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Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine by Kevin Begos, Algonquin Books, US $26.95, Pp 278, June 2018, ISBN 978-1616205775

If you love to drink wine, you must have wondered where your wine has come from or how your wine evolved from an ancient wine to the aromatic wine drink. Every time you hold a glass of wine, you may be unconsciously asking many similar questions. Man is known to have made wine some 10,000 years ago. Wine is known to have reached the Levant and Greece around 4500 BC and France in 1,000BC. The Spanish colonists brought wine to the Americas around 1500 AD. If all the wines today taste differently, they must have tasted differently over the centuries. How did the ancient wines taste? In Tasting the Past, Kevin Begos gives a comprehensive history of the evolution of wine and answers all the possible questions you may have.

The wine has been central to religious rituals in many societies over the millennia. Kevin Begos says that the Babylonians revered a goddess named Gestinanna, the mother of all grapevines. Siduri is a major character in The Epic of Gilgamesh, regarded as the oldest literary poem. She is like a Mesopotamian version of Adriana La Cerva from the Sopranos — a winemaker, tavern keeper, sex symbol and confidence to wandering men. Persians, Arabs, and Jews all recited wine poems through the centuries when vineyards supposedly disappeared under the influence of Islam. Greeks and Romans allowed occasional wild celebrations that sounded like an early version of girls’ night out. Cults dedicated to the wine gods Dionysus (and the later Roman version, Bacchus), set aside three days of the year for all-female celebrations.

Early wine writing from ancient Greeks Romans, Jews, and other cultures described grapes mostly by where they grew if they mentioned the particular grapes at all. Kevin Begos says that there were early efforts to describe grapes by the berry size and color, leaf structure, or seed. The last one is quite accurate – even fossilized seeds that are millions of years old retain some distinguishing characteristics. But seeds are not very exciting to look at. By the eighteenth century the quaint and colorful science of ampelography – a term created from the Greek words for ‘vine’ and ‘writing’ – was the rage. It is just a fancy way of saying experts looked at leaves and grapes, did meticulous drawing and measurements, and decided whether one plant looks like another.

Careful ampelography using modern instruments can document important botanical differences between grapes, but like the nineteenth-century doctors who tried to gauge intelligence by measuring people’s heads, it has flaws. Begos says that shape and color don’t always reveal a grape’s true heritage, but it was the best option for many years. Ampelography eventually inspired a small industry. Agricultural schools preserved vast collections of grape pips and leaves. This helped artists and publishers create lavish books and portfolios filled with color plates, the oenophile equivalent of Audubon’s birds. The attraction still exists: in 2012 an Italian publisher issued a 1,500-page three volume coffee-table set on the history of ampelography, with 551reproductions of classic illustrations.

Just like human genealogy reveals our ancestors with colorful or disreputable pasts or those who came from countries, religions, or races you never expected, the wine grape tests caused some major grapevine soul-searching. The first conclusive DNA evidence of a famous wine grape’s parentage came in 1997, showing that the red mainstay Cabernet Sauvignon had a white grape parent, Sauvignon Blanc, and a red one, Cabernet Franc. The vineyard love affair occurred in the seventeenth or eighteenth century in southwest France. Begos quotes Carole Meredith, a plant geneticist at the University of California Davis, who said, “A single pollen grain landed on a single flower and a single seed grew into a single plant. Every cabernet Sauvignon vine across the world comes from this one original vine.” Have you ever drunk Cabernet Sauvignon? Did it occur to you it came from Cabernet Sauvignon came from Sauvignon Blanc?

Tasting the Past is an insightful history of wine. This well-researched book has combined history, science, and travel in one place which makes it extraordinarily interesting and entertaining. It is packed with drink recommendation and will teach you how to select your wine next time you go out to buy a bottle. This intoxicating and sensual book will change the way you think of wine. Tasting the Past is an essential read for every wine lover. Kevin Begos knows everything about the history of wine.

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