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.