How About a Little Grape for the New Year?

You thought my Christmas fruit series was over? Well, no! I’m not going to leave you thirsty between Christmas and New Year’s Day! Even though I’ve already told you a cupful of stories, I’ve set my sights on a subject that’s absolutely sparkling!

I’m talking about grapes, as well as their liquid and alcoholic counterparts, which are the perfect way to ring in the New Year: wine and champagne!

Photo :  Julia Larson

Grapes, Where Do They Come From?

Although different grape varieties now grow on almost every continent, this has obviously not always been the case. If you’re a northern grape grower, you probably have a harder time than those in warmer climates, and with good reason! It’s far from being a fruit adapted to conditions that are too cold: Canadian grape growers, you’ve got courage!

Small Note

For our French friends, the start of summer 2023 was catastrophic for many growers. A heavy frost hit us in May, at a time when we should have been enjoying comfortable 15C (60F) temperatures. Winemakers spent nights stoking fires between the vines, and some even flew over their fields in helicopters to try to control the air layers and prevent their harvest from freezing!

The fruit of the vine, which originated in the Caucasus and Mesopotamia, is very old: it was cultivated millennia before our era! All grape varieties, both table grapes and grapes for fermentation, originate here. That’s how far humankind has come in selecting and importing this marvellous plant!

Photo : Jill Wellington

According to current archaeological discoveries, the first traces of grape fermentation come from China, and date back to 7000 B.C. Impressive, isn’t it? Wine existed in prehistoric times!

That’s right! I was also surprised to discover that the birthplace of this beverage was not Europe. However, there are always new discoveries to be made! Since fruit juice ferments naturally, it’s highly likely that several peoples “invented” wine at more or less the same time.

I won’t give you the whole history of wine, because we’re on vacation and don’t want to get bogged down in a history lesson. Especially as we could write a book about it! So instead, I suggest…

A Brief History Of Drunkenness

I am a biologist, after all, so instead of a history lesson, I’m offering you… a biology lesson! But short and sweet, I promise!

Humans and great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and the like) share many things in common, as I’m sure you’re aware. The interesting thing is that apes also have the ability to metabolize alcohol quickly, just like we do!

Photo : Nirav Shah

The hypothesis put forward by specialists is that our common ancestor (let’s call him Billy Banana), a few years ago (10 million, just that!), developed this ability by eating rotten fruit. I know, it’s a funny way to start!

During a particular climatic event, fruit became scarcer in the trees, prompting Billy Banana to feed on fruit that had fallen to the ground. The fruit had fermented somewhat, and contained a certain amount of alcohol – not high enough for us, but enough for im to go on a good bender.

Evolve to Survive

Falling asleep drunk on a branch is a good way to fall to the ground, just as having a hangover can be risky in front of a predator.

Some of our ancestors therefore developed the ability to digest ethanol (alcohol) 40 times faster, enabling them to continue feeding without getting too drunk. These individuals then had a longer life expectancy than others, since they were much less likely to find themselves in an unfortunate situation! What’s more, these fermented fruits were far from bad…!

Fast forward in time: in the Paleolithic era, humanoids discovered a new source of alcohol: mead! We’re not sure how it happened, but after fruit, fermented honey was the second encounter with alcohol, which they began to ferment with the means available at the time.

As for the great apes, they continued to eat fermented fruit and, yes, they still get drunk today!

Alcohol and Festivities

If mead is less popular today, it’s beer and wine that dominate our tables (at least in the West). I have to confess that I, Audrey, 30, only started drinking wine this year. I know, I know… For a long time, I only drank cocktails, and as there’s often only wine and beer, I found myself drinking water more than once.

That’s the whole point of wine (and alcohol in general): it’s festive! Of course, we don’t need it to have fun, but the unifying character, the euphoria, the lowering of inhibitions… it’s festive, and always has been. After the monkeys, there was Dionysus, Bacchus, Jesus: they all feasted or marked important moments with wine. It’s hardly surprising that today, the pressure is on for everyone to share the same experience: it’s become a symbol, a communion, a pact!

Photo : Mark Amores

But make sure you do it in a way that respects everyone! I’m talking about biology, history and culture, but that’s no reason to go overboard or force Aunt Regina to go off her diet! Raising a glass of water on New Year’s Eve is just as acceptable.

Champagne on New Year’s Day

Still, I must mention the tradition of raising champagne on New Year’s Eve in many households. Why THIS particular wine to celebrate the New Year?

First of all, if you’re wondering “what’s champagne?”, you should know that it’s a sparkling wine with a protected designation of origin. This means that for a drink to be called “champagne”, it absolutely must come from the Champagne region in north-eastern France. Otherwise, it’s sparkling wine, sparkling cider or 7up, but it’s not champagne with a capital C.

You know those effervescent bath bombs? Well, they’re not champagne either, even if they are grape-flavored.Photo : Marta Dzedyshko

Sparkling wine is often thought of as the “cheap” version of champagne, but in fact it’s only made elsewhere, perhaps with other types of grapes. A sparkling wine can therefore be prestigious and expensive, just as a “cheap” champagne is.

Note that I don’t know much about it: as long as it’s good, I don’t really care about the label!

So Where Does Celebrating a New Year With Champagne Come From?

Many legends are circulating, but one of the most recurrent is linked to the kings of France. Coronations were held in Reims, and the occasion was toasted with the local wine, which was none other than champagne. It wasn’t until the reign of Louis XV that bottles began to be exported to other regions of France (and thus made available outside of coronations). A new king, a new era, a new year… same thing, right?

Note that this is not a statue of a French king! Photo : Mike Bird

An Original Tradition!

While fermented grapes are popular at celebrations of all kinds the world over, there’s one Spanish tradition that really puts the spotlight on fresh grapes in the New Year.

For a prosperous year, you must eat twelve grapes, but not just any old way! You have to eat them to the rhythm of the stroke of midnight. Try this without choking! But we mustn’t forget our own traditions either, so on your marks, get set… 10! (a grape) 9! (a grape) 8! (a grape)… and on the final stroke of midnight… we kiss with our mouths full, shouting HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Photo : cottonbro studio

I wish you all a wonderful 2024, filled with laughter and gardening-friendly weather. Thank you for following me throughout the month for this series on Christmas fruit, your comments really touched me. See you next year, in February, with new articles!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

4 comments on “How About a Little Grape for the New Year?

  1. Not a wine lover myself but I do love grapes. Wish there were more table varieties hardy for the Prairies. Have a wonderful New Year celebration and here’s to a happy and good growing season.

  2. Lannie Messervey

    Happy New Year! Love your columns!

  3. Those of us who are of Italian descent are supposedly fond of wine. However, I am not. I can not explain why. Some of the old orchardists of the Santa Clara Valley did not have much regard for adjacent vineyards. I went to high school near the Paul Masson Vineyards, so can distinctly remember the stench of any crate of wine that fell off a truck onto hot pavement. They were mostly Burgundy, but by the time that I graduated from high school, White Zinfandel was beginning to become popular. They all smell badly on Saratoga Avenue in summertime.

  4. Happy New Year !

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