French Wine, A History – Rod Phillips

Update 19.9.2017(30.6.2017)billn

Hardcover, 319 pages
ISBN: 978052028523
University of California Press
Buy: French Wine: A History

If I’m totally honest, probably the worst thing about this book, are its reviews. Now don’t get me wrong, they are certainly (and overwhelmingly) positive, but frankly they are so generic: “absolute tour de force” – more than once – “an instant classic; belongs on every wine lover’s bookshelf; masterful” – and even worse: “magisterial” As generic as a tasting note that doesn’t actually tell you if a wine is delicious or not. Only Tim Atkin and Michael Austin (that I could find) daring to be a little different.

Now clearly, the content provided by Rod Phillips is larger than I will be discussing here. I will restrict myself to the structure of the book and how the information is delivered and (perhaps) pertains to Burgundy. The first thing to say, is that this is a book that will require a little application from you, dear reader – with close to 300 pages, densely ‘texted,’ academic pages at that – this is not (as some reviewers have suggested) a book to dip in and out of – and that’s a) because the chapters average about 30 pages and b) because natural stopping-off points are rare – intra-chapters. As such, I took a while to get through this book as I preferred to finish each chapter in one sitting – sometimes 2 in one sitting! – So, for each visit, I needed to set aside an hour or-so. But that’s a relatively small negative in the context of the book as a whole.

This was a book that I found fascinating – the more I read, the more I wanted to read – if not quite in a Da Vinci Code way, then certainly I felt not just rewarded, but a little enlightened. And where else would I find such a gem as: Which were the first people named ‘frogs‘ by the English, before they finally settled on the French? It’s a book that brings context to wine – normally only the bad vintages are noted, but it was something of much more importance than today – a bad vintage usually had far wider consequences – e.g. for nutrition – if grapes ‘failed,’ possibly the corn failed too – this was about life and death in such marginal times…*
*1691-1694 were described as ‘bad vintages’ – what that actually meant was, due to malnutrition combined with a harsh 1693-94 winter, France lost 5% of its population to malnutrition!

My notes from this book, by chapter:

From the beginnings to 1000 CE

  • It appears that I’m on old person; only here, and now, am I learning that BC and AD have (presumably) been replaced on more politically correct grounds by BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era): Although the timings are unchanged, the overt reference to religious deities seems no-longer the done thing!
  • I like that we start with the right context: Despite the title of the book, France as an entity/construct would not actually exist for hundreds of years still to come – in the context of wine, we refer to the Gauls, the Greeks and Romans – these latter two considering beer-drinkers to be unmanly or effeminate!
  • The system of metayage has been used across France for nearly 1,000 years, perhaps longer – it was the church and the aristocracy that were the owners and they were paid in grapes or wine by those that rented their vineyard land – just like today.
  • The state of sober intoxication – the state of spiritual ecstasy for those that avoided drinking too deeply and too often – lay and clergy alike.

The Middle Ages: 1000-1500 CE

  • It is important to have some (it can only be modest) feeling for the conditions of the people – the Black Death, the 100 Years War – with parts of (modern-day) Europe losing 25% of their population, there was, unsurprisingly, a reduction in the amount of vines tended (‘tendable‘).
  • It was in this period that the ban des vendanges was first introduced, with the aim to have some extra quality control. It was also the era when pinot noir was named as such for the first in official records. Philippe the Bold’s ‘disloyal gamay‘ makes its cameo here, but with a little more context – Gamay is naturally bitter, whereas pinot produced the best and most precious wines in the Kingdom of France for nourishing and sustaining human beings.

New Wines, New Regions: 1500-1700 CE

  • Counter-intuitively – at least given the book’s title, if not the name of the chapter – this section commences with the exploits of the French ex-pat winemakers, the Huguenots – but without this section, how would I know that South Carolina was once named New Bordeaux! We soon return to France, however, and there is much good info here, not just about today’s Alsace region, but the interesting snippet that Burgundy and Beaune were ‘thought of as different regions‘ – though the explanation of that detail is sadly lacking.
  • And here is the information that gamay was “harmful to human health”
  • A fine discussion of the evolution of the rôle of courtiers can be found here – initially in a private capacity before being controlled by the state, then back to a private function.
  • Tax inspectors had the rights to demand keys for cellars, stop traffic and inspect goods and oversee loading and unloading” – nothing has changed there then!
  • Whilst the Protestants described the Catholic clergy as ‘lazy, impious, wine-soaked fornicators‘(!) this was the beginning of wine-connoisseurship – not just about diet but about ‘aesthetics’ – of named wines that were stored in bottles – the birth of Fine Wine.

Enlightenment & Revolution: 1700-1800 CE

  • Here are tales not just of wine fraud, but to counter the bad (gamay) press of previous centuries, the famed Voltaire would use his burgundy wine to top up his barrels of Beaujolais!

Phylloxera & Renewal: 1870-1914 CE

  • The section on Phylloxera is fine enough, though cannot compare with either Phylloxera by Christy Campbell or Dying on the Vine by George Gale.
  • What this book does ‘do’ is integrate the wider palette of activities in the period, including the the recognition of alcoholism – blamed on non-wine sources of alcohol – and the concurrent rise of the temperance movement who were also largely reluctant to blame wine for the problem – abstinence was considered almost as eccentric as vegetarianism!
  • It’s also important to note the beginnings of what would become the move to AOC classifications in this period.

Of-course I could go on, but at this stage, it’s probably better that you buy your own copy – I believe it’s worth it!

The last three chapters are listed below – particularly the second ‘From Depression to Liberation’ will have much to interest readers with plenty of commentary concerning the set-up of AOCs et-cetera.

Pinard & Postwar France: 1914-1930 CE
From Depression to Liberation: 1930-1945 CE
French Wine Reinvented: 1945 to the Present

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