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Arranged and compiled as a true miscellany should be, with a ...
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Arranged and compiled as a true miscellany should be, with a deft sprinkling of facts and comments, observations and insights, A Wine Miscellany is that rarest of books–a perfect gift for the wine connoisseur and, for the newcomer to wine, an entertaining and informative introduction to the charm and marvel of all things vino.
Almost every aspect of the history, culture, business, and lore of wine makes a showing within these pages, as do some great stories never before encountered in the usual wine books. So, whether your passion is Claret, Burgundy, or Champagne, Old World or New, and whether you’re intrigued by the famous Mouton-Rothschild labels designed by leading artists or curious about the wines favored by (among others) Lord Byron, Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or the influential wine writer Robert Parker, A Wine Miscellany is this season’s finest vintage, and a pleasure to be savored for years to come.
The earliest fermented beverage of which there is archaeological evidence dates back around 9,000 years. Chinese pottery shards from 7,000 bc show evidence of a mixed fermented drink made from either hawthorn or grapes. The next oldest wine—almost certainly grape-based—was traced from pottery found in the Neolithic complex at Hajji Firuz Tepe in Iran.
There is little need to seek the origins of wine. Any grapes crushed in a rock hollow or left in a skin bag or a pottery bowl in the heat of the summer will ferment. The Neolithic peoples would undoubtedly have noticed how the sweetness of the grapes was transformed into a liquid with different and intriguing properties.
A romantic Iranian legend speaks of a young lady intent on suicide after having been rejected by the king. Her chosen method was to drink the liquid residue of spoiled table grapes. She passed out but awoke to find that life was worth living after all—and was restored to the harem after passing on her discovery.
The Origins of Wine
Wine of a different type—and very different vintage—was reportedly discovered by Chinese archaeologists in one of the tombs of the Western Han dynasty (206 bc to ad 25), in the city of Xian. Rice wine had been stored in a bronze vessel with a raw lacquer seal that had kept it entirely airtight. The wine was described as having a light flavor and a low alcohol content. It was, however, green. This may have been the result of oxidation from the bronze container, but Chinese wine experts say that some rice wine was fermented green.
Patrick McGovern is an American archaeologist who discovered the oldest traces of wine on pottery vessels dating back to 7,000 bc. He has also analyzed a 3,000-year-old wine found hermetically sealed into bronze vessels. This wine had a floral odor on opening, though this dispersed almost immediately, and had been flavored with herbs and flowers, and in one instance, with wormwood (the essence of absinthe).
Wine—But Not As We Know It
As the notes above on ancient Chinese rice wine record, the European Commission’s definition of wine as the “fermented juice of grapes” excludes many types of wine. A recent addition to the pantheon of world “wine” is Chinese sh wine. The wine, for which the official Chinese news agency Xinhua claims orders have already been received from a number of neighboring countries, is said to be “nutritious and contain low alcohol.”
In 2001, the Orkney Wine Company was established in Scotland after getting grants from the local council and the Highland Fund. The plan was to make wine with fruit and vegetables; a whisky and carrot blend was the first planned for commercial consumption. Turnip experiments were successful, but it was felt the ingredients were unlikely to attract customers.
Attractive (to some) but illegal in many jurisdictions is the following “wine.”
This “weedwine” recipe is from a United States website (www.totse.com).
4 to 8 ounces fresh marijuana
3 oranges, sliced
2 gallons boiling water
3 lemons, sliced
5 pounds sugar or 8 pounds honey
2 cakes yeast
Preparation Place the fresh cannabis in boiling water, and add sugar, orange, and lemon slices. Remove from the heat and let stand for several days. Add yeast after straining the wine into a clean container. Ferment for four weeks before racking and corking.
The ancients might (or might not) have approved of such a recipe. We do not know for certain how important grapes (as distinct from other fruits and vegetables) were, other than as the most easily fermented source of an intoxicating liquid. What is certain is that techniques of fermenting grapes were well advanced thousands of years ago and that wine had already become a business.
Pemberton’s French Wine Coca
Coca wine, with cocaine, was already flourishing in late nineteenth-century America when Dr. John S. Pemberton created his “French Wine Coca” in 1886. He was a latecomer to the market, which was dominated by Angelo Mariani’s Coca Wine. This product, conceived and marketed by a French priest, added cocaine to wine. Pemberton added both kola nuts and damiana (a natural aphrodisiac) to his drink and marketed it as an aid to overcoming morphine addiction. It was advertised as an “intellectual beverage” with the capacity to “invigorate the brain.” Cocaine was removed from the drink in 1904, though the Coca-Cola Company continued to use “decocainised” coca leaves as flavoring for some decades. It is possible that they may still do so. In 2002, the Bolivian authorities authorized the export of 159 tons of coca leaf to the United States “for the manufacturing of the soft drink, Coca-Cola.” The company was equivocal in its response to inquiries. “The formula for Coca-Cola is a very closely guarded trade secret. Therefore we do not discuss the formula.” Make of that what you will.
The Commercial History
Five thousand years ago the Egyptians were confidently in control of the technology of winemaking, and wine had become a well-regulated commercial industry with distribution of casks by river and a code of conduct for wine sellers.
The laws of Hammurabi, the sixth King of Babylon, make it clear that wine sellers were women. This does not appear to have been a menial occupation. The Fourth Dynasty of Kish was founded in Sumer around 3,000 bc by a woman who had been a wine seller in her youth. The eternally seditious nature of bars and cafés is suggested by the king’s ruling that if outlaws should hatch a conspiracy in the house of a wine seller and she did not inform on them to the authorities then she herself should be put to death.
The Spread of Wine
Region & Time of arrival China 7,000 bc
Mesopotamia 6,000 bc
Egypt 5,000 bc Phoenicia (North Africa) 3,000 bc
Cyprus 3,000 bc
Greece and Crete 2,000 bc (earliest evidence is a stone foot-press at a Minoan villa dated to 1,600 bc) Southern/Central Europe 1,000 bc to 500 bc
Northern Europe (via the Roman Empire) 500 bc to ad 300
The Wine of Omar Khayyám
Writing around nine hundred years ago in his collection of poems, the Rubáiyát, Persian poet Omar Khayyám sings the praises (at least in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation) of “a Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness.”
Which wine was he drinking? It was more likely to have been white than red, and more likely sweet than dry. It may well have come from the villages around Shiraz, an eighth-century town that legend says gave its name to the red wine grape we know as Syrah (Old World), or Shiraz (New World).
Omar’s name has been borrowed by the Mumbai (previously Bombay) concern Château Indage for India’s best-known (and best) “champagne,” a Chardonnay-based wine. Omar Khayyám is a dry and fragrant sparkling wine, and has a more alcoholic sister labeled Marquise de Pompadour. Though the “Champagne India” name annoys the Champenois, it does have Piper-Heidsieck expertise behind it.
The Indians are becoming increasingly enthusiastic about wine and their consumption is growing by 20 percent a year—albeit from a tiny base. There are around 200 million middle-class Indians who could potentially be turned on to wine. India is the world’s second-largest producer of table grapes (after Chile), and Indian wines from the Sula vineyard in Maharashtra, west India, are now sold in Italy, France and the United States.
By Omar’s time (c. 1120 ad) certainly one and possibly two wine businesses still extant were in operation.
Oldest Wine Families
Although the wine business was undoubtedly commercialized thousands of years ago, the oldest wine business still in existence goes back only a thousand years or so.
The oldest known wine business (almost certainly the oldest French business in any sector) is probably the Château de Goulaine, run by the family of that name continuously since the year 1,000. Its interests include wine production from the castle vineyards; however, it is not clear when wine was first produced for sale, rather than for family consumption. The company is reputed to be the third-oldest commercial concern in the world—after two Japanese businesses (one of which, a temple maker, dates back to ad 578).
The Ricasoli family interests in wine and olive oil in Italy go back to at least 1141, when the Republic of Florence gifted them land near Siena. (Bettino Ricasoli is credited with having created the original recipe for Chianti by combining two red grapes, Sangiovese and Canaiolo, with two white grapes, Malvasia and Trebbiano.) It is the fourth-oldest family business in the world.
The Antinori family concern of Florence, the ninth-oldest wine business, traces its involvement in wine back to Giovanni di Piero Antinori’s acceptance into the Florentine Guild of Vintners in 1385. The current Piero Antinori and his three daughters still run a wine empire that stretches from Italy to the Americas and takes in Malta, Hungary and Chile.
Back in France, the Coussergues family has produced wine since 1495 and is now into the sixteenth generation of the family. It is the eleventh-oldest wine family.
The Codorníu estate in Spain, like the Fonjallaz business in Switzerland, dates back to the mid-sixteenth century. The third-oldest French business, that of the Hugel family in Alsace, dates back to 1639, when the family started to make wine in Riquewihr, though its roots go back to at least the fifteenth century. Wine merchants do not enter the lists until the seventeenth century.
Oldest Wine Merchants
By common consent the world’s oldest active wine merchant is Berry Bros & Rudd—still operating from 3 St. James’s Street in London. The shop here was opened by the Widow Bourne in 1698. George Berry did not take over the business until 1803, by which date the firm had been supplying the British royal family with wine for over forty years. Non-wine note: Cutty Sark whisky (America’s best-selling whisky of the 1960s and 1970s) was created at 3 St. James’s Street in 1923.
Hedges & Butler, another U.K. company, claims to have been founded in 1667 but is no longer independent and trades merely as a retail brand within the Bass business. Its distinguished whisky brands are now owned by Ian Macleod and Co. Ltd., an independent Scottish distillery. Macleod and Co. is (or was) also responsible for the “tonic wine,” Wincarnis. This is a blend of wine and meat (vin plus carnis) which was also known as Liebig’s Extract of Meat and Malt Wine. Enough said.
The oldest American merchant is Acker Merrall & Condit. The company was formed in 1820 and carries a range of wines priced from $4 to $19,000. The company is now the preeminent American wine auctioneer on the East Coast.
Though his father’s wine-importing business has not survived, fourteenth-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer reflected in his poems an upbringing surrounded by wine and food.
Chaucer was the son of a wealthy wine importer. Born around 1340, he had parallel careers as an official of the royal court and as a poet. His work as customs officer, forester and royal clerk rewarded him not just with salaries and annuities but also with daily pitchers of wine and, later on in his life, a yearly barrel of wine. His courtly poems make little mention of food and wine, and James Matterer, an expert on Chaucerian cookery, believes Chaucer was not greatly consumed by passions for food and wine. However, his late masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, which focuses on the emerging middle classes of fourteenth-century England, uses food and wine to illustrate the character of each of the pilgrims whose tales he tells.
“The Summoner’s Tale” in particular gives graphic accounts of the way in which alcohol and intoxication fuel a tyrant’s taste for brutality. Despite warnings from a courtier that “wine causes man to lose, and wretchedly, his mind, and his limbs’ usages,” Cambyses, a king who enjoys his drink, kills the courtier’s son with an arrow to demonstrate that his “might of hand and foot” and his eyesight are unimpaired by the effects of wine.
In other tales, wine has a gentler role. Chaucer has his characters talk of “ypocras,” “vernage” and “clarree.” Vernage was a sweet Italian wine. The name lives on as Vernaccia. Both ypocras and clarree were, in effect, mulled wines, sweetened and spiced to act as aperitifs and/or digestifs.
Ypocras—named after the Greek physician Hippocrates—was an after-dinner digestif. It would be made with either red or white wine but the former was usually preferred since its robustness was held to promote good digestion. A modern recipe for ypocras calls for a bottle of inexpensive red wine (preferably sweet) that is brought to the boil with 1 1D4 cups of honey (or 1 1D4 cups of sugar). Add more honey or sugar to ensure that it is appropriately sweet for your taste. Skim off any scum from the top of the liquid, allow it to cool and add a tablespoon of each of the following spices: ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, white pepper, clove, nutmeg and caraway seed. Stand the liquid in a cool place for twenty-four hours, then strain through several layers of cheesecloth (or coffee filters). Repeat if necessary for maximum clarity. Mature for a month at least.
Clarree was also flavored with honey and spices. Usually made with sweet white wine, it too should be boiled first with honey. The spice mix is less extensive: one tablespoon each of cinnamon, ginger and cardamom and a teaspoon of white pepper. As with ypocras, clarree should be strained and matured. The name comes from vinum claratum, or clarified wine, and is said to be the ancestor of the term “claret.”
Both these recipes come—in adapted form—from The Forme of Curye (c. 1390), compiled by and for cooks in the household of Richard II.
Served chilled, clarree is recommended as an aperitif. Ypocras would be taken at the end of the meal or possibly with a final late-night snack called the voide, which featured sweet fruits, cakes and spiced wine as a nightcap.
Sir John and His Wines
Another drinker whose name, and those of his preferred drinks, has survived the centuries is Shakespeare’s lecherous knight Sir John Falstaff.
“A good sherris-sack hath a two-fold operation in it,” says Sir John in Henry IV, Part 2, Act IV. Sack was Sir John’s tipple. Sherris (i.e., Jerez) was simply the place of production. It was not a fortified wine and was probably around 16 percent alcohol. In London it would have been sweetened—perhaps at Falstaff’s London base, the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap. Occasionally the wine was adulterated (in Falstaff’s view) by the addition of “pullet-sperm,” or beaten eggs.