A brief history of wine, told through 8 delectable bottles
BY Grant Reynolds
21st Dec 2023 Drinks
3 min read
Award-winning sommelier Grant Reynolds recounts the history of different wines and the regions that made them, so you can refine your taste with knowledge
The motivation behind my book, The Wine List, stems from a desire to shed light on crucial moments in the history of the wine industry. These stories explore pivotal vintages, influential producers, and distinctive regions that have shaped both individual tastes and our collective understanding of what constitutes the finest wines.
Comparing winemaking to music, one can trace their parallel histories from ancient times when both were mere expressions of noise or fermented grape juice. Today, individuals can dedicate their careers, even their lives, to the study of these fields.
Baroque music maestros like Bach and Vivaldi resonate through the ages, akin to the enduring prestige of wineries such as Château Lafite and Château Margaux in Bordeaux, or port houses like Taylor Fladgate and Warre’s, their legacy continuing to grace shelves worldwide.
"Similar to popular music, society's collective palate for what defines a "hit" wine evolves over time"
As we fast forward to the turn of the century, we witness a shift in both wine and music, from academia to individualism. Farmers find their voices, society revels in romance, and champagne flows freely. Even in America, there is a newfound dedication to producing high-quality libations.
However, as the 20th century unfolds, the tone resets. In just 100 years, we transition from Louis Armstrong to AI-generated hits or from Dom Perignon to a Texas PetNat—a testament to the rapid pace of creative evolution.
Similar to popular music, society's collective palate for what defines a "hit" wine evolves over time, and today's wine drinkers have unparalleled access to the most extensive catalog of flavours ever experienced.
To truly understand the evolution of wine preferences, let's delve into a brief history of when and why certain wine styles held the top spot on the charts and how they have transformed over time.
During the 1700s, port wine gained popularity, especially in England when political conflicts disrupted the supply of French wines.
Madeira wine, originating from the Portuguese island of Madeira, gained prominence in the 19th century and was celebrated for its durability during long sea voyages.
Champagne, a sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France, gained popularity in the 18th century. Its effervescence and association with celebrations contributed to its appeal.
The technique to create sparkling wine was refined over time, and by the next century, Champagne had become synonymous with luxury worldwide.
Bordeaux, France, boasts a wine history dating back to Roman times. In the 12th century, Eleanor of Aquitaine's marriage to Henry II strengthened Bordeaux's ties with England.
The region flourished with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the 18th century. Classified growths like Lafite and Latour in the 1855 classification elevated Bordeaux's global prestige.
California's wine history began with Spanish missions in the 18th century. In the mid-1900s, pioneers like Robert Mondavi transformed the industry, emphasising quality.
The 1976 Judgment of Paris, where California wines surpassed French counterparts, marked a turning point. Napa Valley and Sonoma emerged as iconic regions, solidifying California's global wine reputation.
Natural wine, made with minimal intervention and additives, has ancient roots, but as a movement it’s one of the most recent trends in wine.
The modern fashion gained momentum in the late 20th century, championed first by producers from France. Today natural wine obsessors and producers continue to represent one of the fastest growing categories of wine on the market.
White Burgundy, made from Chardonnay in Burgundy, France, traces its history to medieval monasteries. By the 19th century, the region's vineyards were classified.
White Burgundy remains synonymous with a lighter style of chardonnay compared to the buttery rich flavours of California.
Red Burgundy's history also dates to medieval times, shaped by Cistercian monks.
19th-century classifications laid the foundation for Pinot Noir's global acclaim in Burgundy, France.
Today, the region is celebrated for a range of light and long lived wines, exemplifying the finesse and complexity of this iconic red wine.
Italian wine has a rich history dating back to ancient civilisations. Etruscans and Romans cultivated vineyards, and Italy became a viticultural hub.
In the Middle Ages, monasteries played a vital role. The Renaissance marked quality improvements, and today, Italy is renowned for diverse wines, regions and indigenous grape varieties.
Each era has brought forth its own "hit" wines. As the wine world continues to grow and change, building upon the historic catalogue of flavours, keep an eye on what’s new with respect to the past. That’ll make a wine pro, rather than a wine snob.
The Wine List by Grant Reynolds is published by Union Square & Co and is available now
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