Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thomas Parker's "Tasting French Terroir"

Thomas Parker is an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Vassar College. He worked in Champagne, France after high school and remained in the wine trade for many years before going to graduate school.

Parker applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Tasting French Terroir: The History of an Idea, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book is one of my favorites and very representative of the read. It suggests how wine connoisseurship was historically tied to social class in France, and leads to an explanation of how champagne first acquired the snob appeal that it retains in many circles today. Medical authorities in the seventeenth century advised that red wine was filled with heavy particles that would stop up circulation, rise to the brain, and make smart people sluggish. Hearty red wines were suitable only for people with large pores who perspired a lot— peasants, laborers, and low-class people in general— because they were able to sweat out the impurities.

More refined people were advised to drink white wine. White wine lacked the heavy matter red wine absorbed from the dirt the grapes grew in. In fact, the best “terroir,” or growing area, was thought to come from the small town of Ay in Champagne. Those wines were light, pure, and healthful, most proper for kings, poets, and the elite population who frequented seventeenth-century Versailles. Champagne d’Ay became the rage at the court, where the message was not that you were what you drank, but rather that you should drink what you were.

Curiously, the Hippocratic and Galenic humors theory on which these assessments were based had been largely outmoded by the science of the time. The high-stakes social world of Paris and Versailles, however, retained theories on humors in relation to wine because they helped reinforce existing social hierarchies. They also provided the means by which one could attempt to fake it, tippling to the top by choosing the right drink.

Voltaire turned the tables and democratized champagne 75 years later in a poem on luxury, claiming that the wines of Ay with their frothy foam and effervescence were the very image of French people themselves. In doing so, he tied the idea of national identity and “Frenchness” to wine and the concept of terroir.

This is just one episode in the fascinating story of the idea of terroir that I explore throughout the book. Incidentally, champagne d’Ay is still around today and stunningly delicious, no matter how big your pores are.
Learn more about Tasting French Terroir at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue