French Wine: A History

Chaos and crisis in over two millennia of French winemaking.

Many histories of wine are written in a lyrical style, but Rod Phillips’ new book is not one of them. For Phillips, two and a half millennia of French winemaking is not an excuse for Bacchic celebration, but a warts-and-all exposé of chaos and crisis with a few scattered moments of success. Where those other books might have you salivating over what cork you should pull at dinner, this one brings you down to sober reality: appropriate, I suppose, for a rare example of a wine writer whose day job is teaching the history of wine and spirits.

France was a land without vines or wine until the arrival of the Greeks and Romans. Two families of vines can claim possible roots in ancient times: Biturica, from Bordeaux, is the probable ancestor of the Cabernet clan and Allobrogica seems to be related to the Syrah that dominates the Northern Rhône, but it is hard to prove continuity when it comes to taste. Grape varieties mutate and it is impossible to determine what a young Burgundy tasted like in the 19th century, let alone 1,000 years ago. We cannot take the poet Ausonius on trust that Bordeaux wine excelled in Roman times. Christianity played a huge role in developing the French wine map, both by slipping into the shoes of the Roman Empire and by requiring wine for the liturgy, though Phillips stresses  that the quantities needed were not huge even if many monks were prodigious drinkers. 

Phillips carefully debunks much of the old story that the Church kept wine going during the Middle Ages. France’s more favoured climate and the accident of Bordeaux falling to the English in 1152 meant that huge shipments were made to English ports from the 12th to the 15th centuries. The wine they transported was made from black and green grapes, grown all higgledy-piggledy and called clairet because of its rosy colour. Clairet (our word ‘claret’) predominated until the 18th century.

The very French notion of cru – a ‘growth’ or parcel of land with its own qualities – seems to have developed before the end of the 15th century. It found its greatest expression in the middle slopes of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. The ability to determine individual tastes in certain sites, particularly in Burgundy and Champagne, went hand in glove with gastronomic awareness, but Phillips treads very lightly here. 

Wine is classically Darwinian: chance mutations are behind most of what is good – and bad. The winters of 1708 and 1956 in Bordeaux were so destructive that they resulted in extensive replanting on more progressive lines. The former marked the end of ‘clairet’ as wines got darker and stronger. The second introduced more productive clones. Wine has been getting steadily stronger, from an average eight per cent in the Middle Ages to something nearer 15 per cent in the age of contemporary American ‘wine advocate’ Robert Parker. The English are often cited as the engines of wine history, but in truth the Dutch did more, from draining the Médoc to designing the wines of early modern Europe. By the mid-17th century the first classifications emerged for the wines of Bordeaux – regions rather than crus – but in the second half of the century the first ‘château’ emerged in Haut-Brion. Others, such as Margaux, Lafite and Latour, built on Haut-Brion’s success. At the end of the century, the Revolution redistributed land, allowing many middle-class businessmen to acquire famous growths: ‘le jour de boire était arrivé’

Phillips does not approve of the idea of a 19th-century golden age. These ‘pre-Phylloxera’ (the pest of commercial grapevines worldwide) wines are the first collectables (just), but it was also a time of blights and most of France had to be replanted on American rootstock. The railway brought strong wine from the south and staining reds from Algeria phased out the weaker wines of the north. In the 20th century, France spent decades defining its wines as AOCs (appellation d’origine contrôlée), a process which the author begrudgingly sees as positive. 

French wine emerges diminished in Phillips’ portrait, but much of what he says could also be applied to other old European wine cultures, whether from Germany, Italy or Spain. Wine drinking declined across Europe as it lost its working class or peasant base to become an aspirational drink consumed by the middle class, as French advertisements put it, ‘avec modération’. In our age ‘Sybarite’ has become a dirty word and in that respect France too has lost an empire and failed to find a role. 

French Wine: A History 
Rod Phillips
University of California Press 320pp £27.95

Giles MacDonogh writes on German history and on French gastronomy and wine.