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Wine in the "Old World"

wine opinion history traditions Wine News | David Moore

Wine in the "Old World"

I’d just completed a two-hour drive from Orly (with a stick shift, mind you — that vehicle would never be the same) after an eight-hour flight from Philadelphia — my first trip to France. I was beat, but as I pulled up to the front gate at Philippe Poniatowski’s Clos Baudoin, and stepped out of the car, I was struck by the familiarity of the place. I’d opened hundreds bottles that grew on this estate, and had drunk quite a few myself. A deep breath was all it took to recognize the“Clos,” even though I’d never been there.

Philippe (now, deceased), was in his 70s at the time, and I was a young “know-it-all” back then, but he did all he could to guide me to an understanding of wine in the “Old World.” He was patient with me — no simple task in those days…some might argue that hasn’t changed…but I digress.

On the map above, you see many places carefully mapped out that show the boundaries between one wine region and another. The concept of wine as having a distinct, geographical, agricultural and cultural raison d’être is unfamiliar to most Americans — we were brought up with "wine=brand+grape+price+rating." But this is a typical American response — we’re very good at de-constructing, re-assembling, and automating processes. Nuance, subtlety, and mystery (for me, anyway), not so much. So, I made maps to help us explain (as Paolo De Marchi calls it), “wine of origin.”

Tradition, “trada” from the Latin — to take the best of the past, adding the best of the present, and passing it all along to the next generation. It is "human."– Paolo De Marchi

A human, cultural evolution

No one knows who first “discovered” wine. Some paleolithic human stumbling upon grapes spontaneously fermenting on a vine probably believed it was a gift from the gods. As agriculture expanded, and humans settled into communities (as opposed to “hunter-gatherer” societies), and trade became an important driver of human development, this “gift from the gods” spread from the “Fertile Crescent” throughout the “Old World.”

But wine was more than a “gift from the gods,” it was what you could drink that wouldn’t kill you. It was an important source of “food” that grew in rocks where no other food could grow. The Romans knew this when they were busy subduing the Celts, Gauls, and Franks — taking the vine with them and establishing almost all of Europe’s best vineyard sites along the way. Over time, the grapes cultivated would change — both as a function of naturally occurring mutations, and the agricultural and cultural evolution of these communities. Wine was increasingly identified by “place.”

On the map above (roughly dead center) is a “place” called Cahors. For hundreds of years this was the most famous wine growing region in the world. At a time when red wine was more like dark rosé, the people living here discovered a unique, local grape, (Malbec, known locally as Auxerrois) and developed a technique for making their wines darker (they were boiling down a portion, and blending it back in). This was the famous "Black wine of Cahors," prized by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church for liturgical purposes (so they would have us believe:) and the English as another unique product of a region over which (at the time) they exercised control.

Over centuries wine became, first, about “the place;” the culture in which it arose. When the church effectively inherited what was left of the Roman Empire after its decline, generations of monks farmed many of the most well-situated vineyard sites. Over time, acquiring knowledge about viticulture, the monks passed along their wisdom to succeeding generations. Though this passage of “traditions,” it was discovered that even particular vineyard sites contributed something unique to the wines they were farming. They would give names to these sites, and come to know the boundaries of where the vine would produce a different wine (for example, there are some ten-thousand unique vineyard sites “named” on the Côte d’Or in Burgundy — some of which may be familiar; Montrachet, Clos de Beze, Clos Vougeot, etc.).

There is “tradition” embedded in all of these delineated areas. But tradition doesn’t mean making the same thing over and over. It’s about the passing of accumulated wisdom from generation to generation, the evolution of culture and viticultural practices. It is about the relationship of each winegrower to their culture and their vines. Tradition, as Paolo De Marchi points out, comes from the latin root, “trada,” — to take the best of the past, adding the best of the present, and passing it all along to the next generation. It is “human.”

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