Last week, Feb. 17 to be exact, Mollie Battenhouse, Wine Director at Maslow 6 in Tribeca, gave a fascinating talk on wines with an ancient lineage. She was joined by Peter Cousins of Cornell University and together they traced the path that some grape vines may have taken along the silk road. The talk was inspired by the current show at the American Museum of Natural History on the silk road. The silk road is one of the oldest trading routes in the world and created links between the East and the West, bringing goods back and forth. Apparently grape vines also migrated up the silk road.
I love the natural history museum and always have. Many early memories take place in there. I remember my delight at the dinosaurs and my mom finally finding her pocket book on a school trip despite leaving it there for hours (can you imagine that happening today?) or meeting friends under the big blue whale. I still haven’t had a sleepover there yet but my niece and I have been planning to do it for a few years. I always get a thrill when I walk into that stately castle on Central Park West.
Apparently grape vines have been growing in China for over 2000 years ago. In ancient times, there were three main wine growing periods which took place during the Han, Tang and Yuan dynasties. That ended in about 1368.
Much of the area along what was the silk road is today a harsh and dry desert. Many of the grapes grown in that region today are used as either table grapes or raisins. Today, Mollie noted, China is the 6th largest producer of wine in the world. While much of that wine is consumed locally, she said that she expected the picture to be significantly different in “5 to 10 years.” She also said that a lot of outside investment from Western countries is flowing into the region. “China has over 600 wineries today and 10 wine growing regions,” she noted, “there is even a vine nursery begun in 2000 with a French company.
Cousins showed a fabulous series of slides to point out the differences between grape clusters, much of which is related to size and health of the berries. On one side he would show pictures of shrivels small berries and on the other, beautiful clusters of healthy grapes. This, he noted, was the difference between wild grape vines and domesticated ones. Apparently, there are more than 1000 indigenous grapes in China.
We tried a number of different wines which could be seen as related to or exactly what was growing along the silk road in its heyday. One of the wines we had was a Rkatseteli from Konstantin Frank. As I mentioned in a blog post last week, Rkatseteli is originally a variety from Georgia, the area where people think grape growing first began more than 7000 years ago. Georgia was on the Western end of the silk road.
Cousins also spoke about a grape variety I had never heard of called Koshu which grows in Japan and has for over 1000 years. This is a vitis vinifera variety but vinifera isn’t native to Japan so the thinking is that it migrated along with traders. It is similar to Rkatseteli and has large clusters. Cousins also showed us the similarities between grape vines in different countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and Japan.
The talk was much more complex than my explanation but suffice it to say it was a very interesting initiative by the Museum of Natural History as part of their Global Kitchen series. Both Mollie and Peter Cousins put together a fascinating trip along the silk road, leaving me hungry for more information, always a good sign.