The History of Wine

Disclosure: this page contains referral links, meaning that I will get a commission from qualified purchases.

wine-historyWine is an alcoholic beverage produced by the fermentation of the juice of fruits, usually grapes. Although a number of other fruits – such as plum, elderberry and blackcurrant – may also be fermented, only grapes are naturally chemically balanced to ferment completely without requiring additional sugars, acids, enzymes or other nutrients. Non-grape wines are called fruit wine or country wine. Other products made from starch based materials, such as barley wine, rice wine, and sake, are more similar to beers. Beverages made from other fermentable material such as honey (mead), or that are distilled, such as brandy, are not wines. The English word wine and its equivalents in other languages are protected by law in many jurisdictions.

History of the Word

The word wine comes from the Old English win, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *winam which was an early borrowing from the Latin vinum, (which can mean either the “wine” or the “vine”), from Aeolic Greek Fοίνος, (woinos) and from earlier languages such as Hebrew.

Early History

Wine residue has been identified by in ancient pottery jars. Records include ceramic jars from the Neolithic sites at Shulaveri, of present-day Georgia (about 6000 BC), Hajji Firuz Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of present-day Iran (5400-5000 BC) and from Late Uruk (3500-3100 BC) occupation at the site of Uruk, in Mesopotamia. The identifications are based on the identification of tartaric acid and tartrate salts using a form of infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR). These identifications are regarded with caution by some biochemists because of the risk of false positives, particularly where complex mixtures of organic materials, and degradation products, may be present. The identifications have not yet been replicated in other laboratories.

In his book Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), McGovern argues that the domestication of the Eurasian wine grape and winemaking could have originated on the territory of modern Georgia and Armenia and spread south from there.

In Iran (Persia), mei (the Persian wine) has been a central theme of their 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 Sumeria and Egypt in the third millennium BC. The ancient Chinese made wine from native wild “mountain grapes” like Vitis thunbergii [5] for a time, until they imported domesticated grape seeds from Central Asia in the second century BC. Grapes were, of course, also an important food. There is scant evidence for earlier domestication of grape, in the form of grape pips from Chalcolithic Tell Shuna in Jordan, but this evidence remains unpublished.

Exactly where wine was first made is still unclear. It could have been anywhere in the vast region, stretching from Spain to Central 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 be definitively singled out yet, despite persistent suggestions that Georgia is the birthplace of wine.

Ancient Egypt

In Ancient Egypt, wine played an important role in 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 advent of wine in Europe was the work of the Greeks who spread the art of grape-growing and winemaking in Ancient Greek and Roman times.

White Wine in Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Wine in ancient Egypt was predominantly red. A recent discovery, however, has revealed the first ever evidence of white wine in ancient Egypt. Residue from five clay amphorae from Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb yielded traces of white wine.

Ancient Greece

Much modern wine culture derives from the practices of the ancient Greeks; while the exact arrival of wine in Greek territory is unknown, it was known to both the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. [8] Dionysos was the Greek god of wine and revelry, and wine was frequently referred to in the works of Homer and Aesop. In Homeric myths wine is usually served in “mixing bowls”, in which strong wine was dilluted (presumably with water) in order to serve a large number of people.

Roman Empire

The Roman Empire had an immense impact on the development of viticulture and enology. 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 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 were known. Barrels were developed for storing and shipping wine. Bottles were used for the first time. And the early developments of an appellation system formed as certain regions gained reputations for fine wine.

Once the Roman Empire fell around 500 CE, 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, the grape growing and wine making technology was preserved during this period.

Medieval Europe

In medieval Europe wine was consumed by the church and the noble and merchant classes, ale being the drink of the general populace. 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 modernly as wine producers. The Benedictines held vineyards in Champagne, (Dom Perignon was a Benedictine monk), Burgundy, and Bordeaux in France and in the Rheingau and Franconia in Germany; indeed, they were the first to plant Riesling grapes in Germany. Though they did not originate viticulture in these areas, they made it into an industry, producing enough wine to ship it all over Europe for secular use.

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 disguising off 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.

Wine in the New World

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 are 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.

Wine producing regions

Main article: List of wine-producing regions

Wine grapes grow almost exclusively between thirty and fifty degrees north or south of the equator. The world’s most southerly vineyards are in the South Island of New Zealand near the 45th parallel. However, the world’s most northerly vineyard is Blaxsta Vingård [9] in Flen, Sweden, just above the 59th parallel [10]. As a rule, grapevines prefer a relatively long growing season of 100 days or more with warm daytime temperatures (not above 95°F/35°C) and cool nights (a difference of 40°F/23°C or more).