If you know anything about wine, you’re well aware that it’s a creation that’s extraordinarily dependent on its environment. The difference between a good wine and a bad one usually comes down to soil, moisture, whether it was hot or cold the year the grapes were growing, and other factors. But did you ever realize that the opposite is also true–that you can tell a lot about the environment, and especially the climate, by studying wine?
I do a lot of history on this blog, but despite the fact that I am a historian, I don’t do a lot of posts about my day-to-day work or research. While I was working on my dissertation, however, I came across a book so fascinating and quirky that I just had to share it: it’s a 1000-year environmental history of wine harvests in Germany, and it contains a perfectly amazing chronicle of what the wines of the Baden region were like year by year. The book is called Geschichte des Badischen Weinbaus (“History of Baden Wine”) and it’s by Dr. Karl Müller. Long out of print–published in 1954–it is not available in English, which is a tremendous shame. My dissertation, completed in 2017, dealt heavily with climate and climate change over time, so when I found this book cited in an English-language source I simply had to have it. I had to send away for it from the USDA National Agricultural Library in Maryland, which may have the only copy in the United States.
Anyway, if you can read German–which I do a little, with generous help from friends and online translators–it’s pretty interesting. The chronicle starts in the year 1020 and goes up to 1950. Pick a year, any year, and it will tell you what the wines were like in specific wine regions, plus a lot about what the weather and climate was like that year.
This is the lovely Ortenau region of Baden, which has been producing wine since the Middle Ages. They make a lot of Riesling and Chardonnay here.
Take, for instance, the year 1347, which was the dreadful year of the Black Death: “1347 N. [Nordbaden, a wine region]: Grapes on 8 September frozen.” This meant the grapes were harvested on September 8, and they were ruined from cold; 1347 was in the midst of what climatologists call the “Little Ice Age.”
Here was what the wine was like in 1453, the year Constantinople fell. Sounds like a bad vintage:
1453. H. [Hochrheingebiet, a wine area]. In August, snowfall). N. [Nordbaden], Partially frozen in winter vines, and a small amount of sour wine.
It also seems to have been cold in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London:
1666. Bo. [Bodenseegebiet, a wine area:] A lot (90 hl / ha) and very good wine [from Allensbach]. Frozen lake, severe cold, good yield, early harvest, cheaper wine [from Uberlingen, a wine-producing city]. Late frost, hot summer, autumn ½, very good wine [from the Swiss Rhine Valley].
1776, the year of American independence, seems to have been a nice year:
1776. Bo. [Bodenseegebiet]. Summer and autumn beautiful, small yield, but good. Medium yield, very good. M. [Markgrafschaft] Low. A large yield and good in Uffhausen. O. [Ortenau, a wine region]: Slightly worse than last year.
Okay, perhaps it’s a bit geeky, reading about what wines were like in the distant past. But for both a wine lover and a historian I would think this kind of thing is pretty cool. I’m reminded of Virginia Madsen’s awesome monologue from the movie Sideways, which connects wine and history in a very sensual way.
Wine is alive, and it is history. The Baden wine chronicle is a link to our past through viticulture, and as the saying goes, in vino veritas–in wine there is truth.