Origins of wine

It is not exactly known when man first started to intentionally ferment grapes in order to make wine. Remains of grapes have been discovered in some Neolithic caves, proof that grapes were a part of the human diet. It can’t however be proven whether or not those caveman made wine, and it is unlikely.

Yet grape-must ferments very easily, and all it could have taken were some ripe grapes, squashed into clay pot and left for a few days. Fermentation would have happened spontaneously as all the yeast required for making wine is already trapped within the pruina that covers the grape skin. Grapes are not the only fruit where this phenomena occurs, and the first alcoholic beverage certainly was, like most of man’s discoveries, produced by chance.

Neolithic man ate wild grapes or Vitis Vinifera Silvestris, not farmed ones. Evidence suggests that wine was produced for the first time in Transcaucasia, an area comprising the countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, situated in-between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It was in Georgia and in Northern Iran that the earliest particles of wine have ever been found, and they dated as being around 8000 years old. The oldest evidence of a wine production site dates to about 6000 years old and was discovered in Armenia.   

From the Black Sea to the Mediterranean

As early as 3000BC wine spread down from Mesopotamia to Phoenicia (modern day Lebanon) as well as other civilisations around the Mediterranean. However it was the Phoenicians who developed viticulture and winemaking to such a degree that it became a prized commodity. Poetry from the period refers to wine as a beverage fit for kings and nurtured by the Phoenician God El.

Around 1500BC the Phoenicians began establishing maritime trade routes all around the Mediterranean and were the first known civilisation to trade with wine. They were the first to use amphorae for transporting and they coated them internally with resin. The resin helped to prevent or hinder oxidation. To avoid wine from spoiling, olive oil was poured over top. The oil would float, and create a protective layer that prevented insects and bacteria from contaminating the wine. Later oil was replaced by resin or cork discs wedged on the top of the amphorae that prevented the problem of wine spilling during the long journeys.

The Phoenicians introduced their wine to other civilisations, some of which were already familiar with grape cultivation and wine making. Evidence suggests the Egyptians cultivated grapes from as early as the predynastic period (pre-3100BC), and by the Third Dynasty (2650–2575 BC) they had a thriving Royal winemaking industry around the Nile Delta. Wine was important for social events but consumed only by the upper classes and always included in the canonical provisions for the afterlife. Given the prestige and importance given to grape vines and wine, production was strictly controlled. Vines were used as decorative plants in gardens and there were even specific professions for those who cultivated grapes (e.g. Vineyard Master).

The production of wine and grape farming are abundantly depicted in Pharaoh Tombs. Most vineyards were planted on a hill slope, or on an artificial mound, and were enclosed by stone walls. Vines would either be supported by a pillar or trellis, otherwise they would be pruned at a low height and needed no support. Herbs, resin or honey would often be blended with wine in order to give a specific taste or to make it sweeter.

The Egyptians would sometimes classify wines. A royal wine taster would certify wines according to area of production, grower, vintage and quality, effectively laying some of the foundations for the modern AOC. It was not uncommon to age wine, and various Tombs were found to include numerous vintages of a wine. The infamous Tutankhamon Tomb contained wine that was over 20 years old.  

The Ancient Greeks

The population that first produced ample documentation on grape farming and wine production were the ancient Greeks and wine is referenced in a great deal of classical literature. The ancient Greek poets were essentially wine critics of the ancient world, as they would write about their preferences in their tales and poems. The area from which the wine was produced was used as an indication of quality. In Athens the most esteemed wine came from Chios.

The Greeks also progressed a number of viniculture techniques, all of which can be found in Greek literature. Homers’ Odyssey contains the earliest reference to the production of straw wine, a technique still used today. Grapes are placed on straw where they are partially dried before pressing in order to concentrate sugar. Other advances include boiling grape must to make sweeter wine, deliberately harvesting grapes early to produce acidic wine used for blending and producing wines exclusively from free-run grape must.

As with the Phoenicians, wine was an essential trade commodity and also symbolised civilisation. Such was the importance of wine in society that it even had its own deity; Dionysus, the God of grape harvest, winemaking and wine. Greek doctors also studied the medicinal benefits of wine and documented the deterioration on human health if too much was consumed on a regular basis.

The ancient Greeks preferred sweet wines that were generally diluted with spiced water. Drinking pure wine was reserved for certain rituals, regarded as special occasions. Being drunk was considered to be a spiritual state, through which the Gods could communicate with mortals.

Around 8th century BC the Greeks colonised other areas around the Mediterranean (France, Italy, Libya etc.). Certain grape varieties and the new developed viticulture techniques were introduced to their colonies and thus to other civilisations, such as the Etruscans and Scythians.  

Wine during the Roman Empire

In ancient Italy, the Greeks brought vineyards to their colonies in the south. The Etruscans in central Italy were also familiar with viticulture and viniculture. Therefore when the Roman Empire began to develop it was already in an area well accustomed to wine. Wine production vastly increased as the Empire grew. At its height, it is estimated that wine production in the Empire was the equivalent of just over a bottle of wine per citizen per day, or 179million litres a year!

Wine became a fundamental part of Roman society and, like the Greeks, the Romans had a deity dedicated to wine: Bacchus. The Romans also spiced or diluted wine before drinking, yet they produced wines that were dry as well as sweet. Hot water was used to dilute wine in winter and richer Romans would dilute with snow from the Apennine Mountains during summer. Poorer members of society would drink wines that were aged in smoke houses called fumariums in order to increase flavour without the need of adding expensive spices.

The quality of your wine was an important social status in Roman aristocratic houses. The best wines were always made from grape-must obtained by the weight of the grapes before pressing (free-run must). Lesser quality wine was made with must left over after pressings. Grapes were crushed by foot, although bigger estates had grape presses made from wood and concrete. Grape-must was fermented in large jars, called Dolia, which were usually buried.

Certain wines soon became the most sought after and more difficult and expensive to buy, laying the foundations to the concept of a Cru. The Romans had a number of these Crus. The quality of the wine was determined by the production area, producer, vintage (121BC was highly prized!) and some of these wines were judged better only after they had been aged for a certain period of time. The most reputed Roman wine was Falernum made using Falanghina and Aglianico grapes in the current day Italian region of Campania.

Many important advances were discovered and documented during the Empire and wine became a truly developed business. Wine became a huge business in fact! Roman merchants would trade wine for other goods inside and outside the Empire, and a merchant’s reputation was reliant on the quality of wine he could find. The Gauls introduced the concept of transporting wine with wooden barrels, rather than amphorae, which were heavier and more fragile than wood. The glass bottle, from Syria, also revolutionised advances in wine storage.

The military expansion of the Roman Empire brought viticulture with it. Except for the Region of Provence and some southern parts of the Rhone Valley, Roman viticulture was spread to all modern day French regions after Caesars’ conquest of Gaul. The great majority of western European viticulture regions were established during the Imperial Roman Empire.

Medieval wine in Europe

After the fall of the Roman Empire wine was still produced in the former provinces, even in the Arabian Peninsula, despite Islamic law prohibiting the consumption of alcohol and alcohol trade. Economic stagnation during the middle ages spelt a dark period for wine and little is known about viticulture techniques between the 5th and 11th century.

In the warmer, southern parts of Europe wine was still part of the local diet. Water in the cities was often not consumable and alcohol beverages were safer to drink. Wine was also used to treat many sicknesses. In northern Europe, viticulture was largely replaced by cereal fields and wine replaced by beer and ale. Yet wine still had an important part for the celebration of the Christian Mass and a steady supply to all Christendom was essential. Most abbeys around Europe produced wine, and consisted of the only production sites in Northern Europe. The ancient tradition of flavouring wine with spices, herbs or honey continued throughout the feudal period as well as during the renaissance. The greater the number of spices in your wine, the higher your social status, as spices were extremely expensive.

Given that older established European trade routes and markets were lost, wines like Falernum were forgotten. Yet this period set the foundations of an important trade route for western French wines. Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II of England and all vineyards in the Bordeaux area passed over to the English throne. Wine was transported to England by ship and this route would resurface after the hundred-year war. Whilst the English courts enjoyed Bordeaux wines, the French courts drank burgundy ones.  
The end of the middle ages saw a series of plagues that decimated populations and wine production reduced dramatically.

The birth of New World wines

Discovery of the Americas and subsequent colonisation by Christian settlers brought viticulture across the Atlantic. Most modern wine production in the Americas is concentrated in the U.S, Argentina and Chile. Yet in the 16th century, Mexico was the biggest producer of wine due to the Spanish settlers establishing vineyards. Production was so high that eventually the Spanish Crown ordered production to be capped.

Vines were planted in South Africa during the 1680s and Cape Province was the largest exporter of wine to Europe during the 18th Century. Grape varieties were taken from here to Australia and later to New Zealand. After the first attempts failed, the first Australian wineries opened in the beginning of the 19th century. Wines from the latter two countries were, until recently, only exported to the UK.

Champagne became popular in the aristocratic houses across Europe, especially in Russia. The English continued to import wine from Bordeaux that was known as claret wine due to the shade of red. They also increased importation of wine from Portugal, Spain and Italy. These trade routes led to the development of fortified wines. Distilled wine was added to wine, and the increase in alcohol meant that wine could travel for much longer without spoiling (Madeira, Port, Sherry, Marsala etc.). In the East, vineyards of the Balkans were resistant to phylloxera but, given the Ottoman presence, countries were unable to establish a wine market.

Late 19th century spelt a disaster for vineyards in Europe. Viticulture had slowly increased during early renaissance and the surface area dedicated to viticulture was triple that of today. But a small aphid known as phylloxera, which consumes sap in roots, infected vineyards and killed off vast areas of vines. It was discovered that autochthon American vines were able to resist the pest and so new vineyards were planted with the roots of these vines grafted to European varieties. This practise is still essential today.

The phylloxera epidemic transformed the wine industry in Europe. Many varieties of grapes were lost and varieties that mark certain AOCs today were defined during this period. Vineyards were only replanted in areas more suited for grapes and cuvées were standardised, giving the names to some of the most reputed wines currently available to us.

The future of wine

Wine has evolved throughout the ages so much so that wine produced by the ancient civilisations would probably taste very odd to a palate accustomed to modern day wine. However the fundamental process remains the same, as wine today is still made using fermented grape must just as it would have been 8000 years ago.

Wine has stood the test of time. It was the most important beverage to a number of civilisations throughout the ages. It was used to indicate social status, had economic significance and became essential to numerous religious practises and beliefs. It is still well integrated in human society and remains important to a great number of countries, be it for its economic importance or symbolising social or religious events.

From Eurasia it has slowly spread throughout the world. A great number of "new" wine-making countries, especially China, are increasing viticulture and producing more and more wine. Wine will continue to expand and play an important part in human culture, economy and way of life, what remains to be seen is if the new producers will be able to establish their place in the global wine market.