Wine’s Recent Ancient History

SommelierAlthough 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, 1983 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: Wine Spectator first published in 1976 The Wine Advocate, Robert Parker, 1978 The Wine Enthusiast, 1988 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). Old Wine BooksI 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. Clos de la RoiletteOutside 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 4 Starsfind this wine 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! Photos: Click on a picture to enlarge: Andre L Simon Julian Street Creighton Churchill 1950's Burgundy Winemaking German Wine Taster Resources: If you are interested in finding old wine books online, a few good places to start are: Powell's Books Alibris (the Amazon link will take you to approx. 1960 in their Wine and Winemaking category)

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  • Thanks Jeffery — one of the Andre Simon books has a vintage chart going back to 1840, which unfortunately probably won’t come in handy. I can see how the drink guides would be more relevant since you can actually recreate the old cocktails. No such luck with wine!

    As for shocking, there are still several wineries (I won’t mention any names) that provide Sangria recipies starring their wines!

    Steve De Long on
  • Of course “Frenchest” is a word. As in, “Brigitte Bardot has a lovely Frenchest”.

    But seriously, when it comes to “airsick” or especially “trainsick” red wines, it may have to do with the chains of tannin and anthocyanin that link up over time. With prolonged rough handling or vibration these chains can break apart and the wine will taste disjointed and feel coarse on the palate. In 3-4 weeks of bed rest the “chains” will repair themselves and the wine will be good as new. Or so I’ve heard.

    I don’t think he was reffering to baked wines, afterall, no self respecting wine shipper would have shipped their wine between June and September.

    Randall Roberts on
  • Steve,
    Love your columns, especially the off-the-beaten path topics. I have a large collection of spirits and cocktail books, but the demand for those has become very high. Some texts that I picked up for a few bucks, which is most of them, are so expensive on ebay that I fear getting them anywhere near a moving cocktail shaker. I think you are correct that the price of old wine texts has lagged behind and I have no idea why. Could be because most of them are filled with relatively useless vintage charts that only dreams are made.of: “Bordeaux 1890-1946”

    Some of the pamphlets and publications are downright shocking. As recently as the 1970s California wine producers were trying to convince us to mix their wines with soda and juice. You dug up some great stuff. Cheers.

    Jeffery on
  • Reading about reviews of wines from 60 to 160 years ago, I was reminded of a fabulous antique wineshop in Europe I had the pleasure of visiting numerous times from 2001 through 2002 (when the Euro was also about $0.80!). Named “The Wine Antiquariat”, it’s located in Eerste Weteringdwaarstraat 2A, 1017 TN Amsterdam, The Netherlands (in the Museum district), and has a web site,

    The shop is owned by Drs. Gerhard A. van der Lans, and features rare and antique wines. Most – though not all – are French Bordeaux’s and Burgandies from the ‘40s, 50s, 60s, 70’s and 80s to current, so one can do more than just dream about trying some of the fabulous wines of yesteryear.

    I had the pleasure of frequently attending his weekly (Saturday evening) wine tastings where the price of admission was “an interesting bottle of wine”. I’d usually check with him mid week to buy something new from his shop that he thought would be of interest to the other attendees at the upcoming tasting. Since all the bottles being tasted were wrapped in aluminum foil to hide their origins, the Wine Antiquariat owner would be the only one who knew what was being offered for tasting on any given day (he arranged the sequence so tastings would start with the ‘youngest’ and end with the oldest/most exuberant wines). And then the fun would begin, as everyone had their chance to guess at the identity of each wine being tasted. Most attendees were very experienced wine tasters, though they were welcoming and forgiving of those who weren’t (me!). I had the distinct pleasure of tasting many superb wines (and a few not so great – a young Petrus specialty issue at about $1,000/bottle comes to mind) during those visits, and learned a lot as a result.

    I only wish there was a comparable wine shop nearby that not only offered such depth of wines, but also offered tastings in a similar manner…

    Thanks for providing such interesting and thought-provoking articles.

    Edward Haley via Email on
  • Thanks for the advice, Eric. I just snatched up a copy of The Wines of Burgundy for £3 online. Bada Bing Bada Boom. I too am all in favor of topless wine drinking.

    Steve De Long on
  • Another wonderful blog, hopefully this will not spark interest in such a way that the price of old wine books will go up (Delong is saying buy, so buy, damn it, BUY!).

    I am a huge fan of older wine books and actively seek them out as well. I don’t have any books with the age you do, but there are some other great authors out there.

    One of my favoorite is H. W. Yoxall, OBE. His book on Burgundy is one of the most fascinating reads- and his tone and sense of humour (heh) is world class. Below is one of my favorite passages, dedicated to the greatness of Le Montrachet (punctuated as it is in his book):

    Its pre-eminence dates as far back as the time of Rabelais, who called it ‘divine’, and Alexandre Dumas was inspired to declare that ‘it should be drunk kneeling, with one’s head bared.’ Personally I drink little wine with my hat on and, with my rheumaticky frame a kneeling posture would not enhance the pleasure of drinking even Le Montrachet.

    I have a second edition, the first edition was published in 1968. Mine is ten years older than that.

    The Wines of Burgundy, H. W. Yoxall (Grand Officier de la Confriere des Chevaliers du Tastevin), 1978, 2nd Edition

    by The International Wine and Food Society
    Stein and Day / publishers / New York

    The real question is if Frank Stone held on to any of his library…

    Eric S. Crane on
  • Hi Randall,

    Thanks for the expert commentary — the “tannin chains” were probably exactly what he was referring to — even though he didn’t have the precise scientic explaination that you have — especially since he emphasized that red wines fare less well.

    I know you wouldn’t have shipped wines between June and September but there are people out there who like to push the limits (again, no names mentioned here).

    Steve De Long on
  • Nice blog update. I know it is a bit date (2006) but I enjoyed seeing some names of books that I hadn’t known before. I have a collection of books on Burgundy going back to 1831 (posted on my blog) and there is something amazing about reading older texts. While some of these are much younger, they of course offer an experience all their own.

    Thank you again for sharing


    Ray Walker on
  • Thank you for the great recommendation, Ned. It sounds as if it’s worth a trip to Amsterdam just to visit his shop!

    Steve De Long on

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