As previously discussed in our “Winemaking During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance” post, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Catholic Church was largely responsible for both the widespread planting of vineyards and the passing on of knowledge regarding winemaking. While the Church greatly advanced the number and variety of grapes available for winemaking, its adherence to traditions of the past harmed wine quality. By the early 1600s, many Europeans were shunning wine, not only because much of it was of low quality, but also because it was perceived as old-fashioned and the drink of generations past. Instead, people were increasingly turning to relatively inexpensive yet good-tasting hoppy beer, high-alcohol distilled spirits, and the new fashionable nonalcoholic drinks such as tea, coffee, and chocolate. Winemaking was in desperate need of new ideas and innovation.
The Enlightenment and the Birth of Scientific Winemaking
What largely rescued wine from its downward spiral in popularity was new thinking ushered in by the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. The Enlightenment was a European cultural movement in the 17th and 18th centuries that sought to reform society by challenging ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and advancing knowledge through the scientific method. While Enlightenment thinking contributed to political revolutions that swept away the rule of many kings and challenged the authority of the Church, it also led to a profound scientific revolution. What this meant for wine was that enterprising vignerons and vintners who often had no association with the Church began abandoning traditional techniques that often yielded poor-quality grapes and wines, and instead, began relying on science and experimentation to increase both grape and wine quality. Universities also began studying new grape growing and winemaking methods. For example, in 1756 the Academy of Bordeaux studied the use of egg whites as a fining agent, while at the Academy of Dijon in Burgundy methods to improve regional wine quality were explored and tested.
Scientific Advances in Winemaking
The first person recognized as an important wine scientist was the French nobleman Antoine Lavoisier (1743–1794), the inventor of modern chemistry. Not only did he help construct the metric system and create the first table of chemical elements, Lavoisier also was the first person to explain wine’s chemistry with any degree of accuracy. For example, he identified sulphur as a distinct chemical element, which eventually led winemakers to more fully understand the science behind its effectiveness in the wine cellar. Another important contribution of Lavoisier was that he advanced the idea that grape juice turns into wine through a chemical reaction with oxygen in which the sugar in the juice is divided into alcohol and carbon dioxide. That reaction is fermentation. Lavoisier’s research with fermentation played a big role in him formulating “the law of conservation,” which proposes that although matter may change its form or shape, its mass always remains the same. Perhaps the primary impact that Lavoisier’s work had on winemaking was that, after thousands of years, people—or at least, educated people—now finally understood that fermentation was not this magical or incomprehensible event from the gods, but was completely logical and predictable. Unfortunately for Lavoisier, the French Revolution curtailed his winemaking discoveries; being a member of the overthrown nobility, he was guillotined at the relatively young age of 51.
Although Lavoisier solved half of the winemaking puzzle by identifying that grape sugar is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide and that fermentation is a predictable process, it was up to other scientists to discover the cause of fermentation. In 1785 Adamo Fabroni, an Italian chemist, partly solved the other half of the puzzle when he demonstrated that yeast initiates fermentation. Yet because microscopes were not yet very powerful, no one could actually observe the fermentation process in any detail. As a result, virtually every scientist of the time believed that yeast caused fermentation in a purely chemical manner, not a biological one: yeast was thought to initiate fermentation by dying and decomposing. For the next half century, the scientific consensus was that yeast only served as a chemical catalyst for fermentation, spontaneously generating the conversion of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, but then serving no further role in what was believed to be a chemical process.
In 1801, Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1756-1832), who was a student of Lavoisier but also a powerful politician in the First French Empire, further advanced winemaking by publishing a very influential book, Traité Sur La Vigne, in which he described the technique of increasing the alcohol content of wine through the addition of sugar to under-ripe grapes at the beginning of fermentation. Chaptal did not invent this technique to improve wine quality, but nonetheless, his name became associated with it: chaptalization. Within 20 years, chaptalization became a commonly used method of improving wine quality; chaptalized wine was less susceptible to spoiling than unchaptalized wine, even if chaptalization might compromise a wine’s delicate bouquet. In his writings on securing the highest grape quality, Chaptal was not only one of the first persons to publicly encourage the study of soil science, he also recognized the virtues of sunshine and the dangers of too much rain.
Technological Advances in Winemaking
Two of the most important technological wine-related advances during the Enlightenment were the development of the wine bottle and the wine bottle cork. Glass had been manufactured since Roman times, but it was generally too fragile to use for storing or transporting wine. Then in the 17th century, a timber shortage motivated English entrepreneurs to build large coal-fueled furnaces that could produce strong glass bottles for wine aging and transport. These bottles were often different shades of olive green due to the high heat and the different level of impurities in the ingredients of the glass. Most were also globular in shape, similar to what we now recognize as traditional Chianti bottles, and their bottoms were made relatively flat so they could stand up.
Gradually, over the next 80 years, the shape of wine bottles became less round and more elongated, allowing bottles to lie on their side for easier storage and aging. However, because the amount of wine held in each bottle varied, in most countries it was illegal to sell wine in bottles; instead wine was sold by measure. Despite the fact that by 1700 wine bottles looked similar to the modern containers we use today, the vast majority of wine still never went into these relatively expensive glass containers; they were generally reserved for the wealthy who could afford to age their wine in something that could best ensure its stability over time.
While the creation of sturdy glass bottles was an important step in ensuring the stability of finished wine, wine-bottled stability could only be achieved if the container was properly sealed to prevent the admission of air. This is where cork enters our story. In 3000 B.C.E., people in China, Egypt, Babylon and Persia used cork for fishing. People in Italy around the 4th century B.C.E. used cork for roofing, women’s footwear, and as stoppers for wine casks. During the Middle Ages, cork was unavailable to most European winemakers because Portugal and Spain, home to the cork oak tree, were under Muslim Moorish control where no alcohol or alcohol-related products were permitted. By the Renaissance, these countries were no longer under Moorish control and winemaking and wine drinking were once again part of daily life, and corks were now available. The earliest corks of this time period were tapered and inserted only partway into the bottle so that they were easy to remove.
Once cork began to be more widely used to seal wine bottles, the corkscrew was invented in 1680 to remove it. Now with the availability of the wine bottle, the wine cork, and sulphur, it became possible to not just serve wine in bottles straight from a progressively oxygenated oak barrel, but now winemakers could bottle and their customers could then properly age wine in those bottles. Thus, the wine bottle and wine cork made it much more practical for people to store and age wine in their homes and to appreciate for the first time the taste of properly aged wine. First it was only the wealthy that could afford to purchase bottled wine, but by the 1760s some members of the middle class in such countries as England, Germany, and France also began cellaring wine.
The Invention of New Wines
The Enlightenment was a time when new thinking led to the creation of new styles of wine. The invention of Champagne wine might surprise you because the people who created this new bubbly wine style were initially actually trying to eliminate the bubbles! In the 17th century in the northeast of France, the cold winter temperatures would prematurely halt fermentation in the cellars as the yeast cells in the wine fell dormant. When this wine was bottled during the yeasts’ dormant period, the winemaker often later had bottles exploding in his cellar during springtime. These explosions were caused by the warmth of spring recommencing fermentation inside these corked bottles; the weak French bottles of the time could not hold the intense pressure of the newly carbonated wine. If the bottle did not explode, the wine inside was very bubbly, which greatly dismayed winemakers. Dom Pérignon (1638–1715), the Benedictine monk most closely associated with the creation of champagne, spent a good deal of his time at first trying to rid his wines of these troublesome carbon dioxide bubbles.
For many years the ordinary French people in the region preferred their Champagne to be non-sparkling, but they discovered they could sell their unique bubbly wine to the British and to wealthy French families and to French royalty for high prices. This new sparkling wine was perceived as refreshingly modern in both its appearance and its taste, a wine for the sophisticated and for special occasions. As the popularity of the sparkling Champagne increased, more wine makers tried to make their wines sparkle deliberately, but most didn’t yet know how to control the process or how to make their wine bottles strong enough to withstand the carbonation pressure. Fortunately, by the mid-18th century these problems were solved and the modern Champagne wine industry became established, producing sparkling wine on a large scale.
In the late seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries another new wine, Portuguese Port, was invented when English merchants began shipping home Portuguese wine that they fortified with brandy to protect it from going sour while in transit. At first the brandy was added after fermentation but then the spirit was introduced during fermentation, which preserved much of the young wine’s delicate flavor while still making it a strappingly strong drink. Those who drank this fortified wine found it refined and sophisticated. Other new fortified wines invented during this same time period were Madeira in the Portuguese-controlled Madeira Islands, Vermouth in northwestern Italy, and Sherry in Andalusia, Spain. Although these wines today are often drunk as aperitifs, back then they were commonly consumed with food.
Another wine invented during the Enlightenment was late-harvested, botrytis-infected wine. At roughly the same time in the German Rhineland, northeastern Hungary, and southwestern France farmers picked their grapes late to obtain the highest level of sugars. The danger in picking late was that these high-sugared grapes could become infected with mold and that is exactly what happened. Although many molds render grapes useless for winemaking, there is one type of mold, botrytis cinera, which can improve the taste of wine, at least to some people’s palettes. This particular mold sucks water out of the grape, concentrating the sugars and acids and creating a honey-like flavor. Winemakers discovered that these “noble rot” grapes resulted in a sweet, yet fresh-tasting, wine that could be aged a long time.
During the early part of the 19th century, these new wines with their new tastes and their new aging potential were not widely consumed; the vast majority of Europeans and newly minted Americans still drank the old-fashioned wine that was often sour tasting but nutritious. Thus, although the Enlightenment breathed new life into the reputation of wine as a consumer beverage, it also created a huge division between the well-to-do consumers, who could afford to develop an appreciation for the taste of these new wines, and the financially limited consumers, who could still only seek sustenance and solace in their cheap wines. These new wines that rescued wine’s reputation tasted rather like the wines we drink today. To drink these new wines was taken as a sign that the consumer was sophisticated and modern, an “urbanite” rather than a “country bumpkin.”
By the end of the Enlightenment, wealthy merchants owned more and more land that had previously been owned by the Church and nobility, and these entrepreneurs were much more likely than their predecessors to embrace new winemaking ideas and techniques, which significantly increased wine quality. With the scientific advances of this time period and the resulting appreciation for both aged wine and new wine styles among the well-to-do, the stage was now set for wine to enter its first “Golden Age,” which will be one of the topics in the next—and last—article in this four-part series on the history of winemaking.