Although wine is an ancient drink, it’s surprising how very young our perception of it is. Just take a look at our “classic” wine references’ first publication date:
The World Atlas of Wine
, Hugh Johnson, 1971
Hugh Johnson’s Wine Companion
Sotheby's World Wine Encyclopedia
, Tom Stevenson, 1988
The Oxford Companion to Wine
, Jancis Robinson 1994
The major wine publications aren’t any older as well:
first published in 1976
The Wine Advocate
, Robert Parker, 1978
The Wine Enthusiast
So how can we learn more of the pre- 1970’s Paleolithic period where hunters and gatherers of wine walked the earth in three piece suits and tastevins offering such pithy gastronomic advice as “St. Émilion with fur, Medoc with feathers”?*
One excellent way is by looking at old books by some of the pioneers of wine writing: André L. Simon (1877-1970) who was Hugh Johnson’s mentor, and American bon vivants Julian Street (1879-1947) and Creighton Churchill (1912-1984).
I have a small collection of books by these authors and others that I’ve picked up in used bookstores and on online for very little money. I imagine that the demand is low since most people would rather drink wine than read about it. Go figure! Still, they’re a lot of fun to browse through and the pictures are fascinating.
There are 4 main things that consistently appear in these books that highlight their difference from the contemporary world of wine:
1. Alcohol levels were much lower,
2. There were vast amounts of very poorly made or spoiled wine
3. France, and to a lesser extent Germany, dominated the wine world
4. With the exception of the Châteaux of Bordeaux, producers were rarely mentioned.
In The Noble Grapes and the Great Wines of France
(1957), regarding Chinon, André L. Simon notes that “the best are the red wines, which have a very attractive violet-scented bouquet and greater elegance than power: their alcoholic strength rarely exceeds 10° and it must not be below 9.5° to be entitled to the Appellation Contrôlée “Chinon”. 9.5%? To find a Chinon below 12.5% alcohol today would be virtually impossible.
Pre-1970 was also pre-refrigerated shipment, before such importers as Kermit Lynch popularized the use of reefers (refrigerated freight containers, dude!). There must have been boatloads of wine ruined in shipment and if you’ve ever cooked a bottle in the trunk of your car, you’ll know what I mean. Still, it doesn’t appear that the cause of the damage was exactly clear back then. In Wines, Their Selection, Care and Service
(1933), Julian Street offers that “one of the Frenchest qualities about French wines is the dislike that many of them have for travel. The red wines, even more than the whites, become seasick or trainsick and must lie down and rest for a considerable time to recover from a journey.” I’m not so sure that the rest would help a baked bottle. I’m not even sure that “Frenchest” is a word!
Clarity was the main indication of unimpaired wine back then. “Look at your wine critically: it must be not only clear but brilliant, be it ruby or amber, young or old, cheap or dear. If it be dull or thick, reject it; if bright, let it go before the tribunal of your nose.” (A Wine Primer
, André L. Simon, 1946). Now that many wines are unfiltered and/or unfined, clarity isn’t such a relevant indicator anymore and non-brilliant wines will need to proceed to “the tribunal of your nose.”
The dominance of France in these books reflects just how much the contemporary wine world owes to them. Although they’ve been battered by the press lately - let’s face it - most new world wines were originally modeled after the French and the most popular ones use French grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. Not surprisingly, much of the focus in each of these books is on Bordeaux and Burgundy, which are still the main focus of the fine wine buyers worldwide.
Outside of Bordeaux and Burgundy, it was rare that specific producers or vineyards were mentioned. Even rarer was a recommendation. Still, I found the Clos de la Riolette Fleurie referred to as the “Clos de Vougeot of Beaujolais” by Julian Street. Being called the Clos de Vougeot wouldn’t be the greatest compliment today but I would imagine it meant a lot more in 1933. We tasted the 2004 Clos de la Riolette Fleurie
and found an excellent example of classic Cru Beaujolais – pre Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivé – with absolutely no trace of banana, bubble gum or pear drops. Perfect with both food and the heat of summer, it’s a taut and subtle study of earthy raspberry, red currant, spearmint and licorice. It was excellent with roast chicken. Thanks for the great recommendation, Julian.
“St. Émilion with fur, Medoc with feathers!” is from The World of Wines 1964, Creighton Churchill. Translated into today’s terms it would be: left bank Bordeaux with red meat and right bank Bordeaux with white meat. Chortle, chortle. Please stop, Creighton, you’re positively killing me!
Click on a picture to enlarge:
If you are interested in finding old wine books online, a few good places to start are:
(the Amazon link will take you to approx. 1960 in their Wine and Winemaking category)
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