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Review: Inventiny Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures, By Paul Lukacs

What are you having?

As this thoughtful history reminds us, wine wasn't always a pleasure. Back when plain water was deadlier than even the foulest rotgut, it was a bare necessity, sunk by the gallon. Truly, life was nasty, brutish and pissed.

Wine started as a god pleaser, its consumption tied to religious ceremonies and Bacchanalian ecstasies. But monks secularised it, most notably in Burgundy where the taxonomically minded brothers defined vineyard borders that remain in use today. Most wine was drunk young, before its inevitable decline – "sour" and "shrill" are Paul Lukacs's most oft-used flavour descriptors.

Fine wine as we know it didn't appear until the invention of a reliable glass container. Monsieur Pontac, the owner of a Bordelais vineyard called Haut-Brion, was the first vintner to sell his estate's wine individually. The early wine critic Samuel Pepys tried "Ho Bryan" in London and loved it. But it still came in leaky casks.

Louis Pasteur nailed the causes of spoilage – oxygen and bacteria – and the 19th century saw the first true vins de garde: bottles that improved with long storage. Then phylloxera, an unwelcome US aphid, killed non-resistant vines across Europe, and the multiple blows of war, depression, prohibition and cocktails almost destroyed the wine industry.

The New World revolutionised wine. Australia democratised the market with cheap, identifiable facsimiles of the classics; California devised the "varietal". But this self-invention was not new. France's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée system was instigated by a Great War hero eager to promote quality in an obscure, stony terroir called Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It worked: CNdP has long has been the priciest of all Southern Rhône crus.

Lukacs contends that we live in a golden vinous age, with provisos. Although actively bad wine is no longer widely available, predictable, market-led wine abounds. The tastes of superstar critics such as Robert Parker have been so second-guessed that one US consultancy guarantees an excellent, hence profitable, review for winemakers following their method. For all the mystical communion and misty history, this myth-busting volume reminds us that wine is an agricultural product, made and sold for profit.

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