Last week, Americans celebrated our national holiday marking the anniversary of our declaration of independence. Next week, on July 14, the French will celebrate their national holiday, Bastille Day, in much the same manner we have just celebrated ours, with speeches, parades and fireworks.
The French holiday commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille, which ultimately led to the end of feudalism or indentured servitude of the poor minorities.
While French-American diplomacy has had its ups and downs, France’s ancient history of vine cultivation has had a profound and ongoing impact on America’s wine industry.
The Greeks were among the first to bring viticulture to France, establishing a trading post in 600 B.C. at what is now known as Marseilles. Early grape cultivation was confined to the Mediterranean basin, because it was believed by the ancients that grapes would not survive in regions where olives and figs did not survive.
When the Romans conquered this region, grape cultivation spread beyond the realm of the Mediterranean basin. When Rome fell, much of the French wine industry ended up in the hands of the Catholic Church, which maintained its grip on the industry until the French Revolution.
This was not necessarily bad for the industry. Powerful monastic orders did much to improve the industry. Many of their innovations are still utilized today.
These monks understood the importance of terroir. They introduced the concept. Terroir is the sum of all things that makes a wine what it is. It encompasses such things as soil composition, elevation, temperature variances of a vineyard, amount of sunshine, rainfall and a host of other things.
Members of monastic orders were the most educated of the day. They approached winegrowing methodically, charting what parcels of land in a particular region produced the best wines from a particular grape.
Through their understanding of terroir, they not only improved grape-growing in established regions, they also busted the myth that wine grapes could not grow in regions where olives and figs did not thrive. They had profound influence in Burgundy, establishing that this cool-weather growing region could sustain pinot noir and chardonnay.
Today, in New World wine-growing regions, vintners are drawn to planting chardonnay and pinot noir in hillside areas cooled by ocean winds.
We have the monks to thank for Champagne, though they did not give us this by design. They actually sought to eliminate the bubbles in this wine. They were fortuitously unsuccessful in this effort.
They did not understand that the bubbles occurred because bitterly cold weather in the region arrested fermentation before it was completed. When weather warmed, much to the chagrin of the monks, fermentation resumed, creating trapped bubbles that failed to be thwarted.
The most famous Champagne in the world is named for a French Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon. He is often erroneously credited with inventing Champagne, but he did strive to make improvements in the region’s wines. He and his colleagues were the first to make a white wine from red grapes.
The French also gave us the red wines so embraced by America today — Bordeaux-style red wines made predominately from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc.
Bordeaux is an important port, and its close proximity to England made the region’s wines — which the British called "clarets" — wildly popular with the British aristocracy and, later, America’s founding fathers.
Today, America’s wine industry accounts for $37.6 billion annually, thanks in large part to what we learned from the French. So on July 14, let’s raise a glass of French bubbly to the French and Bastille Day.
A bottle of Dom Pérignon might do the trick, but at approximately $200 per bottle it is perhaps a bit très cher for most.
There are other French bubblies made outside the region of Champagne, often referred to as cremants, that will work nicely for your celebrations. Tyson’s Fine Wines and Things in Anniston has a large selection of such wines, ranging in price from $10 to $15 per bottle.
Vive la France!
Contact Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org.