A History of Wine

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Intro- Wine has been the preferred beverage of mankind for thousands of years. Our natural fondness of this drink stems from the nice taste, its nutritious properties and not least its psychotropic (intoxicating) effects. Out of all the alcoholic beverages none has had such an impact on society. The trade of wine between cultures opened up channels for religious and philosophical ideas to spread across Europe.  Wine is also frequently mentioned in the bible from Noah and his grape vines to Jesus perhaps the finest wine maker to date. Wine is still employed in the Catholic Church as a substitute for the blood of Christ which is an indication of the key role the beverage has played in past years. In earlier years a wine industry was the mark of a provident country as only developed societies could support a prosperous and competitive wine industry. It is often said that western society built its foundations on wine.

 

The Best Invention since the Wheel

How and when was the remarkable discovery of wine first stumbled upon?

 

No one can be sure but there is an ancient Persian fable that recognizes a woman as the discoverer of wine. According to the fable she was a princess who had lost favor with the King. The shame was so overwhelming that she ate some table grapes that had spoiled in their jar in an attempt to end her life. Her suicide did not go as planned instead of slipping onto eternal slumber she got giddy, intoxicated and then she passed out. When she awoke she found that all the troubles of her life seemed to have gone away. She continued to partake of the spoilt grapes and her mood changed so much that she regained the favor of the King and wine really did solve all her problems. Although this is a pleasant tale the accidental discovery of wine probably happened as few times in different regions but what is for sure is that wine is not the invention of man but was found via pure dumb luck.

 

The first sign of the vine we all know and love were sixty million year old fossils which means that our pre human ancestor may well have come to realize that the older grapes will have been more desirable as we can observe with our animal friends today who tend to prefer riper fruit. The earliest remnants of wine were discovered in the site of Hajji Firuz Tepe in the northern Zagros Mountains of Iran. The wine dated back to the Neolithic period (8500-4000 B.C.)  Carbon dating confirmed that the wine was from sometime between 5400-5000 B.C. Although no earlier dating wine has been found it is though that the art of wine making started shortly after 6000 B.C. it is thought that this is the date for one of mankind’s most momentous creations because the  peoples of these regions had managed to create permanent am settlements via the domestication of animals and plants. This was a far more stable living situation than the nomadic way of living which most humans were currently employing. This stability allowed the people to experiment with their cuisine and drinks. Some of our favorite dishes and drinks we still enjoy today were developed in this time period including beer and of course wine.

 

 

Now we skip forwards a few thousand years to the Predynastic era of the Egyptian Pharos when wine was spreading across the ancient world. Hieroglyphics form this time show that perhaps binge drinking is not such a modern problem as apparently the Pharos didn’t seem to care that much about the quality but more quantity as shown below!

Even Pharos have bad days!

 

Although the wine that the Egyptians drank was a distant relative to the wine we know today. The Egyptians used white, pink, green, red, and dark blue grapes they also used figs, palm, dates and pomegranates. So as you can imagine the taste would have been completely different to what we would expect when being served wine. Making wine from various fruits is essentially the same as that of grapes except that sugar is added to help the fermentation.

The Egyptians used trellises which were protected from sunlight (because the light is too intense in Egypt grapes) and also knew that the last 100 days before the harvest were the most vital. Once the grapes were picked they were taken to a large pressing vat. The Egyptians pressed grapes by treading on them rather than using a stone press which crushes the seeds and the stems and adds a bitter taste to the resulting wine. There was then a second pressing of the wine in an oblong linen slough, this slough was stretched across a solid wooden frame as four men on one side stretched the linen meanwhile as a fifth made sure that non of the precious wine was spilt.

A Hieroglyphic of the wine pressing in action!

 

 The Egyptians had several grades of wine one was called “Free Run Must” little of this was collected and was a very sweet long lasting wine. This wine came from the grapes own weight. There was also the grade “First Wine Must” which came from the treading and was about 2/3 of the juice. Then finally the “Second Run Must” which came from the additional pressing. These 3 grades could be mixed to make different kinds of wine (e.g. red, white, dry or sweet). These 3 different grades of wine were then left in a trough to ferment. Fermentation is the converting of sugar from the grapes is converted into alcohol. This conversion is due to the yeast from the grape’s skin, stalk and stems, the yeast releases enzymes that bond and react with the sugar to make alcohol (ethanol). The amount of alcohol obviously depends on the amount of sugar. The maximum percent of alcohol the yeast can survive in is roughly 15%. Any sugar left over will add sweetness to the drink. To achieve a drink with a light consistency it would be fermented fro only a short while (a few days). Whereas if you want a heavy final product it would be fermented for a long time (several weeks) as well as being heated as this speeds up the conversion of sugar. To add color and bitterness to the wine, the seeds, stalks and stems may have been left in the must. This means that to make a red wine the colure would not have been just down to the grapes color but also if the composites of the grape vine were included in the must. The rather gritty wine would then be filtered through linen to dispose of the stalks and other solids. The wine was then bottled and sealed with mud and reeds. The wine would be sealed a few days before it turned to vinegar.

 

 

 It seems that the Pharos were particularly fond of the drink as it became there drink of preference to take with them into the after life which means we all have something for us too look forward to when its our turn to go to that big drinks party in the sky! At this time wine was almost exclusively for royalty, only at special occasions like festivals or for medical uses like sedating women during child birth and as an antiseptic would a commoner be permitted this luxury. Below is an example of a seal impression that Egyptian bottles used to bare. These were the equivalent to the wine maker’s labels we have today so this could be the Ancient Egyptian Petrus.

 

Wine was still only available for the rich at this stage but this poor

state of affairs would not last for long!

 

The next people to carry the torch of this great commerce were the Greeks. The early signs of the wine in Greece were the replica wine presses found in tombs Crete and date back to between 3000BC-2000BC. It is thought that the Phoenician traders introduced the Greeks to the joy of wine. After the Phoenicians did the Greeks this favour the Greeks did the honorable thing and established wine industries in most of Western Europe and Alexander the Great even introduced it to Asia (A truly GREAT man). So next time you meet a Greek person thank them for doing us all the biggest favour ever. The Greeks knew the nutritional benefits of drinking wine which is an excuse we still all use today! In ancient Greece wine was so important that it had developed a religious status so highly did they value wine that they referred to it as the “The juice of the Gods”. They couldn’t have described it better. The Greek God of wine Dionyssus the son of Zeus and one of the most worshiped Gods. The Greeks used wine to achieve clarity of mind when at a symposia (a gathering predetermined philosophical subjects where discussed). They would never drink wine as some people today do and drunkenness was frowned upon. This is a great indication of how thoroughly embedded in the culture wine traditions were. Another good indication of this is Homers epic the “Iliad” and the frequent mention of wine therein.

 

By looking at the countries that the Greeks introduced winemaking to we can get a vague idea of how the ancient Greeks made wine and how it may have tasted. Another clue to the flavor of the wine are the surviving Greek varieties such as Limnio, Athiri, Aidani and Muscat.

The Ancient Greek’s wine became so popular in Europe that vine cuttings from Greek’s grapes so they could grow there own quality wine. This of course means that many of the grape varieties we know today were fathered by the Greek varieties.

 

It is known that the regions of Hios, Thassos and Levos all produced high grade wine whereas the wines of Samos were poor quality. The Greeks all realized that the ecosystem played a key role in the characteristics of the resulting wine. They were the first to create there own appellations of origin, any one caught violating them received a severe penalty. The ancient Greeks highly valued sweet wine as do current day Greeks. This may have been due to its staying power but more likely its popularity stemmed from its sweetness and higher alcohol percentage. It is no well kept secret that the Greeks like to mix there wine with water (including sea water amazingly) and to add honey and spices. This shows us of how thoroughly embedded in the culture wine traditions were. The ancient Greeks used to line the amphoras with tree resin which gave it a very distinctive flavor it is thought that developed into the wine that the Greeks and much of the world drink and enjoy today called retsina.

 

During the Turkish occupation the wine industry of Greece was almost whipped out as the Muslim Turks discouraged winemaking and heavily taxed wine farmers. This meant that many farmers went out of business and the only people who where excluded from the heavy tax where the monks. Fortunately the monasteries kept the craft alive in Greece for the 400 years it was occupied. The Greeks achieved independence in 1821. The Greek farmers started to replace there vines with raisin producing vines as there was huge demand for them from France who’s vines had been devastated by the Phylloxera insect. After France recovered the demand for raisins went down and the Greeks started to grow wine vines again. Unfortunately there were then a series of wars (WW1, WW2 and Greek Civil War) these prevented a stable wine trade from being established until 1949. At first the winemakers just churned out standard table wine and it looked like the nation who first produced fine wines would never return to its former glory. Fortunately the Greek winemakers are on the up and up and with an arsenal of 300 different native grape varieties each with very distinctive flavours they shall soon resume their position as one of the leading producers and worldwide distributors of quality wine. The only thing that remains for the Greeks triumphant return to the top is for the promotion of fine winemaking to Greek farmers and to let the world know the Greeks are back.

The next group to start developing winemaking and the actual growth of the vine in roughly 1000BC were in fact a Greek colony that had grown so strong that they had become independent of the Greeks. If you haven’t guessed it yet I am of course referring to the Romans. The Romans made major contributions to the science of winemaking. They took huge steps to the classification of many varieties of grapes. They also invented the wooden wine barrel. Which was a huge development considering that the kind of wood used to make the barrel imparts its own distinct flavours to the wine and depending on the grain of the wood it the flavours of the wood will be imparted either faster or slower. Also the barrels allow for the wine to evaporate a little bit during the aging process. I’ll come back to the process of aging in caskets when we cover the French as they have perfected the technique. It is important to remember the Romans laid down the foundations. The Romans are also thought to be the first to use glass bottles for wine. The oldest bottle of wine to be found has been dated to 325 AD. Corking had been invented at that time but the Romans preferred to preserve their wine by floating a layer of olive oil on it. They classified many diseases that afflict grapes.

 

At first the Romans didn’t take to wine and sent any that was produced was sent over the Alps to the barbarian Gauls who were so fond of the drink. The Romans preferred drink was beer and mead as they were manlier which was important because of their warrior past. Wine didn’t really take of until the sacking of Carthage in 146BC because with the sacking they also acquired the first ever book about wine making. Then Cato (who suspiciously had pushed for the attack on Carthage) wrote a book on winemaking (which made him a fortune) called “De Agi Cultura”. Thanks too this book after a hundred years beer and mead were a thing of the past and wine was the drink of the future. After another hundred years there were choice vintages and had defined regions. Apparently the most desired regions were Falernian and Caecuban but they disappeared after just 50 years due to Neronian public works. If the wine was as fine as it is claimed then this conclusively proves that the mental condition of Emperor Nero was very poor in deed.

The Romans much like the Greeks enjoyed drinking parties where philosophical debates and poetry readings took place. The difference in these parties was that the Romans tended to get very drunk and dancing girls and orgies were also a standard part of the night. The master of ceremonies would choose the type of wine or the blend of wines, how much water should be mixed with the wine and call out the toasts so in short he had the best job going at the party. The people who attended these parties were the rich but the poor got there fair share of wine also. At the theatre and at the games a drink called muslum which consisted of cheap wine mixed with honey. This was provided by politicians that needed support for the next election if only our MP did the same! Wine wasn’t just for merriment it also had an important role in religion. Wit was consumed a lot at the graveside funeral feasts at theses feasts wine was poured down specially designed orifices in the tombs so that the dead could share wine with the living. Wine continued to play a significant role in the Catholic religion.

 

No one can actually say what the Roman wine tasted like but as with the Greeks. we can get a pretty good idea by the taste of wine made from the surviving varieties of grapes then take the resins and pitches that lined the amphorae and what that would do to the taste and if were feeling brave we can try adding lemon or honey or even sea water to the wine like they did. Personally id rather leave the mystery of the flavour of Roman as just that a mystery. The other great contribution that Romans gave to winemaking was that every province they conquered, so most of Western Europe they established a wine industry. As the empire grew the wine in there province started to rival the wines being made in Rome especially Portugal which was famous for its wine and the so the Romans gave it the honor of naming it Lusitania after their god of wine Lyssa (Bacchus). The amount of wine being produced was so great that in 92 AD Emperor Domitian decreed that half of the grape vines out side of Rome were to be uprooted. Wine is still an important part of Italian culture and is taken very seriously which I think this Italian proverb shows quite nicely “One barrel of wine can work more miracles than a church full of saints”. When the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD the entire of Western Europe was plunged into the Dark Age and winemaking was only kept alive by the Roman Catholic Church.

Monks (particularly Benedictine monks) spread the knowledge of wine even further as wine was required for Holy Communion. The Church transported it all across Europe, spreading the “Good news” as it were.  Although the wine they distributed was heavily watered down as the Church didn’t take kindly to drunkenness (spoil sports). Eventually the French aristocracy took on the task of wine making along side the church. By 1725 Bordeaux had already classified the finest red wines it produced but official an official classification based on prices wasn’t created until as late as 1855. This classification divided the wines of areas into up to 5 classes or crus. This all came to an abrupt end at the start of the French revolution in 1789 by the end of which in 1799 the power was with people but more importantly so were the vineyards. The newly founded French Republic removed all feudal privileges that the Catholic Clergy and the noble’s possessed and any nobles who didn’t manage to flee also lost there heads. All of the church’s and noble’s’ land were repossessed the vineyards were now in peasant hands. This was a crucial for the development of wine as now vineyards were in competition and now the owners entire lively hoods depended on the vineyards success unlike the nobles and the church who were already rich enough to be not completely driven to succeed.

In the 1800’s the French vineyards was devastated by many diseases but the main to afflict the vines was Phylloxera an insect which attacks the roots of the plants (this was coinciding with when the Greeks started growing raisins). If it weren’t for the use of American root stock (which is immune to Phylloxera) being grafted with French vines then many of the grape variety we know today would be extinct. Every vineyard was replanted and now immune to the dreaded Phylloxera.

The French also hugely developed the effects that the barrel used for aging has on the wine. They learnt that dampening and then placing the half completed barrels or Rose over a small fire chars or “Toasts” the inside of the barrel this will then effect the characteristics of the wine aged in the barrel. When buying a barrel from a cooper there are 3 options given light, medium or heavy toast, the toast chosen will depend on the grapes used and the desired style of the resulting wine. This heating also allows the wood to be bent to form the arches to obtain the shape of the wine barrel. They also learnt that white oak is the best wood to be used as this has the tight grain and fine tannin content as well as being particularly tough and bend ability which its fairly stable when going through wet swelling and dry shrinkage and of course it has desirable flavours to impart to the wine. Later on it was discovered that chestnut wood could be used but they had to have the inside covered in paraffin or something similar to mask the bitter flavours. A wine barrel can be used for 5 years but after that the barrel stops imparting any flavour to the wine and should be disposed of. This is of course expensive and so several techniques have been employed to carry on using barrels. One is to shave the inside of used barrels and then insert new thin inner staves that have been toasted. Another option is to very simply to keep the wine in stainless steel containers and put bags of oak shavings in with the wine. Neither of these has managed to produce quite the same effect as a freshly made barrel.

Have you ever notice in French nostalgic wine posters that the peasant farmers always armed with a bottle of wine in one hand and a block of cheese in the other. Now I’ve brought this to your attention you may be wondering why wine and cheese are generally consumed at the same time. The reason for this is something Europeans learnt hundreds of years ago which was that the fats in cheese temper the bitter taste of tannin that cheap (especially red) wines have and makes the wine taste much better. So next time your in the mood for a good wine but are short of cash you can substitute a good bottle of wine with your favorite cheap box of wine and a block of cheddar.

Now on to one of wines proudest moments in its long history I of course am referring to the creation on champagne. Despite common belief champagne was not created by the monk Don Perignon but was in fact was researched 30 years earlier by an English scientist and physician called Christopher Merrett in the paper he presented to the royal society in 1662 called “Some observations concerning the Ordering of wine”. Champagne was reserved for very special occasions such as French Coronation Festivities. Kings appreciated it so much they even sent it to as homage’s to other monarchs. The reason for champagne being held with such high regard was that because of the pressure on the bottles often caused them to explode. Also the explosion from one bottle disintegrating would often cause a chain reaction amongst the bottles. This meant that it was common to loss 20-90% of champagne. The bottles were so volatile that the monks brewing had to wear heavy iron masks to protect themselves when in the cellars. The monks referred to champagne as “Devil’s wine” and so strongly did they dislike it that Don Perignon was sent down to the cellars with the specific job of getting rid of this devils wine. Fortunately Don Perignon instead chose to accommodate for the new sparkling wine, with several different techniques. One was to thicken the glass of the wine bottles so they could withstand the pressure of the second formation. The other was his marvelous invention of the wire collar which also helped the cork with stand the pressure and meant that the monks could finally get rid of the iron masks. The difference in the making of champagne to wine is that there is a second fermentation process, which involves adding several more grams of yeast at least and then letting it ferment in the bottle. The carbon dioxide produced by this second fermentation then causes the bubbles (of carbon dioxide) to be released rapidly when the bottle is opened because carbon dioxide is not very soluble. It was also soon realized that imperfections in the glasses the wine was drunk from meant that a steady stream of bubbles. This led to the etching of glass to better the drink that little bit more. The champagne at this time was in fact far sweeter than what we drink today; this was because the Russians liked to have at least 300g per litre. It was not until 1846 when Perrier Jouët decided not to sweeten the champagne before exporting it to England. This then led to the trend towards the drier champagnes that we enjoy today.

Now on to new world wines such as Australia and the Americas, these wines are often looked down upon as inferior to European wine. Although they are now starting to produce some exquisite wines but it must also be said that these countries supply a large amount of standard table wine and less fine wine compared to Europe. There isn’t much history to the Americas and Australia as they are recently founded countries so the accounts will be brief.

 Wine was first brought to South America by the Spanish and once again purely for religious reasons. Wine arrived in North America via the colonist fleeing from religious persecution to start a new life in the new world. Not surprisingly there were many Catholics in the mix and as I’ve mentioned before wine is deeply rooted in Catholicism. California is the largest producer of wine in the USA at the moment. The wines in America are named after the grape variety used rather that in France where they of course name them after the region of origin. Initially wine was shunned as it was thought of as too European and of course not welcome in the newly founded United States of America. Even if they had been keen to make wine they had little time with which to do so as they were rather busy taming the new world they lived in. The popularity of wine hasn’t grown much and the US public still remains largely beer drinkers and only a 30 percent of the population have come to realize the far superior experience of wine drinking. Of that 30% a whopping 75% of the wine they drink is made in America. As you can see there is still a slightly an isolationist approach to wine in America. Australia had similar problems with producing wine earlier on as they too were a new country and had even more hostile surroundings to tame.

 The only advancement that has been made by these countries is the way they make their oak barrels for the aging fine wine. It was thought that French oak was the best for imparting its flavour into wine. This was mainly because American oaks (as well as oak from many other countries) had been used to make barrels but the effect of the wood on the wine was far too great. It was later discovered that it wasn’t the wood that was the problem but the way the barrels were made. As the Americans were more accustomed to making whiskey barrels they dried their wood in a kiln unlike the coopers who let their wood air dry for at least 24 months before using. The other difference was that the Americans sawed the wood into staves whereas the coopers split the wood. These differences to the technique used immediately made a substantial difference to the wine produced. After this discovery the Americas and Australia were finally able to start making some good quality fine wine. Which is perhaps still not quite as good as the finest French wine but they are getting there and in the future may even give the French a run for their money.

 

 

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