History in a bottle
Today, some episodes in wine history. My head is full of history these days, as I’m completing a book on the history of alcohol.
At this moment when China’s wine production is set to pass Australia’s, the history of wine seems to have come full circle, as the earliest evidence of wine comes from China. The evidence (residue in 9,000-year-old pottery jars) suggests that people drank a cocktail of alcohols made from cereal, rice, berries and grapes.
China is also where the oldest liquid wine has been found. It dates back 3,000 years and hasn’t evaporated because it was sealed in bronze vessels that eventually corroded and became airtight. Unfortunately, the compounds that give the wine its aromas and flavours evaporate almost immediately when the liquid is exposed to air. All anyone can say is that there was a “delicious aroma and light flavour.” (Surely with notes of tropical fruit and hints of Red Delicious apple!)
In Ancient Egypt, the elites drank wine and the masses drank beer.
Wine was not only for drinking, but also used in religious ceremonies, and as a medicine. Wine was buried with pharaohs: three dozen big jars of wine were buried with King Tut, and he was only 19 when he died.
Greek society was the first to adopt wine as the beverage of choice (they weren’t much interested in beer), but they drank it diluted with water. Greeks regarded drinking undiluted wine as barbaric, and it was one way they distinguished themselves from inferior cultures elsewhere.
We’ve almost reversed that. Look at the occasional expressions of horror if you drop an ice cube into your glass of warm red wine in the summer. And the wine world is full of stories of wealthy Asians mixing fine wine with Coke. It might have happened once, but it’s retold as if its common practice. Its intended effect (think of the Greeks) is to demonstrate the difference between superior and inferior cultures. Then again, as we’ve seen, mixing drinks goes back a long way in China — 9,000 years, in fact.
Rushing forward a couple of millennia: In the early 1930s, France had a huge wine surplus, the result of several big harvests and the collapse of the export market because of Prohibition in the U.S. and worldwide depression. The government launched a campaign to encourage French people, already among the world’s heaviest drinkers, to consume more wine.
Among the proposals: provide school children with wine at lunch and recess, and pay Tour de France cyclists to be seen drinking wine while they were racing.
It’s an interesting history to think about, as you’re enjoying a glass or two this weekend!
■ Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc 2011
This is a classic sauvignon from New Zealand’s Marlborough region. It gets away from the overpowering pungency of some and delivers controlled intensity with excellent acidity. It’s a natural for grilled white fish and seafood with lemon. 13-per-cent alcohol; $18.95 (35386, Vintages Essential)
■ Ruffino Orvieto Classico 2011
This lovely dry, medium-weight white comes from Umbria, in Italy, and it’s a great choice for white fish, poultry and pork. If you’ve never tried it, do so this weekend. You’ll find very attractive and well-defined flavours and crisp, refreshing acidity. 12.5-per-cent alcohol; $11.00 (31062)
■ Viña Maipo ‘Vitral’ Reserva Chardonnay 2011
From Chile’s cool Casablanca Valley, this chardonnay is dry and has lots of character. Look for concentrated and nicely layered flavours and a tangy juiciness that goes so well with food. Try it with roast chicken or grilled pork. 13.5-per-cent alcohol; $13.95 (270009)
■ Louis Jadot Pinot Noir 2009
This pinot noir from Burgundy delivers a lot for the price. You’ll find the fruit is concentrated and has good complexity, is harnessed to fresh acidity and surrounded by drying but easy-going tannins. Drink it with roast poultry, pork and veal. 13-per-cent alcohol; $18.70 (162073)