About 8,000 years ago, somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains, humans began turning grapes into wine. Today, winemaking is big business; the global market is worth more than $300 billion, with total production in 2016 reaching almost 26 billion litres. As author Kevin Begos puts it: ‘The modern wine industry [looks] more and more like a dressed-up version of industrial agriculture.’
In recent years, there has been a slow shift away from mass-produced wines, sourced from sprawling vineyards, towards single-vineyard wines made by artisanal producers, a trend that mirrors the foodie movement which celebrates local, small-scale food production. Onto this bandwagon jumps Begos, who suggests that we’ve all been duped by ‘the clever marketing of international wine corporations’. As with other big agribusinesses, winegrowing has a diversity problem – about a quarter of the world’s wine is made from just six grape varieties: the so-called noble grapes. Begos wants us to wake up to this fact and begin to explore the wider wine world.
He sets out to trace the historical spread of winemaking around the globe (part of it, anyway – he mostly ignores the New World), encountering along the way some of the other 1,400 or so grape varieties currently used commercially to make wine. In the process, he discovers ‘a far-flung community of people fighting to preserve rare grapes’, tending the ‘forgotten vines that elderly people said their grandfathers had planted’. He visits a vineyard once owned by Leonardo da Vinci, builds stone terraces on a steep Swiss hillside and talks to numerous scientists, winemakers and growers.
Sadly, the resultant book suffers for want of the steadying hand of a strict editor. The writing is pedestrian, the author’s grip on the science and terminology often a tad slack. The us-versus-them, industrial-versus-artisanal, local-versus-global schtick gets a bit wearying by the end, as does Begos’s habit of regularly and clunkily shoehorning himself into the narrative. In all, it’s an interesting tale albeit adequately told.
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