“Anything from Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia. Beautiful wines, and they are making heroic efforts to save local native grapes.”
After a chance encounter with an obscure Middle Eastern red, journalist Kevin Begos embarked on a ten-year journey to seek out the origins of wine.* What he unearthed is a whole world of forgotten grapes, each with distinctive tastes and aromas, as well as the archaeologists, geneticists, chemists-even a paleobotanist-who are deciphering wine down to molecules of flavour. In his Tasting The Past we meet a young scientist who sets out to decode the DNA of every single wine grape in the world; a researcher who seeks to discover the wines that Caesar and Cleopatra drank; and an academic who has spent decades analyzing wine remains to pinpoint ancient vineyards. Science illuminates wine in ways no critic can, and it has demolished some of the most sacred dogmas of the industry: for example, well-known French grapes aren’t especially noble.
Kevin Begos is an award-winning writer in the fields of energy, science, wine, the environment, and everyday people. He’s been a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and was a Correspondent for The Associated Press. Among the many titles in which his work has been published are A Field Guide for Science Writers, Scientific American, The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, Tablet, and The Christian Science Monitor. In 1992 Kevin conceived and published one of the first ever electronic books. The archive of papers from that pioneering project, undertaken 18 years before the invention of the iPad, are now held at the Bodleian Library.
*In the time since Kevin’s first encounter with the mysterious red in a Jordanian hotel room, Cremisan wines have been brought to wider attention through the critical praise of iconic restauranteur Yotam Ottolenghi and his sommeliers.
Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor & the Search for the Origins of Wine was published in June 2018 by Algonquin Books. To find out more click here.
Why Tasting the Past?
I hoped to evoke three things: my original quest for a wine that I was never able to taste again; then my search for ancient grape varieties; finally an allusion to Proust.
This is the story of an encounter that became an obsession. At what point did you know for certain that you were actually writing a book?
2014, when I saw that the Cremisan wine could be part of a larger narrative.
Where was wine first produced?
At the moment evidence points towards the Caucasus Mountain region about 8 to 10,000 years ago, but there are vast areas along the Silk Road to the East that really haven’t been properly explored. The Chinese may have drunk a different type of wine even earlier.
If I could meet anyone from history, I’d like to meet the nameless individual who constructed the first shelf – the first artificial surface atop two brackets. What made them think of a shelf? What did they use it for? How did others react to the innovation? Is there a similar figure, lost in the mists of early wine technology and culture whom you would like to encounter?
The person who realized that some vines were self-pollinating hermaphrodites that always produce grapes. I’d call that the first domestication.
What’s the single worst / most disruptive thing to happen to wine since phylloxera?
The Napa Valley? OK, I am being bad. But I think that mad yet very successful focus on just a few French grape varieties influenced wine markets around the world, and not in a good way.
You’re castaway on a desert island. You have with you eight bottles of wine. What are they and why?
- The Cremisan Jandali/Hamdani white, because it connects me to the Cremisan red I will never taste again.
- COS Pithos Bianco, a complex orange/amphora wine from Sicily that suggests what the Romans might have drunk.
- Anything from Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia. Beautiful wines, and they are making heroic efforts to save local native grapes.
- Loup D’Or from Deidre Heekin. Her wines are often wildly surprising, and this one uses hybrid American grapes.
- “Our Wine” Rkatsiteli from Georgia. Gloriously primitive winemaking.
- Taylor Fladgate 20 Tawny Port. Because I love port but won’t have a fabulously expensive older bottle on hand when I get stranded (see next note).
- A pre-phylloxera bottle of Lafite Rothschild. Because I sold everything to buy it and became a castaway.
- A Rhone Syrah, because I love Syrah and find so many surprises among producers there.
Honestly, was the Israeli/Palestinian, pre-commercial vintage of Cremisan wine you encountered at the start of your journey any good or were you sampling with rose-tinted tastebuds?
I’m sure the circa 2008 red was distinctive because I had no expectations at all, yet it startled me. Their winemaker then had been at Cremisan for many decades, and others say he really knew what he was doing.
On the day you come to supreme power what’s the first law you’ll decree in relation to wine?
Everyone has to try an unfiltered amphora/orange wine at least once.
You published one of the first e-books, Agrippa (1992). It’s kind of like hearing that President Grant was issued a $20 speeding ticket in 1872. How did you one go about publishing an e-Book in the late 20th century?
I did it either very badly or fabulously well, opinions differ. In the beginning, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to create an e-book. An idle comment turned into a wild obsession, then a few programmers/hackers made it happen, notably John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, and one person who chose to remain anonymous.
What’s next for you?
Either a medieval poet or Darwin and orchids.