What I Learned By Reading Old Wine Books – Forbes
Things can move quickly in the world of wine.
Though it’s in all ways â€” planting, fermenting, enjoying â€” an enterpriseÂ that requires a slowing down of today’s fast pace, changing fashionsÂ figure intoÂ the wineÂ world, too. Today’s ever-increasing thirst for lower-alcohol wines, indigenous varieties, grapes grown to sustain bothÂ land and people speaks not just to tastebuds but also to current desiresÂ for transparency and somewhereness in everything we eat and drink. At the same time, accessibility and ease areÂ demands as well â€” moreÂ commercial-minded wines can provide both, if controversially.
Add to thisÂ ever more complex mix of 21st-century wine tastes the large crop of online wine writing, and the latest-news side of wine can rushÂ past us at daily speeds, making it easy to forget where we came from and how we got here.
With that search forÂ continuity in mind, I canâ€™t resist old wine books. I see them as concrete preservers of timeless information and forgotten wisdom, each one a snapshot of a particular moment in wine history once deemed important enough to merit paper and ink, and a commitment of both time and finances. And, so, hereÂ are some pieces of important wine knowledge past, with a hint of the kind of placesÂ such recordsÂ can be found.
Small-production wine in the 20th century
Before natural became the often misunderstoodÂ wine term it is today, in 1997 British wine writer Patrick Matthews wrote a book about small-scale, hands-off wine production. In The Wild Bunch he shined a light on the producers working in France and southern Europe armed with natural yeasts and little intervention in either vineyard or cellar â€œat a time when drinkers are defying marketing wisdom with their enthusiasm for diversity and regional character.â€ He explained his project, a â€œbook on inexpensive hand-made wines,â€ as an attempt to round up allies to those growers. Before him, what larger-scale attention there was to natural wines was, necessarily, primarily turnedÂ to France, which along with disregarded Italy was the worldâ€™s largest practitioner.
Pre-2000, Matthews augmented that strong French effort with a contemporary if little noted Australian effort to revive Barossa sparkling shiraz (after the area was abandoned by multinational wine companies) that forecasted todayâ€™s celebrated natural movement there,Â while Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany, Austria, and Portugal figure among the countries he recommends exploring for their traditional-style wines, too. TodayÂ those places check out on the natural wine scene (whichÂ I’ve writtenÂ aboutÂ elsewhere), along with unexpected ones like Chile, the Czech Republic, and the United States, not to mention the attention finally being paid to that millenia-old small-production site, the countryÂ of Georgia. In the closest thing to a technical term in Matthewsâ€™s book, thereâ€™s one unifying factor: â€œCultured yeast has come to be a symbol of the way in which wine-making has evolved from a mystery to a formula. . . . And for small growers, wild yeast is one trick up their sleeves that their big industrial competitors canâ€™t match.â€
The birth of Italyâ€™s DOCs
Cyril Rayâ€™s The Wines of Italy was first published in 1966, three years after Italyâ€™s appellation system was launched and the year the country’s first DOC was awarded â€” to aÂ salty, yellow-appled Tuscan white,Â Vernaccia di San Gimignano (now a DOCG, since 1993). Rayâ€™s book is an image of the final moments of pre-appellation Italy. In the central region of Lazio then, now-gone Malvasia di GrottaferrataÂ which didnâ€™t make it to protected DOC status was already a unicorn wine, â€œto be enjoyed by fortunate guests in private home: it is made on too small a scale, and with too much care, to be a commercial proposition.â€
And in Baroloâ€™s Piedmont, Barbera grapevines outnumbered Nebbiolo plants 20 to one, compared with todayâ€™s approximately four to one hectarage. Ray of course saw fit to point out that Barbera winesÂ differed according to theÂ districts in which theÂ grapes were grown. One district-based wine he named would become a DOC â€” Barbera dâ€™Asti â€” while Barbera di Cuneo, mentioned also, did not. For a Barbera option that would be left out of DOCs entirely: â€œWine that is styled Barbera, simply, is a common wine, often slightly frizzante and sweetish, like a subdued Portuguese vinho verde.â€
Californiaâ€™s post-Prohibition wine boom
Published in 1984 by The University of California and Sotheby, the Book of California Wine was a recap of the previous decade, during which California (and by extension the United States and the entire New World) had earned attention as aÂ bona-fideÂ source of world-class wines. Edited by California food and wine chronicler Doris Muscatine, UC Davis researcher (and codeveloper of the wine-region-classifying Winkler scale) Maynard A. Amerine and the stateâ€™s wine expert and writer Bob Thompson, the book offers a criticâ€™s (Thompson’s) eye view on the origin of what would wrongheadedly become California Zinfandel’s calling card: â€œDuring the past decade, the always versatile Zinfandel has been stretched to new limits. What was once a conventional red capable of being anything from Americaâ€™s Beaujolais to a good claret has gone on to become a sweet wine of as much as 16% alcohol, a dry wine of as much as 16% alcohol, and a frivolous confection produced by carbonic maceration.â€
Fortunately change is once again afoot: at a ZAP tasting in New York City earlier this year, the re-pioneering Dashe Cellars founded in 1996;Â Carol Shelton Wines (established 2000); and Day Zinfandel, the single-varietal project of Turley Wine Cellars alum Ehren Jordan (and planted 2011; first vintage, 2015), show that the grape has once again found solid California standing, with wines that are nuanced, vibrant, dry and food-friendly.
A 12-year-old worldwide wine report
For six info-rich and exciting years, Tom Stevensonâ€™s Wine Report was a small but hefty “one-stop update on what has happened in the world of wine over the previous 12 months.â€ Both rigorous and unafraid of wine-world oddities, it was also unshy about its intended audience (â€œthere are rarely any explanations for technical terms or even references to historical incidents. Readers are expected to know what these terms mean and what the references refer to, or at least have the intelligence and curiosity to look them up.â€), for whom topics such the 2005 reportâ€™s â€” â€œWines made from vines grown north of Poland; Bioterrorism threatens Burgundy; Value of fake Italian wine in US exceeds $541 million.â€ â€” were sure to be hits.
Stevenson picked each contributor himself, heading after that ineffable wine-something that made 2005-edition names like Clive Coates, Serena Sutcliffe, Monty Waldin an authoritative collection of past, present, future wine experts.
In this edition, witness alsoÂ the mid-aughts worry about the threat stateside thirst for $2 wine posed to the CA wine industry, and the year Israelâ€™s wine-drinker sensibility shifted from boutique to big â€” the latter considered to produce better wines. Little known or not, the sparkling Limoux wines of southern France were considered worth talking about in detail, too.
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