French Wine: A History

by Rod Phillips, author of French Wine: A History

I’ve been a big fan of French wine since I was a teenager in New Zealand in the 1960s and started collecting wines. My prizes were two bottles of 1953 Château La Tour-Carnet, a fairly prestigious producer. When I bought them in 1966, each bottle cost about the price of a hamburger because, as the retailer said, “they’re old.” Over the years, I’ve drunk wines from scores of countries and hundreds of regions, but French wine still fascinates me. I’ve often said that if I were stranded on a desert island and could have wine from only one country, it would be France.

So writing a history of French wine was even more pleasurable than writing my other books. I was able to immerse myself in 2,500 years of French wine and understand how it got to where it is now. Sure, it faces competition from wines from all over the world, and not many people outside France still think that if a wine is French, it must be good. Even so, no country’s grape harvests get as much media attention as France’s, each vintage in Bordeaux and Burgundy is examined as if it’s an oracle, and French wine regions are still the benchmarks for grape varieties and wine styles. If you’ve talked to winemakers, you’ll know how often they brag that their pinot noir or chardonnay is made in “a Burgundian style.”

French wine didn’t achieve its global status easily, and the history of French wine is a story of challenges met and disasters survived. Just take the period 1860-1950, when many New World wine industries (think of California, Chile, and Australia) were building up steam. Nearly all of France’s vineyards were wiped out by phylloxera (a North American aphid) between 1865 and 1885) and had to be replanted. In the meantime there was widespread wine fraud, as wines were made with raisins, adulterated with additives, or blended with wines from other countries – practises that undermined the reputation of French wine. That crisis was followed by a period of overproduction and falling prices; Prohibition in the U.S. and events elsewhere that almost destroyed French wine exports; the Great Depression and a wine glut; and finally World War II, with wine requisitioned by Germany and the collaborationist Vichy government hostile to drinking.

The French dusted themselves off after eight decades of these crises, and rebuilt the wine industry and the “French wine” brand.

It’s a history that starts with the territory that became France inhabited by beer-drinking Celts (a habit they were cured of by wine-bearing Greeks and Romans) and ends with wine being one of the commodities most closely identified with France. It’s a complicated and messy story, punctuated by wars, revolutions, political battles, vine diseases, and attempts to control drinking, but at its base it’s an almost heroic tale of the victory of the vine.


ROD1 copyRod Phillips teaches history at Carleton University in Ottawa and is the author of a number of books on European social history and the history of wine and alcohol, including Alcohol: A History and A Short History of Wine.