Sour grapes and other cru stories

Science, Vine and Wine in Modern France

December 26, 1997

Have you ever produced wine from grapes? It is so simple that, following the example of the great Michael Faraday ("check all") we should all try it at least once. Only then can one fully appreciate the difference between an amateur product and a grand cru. Tradition and empirical observations can be helpful guides, but imagine that a new circumstance arises: the vine itself is sick. What to do? This situation arose in France after 1860, and the full story was so dramatic that historians are still drawing lessons from it more than a century later.

Harry W. Paul spends two months a year in France and knows that it is hard to overestimate the economic and social importance of the vine in France. As professor of history at the University of Florida, he is also able to judge that it is difficult to overestimate the role of wine in French history.

Before the slow death of the vinifera vine, caused by the insect phylloxera in the 1860s, the wine business supplied the country with one-sixth of its state revenues. The fall in production between 1876 and 1885, from 5 million hectolitres to 1.7 million hectolitres, was a national disaster. Today few French except those involved in wine production remember the phylloxera story; and even among those who do, it has lost its vividness. Occasionally, a newspaper may mention that American wine producers are having trouble with pests, but the fear is gone.

The story, which is central to this book, is a simple one. Before the mid-19th century, vines survived without treatment. Then the pest attacked the major vineyards slowly and stealthily. The cause of the vines' failure was recognised as an insect that flourished in the soil, attacking the roots. Various chemical treatments were tried against it, but the cost was high and the results often poor.

Viticulturalists turned to science for help. As was the case with Aids, controversies surrounded early research because there were big differences between laboratory studies and application in the fields. Also, all of the studies took place before the ideas of Mendel and Darwin were widely understood.

This situation led to fights between academic science and folk science: Jean-Baptiste Dumas's commission at the Academy of Sciences was offered many quack remedies, such as the planting of thyme between vines or treating vines with urine, which fertilised plants into a brief final burst of growth. There were also clashes between Paris and the countryside, between Bordeaux and Montpellier, and between hybrid vines and French vines grafted onto American ones. Things could never be as they were before.

Time was part of the problem: phylloxera frequently caused a progressive deterioration of vines over several years, which made it difficult to reach conclusions about long-term results. Quality was also affected: hybrid vines produced mediocre wines but were resistant to disease, whereas grafted vines produced good wines but were disease-prone and survived for 25 years or less. Last, rebuilding vineyards proved difficult because the root-stocks had to be able to survive in different soils, be compatible with the varieties of vinifera vines to which they were grafted, and be able to give good yields.

This book is intended as a counter-thesis to the argument that the stronger the oenology, the duller the wine. Science played a major role in reconstituting the devastated vineyards, and today it helps in creating new types of wines, with results that have to be appreciated region by region. Alsace wines have never been better, and the same goes for Cotes de Baux; lovers of Bordeaux wines admit that they can drink them without waiting as long as before but fear that something is lost; Burgundy is such a mosaic that any general appreciation is impossible; and so on.

Paul's book is full of detail. For example, it is generally thought that Jules-Emile Planchon, a scientist in Montpellier, discovered the American aphid that was sucking the vine roots at Chteau de Lagoy, near Saint-Remy. In fact it was Felix Sahut - a property owner, scientist, professor and author of viticultural works - who showed the aphid to Planchon. Being so precise has its advantages and disadvantages: on one hand, the book is well documented; on the other, one cannot make a donkey drink when it is not thirsty, as they say in Alsace. This book is not an easy read.

Part 2 of the book shifts from vine to wine, to the laying of the foundations of oenology by the chemists Jean-Antoine Chaptal and Louis Pasteur. Part 3 examines the role of research in wine production in Champagne, Burgundy and Languedoc. In part 4, the narrative moves to Bordeaux, where Pasteur's student Ulysse Gayon took a position at the university. With his botanist colleague Alexis Millardet, he perfected the famous Bordeaux mixture for treating downy mildew, a fungus that threatened to ruin the wine industry in the 1880s. Again the book is exact; it gives Dom Perignon credit not for inventing champagne but for selecting grapes carefully, in three batches, to ensure that the right maturity is obtained.

Paul's book has a wealth of information for those deeply interested in wine, but it should also be read by those who deal with modern risk management. And even if you do not read it, you should try at least once to make wine. Remember Faraday!

Herve This-Benckhard is joint editor, Pour la Science, and a chemist at the Coll ge de France.

Science, Vine and Wine in Modern France

Author - Harry W. Paul
ISBN - 0 521 49745 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 355

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