Book Review: A Dynamic New History of the French Wine Industry

12912-160Rod Phillips, French Wine: A History. University of California Press, 2016.

Many people think that history is the study of facts and I suspect that they might not be strongly attracted to a book called French Wine: A History. Another book full of facts about French wine? Oh, no!

But history is really the study of change not just facts and it’s that dynamic sense that makes history generally and Rod Phillips’ new book about French wine, so interesting and exciting. Yes, I admit that there are lots of facts here, but Phillips puts them to work telling the story of the changing world of wine, or France, and French wine.

The book has a multi-dimensional organization. The nine chapters proceed chronologically starting with the beginnings to 1000 CE and ending with 1945 to the present, when Phillips argues that French wine was reinvented. Each era of history is organized according to a few dominating themes, with case studies that most effectively explore the issues. It’s an organization that works, although I would have appreciated headings within each chapter to make the outline even clearer.

Phillips apologizes in his introduction that this theme-based approach means that some regions — Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne in particular — get more attention than others, but they are the places where change is often more dramatic or apparent. He notes that any attempt to treat all the regions equally would dilute the narrative and, in my view, turn this from a dynamic history into a stale book of facts.

Wine, the wine industry, and shifting wine markets all treated here. Examples? Well, the chapter on the Middle Ages provides much to think about. The British loved a wine they called Claret, for example, which today means a dark red wine from Bordeaux. But that’s not what the term meant back in the day when it was coined.

Clairet wines came from many places besides Bordeaux and their key characteristic was that they were not dark red. They were fairly clear (compared with red wines), field blends of red and white grapes of various degrees of ripeness that were pinkish more than red. They were the default non-white wines until the 17th century, Phillips tells us, which suggests just how much French wine has changed.

That same chapter explores the changing role of wine in the French diet at the time. Wine was more than a drink, it was a very significant source of calories as the high consumption levels reported here suggest.

Factoid alert: I could not help but be a little envious when I read the list of provisions for the 1251 wedding of Alexander III of Scotland to King Henry III’s daughter Margaret: 1300 deer, 7000 hens, 170 boars, 60,000 herrings, 68,500 loaves of bread … and 96,500 liters of wine. Wow, what a feast.

A great deal has changed over the years in both the wines and their role in our lives, but it is a mistake to think that the most dramatic changes are in the long-ago past (the Middle Ages) or even the more recent past (Phylloxera in the 19th century, the rise of the appellation system in the 20th century).

My favorite chapter examines the last half-century, which Phillips suggests is a golden age of French wine. I learned a lot from his analysis of the French wine industry in the early post-war years. I was impressed by the discussion of the French-Algerian wine relationship and Algeria’s rapid decline from its position as the world’s largest wine exporter (mainly to France) to its much more marginal role in global wine today.

I was particularly interested in Phillips’ take on the changing status of wine in French society and French wine in the global market. The analysis is typically thorough and thought-provoking. He notes that the decline in per capita wine consumption in France, for example, coincides with the development of a mass market for bottled water.This, plus anti-alcohol laws and regulations, explains a lot. The decline in wine consumption has many effects including, he argues, a change in social behavior as the number of cafés licensed to sell wine and spirits has collapsed.

The more things change the more they stay the same — that’s a famous French saying, and it occurred to me several times as I was reading this book. Concerns about wine fraud and adulteration appear frequently in French history, just as I suspect they will in future histories of Chinese wine!

French Wine: A History is a fascinating book that belong’s on every wine lover’s bookshelf. Highly recommended.

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