Sunday, November 18, 2007

Wined up

In an attempt to civilise the uncouth barbarians of Ancient Gaul, the Romans brought with them the art of wine making. The Gauls had been growing vines and making crude wine for thousands of years before the Roman occupation but it was the Romans who showed them how to do it properly. The first wine using Roman methods was produced here in the Dauphiné, by the Allobroges tribe and soon other Celtic tribes were planting their own vineyards all over the country.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, France had become a Christian country. Wine was in great demand because it was a potent symbol in the Church and so it was the clergy who oversaw the planting of vineyards around the major cities. Later, the monks took over and became skilful wine growers, establishing most of the great vineyards we know today.

By the fifteenth century, vines were cultivated everywhere in France. The middle-classes vied with the aristocracy in producing the finest vineyards which they planted outside the city walls. Wine was still a drink for the elite and it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that it became available to ordinary people. It was healthier than water which was usually germ ridden and the average man would drink a litre a day. No wonder they had a Revolution…

In 1875, the vines became infested with an insect called phylloxera and the crops were destroyed. Wine growers had to start again from scratch by grafting the ancient French vines on to American ones. Over a million hectares of vineyards disappeared from Brittany, Normandy and Picardy but wine production actually increased – so much so that the government had to bring in measures to stop wine growers planting inferior vines and producing cheap plonk and encourage them to produce better quality wines. The reputation of French wine persists today…and to be honest, even the plonk is good.

But let’s not give the French all the credit. If it weren’t for us, they’d have no wine bottles or corks – or even corkscrews. Wine used to be kept in casks – invented by the Ancient Gauls – but they were not airtight, so conservation was difficult. With the invention of coke ovens in seventeenth century England came a new method of making bottles from thick, reinforced glass. These travelled well and moreover, a cork stopper could be banged into the neck with a mallet without breaking it. Wine could now age gracefully without turning to vinegar (from vin and aigre, meaning ‘sour wine’).

Poster by Favre&Assoc

Getting the wine out of these new bottles proved difficult however. More often than not, the glass neck had to be broken, which could put a bit of a damper on a romantic candlelit dinner for two. It was an Englishman who first patented the corkscrew in 1795 – the inventor took his inspiration from a tool called the bulletscrew or gun worm, a device that extracted stuck bullets from rifles. Not terribly romantic either but very efficient.

November is the month for Beaujolais Nouveau which is always released on the third Thursday of the month, regardless of when the harvest began. Drinking and celebrating the arrival of new wine is an old custom. In the middle ages, it was in the best interests of the vineyard owners to get their wine on the market first, as this would ensure them a good price. Also, wine did not keep well at that time, so the younger the wine the better. A great celebration was held on the 11th November in its honour, the fête de la Saint Martin - in fact, one of the politer synonyms for a hangover is ‘the Saint Martin blues’, although I have never heard anyone say it.

Beaujolais isn’t the only new wine – I have drunk a very nice new Côtes du Rhone – but the media hype ensures that Beaujolais is the best known and most popular. The grape it is made from – the gamay – is particularly suited to new wines as it is sweet and fruity. Most Beaujolais Nouveau is drunk by the New Year and you’re unlikely to find any in the shops after that. I have no idea what happens to all those unsold bottles – perhaps they really do end up as vinegar.

When drinking wine in France, the custom is to chink your glasses with your fellow drinkers and say “Tchin, tchin”. This onomatopoeic toast has its origins in the middle ages when it was common to poison one another’s food and drink. The idea was to knock your goblet against your neighbour’s goblet so that some of your wine splashed into his (tchin) – and he did the same to you (tchin) – that way you could both be sure no-one had slipped arsenic into the claret.

These days, however, fewer people are chinking their glasses. French wine consumption has dropped by half since the 1960s and people prefer to drink water with their meals rather than the traditional vin de table. This doesn’t concern me, of course, as I’m English so I have been waiting eagerly for the Beaujolais Nouveau to arrive on the 15th of November, a glass in each hand. Tchin tchin…