Don’t ask me what I’ll be doing when I retire because I never will. There will always be a new wine to try, although all that has changed is the vintage. There will always be a new wine region to discover, even if it is only a corner carved out of an old one. And there will always be something to write about wine, even if only in the last volume of my notebook and journal. The offer of things to discover about wine is not lacking. It is an ever-expanding universe that even the most learned expert can never hope to fully master.
Nor is there a prism of human discipline through which the world of wine cannot be seen. It encompasses everything from chemistry to geology, economics, politics, and history, and these are just a few of the more obvious ones. The question then becomes, in light of this embarrassment of the factual richness of wine, what is it important to know?
I’ve been thinking philosophically about wine knowledge lately because of two recent events. The first was the rewarding April trip to the Loire Valley that I wrote about in my last Center column. It spawned the second because it reminded me of France’s great culinary and cultural heritage, of which wine is only a small, albeit important, part. This sent me back to my library where I pulled out my long-neglected 1961 English edition of the Gastronomic Larousse.
the Gastronomic Larousse was first published in Paris in 1938 under the authorship of Prosper Montagné, then France’s most famous chef. It is an encyclopedia of mostly French ingredients and culinary techniques. It was surfed by our foodie ancestors just as we do on the internet. Browsing through it for fun, I decided to look for the “Wine” entry.
The first thing I saw brought me back to travel: a map of the Loire Valley. Except it wasn’t labeled that way. It was called “Les Vignobles d’Anjou” and thus enjoyed a prominent alphabetical place. The 1961 Larousse has a few color plates of large dishes in the middle, but the majority of its illustrations (when an entry is large enough to have one) are black and white. The map of the Western Loire Valley, which stretched from just before Vouvray to the confluence of the Sevre at Nantes, was a simple line drawing with typographic labels.
The simplicity of the map was striking and useful. Modern maps, like those that appear on a quick Google search, often use an array of colors and shades to show different regions and sub-regions. They will also often cram in as many labeled features as possible in a range of different fonts down to the locations of famous vineyards and wineries. With its thin black lines, the old map highlighted something that I had only vaguely understood during the trip. The Loire is more than a great river valley; it is a system of tributaries which join it and distinctly affect the climate of each small region.
There’s nothing wrong with modern maps. For one, they’re good for knowing where the wine is made if you wanted to visit, and once you’ve identified what you’re looking for, provide as much information as you can. The old map, for example, shows no roads. Without wine tourism, why would it be? They also tend to be on a larger scale, showing a smaller geographical area, as the number of wine appellations increases and divides into sub-regions or “villages”. The 1961 Larousse, on the other hand, only shows the top five French regions, including Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, on a relatively small scale, as the crow flies. Again, why would it be? Because few fine wines were produced elsewhere and the number of producers, including the representative “traders”, was small.
It does not mean the old Larousse was not packed with information. The wine entry spans over a dozen pages and includes illustrations, photographs and charts, as well as the maps. It’s just that a lot of the information seems a bit odd to modern sensibilities because it’s quite technical. Contemporary wine reference books also contain a wealth of technical information, on everything from yeast strains to different bottle sizes. But the Larousse really gets into the details, like the chemicals to use to create certain tastes in the wine. I wonder if the book was used as an instruction manual in some French cellars, as the rest of the book could be used in the kitchens of chefs in the Republic.
In terms of advice to wine consumers, the old book offers a very prescriptive charter entitled: “WINE SERVICE TABLE”. He suggests pairing by course the nut soup, so to speak. With the soup, you could choose between Madeira, Marsala, Port, Sherry or Zucco. I had to search, and it turned out that Zucco was (is?) a sweet wine made in Sicily from the single Cattarato grape around a town of the same name near present-day Palermo airport. Things get a lot more French after that, and the serving of “First Main Course” is a selection of vintage Bordeaux, while “With The Roast” is all red Burgundy. This seems to confirm accounts I’ve read that until relatively recently Bordeaux was considered lighter and more refined than Burgundy. At some point, their relative positions changed.
The following table is much larger, taking up an entire page of the book, and it is much more oriented towards French wine chauvinism. The “WINE TO FOOD TABLE” turns the principle on its head and suggests foods to pair with particular French wines. I noted with interest and pleasure that the 1961 Larousse suggest pairing Montrachet and Muscadet with foie gras and Sauternes leaves for dessert, as I prefer. The final table is a table of vintages for different French wine regions, ranking years dating back to 1917 on a four-star system. Was it the inspiration for Robert Parker’s 100-point scale system, invented 20 years later?
The French have a saying that goes something like “A person must be of his time”. I have always considered it both as good advice and as an observation. There are all sorts of modern writings on wine, conveying all sorts of varied information. Yet most of what I read and what I mainly write includes an idea of how the wine itself tastes and a description of where it comes from and who made it. There’s very little of that in the older book, and I wonder if there will be any in the wine books, or on the websites, or whatever form of writing that takes 50 or 60 years from now. I hope so.