I’d like to think that enjoying a good book or magazine feature about wine is as satisfying as drinking a bottle of it. And we can thank one man: André Jullien, who, about 150 years ago, invented wine writing as we know it.
Jullien was born in 1766 in the Loire Valley and moved to Paris at the age of 30 to enter the wine trade. It struck him that he’d need to know how to describe all the known wine regions and their wines in order to actually excel at the trade. Until then, wine writing concerned itself exclusively with the art of producing wine, not the art of tasting it. So in 1816, Jullien produced the world’s first classification of wine: Topographie de Tous les Vignobles Connus. At the time, it included types of Sherry, Madeira and Port (i.e. wines of French and German heritage only). So nothing from Italy or Spain. And certainly nothing from outside Europe.
After his death, Jullien’s sons carried on the business and published, in 1866, the alcoholic strengths of recent vintages. Be amazed at the alcohol on these Pinot Noirs from Burgundy: Corton 1858, 15.6 percent; Montrachet (the “t” is silent) 14.3 percent; and Volnay 1859, 14.9 percent. (This offers excellent ammunition to rebut criticism of over-alcoholic Californian Pinots.) Yet at the same time, the alcoholic strength of Bordeaux wines ranged from 11.3 percent for St-Emilion Supérieur to a puny 8.9 percent for Château Lafite.
The explanation for that Bordeaux’s weakness? At the time, the barrels of claret destined for the English market (i.e. most Bordeauxs) were boosted by the addition of 30 liters of Spanish wine, two liters of white grape juice and a bottle of brandy. They were then set to ferment again, maturing in wooden barrels and were eventually sold at a higher price. However, as one contemporary observer noted, “[the claret] was heavy, and not suitable for all stomachs.”
Wine Challenge: Take two bottles of Pinot Noir, one from the Finger Lakes, one from California, and compare and contrast alcohol levels, body, acidity and deliciousness.