Here’s a toast to Cyrus Redding, one of the most important figures in the 8,000-year history of wine. Wait, you’ve never heard of him? Don’t be embarrassed, as few people have anymore. Redding was a Victorian English journalist who penned perhaps the most significant book ever written about wine. Titled A History and Description of Modern Wines, the first edition came out in 1833. It was entirely new, with a new thesis, a new understanding of what defined good or fine wine, and a new audience. Though they might not know it, virtually anyone writing about the subject in the 180 years since then has followed his lead. Put simply, he changed the discourse. So while Cyrus Redding has faded out of our collective cultural memory, contemporary wine lovers owe him a tremendous debt.
More than anyone else at the time, Redding recognized that the fine wines that had begun to be made in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were radically different from any wines produced before. Thus he distinguished sharply between “modern” and “ancient” wines, both in terms of how they tasted and in terms of how they might be appreciated. In the process, he initiated a new way to think and talk about wine, one that still governs our understanding today.
Before Redding, almost everyone assumed that wine was like architecture, with the classical styles of ancient Greece and Rome being something that contemporary vintners imitated. Commentators praised those styles, relying on poetic descriptions from Homer, Ovid and the like to convey how glorious they must have been. It hardly mattered that, unlike classical architecture, no one could actually experience ancient wines. They were the originals, so anything that followed them had to be mere copies.
Redding completely rejected this idea. “Every rational person must admit,” he wrote, “that to judge the modern by the ancient wines, without knowing more of them, is the greatest of absurdities.” Moreover, what little Redding did know about ancient wines -- that they were flavored with foreign ingredients ranging from pitch to ash to myrrh, that they were customarily cut with water, and that they frequently were exposed to heat and smoke from kilns -- led him to conclude that modern wines had to taste very different. Both types came from grapes, but that was about all they had in common.
Redding also insisted that modern wines tasted better. How could he be sure? What conception of quality led him to declare that “the wines of the moderns . . . are much more perfect than those of the ancients”? The answer is revealing. “The best wine,” he argued, is the “purest wine,” meaning the wine with nothing added to it and nothing having been done to it. Thus he could introduce his book by declaring that “the unadulterated juice of the grape alone, after due fermentation, is that to which I confine my meaning.”
This remains an essential modern idea, for it defines what contemporary vintners, critics, and consumers alike value most about wine -- the taste (and smell) of fermented grapes, even more specifically, the taste of specific varieties of grapes grown in specific places. No one writing or working before Cyrus Redding had expressed it so clearly. A good wine, he believed, should taste above all of itself.
In formulating what was a new understanding of quality, Redding paradoxically enough identified many of what would become the modern world’s most classic wines, the ones that later generations of vintners would themselves imitate. These included reds from the Medoc in Bordeaux, whites from the Mosel and Rhine Valleys in Germany, and both reds and whites from the Côte d’Or in Burgundy. His explanation of why the best Burgundies, few of which were known outside the region at the time, rank among the very best anywhere reads as though it were written today: “The secret of the excellence of Burgundy depends upon unknown qualities in the soil, which are developed only in particular places, often in the same vineyard, at all events within a very narrow district. Whatever be the cause, France has in these wines a just cause of boast, and a staple in which she has never been excelled.” On second thought, perhaps it is more accurate to say that people writing about Burgundy today often sound as though they have just finished reading Cyrus Redding.
Unlike earlier writers, most notably the Frenchman André Jullien, Redding actually visited the places he wrote about and tasted the wines made there. He could be just as savage in his criticism as he was generous in his praise. He considered most Spanish wine undrinkable, most Italian wine putrid. Vintners in those countries stored their wines in animal skins or dirty casks, did not distinguish between different grape varieties, and had little if any interest in the then fledgling science of oenology. To Redding’s mind, they were wasting nature’s gifts.
As important as what Redding had to say about the wines of his day was his audience, for he was one of the first authors to write specifically for consumers. He described how particular wines tasted, and while he rarely recommended specific vintages or producers, he quite clearly thought of himself as the modern wine drinker’s advocate. Redding did not use any of today’s gushy fruit salad lingo. Instead, his descriptions were simple and precise, his goal being to “convey as much as possible by fact.” So he praised the “perfect delicacy and aroma” of pure Rhine Rieslings, noted that the best Medocs have “superior body and consistence,” and lauded Hungarian Tokay for its “soft” taste, “not sharp or acrimonious . . . [with] an astringent twang, a little earthy.” Despite all the advances in grape growing and winemaking over succeeding generation, those descriptions continue to ring true.
Redding’s audience was much the same as today’s, a largely middle-class group of often new wine enthusiasts. That class was just coming into its own in the mid-nineteenth century and so only starting to flex its considerable economic muscle, but Redding recognized that it would grow larger and more powerful as the years passed. Only a generation or two earlier, fine wine had been the exclusive property of the privileged elite. Now it was becoming available to “individuals of competent means,” men and women who could afford to acquaint themselves with objects of “luxury or comfort.” Redding aimed to help them do just that. Thus he was writing more for merchants and shopkeepers than for lords or earls.
Cyrus Redding did not invent modern wine. That honor goes to the vintners and grape growers who pioneered the new, pure style of unadulterated wine he so enjoyed. He did, however, inaugurate a new way of talking and thinking about wine, one that we have inherited even though we may not know its origin. So to return to our toast: Let’s lift a glass -- Champagne, of course, since he considered it to be a wine “of exquisite delicacy” -- to the old fellow. He may rarely be remembered these days, but his legacy lives on.