The Myths of French Wine History

Editor's note: For more on this subject, check out Rod Phillips’ new book, French Wine: A History. UC Press is graciously offering GuildSomm readers a discount. Order online using the code 16M4197 for 30% off.

France occupies a special place in the world of wine. Only one wine is a household name globally, and it’s French: Champagne. There’s still a widespread belief that the best French wines are the world’s best; no vintage in the world gets nearly as much attention as that of Bordeaux. And French wine regions remain benchmarks for winemakers everywhere. How many times have you been told that this Pinot Noir or that Chardonnay is made in a “Burgundian style”?

I’m an aficionado of French wines, and I have been since I was a teenager in New Zealand in the 1960s. Since then, I’ve lived in France several times and I go two or three times a year, I’ve visited scores of French appellations and hundreds of producers, and I’ve drunk more than my share of French wine (if per capita figures of consumption mean anything). So it was a pleasure to write a history of French wine, and if I often discuss the myths embedded in its narratives, it is not because I want to diminish its status. It’s because I am a historian and adopt a critical view of evidence—and because the stature of French wine stands without the myths.

Some of the myths associated with French wine are specific and explicit but relatively unimportant to the big picture. Very few people still believe that Dom Pérignon was blind, or the first person to make sparkling wine. But the demolition of the carefully constructed myths surrounding Dom Pérignon is hardly seismic in significance. It doesn’t materially affect the history of Champagne, and it certainly doesn’t stop tourists taking selfies with his statue outside Moët & Chandon.

Overall, claims to be “first” in the world of wine—whether Dom Pérignon in Champagne or the varied figures credited with first producing wine—are very suspect and all but impossible to verify. We’re better to be agnostics in these things than to embrace some spurious claim that might well be proven bogus. But some issues associated with French wine could do with serious scrutiny.

Reconsidering the Role of Monasteries

One is the role of monasteries more generally (not only Dom Pérignon’s Abbé de Hautvillers) in the development of wine in France. Although monastic orders played an undeniably important role in spreading viticulture and winemaking in the early years of the Christian era, there’s no solid evidence that monks were as innovative as is often claimed.

Although the Church and its various entities, such as abbeys, owned vast tracts of vineyards in France by the Middle Ages, so did secular owners. Aristocratic owners became dominant in Bordeaux, while religious orders (especially the Cistercians) owned much of Burgundy. Elsewhere, wine was made by tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, of small-scale vignerons, with larger estates owned by nobles, the Church, and wealthy non-noble proprietors. The proportion of viticultural land owned by the Church and by lay landowners is unknown, partly because most vines were grown among other crops until the 19th century.

If it seems that monastic vineyards were dominant, it’s because we have more records of them—monasteries tended to own larger parcels of vines, and they kept continuous records of their land holdings—and these records have survived because they were carefully archived. Records this extensive and high in quality simply don’t exist for secular owners. In England, less than a third of vineyards were owned by the Church in the 11th century (according to the Domesday Book); maybe it was similar in France. In the ninth century, on the massive estate of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés near Paris, less than half the vineyards were cultivated by the monks themselves.

It’s also important to note that when monks recorded vineyard and winemaking practices, there’s no evidence that they were the innovators. We know that monastic cultivators mulched foliage for compost and used fish bladder to fine their wines, but for all we know, they were simply following common practice. They certainly didn’t claim to be the leading edge of change, and the first person to record a practice is not necessarily the first to adopt it.

This is also the case with accounts of monks identifying terroirs by tasting (eating) the dirt. There are indeed accounts of “tasting terroir,” but they are more associated with secular agronomists. It’s like the story of Dom Pérignon, much of which was invented in the 1820s: at some point these stories were made up, then repeated in so many places that they became accepted as true. But repetition doesn’t make them true, and they need to be regarded with healthy skepticism until there is good documentary evidence to support them.

An Accurate History of Terroir

The history of terroir itself is often misrepresented. It has not been the basis of French wine for centuries, and it wasn’t discovered by monks who noticed that the wines from one vineyard were different from those in another vineyard. For most of its life, terroir was associated only marginally with food and wine, and more with human character and language.

The earth and air in specific locations were believed to produce certain kinds of people who spoke particular languages. In general, the Île-de-France (the area around Paris) was thought to be free of terroir; people there were cultured and intellectually lively and spoke a pure language, the language that eventually became the basis of standard French. In contrast, the terroir of the provinces was blamed for their inhabitants being rustic and coarse, and their languages crude. (It wasn’t until the late 1800s that French became the language of most French people.)

When applied to wine, terroir was a similarly negative reference for centuries, and consumers were advised to avoid what are now approvingly called “terroir-driven” wines. In the 18th century, for example, Champagne was praised as terroir free, while Burgundy was condemned as reeking of terroir. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the modern sense of terroir—the physical environment that vines grow in—emerged fully, and then it was constructed to give French wines a boost as they recovered from nearly a century of disasters: phylloxera, overproduction, widespread fraud, economic depression, and two world wars.

Even as the definition evolved, terroir was believed to be specific to France: French wines were unequalled because they were made from vines growing in French terroir. There was never any intention that terroir, as an explanation for the excellence of some wines, would extend beyond the borders of France. When French agronomists and winemakers visited New World wine regions in the 1960s and 1970s, they made it clear that these regions had no terroir—not that they had inferior terroir, but that they had no terroir. By that time, having no terroir was a bad thing.

Coming to Terms with Discontinuity

Advertisements often tell us that a producer has vineyards that go back to the 14th century and has been making wine for 12 generations. This is good marketing because it implies a clear continuity over time. It appeals to our sense of lineage, stability, and tradition, all powerful and positive associations.

Yet, as the history of the concept of terroir demonstrates, there have been anything but continuities. French vineyards have been replanted over and over, not only in the replacement of dead or unproductive vines, but also in broad and sometimes near universal terms that entailed both creating and abandoning vineyards and introducing new varieties to replace others.

Vineyards in many French regions were devastated by the Black Death from the mid-1300s and the Hundred Years’ War to the mid-1400s, and by the frigid winters of 1693 and especially 1709. The countrywide ravages of phylloxera are well known. Then, there were hundreds of regional disasters resulting from war, weather, and diseases. In all these cases, decisions were made about creating, replanting, and abandoning vineyards, and about which grape varieties to replant, abandon, and introduce.

There was a lot of uncertainty about grape varieties until the 19th century, as many regions and smaller localities had their own names for each variety. There were abortive attempts in the 18th century to categorize varieties, but these met with limited success until the late 19th and 20th centuries. Until then, the great majority of France’s vineyards were planted haphazardly, rather than in rows, and were interplanted with several varieties. As a result, until vineyards were replanted after phylloxera, French wines were almost invariably field blends—even in Burgundy, where Pinot Noir was dominant but was interplanted and vinified with white grapes.

Patterns of viticulture like these undermine the frequent claim that one reason why the French have been so successful with wine is that they’ve had centuries to match varieties with locations. They have had centuries, it’s true (like Spain, Italy, and other countries), but for the most part they settled on their current pairings of varieties and sites only when they replanted after the phylloxera period—sometimes as late as the 1950s.

You might argue (and I suggest in my book) that despite more than 2,000 years of developing a wine industry and wine culture, French producers settled on varieties and locations as recently as many New World producers. Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but it does draw attention to the fact that many facets of French viticulture and winemaking are far more recent developments than often thought. Certainly, the idea of an uninterrupted narrative, linking modern French wine to the distant past, is on very shaky ground.

French Wine Stands Without the Myths

It’s often said that stories draw consumers to wine. French wine is imbued with stories of noble vignerons tending their vines and making rustic, honest wine, of noble proprietors drinking the fine wines of Bordeaux and Champagne at banquets, of monks laboring to make the best wine they could with the fruit that God gave them. These stories evoke images that many people want to believe are true.

But they ignore the fact that until recently, French wines were field blends, made from several varieties picked simultaneously so that the grapes were variously green, ripe, overripe, and rotten. They were crushed and vinified together, the must was fermented in open tanks for weeks, and the wine was stored in dirty barrels. Marketers would be well advised not to claim their wines are made in a “traditional” way. These wines satisfied the nutritional and sensory needs of earlier generations, but they wouldn’t do now.

The history of French wine is interesting enough without the myths that have been embedded in it. It’s a story of battles against myriad challenges, including wars, vine diseases, political upheavals, production-consumption imbalances, climate, and trade embargoes. It’s a story of the successful creation of regional brands and the national brand. And it more than stands up without the help of myths.

Rod Phillips is professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His books include French Wine: A History (2016), Alcohol: A History (2014), and A Short History of Wine (2000, revised and updated as 9000 Years of Wine: A Global History, forthcoming in 2017). He also writes a weekly wine column for the main Ottawa daily newspaper, contributes to media such as The World of Fine Wine, judges in wine competitions, and regularly visits wine regions around the world.