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The Myth of “Old World” Wine

November 17, 2020

Story: James Sligh

art: Joe Gough


The Myth of “Old World” Wine

November 17, 2020

Story: James Sligh

art: Joe Gough

The binary of “old” and “new” world has always been fraught. What would happen if we dispelled with this framework altogether?

In June, wine critic Eric Asimov wrote a column for the New York Times Food section featuring interviews with Black wine professionals across the country; each chronicled experiences of invisibility, exclusion and the largely white wine industry’s “natural disrespect for Black people.”

The comments section on the Times’ corresponding Instagram post, which featured a photo of one of the Black women interviewed, was overrun almost immediately. “Wine has been made for thousands of years and if it’s dominated by white people that’s because the best vitners [sic] were white Europeans,” wrote one poster. Another: “I am European. My people perfected modern wine-making.” And another: “Not sure why these ladies are appropriating European culture.”

These myths are braided tightly into wine’s history, perpetuating the concept of its heritage as exclusively European, European culture as exclusively white and history itself as immutable. As wine professionals, we’re trained to carve up the world into two parts: the Old and the New. Europe on one side and North America and the entire Southern Hemisphere on the other. Wine, in this telling, has an ancestral home, and one can taste the difference. Old World wines are more mineral, more complex, lower in alcohol, higher in acid, have a sense of place. “New World” wines are defined mostly by their lack—of history, of minerality, of tradition.

I want to suggest that what we think of as wine “tradition” is more of a selective misremembering than an unbroken chain. Europe was once one of wine’s “new worlds,” and plenty of its “traditional” practices have existed for less than a century in many cases, with alternatives having been edited out or deliberately abandoned. Likewise, the “New World” itself is older than we think, full of lost folkways that provide alternative paths for wine’s future.

Myths are braided tightly into wine’s history, perpetuating the concept of its heritage as exclusively European, European culture as exclusively white and history itself as immutable.

Consider the Burgundian grower Julien Guillot. Guillot, along with his team of four, farms a small property in the Mâcon, Burgundy’s southern checkerboard of forests and rolling hills. His grandfather acquired the estate in 1952, and Guillot took over in 2001. Its heart is a walled vineyard with a name recorded by Burgundian monks on land maps dating to 910 A.D. Every year, Guillot makes a special bottling, called “910,” in tribute.

So far, so normal: a thousand years of tradition, multigenerational family farm, monks.

But the wine is anything but "traditional" as we've been taught to understand it. Barely the color of rhubarb juice, smelling of hibiscus and violet, electric on the tongue, it doesn’t bear much resemblance to what a bottle of red Burgundy looks or tastes like these days. And that’s just for starters. If we look under the hood, it doesn’t follow the first rule of red Burgundy, which is to say, it’s not 100 percent pinot noir. In a tribute to medieval winemaking, Guillot mixes together a riot of varieties: ancestral pinot variants, gamay, even white grapes. (In 2016, half of “910” was chardonnay.) It’s hauled to the winery in a cart pulled by Charolais bulls and bottled by hand without sulfur. It’s wild and beautiful and delicious.

I’m not here to argue that a bottle of Dujac Chambertin grand cru, say, is less authentic than this tribute to the 10th century, rather that drinking a bottle like this can illustrate that history is full of aberrations and roads not taken. It may even lead us to reconsider how far back the shibboleth of “Old World” actually goes. Appeals to tradition almost never specify which one. What would happen if we “re-remembered” wine in Burgundy from its very beginning?

Let’s spin the clock back to the 2nd century A.D. Burgundy was Gaul, and the Romans were planting its very first vines. Wine up until this point had already belonged to the Mediterranean world for thousands of years. It was farmed and traded by Egyptians and Phoenicians, Greeks and Persians. It was aged in clay, cut with seawater or doctored with lead, mixed with honey and herbs, used for medicine and to talk to gods. In Gaul, they had oak trees, and from them, for the first time, they made barrels to store wine. The new vines were all in places we no longer cultivate. The slopes with the names sommeliers memorize today were still uncleared, covered in forests.

I want to suggest that what we think of as wine ‘tradition’ is more of a selective misremembering than an unbroken chain.

Spin the clock forward 800 years. In 910, Burgundian abbots were swilling pinkish wine made from field-blended grapes of many colors, in vineyards that looked like thousands of closely packed tiny trees (read: very unlike Guillot’s biodynamically farmed rows). They didn’t have bottles or corks. I can drink Guillot’s “910” in my Brooklyn apartment; the monks wouldn’t have been able to get their barrels across the Atlantic before they spoiled. Grape varieties hadn’t really been invented yet, and pinot noir wouldn’t be referred to by name for another 400 years.

Move forward another thousand years or so, to 1878. That year, the merchant house of Louis Latour showed red Champagne-method versions of Burgundy grand cru vineyards like Vougeot and Richebourg at the Paris Exhibition, to a drinking public rapt with bubbly wine. The Champagne method was complicated, owed its early invention to the English and had taken about two centuries to perfect. Long before it became a pandemic meme—“It’s only quarantine if it’s from the Quarante region of France; otherwise it’s just sparkling isolation”—Champagne was a modern beverage technology sweeping the globe, and the merchant houses didn’t worry whether the grapes they bought were from Champagne, or even from France.

Burgundy’s merchants were equally opportunistic. The region’s growers had never been able to afford to bottle their own wine for sale, and just as in Champagne, merchants who could afford to bought from all over. One estimate from 1903 put the proportion of blended commercial wines on the French market at 9 of 10. A Chablis house might buy cheap Spanish white; a red Burgundy might be fortified with Mediterranean grapes from southern France, or even farther afield. Increasingly, wine shipped from booming settler plantations in French Algeria, where indigenous Muslim laborers farmed vines, would go on to play a role in unknowable millions of liters of bottles labeled Burgundy.

These days, histories of wine often refer to these practices as “fraud,” implying a kind of extraordinary deception rather than common business practice. Railroads, steam engines and international commerce made these decisions possible. In bringing the world closer together, these technologies also brought to Burgundy from across the Atlantic previously unknown diseases that destroyed almost every vine in Europe, extinguished grape varieties that had been cultivated for centuries and dislocated hundreds of thousands of people. In 1888, winegrowers in Burgundy were allowed to pursue the only known effective remedy for the North American louse known as phylloxera: grafting their vine tops onto hybrid rootstocks made by crossing European vines with resistant American species, a technique developed by a Texan viticulturist. When Burgundy replanted, it did so on a scientific basis with a new vine training system and rows straight enough to work with machines. Someone teleporting into the vines from just a decade before would have found the view unrecognizable.

The framework we use as a cornerstone of classical wine education doesn’t map onto a globe so nuanced as ours.

It wasn’t until 1935 that the system people are usually referring to when they talk about “Old World” tradition was enshrined in law. The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée laws regulated France’s most well-established wine regions, dictating where Burgundy begins and ends, assuring that its red wine is made from pinot noir, setting a minimum alcohol and maximum yield. The Gothic typeface on a Burgundy label, the village name, maybe a heraldic crest, all give the impression of timelessness. But the AOC system was as much about improving quality and modernizing production, trying to rationalize a more expensive type of wine in the midst of widespread upheaval and a flood of cheap vin ordinaire, as it was about choosing which practices got to be traditional. Gone were the monks’ co-fermentations and Louis Latour’s red bubbles.

Long before the AOC, before pinot noir, even before the Romans planted vines in Gaul, wine was drunk across an older world that encompassed North Africa and the Levant, Anatolia and the Caucasus. By the time today’s version of Burgundy emerged, wine was being grown and made everywhere in what we call the “New World.” It was never just European.

Today, wine like Guillot’s “910” is an outlier in “Old World” Burgundy despite evoking a much older lost past than is taught. And not just because of how it tastes, but because of the intention with which it is made. If it surprises us, and makes us feel as though the past is less stable and certain than we thought, it can also help us imagine a different kind of future.

I was shocked and angry when I read the comments on that New York Times post this summer, but it inspired me to reflect. The racism on display suddenly didn’t seem apart from the genteel, worn-out furniture of wine discourse.

Tradition can be, and has been, remade. Farming the way Guillot’s grandfather did, or making wine the way the monks did, can mean keeping pesticides out of watersheds, cultivating soil microbiomes and treating vineyard workers like human beings. It doesn’t have to mean barring women from entering a cellar where wine is fermenting, or looking with suspicion on someone who wasn’t born in the village. These practices, essential to wine’s future, are not captured by a binary. The framework we use as a cornerstone of classical wine education doesn’t map onto a globe so nuanced as ours. It muddles a history of viticulture in the Americas that dates to the 1500s; it obscures the fact that just down the exhibition hall from Louis Latour’s fizzy red Burgundy, sparkling indigenous catawba from New York’s Finger Lakes was being poured to acclaim; and, more importantly, it enables a hierarchy that places European wines before everything else, effectively dividing the people who make and drink the wine into those to whom it belongs and those who are trespassing.

If we can accept that there was never a hard border between the old world and the new, we can start telling ourselves a different story.

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James Sligh is a sommelier, writer and educator in Brooklyn. After working in some of New York City's deepest cellars, including Rouge Tomate, Compagnie de Vins Surnaturels and Pearl & Ash, he left the floor to start a project, The Children's Atlas of Wine, that offers hand-drawn map prints and classes focused on emerging regions, overlooked grape varieties and the people who grow them.