Arts & Books Books

A manifesto for winemaking


Tasting the Past
By Kevin Begos
Algonquin, 224pp, £20/$30

It all begins with a hotel minibar in Jordan. A restless Kevin Begos tries a wine whose label reads “Produced and Bottled by Cremisan Cellars Holy Land – Bethlehem”. A “hazy Catholic childhood” reminds him that people drank wine in the Holy Land in ancient times. Begos is bowled over by what he tastes. However, he finds himself unable to discover any more about this wine or indeed get his hands on another bottle.

The Cremisan mystery proves a catalyst. Fuelled by frustration, Begos finds himself questioning the whole global wine industry – Chinese billionaires buying up Bordeaux vineyards; the continuing Napa Valley boom helped along by tech fortunes; and, above all, Chardonnays, Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons and Rieslings dominating every wine store and restaurant list.

And so he resolves to dig deep into the science, history, geography and deepest origins of wine, all in search of bottled-and-corked individuality, “rare native grapes with unusual tastes”.

Tasting the Past is an education and Begos is a pleasingly unstuffy lecturer: deeply enamoured of his subject, mingling hard facts and technical thoroughness with occasional windy speculation, reeling off poetry, and bringing back intriguing reports from the field. The chapters on winemaking in Georgia, with the monks of Alaverdi to the fore, and Oregon, are particularly engaging.

Begos sees himself as a “viticultural Quixote”, one willing to tilt pluckily against even his own prejudices, such as his doubts about the worthiness of wine grapes from his American homeland. Out of all his consultations with historians, scientists and winemakers, a sort of manifesto emerges: “small, dedicated, regional winemakers versus the corporations”.

Tasting the Past makes for a welcome addition therefore to my admittedly minuscule library of books on wine. There it will need to take its place in the shadow of a bona fide masterpiece on this subject: Roger Scruton’s I Drink Therefore I Am.