Oenologie - Comment les vins français sont devenus une référence internationale ? - Les Grappes

How did French wines become an international reference?

It appears that French regions became references in oenology from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century, thanks to various historical and political factors. French wine regions have a major asset on the international scene: being the first regions to produce large quantities of great wines, with a constant quality from one year to the next. They quickly became agglomerations of great winegrowers, perfecting the art of winemaking and developing together a strong collective reputation.

France was the first country to gain an international reputation for the quality of its wines. Since the end of antiquity, when the Romans introduced the vine in Gaul, France has always been the leading wine producer by volume. It is therefore easy to understand how wine has acquired a privileged status in the French economy. (H Pirenne, Un grand Commerce d'exportation au moyen âge: les vins de Francé, 1993).

The barbarian invasions of the 5th century did not interrupt the cultivation of the vine or the production and trade of wine. The economic unity of the Roman Empire survived despite its political fragmentation.

As defined by H. Pirenne, recent research has highlighted the primordial importance of export trade in the economic development of the Middle Ages. Foreign trade created the first holders of commercial wealth, encouraging industry and bringing them together in the cities. English wool production fuelled the Flemish textile economy. The transit of food products, especially wheat (to which the frequency of famines brings important benefits), increased further to meet the needs of growing urban populations. The consumption of wine, which the northern part of Europe cannot produce, will soon come to the forefront as the well-being of the population increases. The early Middle Ages were already characterized by key French regions that regularly produced high quality wines and exported them throughout Europe. Whether due to historical circumstances or competitive advantages, or often a mixture of both, some French regions have gained tremendous international recognition for the quality of their wine. France has become famous for being a conglomerate of different regions with a strong reputation in winemaking:

1) Chablis and Burgundy

Chablis was already a great success in England and Scandinavia in the 12th century (History of Chablis in England and Scandinavia).putation Universelle du vin de Chablis, Yoshinori ICHIKAWA, 2012) The qualities of Burgundy white wine are underlined by many poets and merchants. If most of these testimonies of the ancient renown of Chablis wines were written by French people, French cities are not the destination of most of the production :

Roger Dion wrote in 1959, in his great book on the history of the French vine and wine: "We know a rich merchant from Rouen, Martin de la Pommeraye, who, in 1226, used no less than six ships to deliver to England the wines of Francia and Aucerre (Île-de-France and Auxerre). From the shores of Flanders to Scandinavia and the Baltic States, it is mainly white wines that have retained public favour to this day: "Food and wine pairing was also a major concern and an important tool for promoting wine at the time. Eustache Deschamps wrote a poem in the second half of the 14th century:
"With oysters
That the windfall is excellent.
I will give fortune and securities
To get drunk on this white wine...
With oysters. "

"With oysters,
Chablis wine is so delicious.
I would give riches and titles
To drink with this white wine
And with oysters."

Throughout the Middle Ages, monks professionalized and codified viticulture and winemaking in Burgundy, making it a reference for high quality wines in the old world. History has even provided Burgundy wines with prestigious ambassadors. For example, Napoleon always had cases of "Chambertin" accompanying him during his campaigns. The Emperor would have even had his troops salute the vineyard to pay homage (Wallace Stevens - The Wallace Stevens Journal). The monks also stressed the importance of terroir in winemaking, observing the links between soil composition, climate and other determinants of wine quality.

2) Bordeaux and Aquitaine

(H Pirenne, Un grand Commerce d'exportation au moyen âge : les vins de Francé - 1993). In 1152, Henri Plantagenet married Eleanor of Aquitaine. This union is a perfect example of the possible effects of political evolution on economic development. Until then, wine production in the Bordeaux region was only a matter of local consumption. But Henri Plantagenet was a fervent wine lover and quickly discovered the region's competitive advantage over the already well-established German and French northern wines. The superiority of the Bordeaux crus and the very important production potential did not match the well-established competition. Moreover, it was in the Crown's interest to promote trade with this newly acquired province. This interest increased when Rouen and the Seine ports once again became French. Since then, Bordeaux wines have remained the luxury drink par excellence in England. Bordeaux, as a wine-growing region, based its development on the influence of England and the broad spectrum of trade: in 1303, 102,724 barrels were exported, a record that was not reached until later in 1950!

3) Champagne

(K.M. Guy, When Champagne became French : Le vin et l'élaboration d'une identité nationale - 2007) Champagne sparkling wines appeared literally, rather than "created", in the mid-18th century. In fact, Champagne was known for its still red wines and for much of its wine history.

When they realised the commercial potential of exports, the Champagne merchants, mainly located in Reims and Epernay, concentrated on satisfying demand in Northern and Eastern Europe. Elite consumers renowned for their refined taste demanded wines that were aged and bottled before shipment, thus avoiding the problems created by long-term storage in casks. To cover the harsh taste of poor quality wines, merchants added sugar before bottling. During the late vinification, the cold winter weather paralysed the yeasts, which were reactivated in the spring due to the rise in temperature. Equipped with fresh sugar, the yeasts began a second fermentation in the bottle and the resulting carbon dioxide was trapped in the liquid. This sparkling wine has become a reference in important families, encouraging merchants to improve the quality of their wine and develop a marketing strategy for their product.

The great Champagne Houses, such as Ruinarts, Moët and Clicquot, had direct and aggressive relationships with strong families in England, Prussia, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Holland.

Claud Moët is said to have convinced Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, that Champagne was the most exquisite wine there was, and she quickly made it a court wine. The Ruinart family regularly settled at the court of Charles X, and was rewarded for their supply of sparkling wine with the title of Viscount.

The French Revolution did not greatly affect the monuments that these families became.Supplying first the Loyalists, then the Napoleonic Empire, and finally the Restoration, they managed to obtain the favours of various regimes and have since continued to develop the popularity of their wines.

Today's French territory is therefore an accumulation of regions historically renowned for their wine-growing.

However, over the last century, wine production has developed all over the world, in regions with favourable soil and climatic conditions. Moreover, many French and European houses have seen in globalisation the opportunity to seek the best possible terroirs for each grape variety throughout the world. This phenomenon has contributed to the transfer of French and European knowledge and standards in winemaking throughout the world.French winegrowers bought land in the "New World", or were called by foreigners.
It is up to the producers to help produce top-of-the-range wines thanks to their winemaking skills. If foreign palates were not already accustomed to drinking French wine, typically French styles quickly became a reference throughout the world. The famous Bordeaux blend (Cabernet Sauvignon + Merlot); the Rhone Valley style (Syrah + Grenache); the prestigious Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, used without blending as the essence of the most precious Burgundy wines; they have all seduced the world for their aromatic and phenolic characteristics.

The French appellation system is today the regulatory tool that manages and protects the specificities of each region of France. But how did this naming system come into being and how did it become the complex entity it is today?

Charles Bonnay


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