The Magon Project

This post is based on a trip to Tunisia which I took before the onset of Covid-19 – but which the pestilence rather pushed to one side.  However, it’s time to continue (the new) normal service and return to some aspects of wine and culture that go beyond plague.  This post also (coincidentally) follows the one I wrote before Christmas, as it is also about religion, although in a very different context.

Most people probably wouldn’t associate Tunisia with wine but – both historically and in contemporary society – that would be a mistake.  Even today, despite having a majority Muslim population, Tunisia makes wine and has it widely available, including in many restaurants. The capital, Tunis, is just to the south-west of the site of Carthage, the major ancient settlement in the region.  Carthage was founded in about 814 CE by the Phoenicians – the seafaring peoples from what is modern Lebanon, who were the first great traders of wine across the Mediterranean (a large wine press dating from this period has just been discovered in Lebanon which may have fuelled this trade). This turned into an autonomous state, Carthage, which at its peak challenged the growing power of Rome, so that there were a series of wars between them eventually won by the Romans.  They destroyed Carthage – although the city was later rebuilt within their empire.  The destruction included a great library and the Romans left all the books in their wake.  All, that is, except the works of Mago, which the destroyers retrieved because of their fame and took back to Italy.

Why these books?  Mago – known now in Tunisia as Magon (who some claim  was one of the earliest settlers although others think he lived around 500 BCE) wrote a treatise on Agriculture, probably the first such book.  He was very influential on later Greek and Roman authors.  So why does this interest us?  Because viticulture is one branch of agriculture, and Magon wrote on planting and pruning vines and making wine.  He even had a section on why the most productive vineyards face north – which is, of course, not what we would normally claim in the Northern Hemisphere but makes sense in a hot climate like that of North Africa.

Magon is still revered in Tunisia; so much so that there is now the ‘Magon Project’; this is a transnational partnership between Tunisia and Italy – specifically Sicily, only about 125 kilometres away over the sea – to underscore their culinary and cultural links; it is part financed by the EU.  One of its major foci is on the links relating to wine (another would be couscous, the staple food of Tunisia – and which has a European history only in Sicily as the island was ruled by Arabs for over 100 years).  It seeks to ‘trace the footsteps of Magon’ by using the archaeology of the two countries; it is also part of an international network of wine routes – and even has its own Facebook page.  The project focuses on the ruins of Carthage and Cap Bon, a peninsula to the east of Tunis where most of the vineyards are based.  One of the key archaeological sites, Kerkouane, was conquered briefly by a Sicilian tyrant, Agathocles of Syracuse, during his fight with Carthage, so I was told.  Relations between the two regions were not always as harmonious as they seem to be now. The Magon Project is explicit about the vinous link with Sicily and Italy – but of course, as a Muslim country it has to be careful not to play it up too much.  One of the interpretative panels at Kerkouane talks about moscato, and the famous wines made from it on the Italian island of Pantelleria.  This latter, just 60 kilometres away, is visible in the hazy distance from Cap Bon.  It also forms a link to the only wine I tried in Tunisia which I really enjoyed.

The key beneficiaries of this (at least while international tourism was operating) were tour companies who could take you on wine and/or history tours outside the capital, Tunis.  The country needs this industry; its infrastructure is woefully underfunded, and it urgently needs more capital.  As an aside, my own view was that the tourist attractions were far too cheap to enter and international visitors could contribute a lot more for the privilege of exploring a great archaeological heritage; Carthage – where you can spend hours exploring – costs less than 4€ to enter.  There is also a national museum with the greatest collection of mosaics in the world which is well worth visiting.

So, 2800 years on, Magon still has an influence – even if it is no longer on viticulture or the better production of wine.  He has been co-opted as an icon for the heritage and agricultural dynamism of the country’s ancestors.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence V

My last few posts have explored how the Covid-19 pandemic is intersecting with different cultural and social norms to change people’s attitudes to and behaviour with wine.  The danger hasn’t passed but many countries are at the point of leaving lockdown or confinement.  Thus, although we aren’t at that point yet, in the next few posts I’m keen to explore how the world of wine may change in the post-pandemic world. However, first I want to ponder a little bit of history.  This isn’t just because I like history; I’m hoping it may also set a bit of the framework for the next three or four posts I’m planning (so for those who really don’t like history, stay tuned for my next post). I’ve already written briefly about Phylloxera in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic – but I think that a further exploration of how it changed wine, wine consumption and the wine industry, may be helpful in thinking about how the current plague may reshape our world.  Phylloxera, of course, was an insect and not a disease, and whilst it devastated vineyards it was never dangerous to humans as Covid-19 is; no one died from its activity.  Nevertheless, within the very limited world of wine production its impact was overwhelming, undermining established businesses and transforming everything from viticultural methods to regional reputations and market preferences.  However, I would suggest that its major impact was not revolutionary; it overturned nothing.  Rather it was a catalyst; it did nothing new but accelerated what was already happening.

This is best explored by looking at the Champagne region (although it had a similar impact throughout Europe).  Phylloxera arrived in the southern part of Champagne in 1888 but it took another four years for it to get to the centre of the vineyard area.  It spread slowly there, so only reached its peak a little before the First World War.

In 1888 champagne was produced from a large area – somewhere around 50,000 hectares of vineyard land (but down from perhaps 80,000 a few decades before).  Despite the success of the fizz on international markets over the previous 40 years wine production in the region was of predominantly still, red (or deep pink) wine.  It might be made for local consumption or sold quite cheaply, mainly locally and in northern France, including Paris, as well as Belgium.  Yet, it was comparatively expensive to produce in a cooler climate; yields were much lower than now and the cold meant that vintage variation was substantial, both in quality and quantity.  Since the railway link between Paris and Languedoc had been finished less than 40 years before southern French wine producers, blessed with sunshine that offered consistent, large volumes, had been selling cheaper, red wine to the metropolis, made from high-yielding varieties like aramon and carignan.

The vineyards in Champagne were owned by small-scale growers (sometimes farmers rather than just vignerons) and they would have seemed – to modern eyes – a mess, with vines planted higgledy-piggledy in the vineyard at many more plants per hectare than the current 10,000.  When you needed a new vine, you buried the shoot from an existing plant, let it root, then cut it off from the mother (the same system is still used in some parts of the world – notably Santorini).  The grapes included all the ones known today (though without so much chardonnay) but also such lower quality varieties as alicante and gouais.

Sparkling wine, although the minority of production, was growing, produced by the négociant elite who became wealthy on the back of its success.  The vignerons, of course, could not afford the capital needed to produce fizz, nor could they afford to leave it in their cellars for a few years to mature.  Increasingly there were disputes between the négociants and the growers: the former focusing on branding (and willing to be fuzzy about exactly where ‘champagne’ came from in order to keep the raw material cheap) and the latter seeking to defend the economic territory from which their grapes came and concerned to push the price up given the success of the sparkling wine.

So, what changed after the insect destroyed the vineyards?  The first thing was that many small growers – already impoverished as the négociants were paying them so little – gave up.  Planting new vines from cuttings cost nothing: buying Phylloxera-resistant rootstocks was expensive, and they could not afford it.  The contraction of the vineyard, already taking place, was accelerated.  Many sites became arable or root-cropped and if land had good potential as vineyard it was bought by those with money: négociants and richer growers. 

Much of the land given up was planted with red grapes, and the supply of cheaper red wine, both locally and to Paris and Belgium, dried up – Languedoc had won the battle for the Parisian working man’s throat.  The focus in Champagne evolved to be entirely on sparkling wine.

In turn, this augmented the power of the négociants as they had the capital to make, age, and export sparkling wine.  And with that power they could press down even more the price paid for grapes from the growers – whose sole role now was to supply the négociants.  In the longer term, moreover, it accelerated the development of grower cooperatives, which were being founded just as Phylloxera arrived.

What also happened, though, were a series of changes which were used to reinforce the quality and reputation of champagne – and thus justify the high price charged for it.  The first of these was a long struggle (only really completed in the second quarter of the 20th century) to rely only on the ‘quality’ grapes (chardonnay and the two pinots – noir and meunier) and push out the lesser varieties.  This has become part of the mythology of champagne – that only these three will do for great wine.

Alongside this was the battle – again one which pre-existed Phylloxera – to determine what champagne is; that is, what it represents.  Was it a style of wine, made by a well-known House, or was it wine made from a specific and clearly marked place?  The latter view was that of the growers, because limiting the origin of the grapes preserved their scarcity and thus enhanced the growers’ bargaining power.  In the end this was a battle the growers won (with the support of some of the more perceptive négociants who saw that to underline the reputation of the place Champagne would add other forms of value to their wine).  Ultimately this focus on place as the defining character of wine (which was being articulated at the same time in some other French wine regions) led to the appellation system in the 1930s and the modern world’s focus on origin as a defining label for a wine (unlike, say, beers, or many spirits).

Thus, a pestilence changed champagne, and in turn shaped the modern world of wine.  (For those who want to know more about this evolution there is a great book by an American historian, Kolleen Guy, When Champagne became French: Wine and the making of a national identity.)  Phylloxera changed viticulture, industry structure, image management and wine styles.  Yet the key point I’m making – and one which will give the context for my next posts – is that in the end the louse did nothing new; what it did was just accelerate the pace of change which was already happening.  It was not a cause, it was a catalyst.