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By Rod Phillips
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Rod Phillips
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From the Beginnings to 1000 CE
As the history of French wine was beginning, about twenty-five hundred years ago, both of the key elements were missing: there was no geographical or political entity called France, and no wine was made on the territory that was to become France. As far as we know, the Celtic populations living there did not produce wine from any of the varieties of grapes that grew wild in many parts of their land, although they might well have eaten them fresh. They did cultivate barley, wheat, and other cereals to ferment into beer, which they drank, along with water, as part of their daily diet. They also fermented honey (for mead) and perhaps other produce.
In cultural terms it was a far cry from the nineteenth century, when France had assumed a national identity and wine was not only integral to notions of French culture and civilization but held up as one of the important influences on the character of the French and the success of their nation. Two and a half thousand years before that, the arbiters of culture and civilization were Greece and Rome, and they looked upon beer-drinking peoples, such as the Celts of ancient France, as barbarians. Wine was part of the commercial and civilizing missions of the Greeks and Romans, who introduced it to their new colonies and later planted vineyards in them. When they and the Etruscans brought wine and viticulture to the Celts of ancient France, they began the history of French wine.
Although the Romans were largely responsible for planting vineyards throughout France, the first wines known to have reached ancient France came from Etruria in central Italy, the territory that is now Tuscany. The Etruscans were producing wine by 800 BCE as a result of contact with the Phoenicians from the eastern Mediterranean, and by 625 BCE they had begun to ship it to ports on the Mediterranean coast of ancient France. One shipment from sometime in the period 525–475 BCE, which never reached its destination, lies in the wreck of an Etruscan vessel that sank in sixty meters (two hundred feet) of water off Grand Ribaud Island, a kilometer (0.6 miles) from the French coast east of Toulon. In its hold were about a thousand amphoras, pottery vessels used for storing and shipping wine, olive oil, and dry goods such as grain. The wine in this ship — which would have been sailing westward along the coast of ancient France, perhaps to the port of Lattara, where Etruscan merchants had warehousing facilities — amounted to about forty thousand liters (eleven thousand gallons), the equivalent of some fifty thousand modern bottles of wine.
Much of the evidence of the Etruscan wine trade to Mediterranean France takes the form of amphoras excavated intact or in pieces from sea and riverbeds and from sites on land. They were two-handled vessels with a pointed end and commonly held about forty liters (eleven gallons, or about fifty-three modern bottles), although Roman amphoras were often smaller, holding about twenty-five liters (seven gallons, or thirty-three bottles). Each center of amphora production worked its own variations on the basic shape, and some added designs, making it possible to identify their origins. Some (like those in the ship wrecked off Grand Ribaud Island) were sealed with cork stoppers, while others were sealed with clay, wood, or textiles. Stacked in layers in the hulls of ships — transportation was far cheaper by water than by land — amphoras were the principal means of shipping wine until wooden barrels replaced them in the second century CE.
Unlike ancient barrels, only parts of which have only rarely survived two thousand years, untold numbers of ancient amphoras have survived burial underground and in water, enabling archaeologists to identify their provenance and scientists to identify their contents from chemical residues on their interior walls. Many of those retrieved from southern France and its coastal waters show chemical and botanical residues that almost certainly derive from grapes. The amphoras might have held fresh grapes, wine, or vinegar, but there is a high probability that they contained wine, because chemical analysis also showed other characteristics common to ancient wines: tartaric acid, which is indicative of grapes; tree resin, used as a preservative or flavoring; and herbs (such as rosemary, basil, and thyme) used to enhance the aromas and flavors of wine.
The seventh-century BCE Etruscan wine trade to Mediterranean ancient France might have been robust, but it soon declined in the face of competition from Greeks. In about 6oo bce, Phocaean Greeks from Anatolia (in modern Turkey) established the settlement of Massalia (now Marseille), which became the region's main port. Given the centrality of wine to their culture and diet, it is not surprising that Greeks took it with them wherever they went. Settlers needed a supply of wine for daily consumption, festivities, and religious purposes, and a wine trade was quickly established between Greece and its settlements throughout the Mediterranean. As the indigenous Celtic inhabitants of ancient France — the wealthier strata, at least — began to emulate the newcomers and drink wine, the trade grew so as to supply the expanded market. One sunken ship excavated by marine archaeologists was carrying an astonishing ten thousand amphoras, which would have contained as much as four hundred thousand liters (one hundred thousand gallons) of wine, the equivalent of half a million standard modern bottles. It is estimated that Greek merchants shipped ten million liters (2.6 million gallons) of wine to ancient France each year through Massalia alone. Much of it was then shipped to other towns in Massalia's trading network, including Celtic communities along the coast and up the Rhône and Saône Rivers.
The Greeks not only imported wine but began to plant vines. By about 525 BCE they were making their own amphoras in Massalia, a very good indicator that they were producing wine locally; there would have been no reason to produce amphoras if there was nothing to fill them with, and there are residues of grape seeds at a number of excavated sites in and near Massalia, including Nîmes. This local wine production undercut the Etruscan wine trade to southern France, which went into decline but did not disappear entirely. It continued through Lattara, a coastal town south of what is now Montpellier and near the modern town of Lattes, where Vins de Pays d'Oc (the association of Languedoc wines) has its headquarters. In about 525 BCE, just as wine was beginning to be produced at Massalia, a complex of structures for warehousing and shipping goods both imported and for export was built at Lattara, which became the main port of entry for Etruscan wine. There must have been vineyards at Lattara too, as a limestone pressing platform was discovered there, along with piles of grape seeds. It dates from 425–400 BCE, about a century after the first evidence of wine being made in the region of Massalia.
On the basis of current knowledge we can conclude that wine was being produced on the Mediterranean coast of ancient France by about 500 BCE, two and a half millennia ago, and that Etruscans had imported it one or two centuries before that. These are the earliest known dates of wine-related activity in France, although it is quite possible that evidence will be found of even earlier wine trade and production there. Among the current unknowns is when the indigenous Celts, rather than Etruscan and Greek settlers, began to make wine, but at this point there is no evidence that they did so before the arrival of these newcomers.
If the Celts had made wine before the arrival of outsiders, they would have had to use indigenous wild vines that produced grapes that were generally too small, with too low a ratio of pulp to seeds and skin, to make pressing them very worthwhile. Wine must have been made on a commercial scale in ancient France only after exotic domesticated varieties (with larger berries and a higher pulp content) had been introduced or indigenous varieties had been selected and bred. The earliest evidence of domesticated grapes (but not of wine making) has been found at Port Ariane, very close to Lattes, and dates from the seventh to sixth centuries BCE, when the Etruscan wine trade began. Vines were sometimes transported long distances for replanting — in ships, they were planted in soil in the cool lower levels — and it seems likely that the first wine from French vineyards came from imported vines.
The vines planted at sites along the Mediterranean coast from about 500 BCE were the forerunners of the vineyards of the massive Languedoc-Roussillon wine region, which now accounts for a quarter of France's viticultural area. We do not know the extent of the earliest French vineyards or the volume of wine that they produced, but neither is likely to have been very substantial. Given the scale of imports from Etruria and from Greek vineyards in southern Italy, there was probably enough for some better-off groups within the indigenous Celtic populations to drink wine from time to time, especially on festive and other special occasions and perhaps for medical and therapeutic purposes. But the mass of the population must have continued to drink beer, water, and occasionally some mead. Even so, the Roman historian Justin ranked viticulture, along with urban life and constitutional government, as one of the benefits of civilization that the Greek settlers of Massalia had conferred on the indigenous inhabitants of the area.
The wine cultures of the Greeks (and later the Romans) who settled in ancient France are important to understanding the impetus to develop viticulture and wine making there. Undoubtedly, these settlers consumed some of the wine imported into and produced in ancient France because it was a staple of the daily diet in their homelands. In Greece, vines were planted throughout the mainland and the islands of the Aegean Sea, and wine was consumed at all levels of society. Elite males drank wine in ritualized gatherings known as symposia, where it was diluted with water and the participants occupied themselves by talking, being entertained, playing wine-related games, and occasionally having sex. Other classes in Greek society drank wine of varying quality, according to their rank and means.
Wine and the manner of drinking it were markers of social distinction in Greece, setting the upper classes off from the lower, and the Greek elites used the same criteria to differentiate civilized people (themselves) from those who were uncivilized. The Greeks did not drink beer and were scornful not only of anyone who did but also of anyone who consumed wine improperly: by not diluting it with water or by drinking to the point of drunkenness. Scythians and Thracians were uncivilized by this count, and individuals such as Alexander the Great were despised as barbaric because they were heavy drinkers given to violence when they were drunk. In the fifth century BCE, Greek writers added a further charge against beer: that drinking it was "unmanly" and that it made men "effeminate." Wine was one of the benefits of civilization that the Greeks wanted to confer on the beer-drinking Celts of ancient France, just as they had introduced it to southern Italy and later expanded wine production after colonizing Egypt in 300 BCE. In ancient France the Greek wine trade extended well beyond the immediate coastal regions where the Greeks settled, and hundreds of thousands of amphoras lie buried on land and in riverbeds in southern France. Concentrations can be found in such widely dispersed locations as Toulouse in the southwest and Châlon-sur-Saône, in Burgundy, in the east. There may well be hundreds of thousands of amphoras in the bed of the Saône River alone, representing between five and ten million liters (1.3 and 2.6 million gallons) of imported wine.
A particularly striking manifestation of the cultural impact of the Greek wine trade is the treasure discovered in the subterranean burial chamber of a Celtic princess of the Vix lineage near Châtillon-sur-Seine in Burgundy. The Vix treasure includes not only jewelry, statues, and other luxury objects but also a massive Greek krater, the receptacle used for mixing wine and water at a symposium. Ornately decorated, more than a meter and a half (five feet) in height, and holding more than a thousand liters (264 gallons), this krater — made of bronze rather than the usual ceramic — was clearly more decorative than functional; many kraters held less than twenty liters (five gallons) of wine and water. But together with other Greek wine paraphernalia, such as pitchers and cups, that were also found in the tomb, the Vix krater points to the high status of wine in the upper social echelons of Celtic France under Greek influence.
As important as the Etruscans and Greeks were in bringing viticulture and wine drinking to ancient France, their activities pale in comparison with those of the Romans, who began to incorporate France (which they called Gallia, or Gaul) into their empire from the end of the second century BCE. A Roman army crossed the Alps in 125 BCE and within a few years Rome had control of the whole Mediterranean coastal area of Gaul as far as Spain. A land route ran from the Alps to the Pyrenees, and the Romans created a massive province that covered the territory now occupied by most of Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. Called Narbonensis, it had its capital at Narbonne, which was colonized by Romans, and it stretched from the Toulouse region in the west to the Rhône valley in the east (see map 1.1).
At first the Romans imported their own wine into Gaul, principally from their main wine-producing region in Campania, and hundreds of thousands of Italian amphoras have been found around towns such as Autun, Roanne, and Châlon-sur-Saône, as well as in western France, at the mouth of the Loire and farther upstream as far as Angers. In southern France there are concentrations in the western districts of what was then Narbonensis, near Narbonne, Toulouse, Gaillac, and Rodez, and farther east, in the Nîmes region. Amphoras inscribed with the name of Porcius, a wine merchant of Pompeii, one of Campania's major wine-exporting centers, have been found near such towns as Toulouse, Agen, Bordeaux, and Saint-Foy-la-Grande, on the Dordogne River. The distribution of amphoras gives us some idea of the geographical scope of the Romans' wine trade in Gaul by the first century CE. Toulouse itself became an important center for the Italian wine trade, and wine from Campania was shipped from there down the Garonne River to Bordeaux and to communities in southwest France. André Tchernia has estimated that between 150 and 25 BCE, some twelve million liters (three million gallons) of wine were shipped annually from Italy to Gaul. This was far more than the Roman settlers and army could consume, and indicates that there was a robust local market for it. Not only that, but it is likely that some of the Campania wine that made its way to Bordeaux was forwarded to Roman Britain, a forerunner of the massive Bordeaux wine trade with England that developed in the thirteenth century.
The wine trade from Italy was important, but the Roman colonization of southern Gaul also opened the way to viticulture. The Roman Senate had declared at the time when Narbonne was colonized that the "transalpine peoples" (the populations on the other side of the Alps from the perspective of Italy) should not be permitted to grow olives and vines, so as to protect the value of these products exported from Italy. But Roman settlers were not prevented from doing so, and they soon planted vineyards (and olive trees) along the Mediterranean coast and in other areas of southern France. Within two centuries of arriving they began to extend viticulture wherever climate, soil, and other environmental conditions permitted. There was even a brief reversal of the wine trade between Italy and Gaul. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE and buried Pompeii, the important wine trading town, it also destroyed many of the vineyards of Campania. To make up for shortages, some wine was imported from Gaul, as is shown by the presence of Gallic amphoras in Rome's port at Ostia and other towns of the region. This might have been the first significant export of French wine.
Roger Dion has suggested that two of the earliest Roman wine ventures in Gaul were vineyards at Gaillac, to the northeast of Toulouse, and near Vienne in the Rhône valley. Gaillac was a center of amphora manufacture — a necessity for wine production at the time — and it was well situated for selling its wine: it is on the Tarn River, which runs into the Garonne River, giving easy access to markets in Toulouse and Bordeaux. In the first century BCE, Cicero wrote approvingly about the Toulouse wine trade, which most likely involved wine made in Gaillac. The well-off inhabitants of Bordeaux drank wine from Gaillac before vines were planted in their own environs, and Gaillac and other regions of southwest France supplied the bulk of the wine for Bordeaux's wine trade well into the Middle Ages. As for the Rhône valley, the evidence of early Roman vineyards is less clear, but in the first century CE the historian Pliny the Elder reported vines near Vienne, which the poet Martial wrote was well known for its wine. The nearby districts where vineyards are most likely to have been located were those known today as Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, two of the Rhône valley's most prestigious appellations.
Excerpted from French Wine by Rod Phillips. Copyright © 2016 Rod Phillips. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
A Note on Usage xi
1 From the Beginnings to 1000 CE 9
2 The Middle Ages: 1000-1500 34
3 New Wines, New Regions: 1500-1700 63
4 Enlightenment and Revolution: 1700-1800 100
5 Stability and Growth: 1800-1870 130
6 Phylloxera and Renewal: 1870-1914 155
7 Pinard and Postwar France: 1914-1930 192
8 From Depression to Liberation: 1930-1945 221
9 French Wine Reinvented: 1945 to the Present 252
Selected Bibliography 313