Scientist Scrapes Bowls for Resin, Upends French Wine World

Just days after I wrote about the rock-star status of booze archaeologist Patrick McGovern, he’s back in the news with an iconoclastic discovery. The discovery is that, contrary to established lore, France didn’t pioneer winemaking. They were, in fact, taught how to do it by the friendly, share-and-share-alike Italians, who brought their grapes and winemaking techniques over to France some time around 500 B.C. How does McGovern know this? Science, of course. Like so many college kids, he scrapes the bowls he finds lying around for resin. In his case, however, the resin he found in ancient wine containers in the south of France was pine resin, which was likely added to pots of imported Etruscan wine to keep it fresh as they schooled the Gauls in the art they’d one day perfect. Given the not-always-friendly rivalry between Italy and France, this has to sting a bit. But not as much as another French wine fact you don’t hear about very often: French wine grapes actually grow from roots imported from America, after a blight of aphids wiped out French vineyards in the mid 19th Century. In other words, Italy invented French wine, and America saved it. I think the word you’re looking for is merci

It was called the Great French Wine Blight, and I first learned about it from Tom Standage’s awesome book A History of the World in 6 Glasses. All these nasty little aphids started chomping on French grapevines, sending winemakers into a tizzy about what to do about it. They tried everything, even setting toads underneath each plant to slurp them all up. The only thing that would save the French wine industry turned out to be grafting French vines to aphid-resistant rootstock imported from spunky upstart country America.

"… two French wine growers proposed that the European vines be grafted to the resistant American rootstock that were not susceptible to the Phylloxera. While many of the French wine growers disliked this idea, many found themselves with no other option. The method proved to be an effective remedy. The following "Reconstitution" (as it was termed) of the many vineyards that had been lost was a slow process, but eventually the wine industry in France was able to return to relative normality."

And so the takeaway here is that French wine, still undisputedly the finest on the planet, has historical roots in Italy and biological roots in America. Of course this wouldn’t be a big deal if the French didn’t take such pleasure in dissing wines from both Italy and America, but since they do, I think the two nations can take a polite little bow today and utter those precious little words, "You’re welcome."

[Related: Cheers to Science, and Beer, and Using Science to Justify Your Beer-Drinking; More by Victor Ozols; Follow Me on Twitter]

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