Rod Phillips explains why, in spite of the reputation of old vintages, most wine consumed in the past would not have suited modern palates.
LOOK FOR A THEME that runs through modern wine advertising and you'll soon come up with history. For, whether it is expressed as tradition, age, or lineage, wine makers and merchants are at pains to stress the historical depth of their establishments and their wine. Recent issues of the influential magazine Wine Spectator include advertisements for wines made by the Antinori family which `has been pursuing [excellence and quality] in Tuscany for more than 26 generations'; for the French wine merchant Nicolas which describes itself as `a tradition' people have depended on `for generations' since 1822; and for Chateau Pape Clement, whose owners (`the same family for many years') point out that their vineyards were planted in 1220 and that they have just acquired an estate planted in 1459.
Undeterred by its youth, the American industry promotes itself in the same way. Gallo, the huge American wine producer, currently displays images of Gina Gallo, whom it describes as a `third-generation family winemaker', while Clos Du Val, a Napa Valley vineyard, advertises (tongue in cheek, perhaps) wines with `a tradition of unparalleled excellence, with lineage dating back to 1972'.
This association of wine with age-old practices and lineage is not new. It began in earnest in the nineteenth century, when so many traditions were invented in order to balance the dramatic changes that were rapidly transforming Europe's political, social, economic and cultural landscapes. As industry grew and cities sprawled, one part of the landscape -- now in a literal sense -- was depicted as unchanging: vineyards were portrayed as having been planted in the mists of time and the houses of their proprietors were endowed with a patina of age.
It didn't matter that many of the vineyards were relatively recent (a number of well-known Bordeaux vineyards were planted in the eighteenth century, for example) or that the big houses were equallyrecent (Chateau Margaux was completed in 1817). Both were depicted as ancient. Old vines were much vaunted, and during the late 1800s the title `Chateau'-- a name that resonates with age, nobility, lineage and tradition, a solid pile standing four-square and immobile in the face of turbulent change -- was added to estates in Bordeaux and other wine regions.
In the famous 1855 classification, when the seventy-nine most expensive Bordeaux wines were grouped into `growths', only five were prefixed `Chateau' and an English list published fifteen years later attributed `Chateau' to only four: Haut-Brion, Lafite, Margaux and Latour. But by the early 1900s not only did all the classified wines carry the distinctive `Chateau' prefix, so did many other Bordeaux wines, and over time `chateau-isation' affected other wine regions in France and as far away as Canada and Australia.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, just as producers began to stress the purported lineage and age-old traditions that lay behind their wines and their estates, wine itself underwent transformations. Its very definition changed, and many of the attributes long associated with it, such as its religious associations and health properties, were called into question. As a result, during the twentieth century there was a veritable revolution in wine: in the way it was made and marketed and in its cultural associations.
To put it simply, the wine commercially produced today is a far more pure and reliable product than that produced in any earlier period. Only in the twentieth century was wine formally defined by law as the fermented juice of grapes, and only then could consumers be reasonably certain that the wine they thought they were buying was the wine they were actually buying.
Wine fraud can be traced back many centuries. In the fourteenth century Geoffrey Chaucer had warned of it in his Canterbury Tales, where he had the Pardoner caution:
Keep clear of wine, I tell you, white or red, Especially Spanish wines
which they provide And have on sale in Fish Street and Cheapside. …