Archive for December, 2012

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I have a perverse fascination with the darkest era of French wine history. In the 1850s, the vines planted throughout France began to die. This ecological collapse began in the Languedoc, spread to the Rhone, the South-west, Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Bordeaux, and finally Champagne.

By the 1870s almost 50% of the vineyards planted in France in the 18th and 19th centuries were shriveled and browned. What was once productive wine-land looked more like a post-apocalyptic waste-land.  To our contemporary eyes, vast stretches of French wine country would appear chemically attacked or industrially poisoned.

The sudden collapse of these vines destroyed more than just the plants and the labors of farmers; it devastated an integrated rural economy and the first “golden age” of French wine.

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Immediately before this ecological trauma, many of the French wines we prize today acquired their features, growing practices improved, and many French wine-makers were becoming wealthy from the large, international market for their wines. The collapse of the  vineyards ended this, and it fueled an exodus of people from the countryside to urban centers.

The death of the vines was a great mystery. Research centers were established in several French cities to examine the cause.

Eventually, 19th century scientists discovered that the vines fell victim to the appetites of a tiny insect, which they named phylloxera vastarix. This pest, which can only be seen under a magnifying glass, fed on the sap found in the roots of wine vines.

Phylloxera originated in the Eastern United States and traveled to Europe on American plant cuttings. Although phylloxera existed in the United States it did not kill US vines. Many indigenous vines in the US have thicker-barked roots; their roots are hardier. They resisted this pest, which more easily sank its teeth into the delicate and softer roots of French vines.

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Vine growers fought phylloxera with chemicals. But no poison could kill it, and the strongest poisons adulterated the soils of vineyards, compounding the damage. The insect continued to spread, and it destroyed vineyards in Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe.

In the late 19th century, agricultural scientists in France discovered that the best way to battle phylloxera and to save France’s viticultural heritage was to fabricate a plant from US and French vines. Theoretically the hardy American roots could be used as the support structure for the upper shoots of a French wine vine. The result was a “grafted” vine – American roots on the bottom, and French wine grape shoots attached to the root and growing out of its top.

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Planting such a hybrid, almost Frankenstein-like plant must have been torturous for a 19th century French wine maker. They experienced a panic twice-over: the initial loss of their vineyards and their replacement with “American” root stock. American vines produced notoriously strange-tasting grapes. And French wine-makers must have wondered if the typical (and odd)  flavors of American vines would transmit into the French grape.

Despite these doubts, French wine-makers discovered that the fruit from grafted wines mostly tasted like the fruit from original, French root-stock wine. Some wine-makers, presumably with more sensitive palates (or with a more developed sense of nostalgia), insisted that there was a difference. For them, the new vines produced fruit that lacked the intensity of the original, solely French wines.

These new, phylloxera-resistant and “grafted” vines became the norm in France, and they remain the standard technique for planting vines. Today, virtually everything we drink – both in Europe and the United States – is made from grafted vines.

My fascination with this period was rekindled when I learned that a few French vines in Champagne had survived the phylloxera epidemic. Bollinger – a famous Champagne house – makes wine from its grapes. For the staggering price of $450 a bottle, one can taste wine made from very old “pre-phylloxera” French vines.

More recently, I learned that a small number of French winemakers have attempted to reconstruct 19th century vineyards with new and small plots of ungrafted vines. These latter vines,  planted in historically important French wine regions, are called “franc de pied”. They are a fascinating bio-historical reconstruction. The wine-makers that plant them believe that something was lost when French farmers began planting grafted vines over 100 years ago. They believe the original and pure French vines, planted in key terroirs, make fruit that tastes different. They want to coax a long-gone and historical flavor out of the soils of their vineyards.

Contemporary winemakers such as Bernard Baudry and Catherine and Pierre Breton plant these ungrafted vines into chalky soils. Such soil helps protect vines from phylloxera. But the risk of phylloxera  remains. The franc de pied plantings of the Chinon house Charles Jouguet died recently; the experimental vineyards  of Baudry and the Breton’s survive. But it is just a matter of time before they are claimed by phylloxera.

As part of my ongoing fascination with the above history, I hope to taste a few of these franc de pied wines. But I want to taste them alongside wines made from grafted vines from the same vineyard. Arranging this is not easy. To taste the difference, everything must be identical – soils, vintage, and the techniques used to transform grapes into wine. Franc de Pied wines from famous producers such as Baudry and Breton are not very expensive, but they are rare.

And while I am excited to try these wines, I don’t think we can taste history. I don’t think we can simply know how wine tasted pre-phylloxera. The soils, wine-making, and our sense of taste are different than 150 years ago. Nevertheless, I admire these small efforts at reconstruction, and by tasting these wines I explore my own fascination with this earlier period of wine-making.

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The latest attempts to reconstruct vineyards before the great plague of the 19th century are explorations that acknowledge historical loss. Much more than wine vines disappeared in the 1850s and 1870s. As the vineyards died, numerous French cities industrialized, France was at war with the German states, and cities underwent numerous socio-political revolutions.

The death of the vineyards was an aspect of a larger historical arc. The planting of franc de pied are one of many attempts to rebuild history; to try to reconstruct something that was lost. These new landscapes acknowledge the difficulty of engaging with historical change and the impossibility, but very real desire, to recapture the past.

Because these ungrafted vines will eventually die from phylloxera, they also bring wine makers in touch with the original sense of anxiety, but on a much smaller scale. They dare history as much as they rebuild it.

I will be sure to update this post after trying these wines.

[Thank you to Jay Latham for directing me to some interesting information on the above; some key points are from an article by Peter Liem; a quick conversation with Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants filled in some blanks. Apologies for an earlier mis-labeling of franc de pied as franc et pied - copy editing (spaced) error on my part. The history of phylloxera can be found in numerous books, most recently, Paul Lukacs’ Inventing Wine. All photographic images are from the collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France]

I just came across this experimental history project titled “Re: enact” by Cerys Wilson and Tag Team Studio in Montreal.

This is one of  a series of four imagined events to be staged at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.They explore how the public programs and curatorial efforts of museums become opportunities for experiments and re-workings of these platforms. The full description can be found here.

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For ten more days, those in the San Francisco Bay Area can see the Mound of Vendôme installation, part of the exhibition Temporary Structures – curated by Glen Helfand and Cydney Payton. I wrote earlier posts about the exhibition. But here are some great photos taken by the gallery staff.

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