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History of French Wine, Part 1


"Too much and too little wine. Give him none, he
cannot find truth; give him too much, the same."
— Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670

Wine book

Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grape juice. Growing grapes for wine is one of the world's most important farming activities, and the industry is a major feature of the economy of many wine-producing countries. Wines may be either red, white, or rosé and also dry, medium, or sweet. They fall into three basic categories: natural, or "table," wines, with an alcohol content of 8 to 14 percent, generally consumed with meals; sparkling wines, containing carbon dioxide, of which champagne is archetypal; and fortified wines, with an alcohol content of 15 to 24 percent, drunk either as an aperitif or with dessert, depending on their sweetness. The various types include port, sherry, and aromatic wines and bitters, such as vermouth.


Cultivation of the vine began several thousand years before Christ and is mentioned many times in the Old Testament. The ancient Egyptians made wine; the early Greeks exported it on a considerable scale.

Greek toast

During the Roman Empire vine cultivation was extended to such a degree that a surplus ensued, and in AD 92 the emperor Domitian decreed that half the vines outside Italy be uprooted. When replanting was later permitted, vineyards extended into northern France and Germany and even into southern England.

The Middle Ages, AD c.400-1200, saw little progress in viticulture. From about 1200, monasteries kept alive the art of wine making. Later the nobility also owned extensive vineyards. The French Revolution and the secularization of the German vineyards by Napoleon, however, removed many vineyards from ecclesiastical hands.

From the beginning of the 13th century, the wines of Bordeaux (an area under the English crown from 1152 to 1435) were commonly shipped to England, the Hanseatic ports, and the Low Countries. By the 14th century wines from Spain and Portugal were also widely exported. Drinking habits were largely governed by changing fashions at court, political relations with producing countries, and changing rates of excise duty. During the 18th century heavy duties on French wines and an English alliance with Portugal led to a sharp rise in English consumption of Portuguese wines.


For convenience in commerce, the Bordeaux merchants classified their finest red wines as early as 1725, but it was not until 1855 that such a classification, based on the market price for each wine, received official recognition. The wines of the Médoc district were divided into five classes, or crus. The 1855 classification stands today with only one recent significant change.

During the middle and second half of the 19th century the European vineyards suffered from a series of disastrous diseases and pests, particularly mildew, or Oidium, and the plant louse, Phylloxera. First discovered in 1863, Phylloxera spread across Europe, destroying the vines by attacking their roots. Not until about 1880 was the grafting of European vine species onto immune American rootstock accepted as the only viable solution. Selective replanting also led to improved grapes.

Simultaneously, a movement began to ensure the authenticity of wine, culminating (1936) in France when the appellation controlée (quality control) law, now the model for similar legislation in other countries, came into effect. The law allows only wine made from grapes grown in the Champagne region, for example, to be called champagne.


This table lists world wine production in 2002. The top 20 countries are ranked by number, and their production is given in metric tons.   This table lists per-capita wine consumption in 2001 for the top 30 countries. The countries are ranked by number, and their per-capita consumption is given in liters.

SOURCE: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.



NOTE: Per Capita consumption (table on right) is based on the Total Population of each country. Figures would be higher if based on drinking age population, which can vary by country.
Conversion: liters x .26418 = gallons.


SOURCE: Economic Services Department, Wine Institute; Office International de la Vigne et du Vin, Paris.

French Wines (continued)right arrow


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