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Savoring Wine's Present
By Paul Lukacs
Feb 19, 2013
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Wine nostalgia simply does not make sense anymore.  We live in an age of unprecedented quality, with more good wines available to more people than ever before.  Mythologizing the past is short-sighted and downright silly.

For thousands of years, however, people who talked and wrote about wine did look backwards.  In the Odyssey, for example, Homer spoke wistfully of a past world where fecund nature yielded stellar vintages of its own accord, and “spontaneous wines” flowed from “weighty clusters” without any sort of human intervention.  The poet had never actually drunk such wine.  He simply assumed that it had to be superior to what he did drink--a beverage that inevitably soured quickly and so tasted acrid and vinegary.

Lords and ladies in the Middle Ages displayed a similar sort of longing when searching for wines that they thought resembled those made in ancient Rome.  They called these “Romneys,” and sweetened them with everything from honey to dried fruit to exotic spices, all used to disguise the oxidized, acrid juice.  Similarly, at the start of the twentieth century, connoisseurs valued wines made a generation or two earlier, before infestations devastated Europe’s vineyards.  Phylloxera, a tiny louse that sucks a vine’s roots dry, had been the most injurious predator, and people waxed rhapsodic about the virtues of “pre-phylloxera” wines that they thought tasted better than the ones they usually drank.  It hardly mattered that most consumers had not tried those wines, many of which, after more than fifty years of cellaring, would have been at best tired and at worst dead.

More recently, this sort of nostalgia can be heard in the voices of critics and commentators who advocate for what they sometimes call “authentic” wines.  The argument is seductively simple:  Before the spread of certain grape varieties and wine styles across the world, wines tasted above all of themselves.   By contrast, wines today taste too often of bottom lines and market research.  Terry Thiese, a witty and erudite pundit who is America’s leading importer of German wine, summarizes the case neatly when he distinguishes between mass-produced “industrial” wines and small-scale “agricultural” ones.  The latter, which he champions, are rooted in “family, soil, and culture.”  They tend to be made by “vintners who descend from other vintners,” and so provide a sensory link to “a more meandering and forgiving time.”  This Arcadian past, he suggests, would have been marked by harmony and grace, and stands in stark contrast to the contemporary world of mind-numbing rush and rumble.

The problem with all this nostalgia is that both the worlds and the wines it evokes never existed.  Palatable wine did not emerge spontaneously from untended vines in Mycenaean Greece.  Nearly all ancient Roman wines tasted thin and acerbic, not sweet and full, just as the majority of nineteenth century wine proved short-lived and tart.  And as recently as fifty years ago, most “agricultural” wines were dirty, sour, and disagreeably coarse. 

For nearly all of wine’s roughly 8,000 year history, bitter, vinegary flavors and off-putting aromas were the norm.  That’s because exposure to air encourages the growth of bacteria in wine, and until the invention of sturdy glass bottles and secure cork stoppers some 250 years ago, virtually all wines were stored in porous if not open containers that invited contamination.  As a result, they teetered on the edge of spoilage.  The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans did use well-sealed amphorae for their best wines, but these were so filled with additives, including most notably pine sap and resin, that they have little in common with what people today consider fine-tasting wine. 

Only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did vintners begin to fashion wines that resembled, if only faintly, the wines made now.  This was also the age that began to value taste conceived of not simply as physical sensation but also as aesthetic discernment.  People aspired to cultivate and then display taste, and knowing something about win--how to choose the “right” wine in the “right” circumstance--became a de rigueur mark of refinement and discrimination.

Very few wines, however, signaled anything of the sort.  The nineteenth century was also the era in which the distinction between ordinary, cheap wine and special or “fine” wine became culturally entrenched.  The former was commonly thought of as a source of calories for the poor and, of course, inebriation for all.  There was nothing remotely refined about it.  And the vast majority of wine produced in the world--in Europe certainly, but also in the Americas, Australia, and South Africa--fit that profile.  It tasted as harsh and sour as virtually every wine had tasted for thousands of years.

All this only began to change in the mid-twentieth century, when a series of scientific and technological advancements--most notably refrigeration--revolutionized winemaking across the globe.  Producers of inexpensive common wines used the new knowledge and new equipment to make wines modeled on the most esteemed fine wines.  Some worked on a small, artisanal scale; others joined cooperatives or worked for large corporations that made wine in heretofore unimagined volume.  Yet no matter the size of the individual operation, overall quality almost always improved.  Most wines were no longer vinegary or sour, dirty and unpleasant.  Not surprisingly, consumer interest in them skyrocketed.  Good wine stopped being the exclusive province of tasteful sophisticates.  It instead became democratized, and people in places that never had much use for it, the United States being the most obvious example, developed their own taste for it.

The internationalization of quality wine did mean that certain grape varieties and, even more to the point, certain wine styles, became popular in places far away from their historic homes.  In this regard, Terry Thiese is surely right when he notes that a great many current wines “are cut from the same pattern.”  It is easy, for example, to find Chardonnays today hailing from Argentina, Australia, California, Chile, and yes, France, that taste remarkably similar.  Yet this is not necessarily a bad thing.  After all, tasting similarly good is far better than tasting similarly bad.

Even more important, globalization is not the only trend in the contemporary world of wine.  Equally significant is increased specialization, the spread of distinctive-tasting wines made with previously unknown grapes throughout the world.  Who just a generation ago had even heard of Albariño from Galicia in Spain, or Falanghina from southern Italy, or Assyrtiko from the Greek island of Santorini?  Who knew that high quality, individualistic wines could be made in northern Michigan, or in far southern New Zealand, or in Argentina’s Patagonia?  The explosion of interest in specialized wines has its source in the same phenomenon that led to wine’s globalization--the spread of knowledge and expertise that has raised overall quality worldwide.  By all accounts, most Albariños produced thirty years ago tasted sour; most Assyrtikos were oxidized, and many places that now are home to exciting, individualistic wines had no vineyards at all.  A great deal has changed very quickly, and when considered against the backdrop of actual, not mythologized history, the changes are almost all to the good.

Not all that long ago, most wine tasted shrill and unpleasant, something which explains why people so often imagined a richer, more glorious past.  Today, however, virtually all wine is chemically sound, and a great many particular wines, no matter their price tags, taste enthralling.  People who continue to look backwards in an attempt to locate a golden age for wine miss out on its current glory.  Their misguided notions of a fabled past lead them to advocate for fairy tales, not authentic pleasures.   

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Paul Lukacs, long-standing Wine Review Online contributor, is the author of the recently published, Inventing Wine: A New History of one of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures (W.W. Norton).