A brief history of French wine

May 29, 2015

There is archaeological evidence to suggest that the Celts first cultivated the grape vine, Vitis vinifera, in Gaul. Grape pips have been found throughout France, pre-dating Greek and Roman cultural influences, with some examples found near Lake Geneva being over 12,000 years old.

A major turning point in the wine history of Gaul came with the founding of Massalia in the 6th century B.C. by Greek immigrants from Phocae in Asia Minor. By the 2nd century B.C., Massalia came under Roman influence as a vital port on the trade route linking Rome to Roman settlements at Saguntum (near what is now modern day Valencia, Spain).

The Romans did a great deal to spread viticulture across the land they knew as Gaul, encouraging the planting of vines in areas that would become the well known wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, Languedoc, Loire Valley and the Rhone.

Over the course of its history, the French wine industry would be influenced and driven by the commercial interests of the lucrative English market and Dutch traders. Prior to the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was one of France’s largest vineyard owners. They held considerable influence in regions such as Champagne and Burgundy, where the concept of le terroir first took root.

Following the French Revolution, there was an increase in the amount of low quality French wine being produced. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, the Minister of the Interior for Napoleon, felt that a contributing factor to this trend was the lack of knowledge among many French vignerons. They just didn’t know of the emerging technologies and winemaking practices that could improve the quality of their wines. In 1801, Chaptal compiled this knowledge into a treatise Traité théorique et pratique sur la culture de la vigne. Chaptal’s treatise was a turning point in the history of wine technology as it organized all of the knowledge to the beginning of the 19th century.

By the mid 19th century, the wine industry of France enjoyed a golden period of prosperity. A new class of consumers, the bourgeoisie, emerged as a strong market for wine and other culinary products. The Gironde region of Bordeaux, in particular, enjoyed a swell of interest from both the Parisian market as well as its steady trade with England. For the 1855 Paris Exposition, Emperor Napoleon III commissioned the Bordeaux merchants to come out with a ranking of the region’s wine estates. The 1855 classification of Bordeaux would become one of the world’s most famous rankings of wine estates. Wine was becoming a cornerstone of the French economy and a source of national pride. French wine was being enjoyed and recognized internationally as the benchmark of standards for wine around the world.

In the late 19th century, the French government commissioned Louis Pasteur research the preservation process in the French wine industry. His findings had a lasting influence on the science of French winemaking. Pasteur was asked to help identify wine quality control issues that caused spoilage and other faults. During the 3 to 4 years that Pasteur spent studying wine, he observed and explained the process of fermentation—he noted that it was living organisms (yeast) that convert sugar in the grape “must” into alcohol in some form of chemical reaction. Another observation that Pasteur made was that oxygen played a significant role in the aging and improvement of wine.

The 20th century brought two world wars, which had devastating effects on some French wine regions, but also brought a renewed focus on reorganization of the country’s wine industry. The development of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) and the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) systems, spearheaded by Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer and lawyer Baron Pierre Le Roy, emphasized the identity of French wines and the concept of le terroir.

Aided by these external and internal influences, the French wine industry has been the torch bearer for the world wine industry, for most of its history, with many of its wines considered to be the perfect benchmark for their particular style.

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