The Brussels Journal has published the sixth and final part of Fjordman’s history of beer — which this time is mainly about wines. Some excerpts are below:
There is no particular reason why this essay came to be mainly about beer, not wine. It’s a result of my personal preference, and perhaps indirectly because I come from a chilly Scandinavian country where grapes are rarely grown and where people have historically had a closer relationship with beer than wine. Nevertheless, you cannot write about alcoholic beverages or about European culture in general and not say something about wine. Consequently, I will include a few words about wine traditions in Europe and beyond. Much of the following information is taken from The World Atlas of Wine, 6th edition, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, a fine and richly illustrated work updated as of 2007.
Probably no other country on the planet is more closely associated in the popular imagination with wine than France, and there is a reason for that. Geographically situated between the influences of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, the country has a temperate climate with many different types of soil, which makes it excellent for growing a variety of grapes. In addition to favorable natural conditions, we should not count out the ingenuity and skills of the French people as an explanation.
Good wines depend upon several factors: The type or mix of grapes used, the climate and the soil at the vineyard and the skills of the winemaker. Wines from the best winemakers are called grand cru, French for “great growth,” and a wine produced in a year of optimal climatic conditions becomes a vintage wine. The best wines are stored in oak barrels and then bottles, sometimes for years. There are vineyards throughout much of France, but some of the most important regions include Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Languedoc-Roussillon, Alsace, the Rhône and the Loire Valley, beautiful Provence as well as the island of Corsica.
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In the late twentieth century, European producers had to face increasingly serious challenges in the creation of affordable quality wines from some former European colonies. Innovation and experimentation in the Americas and in Australia has inspired new thinking among Old World producers. According to The World Atlas of Wine, 6th edition, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, Canadian wine is produced close to the city of Vancouver on the Pacific coast, in Nova Scotia on the Atlantic coast and especially in Ontario south of Toronto, the Niagara Peninsula next to the Great Lakes and the US border being the country’s most prominent region in this regard. Icewine is chilly Canada’s most important export wine.
Some vineyards exist in Mexico as well, but they lag behind their northern neighbors in development. Because the US market is so enormous, American tastes are of great importance to producers everywhere. The opinions of US wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. and his ratings have had a major influence not just on consumers but on makers of wine, even in other countries. Wine is grown is virtually all states in the USA, among them Washington State, Oregon, New York and Pennsylvania, yet California is by far the most important region under the vines in the New World, dwarfing the output of the rest of North America combined.
Vitis vinifera, the European grapevine, was introduced to California by the Spanish in the eighteenth century. The current industry, established after the end of the Prohibition of alcoholic beverages in the United States (1919-1933), began when the Russian winemaker André Tchelistcheff (1901-1994), who had studied fermentation and microbiology in Europe, arrived in Napa Valley, California in 1937. The international breakthrough for the American industry began with a famous wine competition organized in Paris in 1976, where French judges did blind tasting of top-quality wines from France and California and ranked the Californian ones as best in each category. The so-called Zinfandel grape may have originated in Croatia and was transferred to the United States in the nineteenth century. It is now grown primarily in California and the USA and can here produce quality wines comparable to many good European ones. California alone currently produces more wine annually than the entire continent of Australia, which has itself become a major global player in the industry.
Spanish missionaries brought viticulture to their new Latin American colonies in the sixteenth century. Wine is produced in Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay and Brazil, but above all in Chile and Argentina, which are clearly the most internationally significant exporters of inexpensive, yet perfectly decent wines in this part of the world. According to the respected English wine writer Robert “Oz” Clarke, New World wines are more adventurous than their European counterparts. In Chile, Argentina, the United States, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, winemakers are exploring, creating and thriving. “The wine world,” he notes, “has never been wider open or more interesting, and your children may be drinking altogether different wines than you are.” When asked to name the most exciting wines in the world, he mentions Chile for its Merlots, Cabernets and Carmenères; and Argentina, where Malbec, Bonarda and Torrontés (an indigenous white variety) are the cutting-edge grapes.
In writing this, I am not condoning excessive use of alcoholic beverages, just like I am not condoning excessive use of many other things. Since ancient times, the mantra has been that the use of wine in moderate amounts is fine, but excessive drinking is a vice. This is still sound advice. People who drink too much and proceed to beat family members do unfortunately exist. Alcohol-induced violence or health problems constitute serious problems. There are persons who are predisposed for alcoholism, possibly genetically, and are incapable of limiting themselves to consuming only modest amounts of alcohol if they drink any at all.
For most of us, however, a glass of fine wine or beer constitutes a source of joy when taken in good company, or next to a fine meal. A disproportionate amount of the wines and beers enjoyed for celebration and socializing around the world come from the European wine- and beer-making traditions, directly or indirectly. Even those brands that are not made in Europe, for instance wines from Australia or Argentina, stem historically from the European wine culture and use grape varieties brought there by Portuguese, Spanish, French or Italian settlers. The same goes for beers from the Unites States and Canada, which are often local versions derived from original German, Dutch, Czech, British, Irish, Flemish or Danish beers.
The history of alcoholic beverages forms an important part of European culture and reflects the development of European civilization itself. From the wines enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and Romans we have the medieval monasteries, the development of urban capitalism and the growth of science and industry. Europeans got some of the fundamental building blocs of civilization such as agriculture and writing from the Fertile Crescent. It is likely that early European beers in 3000 or 4000 BC closely resembled Mesopotamian ones.
However, Europeans eventually progressed far beyond anything achieved in the Middle East either in ancient, medieval or modern times. Modern beers produced in twenty-first century Europe have very little in common with original Mesopotamian beers apart from the name and the fact that they are fermented beverages made from cereals. Although alcoholic drinks have been produced for thousands of years by the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Persians, the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Aztecs and the Incas, the Europeans were the only ones to provide a correct scientific explanation for the fermentation process and establish truly scientific brewing. This mirrors society in general and illustrates the fact that modern science was born in Europe, not anywhere else.