A short history of wine

AUTHOR

Alen Juranko

Alen Juranko

Wine Consultant

I’m a wine entusiast with great passion for learning something new and passing that to others.

31

JULY, 2017

WINE BASICS | 6 MIN READ

Wine production is said to date back to around 6000BC as archaeologists have been able to identify cultivated grapes from ancient seeds found in the Turkey, Georgia, Armenia area. But records of wine only really start to exist from accounts of life in Ancient Egypt and, later on, Ancient Greece.

Also references to wine in Chinese history imply they had discovered grape fermentation and there are suggestions that India and Persia were also acquainted with the concept.

Wild vines grew all over the world but it was the species Vitis Vinifera that spread winemaking throughout Europe with the Ancient Greeks at the helm. The Greeks and the Romans had rituals devoted to their wine gods, Dionysus and Bacchus, which went on to become those of the Christian practices and wine had integrated itself in history as an object of huge religious importance preserving it to this day. Winemaking not only held religious significance but was also an important way of disinfecting drinking water. The water that ran through towns and cities was potentially dangerous but once mixed with either wine or beer it was deemed safe.

Image of Sauvignon Blanc grapes

Photo by Thomas Verbruggen on Unsplash

Therefore throughout the Middle Ages winemaking was heavily protected from invaders and, due to its religious importance, vineyards tended to be planted around churches. The Roman Empire was home to great technological advances that led to huge improvements in the quality of wine, such as wooden barrelling, but it was the Christian monks here who actively sought to produce fine wine and gradually gathered great skills and knowledge in wine production. Famously the Cistercian monks in Burgundy started to study the soil and experiment with methods such as pruning, plant diversity and land selection.

“O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil.”
William Shakespeare

Monks then started selling their wine rather than only producing it for ceremonies and the religious figures became important merchants in the trade. But naturally they kept the best for themselves and the cardinals were famed for having the best cellars in the land. Wine was now in huge demand, needed for communions even in the smallest of places but also for festivities in general and thus became a great trade. Countries like Portugal and France started selling abroad with England becoming their largest importer.

By the time the 17th Century arrived, wines of superior quality were in high demand from the wealthy European upper classes who were willing to pay large sums to enjoy them. Some accounts say Romans enjoyed letting wine age, apparently sometimes up to 25 years, but in general until the mid 1700s wine was drunk in the year that it was made. But soon people the world over were seeking the depth and complexity found in aged wines.

This revolution in quality led to huge advances in the production of fine wine. The concepts of reducing yields, grape selection, maturation and other stages of the winemaking progress were researched with the aim of producing exceptional wine. Château Haut-Brion is famed for having led this movement and three other Châteaux, by the names of Château Latour, Château Lafite and Château Margaux, followed suit soon establishing themselves as the finest of Bordeaux.

Chateau Margaux 2009
Premier Grand Cru Classe

Later on, the industrial revolution brought more efficient communications and advanced machinery to Europe and with demand from cities like London and Paris heavily outweighing the supply of wine, new regions were taking on viniculture. But this was still not enough and people took to buying grapes from the vineyards to make the wine themselves creating a new system in the wine industry. Businesses that started this brought with them labels and sold wine by way of branding.

Whilst regions like Bordeaux and the Loire valley were producing the finest wine in the land, Languedoc-Roussillon was originally designed to mass-produce and feed the huge demand. Science also played a huge part in winemaking at this time and people such as Louis Pasteur did significant research into yeast and fermentation but the discoveries were only put to use in the mid 1900s.

Later on, the industrial revolution brought more efficient communications and advanced machinery to Europe and with demand from cities like London and Paris heavily outweighing the supply of wine, new regions were taking on viniculture. But this was still not enough and people took to buying grapes from the vineyards to make the wine themselves creating a new system in the wine industry. Businesses that started this brought with them labels and sold wine by way of branding.

Whilst regions like Bordeaux and the Loire valley were producing the finest wine in the land, Languedoc-Roussillon was originally designed to mass-produce and feed the huge demand. Science also played a huge part in winemaking at this time and people such as Louis Pasteur did significant research into yeast and fermentation but the discoveries were only put to use in the mid 1900s.

“To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history.”
Clifton Fadiman

Following the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, Napoleon III put on the rivalling Exposition Universelle in 1855 to show France in all its glory. Here he decided to mount a display of the greatest wines in France and it was this exhibition that led to the famous 1855 classifications of Bordeaux wines in which the famous Châteaux Haut Brion, Margaux, Lafite and Latour were ranked as the first growths of Bordeaux. Château Mouton-Rothschild joined this elite group in 1973.

First growths of Bordeaux

Photo by La Bussola

Back in the 1500s and1600s, vineyards were planted in the Americas that would only survive a few years before mysteriously dying out. This mystery was solved unfortunately when the culprit, by the name of Phylloxera, a pest from the aphid family, made its way across the Atlantic in the 1860s hitting Europe with devastating effect. Feeding on the stems of the vines, the parasite took 40 years to destroy almost every vine in Europe. Finally the remedy came from a certain Thomas Munson who discovered the method of grafting vines to the resistant American rootstock.

However, the new supply of wine was inadequate and led to much fraudulent and poor quality wine being produced. It was in the area of Châteauneuf du Pape that Baron Leroy de Boiseaumarié first introduced rules on parts of production such as yields and grape choice which led to the appellations d’origine contrôlee system and which soon after spread throughout France.

“I’ve always wanted to improve on the idea of living well, In moderation, wine is good for you – mentally, physically, and spiritually.”
Robert Mondavi

European vines had been taken overseas in the 1400s but the wine produced there had no critical acclaim until the late 1900s when countries like the USA, Australia and South Africa started performing very well in European competitions blurring the division between new and old world wines. Now new world wine is very much tailored to consumer taste and despite using the famous European varieties particularly Merlot, Syrah (Shiraz) and Cabernet Sauvignon they tend to produce fruitier and easy to drink wines.

A new era in wine came when the critic Robert Parker labelled 1982 a great vintage in Bordeaux and when proved correct gained international acclaim. After this, he became the leading voice in wine and although criticised for the standardisation of wine, with vineyards conforming to his taste for sales purposes, many people consult his 100 point scoring system before buying a wine.

In recent times huge price changes have occurred due to the arrival of wine investment. This has caused a few vineyards to stop their en primeur system, whereby people would buy wine before it had been bottled at a lower price to sell or drink at a later date. Despite this, the arrival of new countries onto the wine scene has brought about an amazing range of fine wine and with technology improving at a staggering rate, great quality can be found the world over.

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