Even after a few days back in Paris, I still have vineyards on my mind and can’t help sharing some photos of the twisting vines and beautiful blue grapes.
I spent one of my first years in France teaching English in a small town just outside the city of Bordeaux- in other words, surrounded by vineyard after vineyard. There was even one I claimed for myself; I would see it everyday out the bus window on my way to work, so I figured I could call it mine. I remember being fascinated by how the vines would change throughout the year. When I arrived in October, the leaves were dressed in a breathtaking red and orange tie-dye. I watched the vineyards go from this, to miniature stalks poking out of the winter soil, to springtime buds and finally covered in large bright green leaves and baby green grapes. The funny thing is, I had never seen the purple grapes of late summer – almost ripe and ready to be harvested.
The grape harvest will start in September; in some places it will continue on into October- and then the cycle will start all over again. Thinking about this made me wonder how long these vineyards have been around. Since I’m such a fan of history, I got out some books (and launched an Internet search) to find that “French” wine has been around for just about as long as France has- it only makes sense, doesn’t it?
I won’t go through the entire history of wine, nor of France, but there are a few dates (all involving Aquitaine, of course) that I just thought were interesting. If you’ve ever read Astérix (as every single French person probably has), you’ll know what I’m talking about when I mention Gaul (Gaule in French). This is what the Romans called France even before Julius Caesar set out to conquer it in 58 B.C. The Gauls (Gaulois) were a Celtic people who came from Eastern Europe into what is now France, probably as early as the 9th century B.C. They are known to have occupied a large part of western Europe, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea.
Here’s where my interest gets sparked: Aquitaine, spreading from the Pyrenees mountain range to the Garonne river, became one of the three regions dominated by the Gauls (or Gallo-Romans, once they were under Roman authority). Here’s a fun couple of words: Bituriges Vivisques. This was the Gallic group that lived near Burdigala (Bordeaux). These people made and drank a lot of beer (unlike today’s “Aquitani”), but they really appreciated wine- which was procured from abroad (i.e. Italy).
Now, I’ve read two contradictory pieces of information: (1) the Romans planted the vineyards in Bordeaux and (2) vineyards already existed in Bordeaux when the Romans arrived. I’m going to vote for the latter since I usually cheer on the underdog, and because of this: I read that the Gauls were not allowed to plant new vineyards once under Roman domination. Since they were known to be fairly resistant (to put it lightly), I assume they broke the rules. Any 21st century Cabernet drinker can be thankful for that. Legend has it that the Bituriges Vivisques are the ones who planted the cépage “Biturica,” ancestor of the modern Cabernet. It was probably brought from somewhere between Albania and Greece and might have been cultivated as early as the 1st century B.C. (before, during or after the Gallic Wars, I wonder?). This is where I wish I had a time machine to check out the details- and to see just how pungent their wine might have been. In any case, this grape variety was special because it resisted the cold (compared to Italy) climate. The “Biturica” was, thus, the first grape variety cultivated in Bordeaux, and probably among the oldest in France. (Side note: Before sitting down to write this, I was happily set to say the Bordelaise were growing grapes long before the Burgundians. I can probably stick with the “before,” but might have to cut out the “long” based on this article.)
Obviously I don’t have a time machine, thus don’t have proof of what the Gaulois were doing over 2,000 years ago. I do know, however, that vineyards were among the most important agricultural resources and were spreading abundantly during Gallo-Roman times, notably in the Bordeaux region.
I didn’t even get to writing about the other date I found interesting: 1152- the marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet, future king of England. Given my ongoing obsession with the Middle Ages and the potential length that post could go, I’ll save it for another day.