Obscure Wine Launches Quest
Kevin Begos is a former AP correspondent and a journalist whose beat typically includes science and research. While in Jordan, reporting about medicine in the Arabic world, he opened a bottle of Cremisan Winery and Monastery wine from the hotel minibar and his life was about to take a twist.
Begos is author of Tasting The Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine, which recounts his 10-year journey to dig into the origins of wine and shed light on ancient wine and obscure grapes. He began investigating the mysterious Cremisan vineyard and quickly found himself in a wine-soaked detective story, complete with false leads, DNA evidence and rare grapes hidden in remote plains and valleys across the world. The book was published earlier this month by Algonquin Books and is priced at $26.95 for the hardcover.
The book covers a spectrum of topics interesting to wine lovers such as:
- How scientists are decoding grape DNA to chart the family tree of wine.
- How DNA analysis, mass spectrometry, liquid chromatography and other high-tech tools are helping winemakers rediscover rate native grapes and rescue them from the brink of extinction.
- How archeobiologists in Milan brought Leonardo da Vinci’s lost vineyard back to life.
- How scientists in Israel are rediscovering native grapes of the Holy Land.
Our Take: A Most Fascinating Wine Book
In short, this is the most fascinating wine book I’ve read in years. I highly recommend it. Vino-Sphere interviewed the author and we share excerpts here.
Begos: We’re losing flavors by ignoring the native grapes. There's actually a genetic problem. Basically we’ve been breeding these same few grapes for hundreds or a thousand years and replanting them from cuttings. Scientist have been telling me that the famous grapes are dangerously inbred and are not evolving resistance to disease and pests the way they should. The Irish Potato Famine happened mostly because one variety of potato was being grown. Similarly, there was a global banana variety grown in the 1950s. Pretty much all the plantations around the world got hit with the same disease and they had to scramble to find a new variety. So it’s actually happened to other crops when you have a monoculture.
Vino-Sphere: How do you feel about the concept of “noble grapes” and that there are a limited number, a dozen or so, grapes that produce really great wine?
Begos: I’ve come to completely disagree. I'll quote the opening passage in my book from my friend Andy Walker, who is a great scientist at the University of California Davis, one of the leading great research schools in the world: “We’re still caught in that trap of saying, well, there only 10 good grape varieties in the whole world, and that's it. There are wonderful wines to be made everywhere from a huge number of varieties.” He’s someone who's really knowledgeable about wine and genetics and I think he hit the nail on the head.
WWDJD: What Wine Did Jesus Drink?
Vino-Sphere: What did ancient wine taste like? I recently did a class on Italian wines and some say that Primitivo was the wine served at the Last Supper. Could that be right?
Begos: Scientists have actually been able to analyze tiny bits of the stains and remains of ancient wine that exist in tombs and pyramids in Egypt and the Middle East. Wine was often flavored during those times, sometimes with cinnamon or other spices such as myrrh, which is like a pine resin. I really had a revelation during the book. I was talking to an archaeologist at the ancient city of Gott in Israel, which is reputedly where Goliath lived. He pointed out that ancient people in some ways were just like us. There were all different levels of society and different levels of wine. There was one level for the common people. There was even one for slaves. There was one for very wealthy people, kings, rulers and the pharaohs. A lot of people have asked what wine would be served at the Last Supper and what would Jesus have drunk in his life. The answer is just like today. It really could vary depending on what was the closest vineyard and it could have been a white wine, a red wine or a very sweet kind of wine. They mixed wine with water back then so we’ll never know exactly which one. It was interesting to me to make that connection to the past. Just like today people drink all sorts of wines
Vino-Sphere: How has technology changed how we think about grapes and their origins?
Begos: I never imagined that I’d be writing about DNA analysis of grapes 10 years ago. The cost of analysis of personal DNA has come down so much a lot of people are doing it. It’s is the same thing with grapes. We now can do a family tree of grapes and map the migration of grapes.
Vino-Sphere: What have we learned about ancient people and wine?
Begos: We have more variety than anyone's ever had, but I was surprised to learn how much transportation took place in the ancient world. Egyptians exported wines all the way to Greece and probably Italy, and the Romans exported wine all through various provinces. So while people certainly didn't ship from Australia to the Mediterranean, wine would go hundreds or perhaps even thousands of miles. It turns out that's how winemaking arrived in France. I grew up thinking the French invented winemaking. I’m not really embarrassed about that because there are so many great winemakers there, but the French didn't start making wine until about 500 BC. That's about 5,000 or 6,000 years after people in the Caucus mountains in the Middle East were making it. So the French were real latecomers. Wine was already being imported from Italy or Greece in clay amphora. It was a massive trade. They actually had manufacturing centers where they made these amphora. Tax officials at the ports would stamp them, inspect them for quality and seal them. Muscat of Alexandria was famous very early on. Thousands of years ago you had salespeople in all these different ports talking up their inventory just like people do today.
Vino-Sphere: What are your thoughts on hybrid grapes? Some people say hybrids can’t make good wine.
Begos: That’s just nonsense historically, scientifically and viticulturally – the whole notion. All grapes have potential.
Vino-Sphere: Can “American” grapes make great wine?
Begos: Yes. The main thing is you don’t want to take Italian food and try to make it taste like French food. For many years French wine was the thing to be emulated, but every region has its native grapes with their own flavors. There are so many more resources than before. The University of Minnesota is zeroing in the genome to breed unpleasant flavors out. There is a purely psychological barrier, which is important. There’s also the question of whether it is the grape or the winemaker. I’m seeing people take more interest in local grapes.
Vino-Sphere: Anything else we didn’t cover?
Begos: Yeast turns out to be far more interesting than we realized. It’s like the bass player in a rock and roll band. It doesn’t get the publicity, but it contributes flavors to wine. Wild yeast varieties help create strikingly different wines. Packaged wine yeast wasn’t sold until the 1960s.