The Birth of Modern Oenology: A History of Wine Education in France

Human beings have been drinking wine since at least 6000 BC. It was central to many past societies, notably amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans, while it has also been critical within Christianity over the last 2,000 years. But what is striking about the history of viticulture is how unscientific and commonplace it has been for the vast majority of the time we have been drinking wine. It is only in the last 200 years that we have begun studying wine in a scientific fashion and that the science of oenology has emerged.

What is Oenology?

So what is oenology? The term itself is derived from the Greek word oinos meaning ‘wine’, while the comparable French and Italian terms are oenologie and enologia. Effectively oenology is the science, knowledge or study of wine. It is distinct from viticulture, which is concerned more with the actual grape vines and the growing thereof. Instead oenology focuses on holistically on every aspect of the production, storage and consumption of wine.

We might also term this the concept of wine education, in so far as it focuses on studying how the finished product is impacted on by grape varietals, how the storage of wine impacts on its flavour, the chemical processes involved in wine production and how different wines are associated with different regions and varying environmental conditions. As such, while viticulture concerns itself primarily with the growing of grapes and the fermentation of wine, oenology is a more holistic discipline which covers everything to do with winemaking from the vine to the glass. [1]

Precursors in the Eighteenth Century

The emergence of wine education and oenology was firmly associated with other societal developments in early modern Europe. The Scientific Revolution began in the sixteenth century and matured in the seventeenth century as figures like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton began transforming our understanding of the physical world. The modern science of chemistry emerged from the work of figures like Robert Boyle, whose work from the 1650s onwards transformed human understanding of how gases react and how chemicals interact with each other.

By the eighteenth century the development of modern chemistry was beginning to impact on viticulture and to improve people’s understanding of and education around wine. For instance, Pierre-Joseph Macquer and Jean-Antoine Chaptal developed and popularised the science of chaptalization, whereby the final alcohol strength of wine is increased by adding more sugar to the grape juice during production, in France in the second half of the eighteenth century. [2]

Their contemporary Antoine Lavoisier is generally understood to have been the most accomplished chemist of the eighteenth century. His contribution to wine education was in identifying sulphur as a distinct element, which allowed winemakers to more fully understand its impact on wine in the cellar, while he also added to French winemaker’s knowledge of how and why fermentation actually occurs. [3]

The First Institutes of Wine Education

These innovations of the eighteenth century led many people to determine that the best way to improve understanding of the science of wine and wine education was to establish dedicated research institutes devoted to the topic. There were precursors to this. For instance, in the 1750s researchers at the University of Bordeaux had begun studying elements of winemaking such as the use of egg whites as a fining agent, while similar research had been carried out at the Academy of Dijon in the Burgundy region. [4]

However, the early nineteenth century saw the first dedicated institutes of oenology established. Curiously they were not set up in France. Rather the first wine training school was opened in Sachsen in Germany in 1811. Seventeen years later the Magarach Institute was established at Yalta in the famed wine-making region of the Crimea in the north of the Black Sea region. Simultaneously the first sommeliers were beginning to emerge in France.

Thereafter there was a major lull. It is somewhat peculiar that despite its colossal position within the European wine industry the first dedicated institute of oenology was not established in France until 1872 when the École d’Agriculture de Montpellier was created in response to the urgent need for research into the science of wine as a result of the advent of the phylloxera virus in France. Eight years later in 1880 the Institut d’Oenologie was opened at the University of Bordeaux. These two institutions, at Montpellier and Bordeaux, became the leading centres of oenology in France for decades to come. However, in the twentieth century the École d’Agriculture de Montpellier emerged as the most esteemed centre of oenology, wine education and viticultural studies in the whole world. [6]

The École d’Agriculture at Montpellier

From the moment of its inception the École d’Agriculture began to emerge as the pre-eminent institution for the study of oenology and viticulture in France. This was largely on the back of the succession of esteemed professors who have worked here since the 1870s. This pattern was established from the very inception of the École in 1872 as Jules Émile Planchon was already a professor here by that time. Planchon was heavily involved in the battle against the phylloxera aphid which was ravaging French vineyards by the early 1870s. Indeed he along with figures like the American entomologist, Charles Valentine Riley, effectively identified what was causing the destruction of France’s vineyards and how the cure lay in grafting immune American rootstocks onto European vines. Planchon’s early associations with the École established it as the foremost centre of wine studies in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. [7]

This tradition continued into the twentieth century. Gustave Foex was associated with the École as soon as it was established. In 1876 he had created a school vineyard to aid research into the battle against phylloxera. He subsequently went on to serve as Professor of Viticulture and a director of the school there between the early 1880s and the mid-1890s. During this time he influenced the work of Pierre Viala and Victor Vermorel in their pioneering work in the emerging field of ampelography, the science of identifying and classifying different grape varietals. The culmination of this work came when Viala and Vermorel published a study entitled Ampélographie: Traité Général de Viticulture in seven volumes between 1901 and 1910. This enormous work listed over 5,000 grape varietals from all over the world. [8]

Others continued to carry on the tradition which made the École d’Agriculture the foremost centre of oenology and wine education in the world into the second half of the twentieth century. For instance, Denis Boubals and Alain Carbonneau conducted extensive research on how to combat mildew and downy mildew when it impacts on vineyards at Montpellier in the second half of the twentieth century.

However, the pre-eminent figure at the École in the post-war period was unquestionably Pierre Galet. Galet worked here for over four decades between 1946 and 1989. During this time he produced some of the most significant wine studies ever written. For instance, in 1952 he published Ampélographie Pratique, a vast text which expanded on Viala and Vermorel’s earlier ampelographic study by featuring details of 9,600 different types of grapevine. It has since become the seminal study within ampelographic studies and has been reissued many times in several different languages. Other publications by Galet include his five volume handbook on oenology, Précis de viticulture, which appeared in 1988. Galet also taught many of the most accomplished viticulturists and oenologists of the second half of the twentieth century, in the process preserving the reputation of Montpellier as the pre-eminent oenological centre in the world. [9]

Oenology in France and Further Afield Today

The prevalence of wine education and oenology has never been more apparent in winemaking than they are in the early twenty-first century. Dozens of universities around the world today offer professional degrees in oenology and the science of winemaking. For instance, in France beyond the universities of Bordeaux and Montpellier, courses are also offered at the Institut National Polytechnique de Toulouse in Toulouse, the University of Reims and the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon in the heart of the Burgundy region. Six different higher education institutions in California alone offer advanced professional training of this kind.

And the value of employing an oenologist has never been greater. Not only is wine becoming more of a science with every decade that passes, but the employment of well-known oenologists in places like Burgundy and Napa Valley can increase the reputation of a winery overnight, such is the esteem in which some oenologists are held in today. It is a long way from 200 years ago when the science of oenology barely existed. [10]

A History of Sommeliers: Sommeliers began to emerge in France at roughly the same time that the first institutes of oenology appeared in Germany and the Crimea. Consequently, it is as much a constitute part of the emergence of wine education in modern times as is the science of oenology. The word ‘sommelier’ itself comes from a Middle French term for a court official who was charged with the transportation of supplies to the lord’s household. We first see it being used in 1829 in Paris in reference to an individual who was employed by a restaurant to manage their cellar and convey information concerning the vintages on offer to customers. At this time it remained a niche field catering to a small number of discerning customers. But during the Belle Époque, the period in France between 1870 and 1900 when the world’s economy was booming and the cabaret culture of the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère was paramount in Paris, sommeliers became a common feature of restaurants in what was then the most culturally sophisticated city in the world. By 1907 the position of sommelier had grown to the point where the Union of French Sommeliers was established. The practice had begun to spread outside of France by that time paving the way for the modern culture of sommeliers, where they are omnipresent in fine dining restaurants. [11]

On this Day

1 September 2013 – On this day in 2013 Alain Carbonneau officially retired from his position as Professor of Viticulture at the École d’Agriculture at the Montpellier Agronomical School after a long and distinguished career. Carbonneau acquired a doctorate in oenology from the University of Bordeaux in 1980 and subsequently took up the chair of viticulture at Montpellier in 1993. During this time he was known for having developed extensive new ideas about wine canopy management, which involves using pruning, shoot thinning and hedge removal to maximise the potential of the vines in a given vineyard. He also carried out extensive research on developing new grape varietals resistant to mildew and downy mildew. Carbonneau eventually published over 400 works in one of the most significant careers in the history of modern oenology.

30 December 2019 – On in this day in 2019 Pierre Galet, the French oenologist, ampelographer and author died in his late nineties. Galet is considered by many people to be the father of modern ampelography, the field of botany concerned with the identification and classification of different grapevines. This had been practiced in an informal manner by many viticulturists since the early nineteenth century, but Galet standardised how the discipline should be conducted. From 1946 through to 1989 he was employed in the Department of Viticulture at the École d’Agriculture de Montpellier. In 1952 he published Ampélographie Pratique, a text featuring details of 9,600 different types of grapevine. It has since become the bible of ampelographic studies and has been reissued many times in different languages. This is just one of his landmark publications. Another includes a 936 page dictionary of international vine variety names published in 2000, while his five volume handbook on oenology, Précis de viticulture appeared in 1988. Galet also taught many of the most accomplished viticulturists and oenologists of the second half of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century during nearly half a century of teaching at Montpellier.

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[1] ‘oenology’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Maynard A. Amerine, ‘The Search for Good Wine’, in Science, New Series, Vol. 154, No. 3757 (30 December 1966), pp. 1621–1628. [2] ‘chaptalization’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); J. B. Gough, ‘Winecraft and Chemistry in 18th-Century France: Chaptal and the Invention of Chaptalization’, in Technology and Culture, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January, 1998), pp. 74–104. [3] [accessed 26/9/22]. [4] [accessed 26/9/22]. [5] ‘academe’, ‘Magarach’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006). [7] Dwight W. Morrow Jnr., ‘The American Impressions of a French Botanist, 1873’, in Agricultural History, Vol. 34, No. 2 (April, 1960), pp. 71–76. [8] ‘ampelography’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006). [9] ‘Galet, Pierre’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); [accessed 27/9/22]. [10] ‘oenologists’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); A. Dinsmoor Webb, ‘The Science of Making Wine’, in American Scientist, Vol. 72, No. 4 (July – August, 1984), pp. 360–367; [accessed 26/9/22]. [11] [accessed 26/9/22].

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