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Tasting the Past

Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor & the Search for the Origins of Wine

Kevin Begos
Algonquin Books
277 pp.
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In Tasting the Past, journalist Kevin Begos takes readers along on a journey to find the historical origins of wine. During these travels, he introduces researchers in the fields of grape and wine science, presenting the people behind the science as just as important as the science itself. A diverse world of grapes, wine, and winemakers (all of whom have their own stories to tell) complements the scientific story.

Begos’s search for the origins of wine begins with a chance encounter with a wine made from a little-known grape variety in Amman, Jordan. On a reporting assignment in the Middle East, Begos discovers a bottle of alluring red wine produced by Cremisan Cellars in Bethlehem with “spicy flavors and hints of earthy terroir.” Little did he know that uncorking this bottle was the beginning of what would become a 10-year quest to understand this wine and the people who made it.

Throughout his journey, Begos travels to a number of countries that Western societies do not often associate with wine, including Israel, Georgia, and Cyprus. Here, he finds winemakers using methods of wine production unchanged for hundreds of years. They eschew modern, sleek stainless-steel winemaking equipment for fermentation vessels and presses made of stone, ceramic, or concrete, maintaining a cultural link to the past and preserving native wine.

Begos explores the heritage of modern wine grapes through the work of researchers, including José Vouillamoz and Carole Meredith (Swiss and American geneticists, respectively), who use DNA analysis to determine the genealogical relationships between different varieties. Meredith has shown, for example, that Gouais blanc—a much-maligned grape that winemakers tend to consider a subpar variety—is actually one of the parent varieties of Chardonnay. “We realized that a limited number of varieties are responsible for most of the diversity that we observe today,” Vouillamoz tells Begos.


A woman harvests Mourvèdre grapes at the Carmel vineyard in southern Israel.

The second part of the book concerns the spread of winemaking. Emphasis is given to native wine grapes and to the struggle winemakers face in keeping old vineyards in production. Winemakers using native grapes often face market pressure to replace native vines with ones having strong global dominance, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, reveals Begos. Often these popular varieties do not grow well in environments where native grapes do. As Olivier Bourdet-Pees, director of the French winery Plaimont, states, “If I want to drink a wine from Romania, I don’t want to drink Merlot … The climate there is not so good for Merlot.” This frustration is echoed by University of California–Davis researcher Andy Walker: “… it’s a marketing scam that we ended up with ten varieties that are destined to be the best … all good wine grapes match a particular environmental niche.”

Begos provides tasting notes at the ends of the chapters, including wineries and purchasing options for each of the wines discussed. His story unfolds in a manner similar to the growth of ancient grapevines; rooted in a strong central narrative, side stories grow like tendrils, wrapping around and supporting each other, while clusters of vividly described wines emerge like ripe grapes. Anyone who is interested in wine history, viniculture, or just enjoying a glass of wine will likely find Tasting the Past a pleasurable read.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Food Safety and Measurement Facility, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA.