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Book Review: Tasting the Past

This book depicts a fascinating journey of the author whose chance encounter with a bottling of an obscure grape from a little-known winery in a hotel room in Israel sparked an investigation of historical yet esoteric wine grapes and extensive research into the historical origins of winegrowing and winemaking.

Begos realized how little was known about the origins of wine and obscure varieties of wine grapes. This set him off on a scavenger hunt that took years and encompassed the original wine routes from the Republic of Georgia and the Caucasus Mountains where grapevines are believed to be first domesticated 8,000 years ago, to Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, France and America. As he notes, “The hotel room ultimately set me off like a viticultural Quixote, traveling ancient wine routes, championing obscure grapes and railing against the glut of famous French varieties.”

A former MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow, Begos is an accomplished writer who enlightens with insights about the spread of winemaking throughout the world, the search for the “Mother” wine grape whose DNA is linked to almost all vineyards of the world, about DNA decoding of wine grapes, how native grapes are being rediscovered and promoted, and the joy of unexpected grape variety experiences that go beyond the established varieties such as Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay. The science presented in the book is easily understandable.

Begos makes a case for the importance of reviving and maintaining ancient vines varieties. With Pinot Noir, for example, he quotes José Vouillamoz who says, “Pinot Noir grapes in Burgundy are already out of the optimal window for cultivation because of increasing heat. So if you want to keep Pinot you can do adjustments, but at some point, you will need some more help. That means tweaking the Pinot variety, perhaps with heat-resistant genes from some obscure ancient vine.”

There are a number of suggested wines featuring ancient and obscure grapes that the author has enjoyed.

Algonquin Books, published June 12, 2018, hardcover $26.95, 288 pages. Score 95.

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