Consider the wine list of a typical starred restaurant in London, New York or San Francisco. More likely than not, it’s a list that encompasses extraordinary geographic diversity, ranging widely across the old world and the new. Amidst the excitement of choosing, we seldom reflect that a wine list like this, a gazetteer of almost unlimited possibilities, is also the product of a remarkably globalized world. And when we reduce a wine to an entry on a wine list—or an item in a shopping cart—we tend to lose sight of the ways in which it is the product of a specific time and place. So it’s worth taking a moment to remember that a wine is (to borrow the jargon of my erstwhile colleagues in the humanities) not merely a beverage, but also a cultural artefact.
To my mind, the insight is essential if we’re to understand complex regions with long and involved histories such as Burgundy or Piedmont. After all, if the stylistic differences between the wines of (to take an example) Puligny and Chassagne are informed by distinctions of geology and meso-climate, they also reflect differences between villages with (as Simon Loftus explored in his fascinating Puligny-Montrachet: Journal of a Village in Burgundy) distinctly different traditions and patterns of sociability. Family histories, I’d argue, can be just as important components of Burgundian terroir as the distinctions between oolitic and crinoidal limestone or the nuances of exposition.
Realizing that the entries on a wine list have been abstracted from their autochthonous context also helps to make sense of the rapport between wine and food. In a San Francisco restaurant, a bottle of Ligurian Vermentino suggests infinite possible pairings; historically, however, that wine evolved in tandem with a distinctive regional cuisine—and in a sense, the dishes with which it co-evolved remain entwined with its identity. Pesto, in other words, is part of Vermentino in the same way that gougères are part of Chablis: change the cuisine and sooner or later you’ll change the wine. Finding new synergies, it follows, is not so much an exercise in innovation as translation.
It’s also worth reflecting that the end-consumer is, in the most ultimate sense, the executive winemaker. Bordeaux offers the most obvious illustration: the ‘new model clarets’ of the eighteenth century were created for the British; when the USA displaced the UK as Bordeaux’s principal market in the second half of the twentieth century, the wines changed; and today they’re evolving again, into international wines for an international audience. But it would be delusional to imagine that even Burgundy, ostensibly populated by peasant-proprietors unlikely to be swayed by such mercenary concerns, is immune to the same pressures: estates heavily leveraged to pay inheritance dues are in fact more than ever at the mercy of banks and, ultimately, the market. Different consumer cultures, however, elicit very different wines; so next time you order a bottle from the wine list, reflect that the choices you make today will shape the wines of tomorrow.