Vinous Milestones

2350 BC (give or take a few)

Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, the “wild man of the woods” has his first glass of wine. “He drank seven times. His thoughts wandered. He became hilarious. His heart was full of joy and his face shone.” Ah well, so what’s new? Wine from dates, raisins, wild or cultivated vines? Let’s enjoy the mystery!

The Bible tells us Noah was the first vineyard owner, and wise man that he was, among his first post-Flood actions was to plant a vineyard. The Ark, according to legend, came to rest around Mount Ararat, near the Turkish-Armenian border. Either here, or slightly farther north, in Georgia is where the cultivating and civilizing of vines began (archaeology, rather than legend speaking here).

300 BC – AD 200

The Romans took the Greek “Symposia” (philosophical drinking parties) and converted them into “Convivia” (women and food now permitted), and the first staging post for wine and cuisine and conversation was created.

The Romans with their extending empire established vines in Catalonia, the Danube, the Rhine, the Mosel, Southern France up the Rhone Valley, in Burgundy, in the Loire, Champagne and Bordeaux. So, there were certainly abundant vinous blessings from their Empire!

1100s-1200s

The Dark Ages pervaded Europe with their gloom and barbarism. The flame of civilization in Europe was kept lit, however flickering, in the monasteries. And so we come to Clos de Vougeot.

While the first wine-linked monastery was in the Mosel in the 4th century, it was the bishops and the monasteries of this latter era that supported, sustained and exalted wine making for several hundred years.

Gifts of vineyards could contribute to salvation or so it was thought, the link of wine to the Eucharist underlined its special nature. The Benedictines first influenced the world of wine, then the Cistercians.

While they established vineyards far afield, the greatest influence was in Burgundy. Partly funded by the eight Crusades between 1097 and 1291 (knights seeking salvation made donations of land), the walled vineyard of Clos de Vougeot was established by 1336. And then all along the Cote d’Or, the monks set to work to define every tiny parcel of vineyard, plotting their strengths and demerits geologically and defining their different flavors and remarkable nuances. The literally hallowed vineyards of Burgundy were established!

1154-1453

And so, claret came to be born. Bordeaux was settled by the Romans due to the Gironde estuary, the biggest natural harbor in Western Europe and on the banks, a perfect trading post. The Roman planted vines were around Blaye, Bourg and Saint Emilion. As their empire collapsed though, so did everything else.

Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine (which was an independent dukedom covering southwest France including Bordeaux). Through siege and then fealty, Bordeaux pledged allegiance to the British crown. Wine was at the heart of this special relationship.

The light red wine of Bordeaux was quite insipid and was often “enhanced” by wine from Cahors and Gaillac. Nevertheless, by the 14th century, trade had converted taste, and 110 million bottles were shipped from the quays of Bordeaux.

Vines were planted all around otherwise, but until the Dutch drained the swamp that was the Medoc, no vines went in to that region of course until the 17th century.

Back to martial history. Eventually after the 100 Years’ war, in 1453 Sir John Talbot on the British side was defeated at the Battle of Castillon (perhaps too much to drink at lunch?). However, the British taste for claret was to endure.

1540

In 1961, a group of gastronomes gathered in Mayfair, London, to taste the oldest bottle of wine we know of having been tasted. Fortunately, this included eminent wine scribe Hugh Johnson, hence we know of it.

The wine was from 1540. Only after 1700 did cork (lost since Roman times) that could reliably “plug” a bottle re-emerge with consistency. Ergo, this wine had been in a barrel for probably just under 200 years. It was, it almost had to be, a Steinwein. And its vintage was 1540. Michelangelo was hard at work then, Henry VIII was onto his 5th wife, the Renaissance was in full blaze.

That it was likely to be a German wine comes down to the Riesling grape, with its ability to retain high acidity, which combats oxidation. But you need high acidity with ripeness. Around the 16th century though there were a plethora of very warm vintages. 1540 was probably the last of them, the Rhine virtually dried up. So unprecedented ripeness with the high acidity produced a wine of exceptional vigor and depth. It came from the Wurzburger Stein vineyards, was kept cool in the Prince-Bishop’s cellars, topped up with sulfur as an antioxidant judiciously, nurtured in luxurious barrels, until the right type of bottle and cork appeared.

Hugh Johnson’s report: “Ancient Madeira, but less acid…this brown, Madeira-like fluid still held the active principles of life that had been conceived in it by the sun of that distant summer…For perhaps two mouthfuls we sipped a substance that had lived for over four centuries, before the exposure to air killed it. It gave up the ghost and became vinegar in our glass.”

And so, the vitality of aged Riesling became ever more evident!

1587

Fortified wine became associated with the southwest of Spain. Fortifying a wine, adding strong alcoholic spirit to inhibit bacterial activity, was relevant in southwest Spain as the Spanish fleet set off from there to their far-flung empire.

The English, whose wine merchants, along with the Dutch, had been particularly active since the 14th century, sought robustness in such wine, mingled with some sweetness. Spain’s proximity to the Muslim Moors provided an added attraction, as they were Europe’s experts at distilling high strength spirits.

The English drank a lot of wine called “sack.” While it could come from various regions, the most famous was called “Sherris sack” from Jerez de la Fontera in the southwest of Spain. This is the wine Sir Francis Drake brought back when he “singed” the beard of the King of Spain. Shakespeare’s Falstaff downed it by the gallon claiming it produced “excellent wit” and “warming of the blood.”

As sack became the rage in Elizabethan England, it had to become fortified for transport, and along with Madeira and Port, by the seventeenth century was a fortified wine ranging from very dry and pale to very sweet and dark.

1663

Samuel Pepys, the legendary diarist mentions the surpassing excellence of a wine called “Ho Bryan” experienced in Magdalene College, Cambridge. This was a legacy of the 17th century landowner, Arnaud de Pontac, who was determined to create intrinsically good wine from the estate his family had acquired in 1525, with land composed of “white sand mixed in with a little gravel.” Such seemingly inhospitable soil in time though, in the right location, grows wonderful grapes.

Pontac became President of the Parlement, and charged special prices for his prized wine, and somehow got away with it – perhaps due to better vineyard practices, selection of better grape varieties, harvesting of riper fruit or more care in the winery.

Within 50 years of Pepy’s accolade, auctions were offering not only Haut Brion, but Lafite, Margaux and Latour, largess from relatively infertile land, recent ex-swampland, acquired by canny parliamentarians, who could prosper by cultivating something they could actually afford! The basis for the Bordeaux hierarchy was set.

1660s-1700s

English merchants wanting to tap the exciting new markets of North America and the West Indies, would sail (due to winds and currents) south past France, Spain and Portugal and into African waters, in hopes of a northeast wind. And that meant you’d be hovering near the relatively isolated island of Madeira, 400 miles out to sea, originally colonized by the Portuguese in 1420 and planted with sugar and vines.

The rather light, acidic wine was often laced with brandy to give it a chance of surviving the bracing ocean voyage. However, captains noted a fascinating transformation as the casks bobbed and weaved and rattled around in the bowels of the vessels. The wine became darker, richer, more mellow, and the disturbing grating acidity was transmuted into charming piquancy, vivid with a more refreshing streak of acid, the hallmark of Madeira, sweet or otherwise.

The four main styles of Madeira were named after the different grape varieties: Sercial, the lightest and driest; Verdelho, fuller and sweeter; Bual, darker and denser; and Malmsey, rich, deep, smoky, full of fascination.

The real connoisseurs of Madeira before the Civil War and later Prohibition clipped their wings, were in Savannah and Charleston. Many of the wines that arrived were put into demijohns allowed to further “bake” and “mellow” under the blazing sun until ready to be drunk.

1690s

The cider makers of England made bottles that had the resilience to make Champagne possible, and the Brits had sparkling wines already. Yet the last thing they were originally after in the Champagne region were bubbles. Vineyards in the valley of the Marne and around Reims had existed since the 5th century. The original wines were of a vaguely pinkish color from Pinot. And given the scarcity of sun, many years the wines were pale, thin, sour and fizzed dourly and obnoxiously when lured from the barrel.

This far north the wine would start off fermenting but then cellars would get so cold, fermentation would stop, until the relative warmth of the spring set it off again. The pale, reedy, occasionally bubbling wine was not what Louis XIV’s court was after, despite the curiously persistent “fame” of the region.

Dom Perignon, noted monk, was named cellar master of the Abbey of Hautvillers, just outside Epernay. Using only Pinot for reds, removing less ripe grapes from the bunch and by choreographing between vineyard sites, the age and vigor of the vines, and vintage climatic conditions, he produced quite fine “blended” wine year on year.

As the rage for sparkling wines surged though, he decided to experiment, reluctantly. In went the “English glass” bottles, in went the use of cork (out of use for centuries in France), and caves were dug to let the wine rest in controlled dark and cool conditions, in the chalk hills behind the abbey. Today, all the Champagne cellars are in chalk caves, and indeed, this imaginative monk revolutionized the wines of Champagne, as he helped all of us “taste the stars.”

1775

Battles, sieges, misunderstandings, mishaps, keeping grapes from being harvested until they were “rotting” in the vineyards, produced the great sweet wines of the world. Of course, often the distraught manager was threatened with the gallows, before providence interceded, a nectar was produced, and joy abounded in the realm (so to speak).

Let us march, along with legend, to the Rheingau, to Schloss Johannesburg. Charlemagne had picked out the site in the 8th century, then the Benedictines arrived and enshrined it as wine country. After The Thirty Years War (ending in 1648), with the vineyards in disrepair, the monastery of Johannesburg was bought by the Prince-Bishop of Fulda. Alas the Fulda was seven day’s ride from the monastery, and it inevitably took some time to get instructions relayed. In 1775, the courier was errant, took more than 14 days certainly, and the grapes were shriveled with rot. Picking the grapes with scant hopes, they found when fermenting stopped in February, they had something rich, sweet and magnificent. “Late harvesting” or “Spatlese” was born!

And so, from this year a standard was set now codified in German law: the nature of the wine depends on how much sugar the grapes contained at harvest and how much was left as sweetness in the wine.

1843-1855-1915-1936

This strange seeming collection of dates is a Bordeaux influence continuum in the world of wine, as the world’s most prolific high-quality wine region sent Cabernet and other influenced allies out to hoist its ‘stylistic’ flag around the world.

1843 is actually about Nebbiolo. While Pliny the Elder purportedly wrote about it and DNA strands are alleged from Georgia, this was considered a dissolute varietal until a 19th century politician intervened. Cavour, the great Italian unifier, first tried to plant Pinot to make wine akin to what he had tasted in Turin. That fell flat. The Marchesi di Barolo had enjoyed fine French wine while in France as a young woman. She and Cavour both hired Louis Oudart, from Champagne yes, but someone with a real passion for the reds of Bordeaux. He followed vinification procedures inspired by Bordeaux for Nebbiolo in seeking to produce a dry red (the current wine produced by the grape was sour, a little sweet, and fizzy). What he produced didn’t taste like Bordeaux, but his vision for reaching in this direction, and his knowledge of the Bordelais practices gave us the “King of Wines, the Wine of Kings” as Barolo came to be knighted by King Victor Emmanuel, the first king of unified Italy.

1855 was of course the famed classification of the Left Bank of Bordeaux, a kind of mercantile “beauty contest” among the wines. But those values have held fairly firm since, so it was not capricious, even if some wines arguably received undue haloes, and others were side-lined. Only one key change has really been made, the inclusion in 1973, of Mouton Rothschild as a First Growth.

1915 is about Spain and Vega Sicilia, often called “the only First Growth of Spain.” In 1864, the owner of the property (then on an isolated farm on the Duero River) went to Bordeaux and came back with 18,000 vines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere, and also some Burgundian Pinot).  In 1915 the first bottling was released, only shared with eminences and friends, never marketed. The mystique grew, if not the profits, from this quixotic “strategy” if it can be called one. In 1982 the Alvarez family bought the estate, and all that changed. Made of Tempranillo and Bordeaux varieties (most prominently Cabernet Sauvignon), the wine spends six to seven years in wood, and then several years in bottle. There is a “javelin” of acidity in the midst of the luscious dark fruit, a haunting wild scent, and you can recognize the marvel of this wine’s signature, whether tasting legendary vintages from the 50’s and 60’s, or more modern treasures. The King of Spain and the Queen of England both vie for allocations, the King perhaps more successfully these days.

1936 relates to Cabernet and Napa. Around 1880, Napa’s first Cabernet was planted in Oakville. While Cabernet was initially a bit player in the firmament, a Frenchman called Georges de Latour planted an estate called Beaulieu at the end of the 19th century. He started producing Cabernet Sauvignon based wines in 1909, surviving Prohibition by persuading the Archbishop of San Francisco to let them provide altar wines. One small batch of Cabernet was kept back each year in small barrels (the rest was made in decrepit conditions and sold off in bulk). This lit the flame, and was to become Napa’s crowning glory, under the guidance of a Russian émigré from France, Andre Tchelistcheff, armed with French vinous experience and savoir-faire, who helped produce a spate of profound Cabernet based wines which set the standard for those who followed.

1945

The end of one of the darkest chapters of human history, and a simply spell-binding vintage, producing some of the greatest wines of the 20th century. In Burgundy, we have Romanee Conti itself producing one of the greatest examples of its genius. Only 608 bottles were produced, noted for its exotic nose, and ineffably elegant, ravishingly textured and balanced palate. We have from Bordeaux, the signature wine of the vintage, Mouton Rothschild, with exceptional concentration and stunningly layered effulgence. From the Rhone, La Chapelle ’45 is a sumptuous peacock’s tail of vital flavors. And Yquem ’45 for some is among the very greatest wines produced by that estate, a thrilling dance of gentle sweetness and still vivid acidity with beautiful spice flecked fruit. We could go to other exemplars, but whether driven by providence, or human outpouring of gratitude and pent up emotion being channeled into the wine-making, we can but tip our hats in admiration and bow our heads in appreciation.

1966

Michael Broadbent is recruited by Christie’s to add fire and finesse to their auctioneering of fine wines. Michael, an avatar of art and culture is irrepressible in his bonhomie and indomitable with his disarming charm. Oz Clarke recounts how Broadbent couldn’t contain himself from playing a lovely Chopin prelude at Chateau Figeac, while the assemblage awaited the treasures of the ’61 (described as good enough to make you want to dance on your table). Then, a little later, as ’34 Figeac invited rapture, Broadbent gently nudged the host to play waltzes, so these effusive Brits (not an adjective typically applied!) could trip that light fantastic with the ladies present.

The point being that not only did Broadbent help create today’s auction market by his keen eye and relentless sleuthing for vinous treasures among cobwebbed cellars in Britain and Europe, but also by his civility, cultural grace, and suave charm, by which he helped “liberate” these treasures from their often initially reluctant owners for a more general market. A delightful patrician air combined with marvelous enthusiasm for life and wine, was a most ‘intoxicating’ combination!

By May of 1967 a new era of wine appreciation had been launched, with American collectors being the most avid (being at the time most flush with cash). Rare bottles, auctions, drama, sizzle, intrigue, all came into vogue. Back then, provenance was straightforward. Alas, with all the visibility of “rare” bottles, the desire to “find” more than existed was also, eventually, born. And good things at times beget less savory offspring, and so the fraudsters were also launched on the tails of this phenomenon.

That landmark 1967, ‘baptismal’ sale which could be said to have launched the modern era of auctioneering, showcased 19th and 18th century treasures from the Marquess of Linlithgow and the Earl of Rosebery: vintages included 1740 Canary, 1757 Cape, 1780 Hock as well as large format impeccably preserved 19th century Bordeaux.

1970s

Chardonnay had already asserted itself, Burgundy’s reds were to now come to the fore in what could be titled the “anything but Cabernet” movement. And so, wine-makers flocked to the beguiling, finicky, delicate, demanding, sensitive, yet at its best, uplifting delights of Pinot Noir.

Chardonnay had been planted, the soil was not Burgundian, but the same barrels were used to ferment the juice, humidity and temperature conditions were mimicked in cellars, the same yeasts were cultivated. Of course, they didn’t have the cellular heritage Burgundian wine-makers did, but these early movers, Heitz, Hanzell, Beaulieu, Freemark Abbey, Stony Hill, made indisputably great white wines, and the world craze for Chardonnay was confirmed.

Now tantalized by red Burgundy, looking for something akin to the limestone crags that crumble into soil there, the Gavilan mountains seemed a possible key. Chalone and Calera made the first Burgundy inspired Pinots, then Carneros on San Francisco Bay, Santa Barbara and the fog kissed Sonoma coast have celebrated Pinot, and Oregon came next with a unique signature Pacific Northwest appeal. These Pinots are not really too reminiscent of Burgundy, nor should they be. But the inspiration gained from the lyrical glory of Burgundian gems has sent wine-makers in these climes seeking after less stridence, more balance, more complexity and nuance, more of that enigmatic allure, even if the overall orchestration has to still remain New World.

And Pinot continues to march, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Canada, Germany – each distinct, each paying homage, in their own distinctive way, to the maddening, haunting beauty those Monks helped elicit over a millennium back.

1982

In 1978, a scrivener called Robert Parker emerged onto the wine scene, taking on the proverbial establishment, claiming journalistic independence (rightly so) by not being in thrall to “the trade.”

He challenged entrenched views, and to upset the overt coziness of wine criticism with the wine trade he “asserted” his “allegedly more objective” 100 Point scale, a virtuoso move in terms of wine communication. Really it is a 40-point scale, as in US educational terms, below 60 is a failing grade, and I cannot recall a wine score in that vicinity anyway. Frankly, most wine scores are in the 90’s and 80’s, suggesting that ‘C’ and ‘D’ grade wines (70’s and 60’s) should not be written about?

Parker’s prose was ablaze with enthusiasm, and before his stock phrases became formulaic and his palate more jaded, there was something refreshingly bracing about the dense, descriptive notes he offered.

His reputation though was made by the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux. While many considered the wines to be too low in acidity and too high in yield and unlikely to flourish in the long term, Parker challenged this, celebrating the astonishing flavors and texture even in the midst of such abundant quantity. It turns out he was right, and a new era was born, and the excitement of the vintage probably ushered in the era of the trophy wine.

The attempt to rekindle some of the natural lushness of ’82 alas was to lead to dubious practices that are beyond the scope of this discussion. But ’82 also upset the balance of power in Bordeaux, as the Pomerols of the Right Bank, were “rediscovered” after decades of relative neglect, as “stars” alongside the established Left Bank grandees. Merlot thrived in ’82, and the hedonistic exoticism on the Right Bank was irresistible. Symbolically speaking, in a taste of 1982 Petrus the modern era of more expansive Bordeaux appreciation was ushered in.

Today

Well, much has happened since. Bordeaux blazed forth for a time, and the world of wine spent perhaps too much time competing for “Parker points.” But also thanks to Parker, the Rhone was also revisited and honored anew.

A new spate of journalists were also brought into prominence as a type of counterbalance, to offer a more wide-ranging palate perspective, more appreciative in particular of Burgundy and other less tannic, higher acid wines.

As a desire for artisanal, terroir-expressive wines surged in response to the “manipulations” afoot to create the high alcohol fruit bombs, Burgundy’s fortunes surged, and in different ways so too the Northern Rhone, other parts of France, Spain, Germany and other regions. California too is rediscovering after it’s “cult” mania, the treasures of its terroir channeled by a new generation of artisan wine-makers.

And so, wine is more a part of our lore than ever, spread hither and thither through the frenzy of mass communication. But then, it has enchanted us for so long as we’ve seen here in our review. Its allure is so encompassing, having pervaded civilized culture over so many millennia.

And as the marvelous quotation affirms, “God in his goodness gave us the grape to drink, both great and small. Little fools will drink too much, and great fools, none at all.”