Bordeauxwould become one of the world's most famous rankings of wine estates. Wine was becoming a cornerstone of the French economy and a source of national pride as French wine enjoyed international recognition as the benchmark standards for the wine world.
It was a series of events that would bring this Golden Age of prosperity to an end. In the 19th century, scientific interest in collecting
botanicalspecies lead to the exchange of many specimens from around the world--with the unintended consequence of introducing new diseases and aliments to populations that had no natural resistances to these diseases. North America, in particular, was the source of several grape ailments that would devastate the French wine industry. It started in the 1850s with the introduction of powdery mildew, or oidium, which not only affected the skin color of the grapes but also reduced vine yields and the resulting quality of the wines. The 1854 vintage was particularly hard hit, producing the smallest yields seen in more than 60 years. A solution to the problem was discovered in 1857 when Henri Marèsdevised a technique of sulfuring vines to combat oidium. But just as French vignerons were recovering from oidium came a new mysterious ailment that that cause decay and eventually death to the grapevine. The cause was a tiny louse, known as phylloxera, imported from North America that was targeting the rootstock. The solution to epidemic also came from North America in the grafting of naturally resistance American rootstock to the European vines. However, while the importing of this new North American plant material helped to starve off the phylloxera epidemic, it brought with it yet more problems-the fungal disease of downy mildewthat first surfaced in 1878 and black rotthat followed in the 1880s.
The devastation to French vineyard brought with it the opportunity to explore new plantings and many vignerons began to experiment with hybrid plantings--starting first with the American hybrids (such as Delaware and Clinton) with genes from the more resistance American vines species and then moving onto to French hybrids (such as
Chambourcinand Vidal blanc) that produces wines with flavors more familiar to European " Vitis vinifera".
To the modern day
In the late 19th century the French government commissioned
Louis Pasteurto conduct a study on the problems plaguing the French wine industry. His findings would have a lasting influence on the science of French winemaking. Pasteur was asked to help identify wine quality control issues that caused spoilage and other faults. During the 3 to 4 years that Pasteur spent studying wine he observed and articulated some extent of the process of fermentation--noted that it was living organisms ( yeast) that convert sugar in the grape must into alcohol in some form of chemical reaction. He also noted the presence of glyceroland succinic acidin wine as well as the beneficial process of adding tartaric acidduring winemaking. Another observation that Pasteur made was that oxygen played a significant role in the aging and improvement of wine.Robinson, p. 508.]
After studying on the cause of spoilage and faults in French wine, Pasteur was able to identify several factors including some that could be controlled during winemaking. He noted that "
graisse" was due to the production of polysaccharide, degradation of sugars lead to mannitic acidand that the degradation of glycerol lead to bitterness in the wine. Pasteur found that the particular problem of Burgundy wine spoiling and turning into vinegar on long voyages to England was caused by the bacteria acetobacter. The results of Pasteur's studies would revolutionize French understanding of winemaking and eventually spread to other wine regions across the globe.
The development of railway systems broaden the horizon for trade in French wines. Regions that were not historically dependent on river transportation suddenly found new opportunities and more commercial interest in their wines now that they could be transported more easily. The
Languedocregion of southern France became a vastly planted expanse of land churning out great numbers of light, simple wines that were sent all over France. Many of these wines were "improved" in alcohol, color and weight with the addition of Algerian winefrom the French colonyin Africa--providing a sizable impact on the Algerian economyuntil that country's independence in the mid 20th century.
The 20th century brought two
World Wars, which had devastating effects on some French wine regions, but also brought a renewed focus on reorganization of the country's wine industry. The development of the " Institut National des Appellations d'Origine" (INAO) and the " Appellation d'origine contrôlée" (AOC) systems emphasized the identity of French wines and the concept of "terroir". Programs have been enacted, in conjunction with the European Union, to combat the " wine lake" surplus problem by uprooting less desirable grape varietiesand ensuring that vignerons receive technical training in viticulture and winemaking. Many of these actions came in response to declining domestic consumption and slumping sales that followed through the close of the 20th century. Heading into the 21st century, some parts of French wine industry have thrived while others have been faced with a crisis of confidence.
Influences on the French wine industry
Throughout its history, the French wine industry has been shaped by the influences of both external and internal forces. Three of the more prominent and pervasive influences came from the English/British people through both commercial interest and political factors, the Dutch who were significant players in the wine trade for much of the 16 and 17th century and the Catholic Church which held considerable vineyard properties until the French Revolution.
Over several centuries, a number of factors contributed to the prominent influence that England (Great Britain) would have over the French wine industry. With a cool wet climate, the
British Isleshave historically produced dramatically different styles of wines than the French and in too small of numbers to satisfy the London market. This caused the English to look abroad for wines, using the clout of their economic and political power to their advantage. The 1152 marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine and the future King Henry II of England brought a large portion of southwest France under English rule. When Henry's son John inherited the English crown, he sought to curry favor among the Gascons by bestowed upon them many privileges-the most notable of which was an exemption among Bordeaux merchants from the Grand Coutume export tax. With this exemption and favored treatment in London, Bordeaux wine became the cheapest wine in the London market and gain immense popularity among the English.Robinson, p. 86-89.] For over the next 300 years much of Gascony, particular Bordeaux, benefited by the close commercial ties with the English allowing this area to grow in prominence among all French wines. In the aftermath of the Hundred Year War, these lands reverted back to French rule but with a lasting imprint of English influence.Robinson, p. 104-105.]
Following the restoration of Charles II to the British crown, several French wines came back into fashion in the London market. One such wine was a fizzy drink from the Champagne region that was disparaged among French wine drinkers for its faulty bubbles. A French
expatriate, Charles de Saint-Évremond, introduced this sparkling style of Champagne to the London court and it was met with enthusiastic popularity. The development of stronger, thicker bottles by British glass makers encouraged more Champagne winemakers to actively start producing sparkling wine for the lucrative British market.Robinson, p. 151-152.]
In the 16th and 17th century, the Dutch (particularly those from
Hollandand Zeeland) wielded considerably influence over the development of the French wine. Their strength was their sizable merchant fleetand trading access across Northern Europe in places like the Baltic and Hanseatic states. When political conflicts between the French and English flared up, it was the Dutch who stepped in to fill the void and serve as a continuing link funneling the wines of Bordeaux and La Rochelle into England. The town of Middleburgearned a reputation across Europe as a center for trade of French wine.Robinson, p. 244-246.] Dutch interest in the wine trade prompted advancement in winemaking styles and technology. One problem that plagued the French wine trade was the perishability of wine which rarely survived longer than the next vintage. French wine during this period was often imbalance and unstable, being not properly clarified during wine making and lacking the alcohol needed to preserve the wine. R. Phillips "A Short History of Wine" pg 193-94 Harper Collins 2000 ISBN 0066212820 ] This was of considerable concern to the Dutch who would sometimes be delayed in their trading with ports along the Baltic and White Seas when they freeze and became impassable in the winter. To ward off spoilage the Dutch developed methods of fortification by adding brandyto the wine to stop fermentation and increase the life expectancy of the wine. The Dutch further introduced to the French a method of sulfuring the wines (known as "allumettes hollandaises") which has the effect of stabilizing the wine and preventing some degree of spoilage. The introduction of new Dutch winemaking techniques helped antiquated methods such as the use of leadfall into disuse. Used since the days of Ancient Rome, lead was used in regions such as Poitouto help sweeten and preserve some of their wines leading to various ailments that collectively were known as the "Poitou colic". By the end of the 17th century, most Poitou winemakers had stopped using lead in their wine production.
The Dutch also promoted the plantings of many white wine varieties that were in fashion through Europe. In regions like
Muscadet, in the Loire Valley, the Dutch encouraged the planting of Melon de Bourgognewhich produced more reliable harvest than the region's red wine varieties. The practice of blending different grape varieties from different areas was also influenced by the Dutch as a means of improving weaker wines or to adapt wines to changing public tastes. When the English developed tastes for stronger sweeter wines, the Dutch were the first to bulk up the Gascon claret wines with the wines of Cahors. Skilled engineers, the Dutch drained the marshy Medoc (left bank) region in the 17th century and began planting the region with vineyards. Prior to this time, Bordeaux's most sought after wines cames from the well drained soil of the Grave's region including the estate of Chateau Haut-Brion. By the end of the 17th century, with the aid of the Dutch, the future First Growthestates of Chateau Lafite, Latour and Margaux were planted and already starting to get notice abroad.
The Christian Church
While there have been theories put forth that the Christian Church "saved" viticulture in France following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes that invaded the region were known to be fond of wine themselves leaving little evidence that viticulture and winemaking needed to be "saved" during this period. The Church, however, did become one of the most prominent and influential force in French winemaking during the Medieval period due to their vast holdings of vineyard lands.Robinson, p. 449.] The
Merovingianperiod of Frankish rule saw the early seeds of monastic influence on French wine when Guntram, Clovis' grandson, gave a vineyard to the abbey of St. Benignusat Dijon. In 630, the abbey of Bezenear Gevreyreceived vineyards in Beaune, Gevrey and Vosneeas a gift from the duke of Lower Burgundy.Robinson, p. 104-105.]
The reign of Charlemagne brought in a period of peace, stability and prosperity that help foster the growth of the emerging wine regions of France. In 775 he gave the abbey of
Saulieua plot of land that bears his name today in the grand cruvineyard of Corton-Charlemagne. The spread of viticulture during Charlemagne's reign was fueled in part by the expansion of the Christian Church which needed a daily supply of wine for the sacrament of the Eurcharist, the monk's personal consumption as well as for hospitality of guest. It was the belief among the Christian Church that important guests who visited the monasteries would be more likely to repay the Church generously if they were entertained well during their stay. The amount of vineyards holdings and the quality of wine they produce became a status symbol for the bishops, putting them on par with the nobility. Some bishoprics even moved to be closer to their vineyard holding, such as the bishopric of St-Quentinwhich moved to Noyonnear Paris and the bishopric of Langreswhich moved to Dijon just north of the Cote d'Orin Burgundy. The influence of Christianity helped to create two categories of wine in Medieval France-simple, basic wine meant for daily consumption and more superior, premium wine that was reserved for impressing important guest.Robinson, p. 156-157.]
Various monastic orders became synonymous with certain wine regions due to their ownership of what is today considered some of most prized vineyards lands. The first group of monks to acquire vineyards on a large scale were the
Benedictinesof Clunywho came to owned most of what is now Gevrey-Chambertinby 1273. In 1232, the abbey of St-Vivantreceived the vineyard lands now known as Romanee-Conti, Romanee-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Romaneeand La Tacheas a gift from the duchess of Burgundy. The Benedictines were also prominent vineyards owners with the wine produced in the abbey of St-Pourcainbeing one of the most highly regarded wines in medieval France. In the Loire Valley, the Benedictine monasteries in Bourgueil and La Charitéextensively cultivated the lands around them while the abbey of St-Nicolasincluded large vineyards around Anjou. In Bordeaux, the Benedictines owned several properties including what became the modern classified estate of Chateau Prieurein Cantenacas well as the Gravesestates of Chateau Carbonnieux. Other regions with Benedictine vineyards include Cornasand St-Perayin the Rhone as well six monastic estates in the Champagne region of Rheims.
One of the most famous holdings of the
Cistercianswas the walled vineyard of Clos de Vougeotbut the extent of their lands included holdings in Beaune, Meursault, Pommardas well as Chablis where the Pontigny Abbeywas believed to have been the first to plant Chardonnayin the region. Cisterians vineyards produced highly regarded wines in Provence and Sancerre.The Cisterian monks applied their ascetic habits, skilled labor and organization philosophy to wine making in a manner unique to French wine. Through their detailed record keeping and observations, the monks began to notice that certain plots of lands even those only a few feet apart, produced remarkably different wines. These observation laid the groundwork on the identification of certain "crus" of vineyards and the French understanding of " terroir". K. MacNeil "The Wine Bible" pg 190 Workman Publishing 2001 ISBN 1563054345 ]
Through their extensive holdings, the monasteries of the Christian Church made many advances in French winemaking and viticulture with the study and observation of key vineyards sites, isolating the grape varieties that grew best in certain regions and discovering new methods of productions. In 1531 it was a monk in the Languedoc region of
Limouxthat discovers the process of turning still wine into sparkling wine. Though the wide spread tale of Dom Perignon "inventing" the sparkling wine known as Champagne is inaccurate, the Benedictine monk nonetheless made several important contributions to the history of French wine. In 1668, Brother Pierre Perignon was appointed treasurer of the abbey of Hautvillers, located north of Épernaywith his role including management of abbey's vineyard holdings and the collection of tithes from the community in the form of grapes and wines. Dom Perignon took the wine from all these sources and blended them to produce a wine that fetched far higher prices than wines from other parts of Champagne. Perignon's practice of blending from several different vineyards was unique and largely unheard of till then. He also pioneered the practice of severe pruningin the vineyard to keep yields low.Robinson, p. 511.]
History of wine
* J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 281-283 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906.
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