Buon ferragosto a tutti! Happy ferragosto, everyone!
Above: “37 Grape Varieties” by Tuscan naturalist painter Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1729). The painting was commissioned by Cosimo III de’ Medici. The painting resides at the Medici Villa Poggio a Caiano and was part of a series of paintings commissioned by Cosimo III to document the agricultural products of Tuscany.
Botanist and grape geneticist José Vouillamoz and Master of Wine Julia Harding, she noted, were co-authors — not co-editors — of the landmark work in contemporary ampelography, Wine Grapes (New York, Ecco [HarperCollins] 2012).
Errata corrige! I wanted to be sure to right this lacuna and (I hope that the authors will forgive my absentmindedness and chalk it up to the sleep deprivation that comes with having a newborn and a toddler in the home).
I’ve already sung praises of their remarkable book. The work is a true godsend to oenophiliacs throughout the Anglophone world and beyond. And it marks a new era of wine writing, where a new scholarly benchmark in ampelography has been delivered.
The contemporary age of wine writing has its roots (excuse the paronomasia!) in Italy’s renewal of learning: Renaissance agronomists and naturalists, like Andrea Bacci (On the Natural History of Wines, 1595) and Giovan Vettorio Soderini (Treatise on the Cultivation of Vines, 1600), were pioneers.
Many overlook Agostino Gallo of Brescia and his Ten Days of True Agriculture and the Pleasures of the Country House, 1564. His extraordinary treatise — wildly popular in its day and revised as the Thirteen Days and then again as the Twenty Days — offers what is perhaps the earliest detailed description of vinification in the Renaissance era.
In 1685 Tuscan naturalist Francesco Redi gave us the wonderful and also highly popular Bacchus in Tuscany, a panegyric poem devoted to the wines of his homeland. It stands apart from the oenophilic verses of the Latin poets inasmuch as it combines Bacchanalia and ampelography.
The British were among the first wine [b]loggers.
Travel writers like Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), Bishop of Salisbury, described wines and viticulture in seventeenth-century Italy (thanks to the advent of Google books, more than one wine blogger has found his reference to “natural wine,” an expression which denotes wine that has not been fortified).
Few remember A Survey of the great Dukes State of Tuscanie by Sir Robert Dallington (1605), wherein he describes Tuscany’s “diverse sorts of grapes” (see my post and transcription here; you might be surprised by what you find).
Today, oenography has taken extreme forms that no one would have imagined even fifteen years ago.
On the one hand, there are legions of “citizen” wine bloggers who post daily on their impressions of the wines they taste. They remind me of the sixteenth-century Petrarchists. At the time, Petrarch’s Italian poems were so popular that nearly everyone who could wield a pen wrote sonnets inspired by his work, from a courtesan in Venice (Veronica Franco) to Wyatt and Shakespeare. The ability to compose a Petrarchan sonnet was a gauge of one’s social grace, a phenomenon not dissimilar from the way we admire and praise one’s capacity to describe wine as an expression of social interaction.
On the other hand, new scientific tools — genetic and otherwise — have allowed the authors of Wine Grapes to bring a new standard of precision to the field. In our home, we consult the book nearly every day and like the Oxford English Dictionary or the Encyclopedia Britannica, it represents a supreme reference work, often delivering the last word on the many conundra that continue to plague ampelography.
Why have these oenographic extremes emerged? And why has so much attention — from the demotic to the erudite — been devoted to wine writing in the last fifteen years or so?
I believe it’s because wine represents one of the last agricultural products with such a deep and even quasi-spiritual connection to the land. In the globalized era, when we desperately seek authenticity in our nourishment, there are few foodstuffs that we can link so absolutely to the place where they were raised.
Wine offers us an escape from Marxist alienation and it aids us in soothing our longing, as Freud may have called it, to return to an organic state.
As I negotiate the epistemological implications of oenophilia, I can’t help but think of how lucky we are to live in this era of extreme wine writing. It’s a wonderful time to be alive and to taste…