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History of wine

Introduction to the history of wine

Wine has been a popular beverage of mankind for thousands of years. Our natural fondness of this drink stems from the wonderful taste, its nutritional properties and not least its psychotropic (intoxicating) effects.

Out of all alcoholic drinks, 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 winemaker to date.

Centuries ago, a wine industry was also 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.

1. When was wine first created?

No one can be sure, but there is an ancient Persian fable that recognises a woman as the discoverer of wine. According to the fable, she was a princess in Persepolis who had lost favour with the King. The shame was so overwhelming that she drank the juice of 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 into eternal slumber she got giddy, intoxicated and then passed out. When she awoke she found all the troubles of her life seemed to have passed. She took her discovery to the King, who was so enamoured with the fermented grape drink that he accepted her back in his favour. The city of Shiraz, near the location of this legend, became significant in Persian wine production.

Although this is a pleasant tale, the accidental discovery of wine probably happened a few times in different regions, but what is for sure is the invention of wine is down to pure dumb luck.

2. Sixty million year-old fossils

The first traces of wine-like substances go back to sixty-million-year-old fossils, which means our pre-human ancestors may well have come to realise older grapes will have been more desirable. We can also observe this with our animal friends today, who tend to prefer riper fruit.

The earliest remnants of wine as we now know it were discovered in the site of Hajji Firuz Tepe, in the northern Zagros Mountains of Iran. The site dated back to the Neolithic period (8500-4000 B.C.). Carbon dating confirmed the wine was from sometime between 5400-5000 B.C.

Although wine dating any earlier than this has yet to be found, it is thought the art of wine making started shortly after 6000 B.C. when humans created the first permanent 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 people to experiment with their cuisine and drinks. Some of our favourite dishes and drinks we still enjoy today were developed in this time period, including beer and of course wine.

3. Wine and the Ancient Egyptians

Now we skip forward a few thousand years to the Predynastic era of the Egyptian Pharaohs, when wine was spreading across the ancient world. Hieroglyphics from this time show that perhaps binge drinking is not such a modern problem, as apparently the Pharaohs didn’t seem to care that much about the quality - but more on quantity.

Even Pharaohs have bad days!

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

The Egyptians used trellises, which were protected from sunlight (because the light is too intense in Egypt) and they 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 to crush the seeds and stems, adding 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 a fifth made sure none of the precious wine was spilt.

The Egyptians had several grades of wine:

- Free Run Must: Little of this was collected, but it was a very sweet long lasting wine
- First Wine Must: This came from the treading and was about 2/3 of the juice
- Second Run Must: This came from the additional pressing
Must is grape juice in the cask or vat before it is fermented and turned in to wine.

These three grades could be mixed to make different kinds of wine (e.g. red, white, dry or sweet). They were then left in a trough to ferment.

4. The Egyptian fermentation process

Fermentation is the converting of sugar from the grapes into alcohol. During this process the yeast releases enzymes that bind and react with the sugar to make alcohol (ethanol). The amount of alcohol obviously depends on the amount of sugar.

The maximum percentage 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 for 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 colour 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 colour would not have been just down to the grape’s colour. 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. After, the wine was bottled and sealed with mud and reeds. The wine would be sealed a few days before it turned to vinegar. When sealing their wine, Egyptians would make an impression in the wax. These were the equivalent to the wine maker’s labels we have today.

It seems that the Pharaohs were particularly fond of the drink, as it became their preference to take into the afterlife. At this time, wine was almost exclusively for royalty and served only at special occasions like festivals. However, it also had medical uses like sedating women during childbirth and as an antiseptic.

5. Greeks and their love affair with wine

The next people to carry the torch of this great commerce were the Greeks. The early signs of wine in Greece were the replica wine presses found in Crete tombs and date back to between 3000BC-2000BC.

It is believed the Phoenician traders introduced the Greeks to the joys of wine. After the Phoenicians did the Greeks this favour, wine industries were established in most of Western Europe. Alexander the Great also introduced the drink to Asia.

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, the wine was so important it developed a religious status. They valued wine highly and referred to it as “The juice of the Gods.” It couldn’t have described better. There’s also the Greek God of wine, Dionysus, who’s a son of Zeus and one of the most worshipped Gods.

The Greeks used wine to achieve clarity of mind when at a symposium (a gathering where predetermined philosophical subjects were 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 Homer’s epic the “Iliad” and the frequent mention of wine therein.

By looking at the countries 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 flavour of the wine is the surviving Greek varieties such as Limnio, Athiri, Aidani and Muscat.

The ancient Greek wine became so popular in Europe, with the Greek settlers in these countries using vine cuttings to propagate with wild vines they encountered across the continent. 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 realised that the ecosystem played a key role in the characteristics of the resulting wine. They were the first to create their own appellations of origin, anyone 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 the sweetness and higher alcohol percentage. It is no well-kept secret that the Greeks like to mix their wine with water (including sea water amazingly) and to add honey and spices. This shows us how thoroughly embedded in the culture wine traditions were.

The ancient Greeks used to line amphoras with tree resin, which gave it a very distinctive flavour. It is thought that developed into the wine Greeks and much of the world drinks and enjoys today, known as retsina.

6. Greeks and their recent wine history

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 many farmers went out of business and the only people who were excluded from the heavy tax were monks.

Fortunately, the monasteries kept the craft alive in Greece for the 400 years it was occupied. The Greeks then achieved independence in 1821. The Greek farmers started to replace their vines with raisin producing vines, as there was a huge demand for them from France, whose 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 the 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 that first produced fine wines would never return to its former glory. Fortunately though, Greek winemakers are on the up. With an arsenal of 300 different native grape varieties - each with very distinctive flavours - they would 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.

7. The Roman wine journey

The next group to start developing viticulture and the actual growth of the vine in roughly 1000BC was, in fact, a Greek colony that had grown so strong they became 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. This was a huge development considering the kind of wood used to make the barrel imparts its own distinct flavours to the wine. Also, the barrels allow for the wine to evaporate a little bit during the ageing process.

I’ll come back to the process of ageing in caskets when we cover the French, as they have perfected the technique, but it is important to remember the Romans laid 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 also classified many diseases that afflict grapes.

At first the Romans didn’t take to wine and sent any that was produced over the Alps to the barbarian Gauls, who were so fond of the drink. The Romans' preferred drink was beer and mead, because of their warrior past. Wine didn’t really take off 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 to this book, beer and mead were a thing of the past and wine was the drink of the future.

After another hundred years there would be defined regions for winemaking. 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 the mental condition of Emperor Nero was very poor indeed.

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 or blend of wine, how much water should be mixed with the wine and call out the toasts. In short, he had the best job going at the party. The people who attended these parties were rich, but the poor got their fair share of wine too. At the theatre and at the games, there was a drink called muslum, which consisted of cheap wine mixed with honey. This was provided by politicians that needed support for the next election. Imagine if our MPs did the same!

Wine wasn’t just for merriment and it also had an important role in religion. It was also consumed a lot at the graveside funeral 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.

Personally, I'd rather leave the mystery of the flavour of Roman wine 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 their province started to rival the wines being made in Rome, especially Portugal which became famous for its wine.

The Romans therefore gave it the honour 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 outside of Rome were to be uprooted.

Wine is still an important part of Italian culture and is taken very seriously, which 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, Western Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages and winemaking was only kept alive by the Roman Catholic Church.

8. Even the monks were advocates of wine

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.

The only problem was, the wine they distributed was heavily watered down, as the Church didn’t take kindly to drunkenness (spoilsports). Eventually, the French aristocracy took on the task of winemaking alongside the church.

By 1725 Bordeaux had already classified the finest red wines it produced but an official classification based on prices wasn’t created until as late as 1855. This classification divided the wines into up to five 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. More importantly though, so were the vineyards. The newly founded French Republic removed all feudal privileges that the Catholic Clergy and the nobles possessed. Any nobles who didn’t manage to flee also lost their heads.

All of the church and noble land was repossessed and the vineyards were now in the peasants’ hands. This was crucial for the development of wine, as now vineyards were in competition and the owners’ entire livelihoods depended on the success of the vineyards.

Vineyards devastated by Phylloxera

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

9. The creation of Champagne

Now on to one of wine’s proudest moments in its long history. I of course am referring to the creation of champagne. Despite common belief, champagne was not created by the monk, Dom Pérignon, but was in fact researched 30 years earlier.

An English scientist and physician called Christopher Merrett presented findings 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 as homage to other monarchs. The reason for champagne being held with such high regard was that the pressure on the bottles often caused them to explode. Also, the explosion from one bottle disintegrating would often cause a chain reaction amongst other bottles. This meant that it was common to lose 20-90% of champagne.

The bottles were so volatile that the monks brewing it 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 Dom Pérignon was sent down to the cellars with the specific job of getting rid of his Devil's wine.

Fortunately, Dom Pérignon 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 marvellous invention of the wire collar, which also helped the cork withstand the pressure and meant that 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 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.

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.

10. How wine fared outside of Europe

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, 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. Therefore, 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 colonists 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 than in France where they, of course, named 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 remain largely beer drinkers. Only 30% of the population have come to realise 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 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 environments to start their life in.

The only advancement that has been made by these countries is the way they make their oak barrels for the ageing 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 quality fine wine. This 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.
By Jackie Wynne