History of French Wine – Part One

Posted by on August 16, 2011

The History of French Wine – Part One.  Please join me in the dicovery of French wines from the beginning of time (almost.)

In the immense anthology of wine, I have selected this note from the French poet and diplomat, Paul Claudel:

“A great wine is not the work of a man; it is the result of a constant and refined tradition. Wine is the liberator of the mind and the illuminator of intelligence.”

Wine is mentioned 521 times in the Bible (of course, it is a very large book!).  The oldest known winemaker is Noah.  After the deluge it is said that his first act was to plant a grapevine, and then he drank some wine and got inebriated . . . (he probably had his fill of water.)

All the people of antiquity knew wine, but the Greeks were the uncontested specialists of viticulture. They transplanted grapevines in Marseille (south of France) when they founded that town in the 6th century B.C. This is a widely accepted theory, but Mr. De Kerdeland in his book “The History of French Wines” asserts that the Gauls knew viticulture before that date and that, notably at LaCote-Rotie, Gaul wine was renowned, a long time before the arrival of the Greek.

Let’s attribute to the Gauls that of which there is no doubt: they invented the oak barrels to assure the preservation and easy transport of wine.  Until then wine was preserved,rather badly, in amphora. The Gallo-Roman period saw the expansion of vineyards and the improvement of winemaking. Charlemagne regulated wine-growing. He owned two vineyards (one in Anjou and one in Cotes du Rhone) and personally supervised their harvests.

Wine-growing reached a considerable expansion during the Middle Ages.  The people drank a lot of wine then, so they planted vineyards everywhere in France, I should even say anywhere. Agriculture and viticulture were not scientifically controlled in those days and each region chose their own method of planting, growing and tending to its vineyards.  The quality and quantity of the harvest was therefore erratic. Superstitions replaced agronomy. For example, to obtain an abundant harvest, ‘one simply needed to rub bear fat on the grapevine’s root.’ The vineyards belonged to the Seigneur (Feudal Lord) and serfs cultivated them in exchange for protection, according to feudal law. Each region used similar methods.  I have chosen to expand on the vineyards of Burgundy because they are the most classic as well as the most surprising.

Mr. Raymond Dumay (French writer and journalist who published “Le Guide du Vin in 1967,) compares the vineyards of Burgundy to a masterpiece, “In the same league as the Acropolis or the Cathedral in Chartres,” he says.  And who is responsible for this masterpiece? The Benedictine Monks who, in 1098 received the gift of the mediocre lands of Citeaux, a swampy land barren and uncultivated, surrounding the town of Dijon.  They considered manual labor as a form of prayer, and humility and, under the direction of their head priest, Robert de Molesme, they dug up, drained, weeded, fertilized and seeded this miserable land.  Thus was born the famous Abbey of Citeaux and the order of the Cisterciens who reached their apogee in the XII century.  There is no doubt that the serfs, and later  the free peasants, were exploited by the monk as they worked for a meager wage, but the Cisterciens brought their expertise and administrative talent without which development of vineyards would have not taken place.  In fact, they were the first agronomists.

The vineyards were designed with the same care and precision as the grand cathedrals of the time. The renowned Romanee-Conti vintage is produced on a piece of land of about 40 acres and has not grown by a square inch since the Middle Ages. The Montrachet (the wine that Alexander Dumas would only drink while kneeling down) grows in a vineyard that is 2100 ft long by 300 feet wide, just as it has been for centuries. The Clos-Vougeot, which earns the title the Chef-D’oeuvre of the Cisteriens, has been growing on 100 acres composed of 62 small different vineyards, since the 12th century.

Keep in mind that the production of great wines depends not only on the nature of the soil, but also on the slopes of the land, exposure to the sun, proper drainage, the altitude and the prevailing winds.  The great wines’ grapevines are all exposed to the east, and their average altitude is 800 feet.

The wine-growing business organized by the Monks of the middle ages have never changed.  They still maintain  the vineyards in the exact  same manner, despite the progress made in modern agronomy.

The Department of La Cote D’Or is the producer of the world renowned Grand Vins, yet its vineyards are cultivated on a band of land no longer than 40 kilometers (about  25 miles)  X 4 kilometers.  On this band of land are produced 65 vintages, and several thousand  different wines.  All those vineyards combined produce only two types of wine: Pinot noir for reds and Chardonnay for whites.  The remainder of Burgundy produces white Aligote and  red Gamay.  Those are the four plants of the wines of Burgundy. Those wonderful French Burgundy wines are grown on a land criss-crossed like a mosaique, unchanged since the Middle Ages.

A curious note about Chablis, a wine that is reputed for its excellence in accompanying oysters. Chablis is grown on a land formed by oysters fossils beds.  This demonstrates the genie of the middle ages’ monks.  However, it is not enough to plant pinot noir grapes to produce the wonderful Clos-Vougeot, or chardonnay grapes to obtain great Chablis.  Those grapevines grow exclusively on their little square of Burgundian soil.  The best proof of that fact is that if you plant pinot noir and Chablis grapes in the region of Champagne . . . you obtain Champagne.  If you planted them in Picardy, you would probably harvest a mediocre table wine.

This is the end of part one of the History of French Wines.  Let’s meet for part two in a week or two.

 

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