How France Became So Good at Wine

What an excavated wine press reveals about the drinking habits of the Gauls.

Herve Guegan, the manager of transfer technology unit of the Nuclear Research Centre of Bordeaux, southwestern France, runs a test on a 1944 vintage bottle of Medoc wine on September 4, 2008. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

In this era of austerity, President Francois Hollande raised money for state coffers last week in perhaps the best way a Frenchman could: selling off one-tenth of the presidential palace's private wine stores, or about 1,200 bottles, at an auction. And this wasn't just any old garage sale -- one bottle of the palace's Petrus 1990 is worth at least $3,000.

Wine lovers from all corners flocked to the event, for obvious reasons: France has historically produced some of the finest vintages around, and its regions have lent their names to some of the world's most famous grapes.

Now, a new study reveals just how France became so good at viticulture.

By analyzing chemical compounds in pottery vessels and an excavated wine press, a team of archaeologists has found that the French began producing wine at around 425 BC -- earlier than had previously been thought -- after imports from central Italy generated a huge demand among the Gallic elites.

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According to Patrick E. McGovern, an archaeologist with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, here's how it happened:

The Etruscans of central Italy had learned the art of winemaking from the Phoenicians, the people who lived in what is now Lebanon (and where fermenting grapes was a popular practice until Islam took hold.) The Etruscans began exporting wine to Southern France, along with drinking cups and other wine-serving accessories made from precious bronze.

It was a delicious, but pricey, substance, so only the local rulers could afford the imported vino. But they really took a liking to it -- shipwrecks from the time and region have been found stocked to the brim with ancient wine vessels destined for the thirsty, rich Gauls.

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Not unlike recent college graduates buying their first middle-shelf liquors, the French upper classes might have thought, "this is way better than the stuff we used to drink." As McGovern writes in the study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today, "It is not surprising then that the Celts or Gauls along the shore of Mediterranean France ... should have become entranced by the cultural and economic possibilities for wine and begun to substitute it for their native beverages, which were likely beers, meads, and mixed fermented beverages."

Soon, the French began planting their own vineyards, learning the technique from the Etruscans, who might have even come over to help, McGovern says. The grapes were likely white -- considered more delicate and classy at the time -- and the wine tasted similar to what we might drink today.

But wine wasn't just used to increase the merriment levels of various feasts, McGovern assures me. Some of the residue McGovern and his team found in the amphoras -- or wine vessels -- at the site in southern France showed that the substance had been mixed with tree resin and herbal residue, indicating that it might have been an ancient Robotussin of sorts.

"We think that alcoholic beverages in general were sort of the ancient medicine," McGovern said. "They didn't have synthetic medicine like we do, and alcoholic beverages are safer than water because it kills bacteria. You could drink it or apply it to your skin."

Wine also had a role in religious ceremonies, as the French quickly discovered that its mind-altering properties helped them communicate with their Gods and ancestors.

From the south, the French wine industry expanded up the Rhone River and became the precursor for the behemoth it is today. Throughout the coming centuries, Cistercians and other monks refined and perfected French winemaking techniques, eventually creating the flavors of Champagne and Bordeaux we enjoy today.

Most modern wineries continue to use French grape strains, McGovern said. "[The French] became very conscious of all the subtle gustatory impressions that you get from food and wine, and the French were the grapes that everyone was after."

And if you ask people like collector Virginie Le Bac, who left the presidential wine auction as "the prices went flying" before her eyes, the grapes are still quite in demand today.