Making fine wine as dull as dishwater

A Short History of Wine by Rod Phillips (Allen Lane, £20)
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The Independent Culture

Rod Phillips has chosen a hard act to follow. It is 10 years since Hugh Johnson wrote his magisterial Story of Wine, which had the distinction of being not only authoritative but gracefully written. A short history, in the wake of a long history, needs to be briefer on detail but zestier in approach. That can hardly be said about this new book. Professor Phillips is dutiful rather than enthusiastic, covering the ground remorselessly. That wine is one of the sources of conviviality and merriment is not a message that comes through strongly.

Rod Phillips has chosen a hard act to follow. It is 10 years since Hugh Johnson wrote his magisterial Story of Wine, which had the distinction of being not only authoritative but gracefully written. A short history, in the wake of a long history, needs to be briefer on detail but zestier in approach. That can hardly be said about this new book. Professor Phillips is dutiful rather than enthusiastic, covering the ground remorselessly. That wine is one of the sources of conviviality and merriment is not a message that comes through strongly.

Like all wine historians, he must struggle with the problem that we have no idea what the drink tasted like before the 17th century. Archaeological remains prove that wine has been in existence for close to 10,000 years, but no drinkable wine survives. Indeed, conservation was until recently the greatest difficulty for any producer. As the fermented juice of the grape, wine is a natural product but inherently unstable. In a rare flash of wit, Phillips points out that for millennia wine was drunk very young, as "a sort of paleolithic Beaujolais Nouveau".

Wine's greatest enemies are bacteria and oxygen, which render it undrinkable through spoilage or oxidation. The Romans added herbs and seawater as preservatives; in more recent times, brandy or spirit has been added to stabilise a wine. Modern wine-making relies on sulphur dioxide and filtration to ensure the wine is biologically stable in the bottle.

The wine historian can broach all kinds of topics - social attitudes, climatic variation, the role of institutions such as the church - but the one thing he cannot do is point to any contemporary examples. The art historian can illustrate the subject; the military historian can summon up witnesses of the past. The wine historian can only point to a broken amphora or a dusty - but empty - bottle.

Professor Phillips skirts admirably around that difficulty and has a sound grasp of the evolution of wine production and consumption. He illustrates how discussions of the health benefits of wine-drinking, as well as dire warnings about unbridled consumption, have been with us for centuries. But he has a lesser grasp of narrative and, in the earlier sections, a tendency to dart around, denying his history any easy coherence.

Nor is the reader helped by a style reminiscent of a bored undergraduate penning a midnight essay. Who would wish to finish reading a sentence that begins: "Within this broad category we should note the high status accorded to... "? Do we really need to know how many litres were shipped from Lisbon to Luanda from 1798 to 1807? And the final paragraph contains this ringing if incomprehensible peroration: "It was expected that demand for Champagne would decline in the first few years of the 21st century, but by its very cultural significance, the sales of champagne are likely to be more volatile than those of many other types of wine."

Now and again the narrative springs to life. Phillips has ferreted out information on the central role of wine in the European diet. A consumption of two litres per day was routine at certain times and places, and liberal quantities were issued to soldiers in combat. A specialist in French social history, he is particularly entertaining on wine in 19th-century Paris. Tax laws penalising drinkers within the city walls led to the creation of enormous taverns just outside, and of ingenious methods of bringing tax-free booze into the city.

If you want to know about developments in transportation, improvements in closure such as the cork, the origins of the champagne process, the creation of the appellation system, it's all here. There is no dearth of information; the presentation, however, is dull, and Phillips cannot resist citing a brain-numbing succession of statistics. Finally, the book and the reader's eyes are abysmally served by the minute type, reminiscent of the disclaimers on the back of air tickets.

* The reviewer is general editor of 'A Century of Wine', published next month by Mitchell Beazley

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