The History of Making Wine
How It All Started
The history of making wine spans thousands of years and is closely intertwined with the history of agriculture, cuisine, civilization and man himself. Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest wine production came from sites in Georgia and Iran, dating from 6000 to 5000 BC. The archaeological evidence becomes clearer and points to domestication of grapevine in Early Bronze Age sites of the Near East, Sumer and Egypt from around the third millennium BC.
Evidence of the earliest European wine production has been uncovered at archaeological sites in Macedonia, dated to 6,500 years ago. These same sites also contain remnants of the world's earliest evidence of crushed grapes. In Egypt, wine became a part of recorded history, playing an important role in ancient ceremonial life. Traces of wild wine dating from the second and first millennium BC have also been found in China.
Wine was common in classical Greece and Rome and many of the major wine producing regions of Western Europe today were established with Phoenician and later Roman plantations. Wine making technology, such as the wine press, improved considerably during the time of the Roman Empire; many grape varieties and cultivation techniques were known and barrels were developed for storing and shipping wine.
In medieval Europe, following the decline of Rome and therefore of widespread wine production, the Christian Church was a staunch supporter of the wine necessary for celebration of the Catholic Mass. Whereas wine was also forbidden in medieval Islamic cultures, Geber and other Muslim chemists pioneered the distillation of wine for medicinal purposes and its use in Christian libation was widely tolerated. Wine production gradually increased and its consumption became popularized from the 15th century onwards, surviving the devastating Phylloxera louse of the 1870s and eventually establishing growing regions throughout the world.
In Iran (Persia), mei (the Persian wine) has been a central theme of poetry for more than a thousand years, although alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam. Little is actually known of the prehistory of wine. It is plausible that early foragers and farmers made alcoholic beverages from wild fruits, including wild grapes (Vitis silvestris). This would have become easier following the development of pottery vessels in the later Neolithic of the Near East, about 9000 years ago. However, wild grapes are small and sour, and relatively rare at archaeological sites. It is unlikely they could have been the basis of a wine industry.
Domesticated grapes were abundant in the Near East from the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, starting in 3200 BC. There is also increasingly abundant evidence for wine making in Sumer and Egypt in the third millennium BC. The ancient Chinese made wine from native wild "mountain grapes" like Vitis thunbergii for a time, until they imported domesticated grape seeds from Central Asia in the second century. Grapes were, of course, also an important food.
Exactly where wine was first made is still unclear. It could have been anywhere in the vast region, stretching from North Africa to Central/South Asia, where wild grapes grow. However, the first large-scale production of wine must have been in the region where grapes were first domesticated, Southern Caucasus and the Near East. Wild grapes grow in Georgia, northern Levant, coastal and southeastern Turkey, northern Iran or Armenia. None of these areas can, as yet, be definitively singled out, despite persistent suggestions that Georgia is the birthplace of wine.
In Egypt, wine played an important role in ancient ceremonial life. A thriving royal winemaking industry was established in the Nile Delta following the introduction of grape cultivation from the Levant to Egypt c. 3000 BC. The industry was most likely the result of trade between Egypt and Canaan during the Early Bronze Age, commencing from at least the Third Dynasty (2650-2575 BC), the beginning of the Old Kingdom period (2650-2152 BC). Winemaking scenes on tomb walls, and the offering lists that accompanied them, included wine that was definitely produced at the deltaic vineyards. By the end of the Old Kingdom, five wines, all probably produced in the Delta, constitute a canonical set of provisions, or fixed "menu," for the afterlife.
The Roman Empire had an immense impact on the development of viticulture and oenology. Wine was an integral part of the Roman diet and wine making became a precise business. As the Roman Empire expanded, wine production in the provinces grew to the point where the provinces were competing with Roman wines. Virtually all of the major wine producing regions of Western Europe today were established by the Romans.
Wine making technology improved considerably during the time of the Roman Empire. Many grape varieties and cultivation techniques were developed and barrels and bottles began to be used for storing and shipping wine and bottles. Following the Greek invention of the screw, wine presses became common on Roman manors. The Romans also created an early form of appellation system, as certain regions gained reputations for their fine wines.
Wine, perhaps mixed with herbs and minerals, was assumed to serve medicinal purposes. During Roman times it was not uncommon to dissolve pearls in wine for better health. Cleopatra created her own legend by promising Marc Anthony she would "drink the value of a province" in one cup of wine, after which she drank an expensive pearl with a cup of wine. When the Roman Empire fell around 500 AD, Europe went into a period known as the Dark Ages. This was a period of invasions and social turmoil. The only stable social structure was the Catholic Church. Through the Church, grape growing and wine making technology was preserved during this period.
In the Middle Ages, wine was the common drink of all social classes in the south, where grapes were cultivated. In the north and east, where little or no grapes were grown, beer and ale were the common drink of both commoners and nobility. Wine was imported to the northern regions, but was expensive, and thus seldom consumed by the lower classes. Wine was necessary for the celebration of the Catholic mass, and so assuring a supply was crucial. The Benedictine monks became one of the largest producers of wine in France and Germany, followed closely by the Cistercians. Other orders, such as the Carthusians, the Templars, and the Carmelites, are also notable both historically and in modern times as wine producers. The Benedictines owned vineyards in Champagne (Dom Perignon was a Benedictine monk), Burgundy, and Bordeaux in France and in the Rheingau and Franconia in Germany. In 1435 Count John IV. of Katzenelnbogen, a very rich member of the holy roman high nobility near Frankfurt, was the first to plant Riesling, the most important grape of Germany. Nearby the winemaking monks made it into an industry, producing enough wine to ship it all over Europe for secular use. In Portugal, a country with one of the oldest wine traditions, the first appellation system in the world was created.
A housewife of the merchant class or a servant in a noble household would have served wine at every meal, and had a selection of reds and whites alike. Home recipes for meads from this period are still in existence, along with recipes for spicing and masking flavors in wines, including the simple act of adding a small amount of honey to the wine. As wines were kept in barrels, they were not extensively aged, and therefore were drunk quite young. To offset the effects of heavy consumption of alcohol, wine was frequently watered down at a ratio of four or five parts water to one of wine.
One medieval application of wine was the use of snake-stones (banded Agate resembling the figural rings on a snake) dissolved in wine against snake bites, which shows an early understanding of the effects of alcohol on the central nervous system in such situations.
In the late 1800s the Phylloxera louse brought devastation to vines and wine production in Europe. It brought catastrophe for all those whose lives depended on wine. The repercussions were widespread, including the loss of many indigenous varieties. On the positive side, it led to the transformation of Europe's vineyards. Only the fittest survived. Bad vineyards were uprooted and better uses were found for the land. Some of France's best butter and cheese, for example, is now made from cows that graze on Charentais soil which was previously covered with vines. "Curvées" were also standardised. This was particularly important in creating certain wines as we now know them today - Champagne and Bordeaux finally achieved the grape mix which defines them today. In the Balkans where phylloxera did not hit, the local varieties survived but along with Ottoman occupation the transformation of vineyards has been slow. It is only now that local varieties are getting to be known beyond the "mass" wines like Retsina.
Grapes and wheat were first brought to what is now Latin America by the first Spanish conquistadores to provide the necessities of the Catholic Holy Eucharist. Planted at Spanish missions, one variety came to be known as the Mission grapes and is still planted today in small amounts. Succeeding waves of immigrants imported French, Italian and German grapes, although wine from grapes native to the Americas is also produced (though often deemed an acquired taste, since the flavors can be very different).
Wine in the Americas is most closely associated with Argentina, California and Chile, all of which produce a wide variety of wines from inexpensive jug wines to high-quality varieties and proprietary blends. While most of the wine production in the Americas is based on Old World varieties, the wine growing regions of the Americas often have "adopted" grapes that are particularly closely identified with them, such as California's Zinfandel (from Croatia), Argentina's Malbec, and Chile's Carmenère (both from France).
Until the latter half of the 20th century, American wine was generally looked upon as inferior to European product; it was not until the surprising American showing at the Paris Wine tasting of 1976 that New World wine began to gain respect in the lands of wine's origins.
For wine purposes, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other countries without a wine tradition are also considered New World. Until quite late in the 20th century, the product of these countries was not well known outside their small export markets (Australia exported largely to the United Kingdom, New Zealand kept most of its wine internally, South Africa was closed off to much of the world market because of apartheid). However, with the increase in mechanization and scientific winemaking, these countries became known for high quality wine.