The best books on French wine, history, and culture

Mack P. Holt Author Of The Politics of Wine in Early Modern France: Religion and Popular Culture in Burgundy, 1477-1630
By Mack P. Holt

Who am I?

I knew nothing about wine and drank it only rarely until I went to Paris as a graduate student in the 1970s. Even then, I couldn’t afford more than basic plonk. It was not until I started doing research in Dijon every summer in the 1980s, making great friends in the process, eating and drinking at their dining tables, and visiting their favorite vignerons with them for dégustations, that I began to appreciate wine, not just as a fantastic beverage, but as a social and cultural creator. And as a historian, I appreciate that drinking wine that comes from vineyards planted in the Middle Ages connects us with our ancestors in the past.

I wrote...

The Politics of Wine in Early Modern France: Religion and Popular Culture in Burgundy, 1477-1630

By Mack P. Holt,

Book cover of The Politics of Wine in Early Modern France: Religion and Popular Culture in Burgundy, 1477-1630

What is my book about?

This book explores the interaction of politics, religion, and material culture in the city of Dijon and the wine region in Burgundy that surrounded it. While so many studies of the sixteenth-century have depicted the ruling elites and the popular classes they governed as being diametrically opposed in constant social and cultural conflict, this book examines the city of Dijon, where the mayors and city councilors who governed the city came to rely on the support of the city’s vineyard workers—the vignerons, who made up roughly 20 percent of the population—to confront and repel the Protestant Reformation when it arrived in the city, as well as to help them fight back against the encroaching absolute monarchy of Louis XIII.

The books I picked & why

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French Wine: A History

By Rod Phillips,

Book cover of French Wine: A History

Why this book?

This is the best general survey of French wine in English, from someone who not only teaches the history of modern France at his local university, but who also reviews and writes about wine for his city’s newspaper. As both an academic historian and a journalist, Phillips has written a riveting account of how wine was first introduced to France under the Romans, how many of the vineyards later came under the control of the Catholic church in the Middle Ages, how the French state attempted to control and regulate the production of wine in the nineteenth-century, and how smaller wineries are now trying to cope with the global commercialization of the wine industry. Just a great primer on French wine.

Land and Wine: The French Terroir

By Charles Frankel,

Book cover of Land and Wine: The French Terroir

Why this book?

The most misunderstood word in any discussion about French wine, terroir is not only the French word for soil, but it refers to place, the specific place where grapes are grown to make wine. Thus, terroir does mean the soil in the vineyard, but also the ground beneath the soil, climate, weather, indeed, everything at any particular place that affects the grapes grown in that specific place. This book written by a geologist is no boring technical and scientific study of taste, but a clear and convincing explanation of why wines grown in different places, and wines even grown in the same place but in different harvest years, taste so differently. Frankel demystifies the notion of terroir, and at the same time, he helps us understand why we should want to preserve and protect these different tastes from the homogenization of the global wine market.

Puligny-Montrachet : Journal of a Village in Burgundy

By Simon Loftus,

Book cover of Puligny-Montrachet : Journal of a Village in Burgundy

Why this book?

If terroir is about place, Loftus shows us one particular place in rural Burgundy, and especially the people living there who grow the grapes and make the wine. These vignerons help us understand that good wine is made in the vineyard, not through any manipulation after the harvest in a fermentation tank or oak barrel. Loftus also shows how wine influences local politics, as in 1879 when the village elders petitioned the French government to add the name of their most famous vineyard—Montrachet—to the name of their town, Puligny, thus allowing their Grand Cru vineyard name to appear on the label of humbler bottles bearing just the village name, following in the footsteps of Nuits-St. Georges, Chambolle-Musigny, Aloxe-Corton, and dozens of other Burgundian villages.

Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris

By Thomas Edward Brennan,

Book cover of Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Why this book?

Taverns and public houses have long been accused by the pious and elite guardians of public welfare as being primarily dens of iniquity where the poor could get inebriated, misbehave, and escape their misery in drunken disorder. Brennan shows very clearly that despite the obvious problem of drunkenness for some, for the majority drinking a glass or two of wine together with friends and neighbors was really about sharing, belonging, sociability, and above all, a place for social exchange. Wine can be a lubricant, to be sure, but it is also an astringent that binds us together.

Wine Drinking Culture in France: A National Myth or a Modern Passion?

By Marion Demossier,

Book cover of Wine Drinking Culture in France: A National Myth or a Modern Passion?

Why this book?

At some basic level, the drinking culture in eighteenth-century taverns has survived in Parisian wine bars and cafés today. Yet, as a social anthropologist, Demossier shows us that wine-drinking culture has changed into something different today. Since 1980 the number of French people who drank wine every day has plummeted from over 50 percent to barely 20 percent. Yet at the same time, wine has taken on a larger cultural role in French identity as a nation even for those who drink wine less regularly. All the TV programs, books, wine blogs, wine tourism, and consumers flocking to wineries for a degustation at the source demonstrate that drinking wine is now as much a part of what it means to be French as speaking French.

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