Julie Harrison - History Of Wine

Publish Date
Friday, 10 June 2016, 12:08PM
By Julie Harrison

Persian legend has it that wine was discovered when a very unhappy princess who was out of favour with the King decided to end her life by eating rotting grapes and their juice. Having done so she discovered that things were not so bad after all and once she shared her discovery with the King she was back in his good books! On a less romantic note, archaeological evidence indicates that wine in some form dates back to at least 6000BC when humans became less nomadic and started to settle in communities and farm. It is believed that wine was first made in an area known as the “fertile crescent” encompassing what is now Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey and the oldest “winery” discovered so far was in a cave in Armenia dating back to 4000 BC. Apart from its intoxicating effect one of the huge advantages of wine through history has been the bug killing properties of its alcohol content, making wine often safer to drink than the local water supply. Nobody really understood what gave wine these properties which gave it a magical, mystical reputation.

Wine was important to the Egyptians and evidence of wine making has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 3100 BC demonstrating that it was deemed worthy enough to be required in the afterlife. It was usually only drunk by royalty and priests and was often part of religious ceremonies or used medicinally. Around 2500 BC the maritime Phoenicians, who occupied what is now Syria, Lebanon and Northern Israel spread wine around the Mediterranean.   The Greeks took to winemaking with enthusiasm, although the wine of these times would probably be unrecognisable today.  It was generally sweet and the Greeks and latterly the Romans often added things to it, probably to off-set some technical issues. This included chalk to reduce acidity, herbs, spices, and sometimes salt water.  The wine of ancient Greece and Rome was stored and transported in amphorae (a pottery vessel) lined with pine resin, making it the ancestor of the Greek wine Retsina.  

Fast forward to 1000BC when Rome was gaining ascendancy. Under the Greeks, wine was mostly made in Southern Europe but as the Roman Empire expanded so did the planting of grapes. By the early first century, vineyards and improved viticultural and wine making practices were spreading throughout the Roman Empire especially in France, Spain and Germany.  The Romans moved winemaking and viticulture forward in a number of ways. They categorised grape varieties, identifying which varieties produced the best wine and where. The Romans took the best from the regions they conquered, getting barrels from Gaul and bottles from the Syrians both of which were better alternatives to the amphorae which were not good for wine preservation and tainted the wine. Wine was a regular part of the diet although it was usually watered down; needless to say undiluted wine certainly played a part in some of the more notorious aspects of Roman History. The Greeks and the Romans both appreciated the value of wine so much that they worshipped the wine gods Dionysus and Bacchus respectively.

Fortunately the Germanic tribes who took over Europe after the fall of Rome were fond of wine and did not get rid of all the good work the Romans had done. This improved further when Charlemagne took power in 768 and Christianity took hold though out Western Europe. Wine has long been associated with religion, being mentioned in both the old and new testaments. The monasteries took on winemaking partly to provide wine for the Eucharist and played a huge role in the development of French and German vineyards; in particular Burgundy and Champagne and carried on in this way up until the French revolution. As well as religion, politics also plays a part when it comes to wine history. As a result of the marriage of Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, this South Western corner of France, which includes Bordeaux, became English and Bordeaux reds became part of English establishment. When England lost Aquitaine to the French at the end of the 100 Years war in 1453, Britain turned to Portugal and Spain for an alternative tipple which developed the Port and Sherry trade.

Contrary to popular belief Champagne was not invented by the monk Dom Perignon. Benedictine monks in an abbey near Carcassonne were making sparkling wine by 1531 and in 1662 Englishman and scientist Christopher Merret described the addition of sugar to a finished wine causing a secondary fermentation and the production of bubbles.   Dom Perignon actually didn’t want bubbles in his wine as they made the bottles explode. What he did do is make advances in blending wines from various parts of the Champagne region that complemented each other and it is this blending that is integral to the Champagne process today. He also improved pruning and clarification techniques as well as working out how to get white juice from red grapes. The blended wine still often got fizzy but with the introduction of stronger bottles from the United Kingdom the bottles stopped exploding. With further innovations such as the development of the art of riddling by Madame Clicquot, still wine production was largely abandoned in this region and Champagne was born. Louis Pasteur studied wine in the late 19th century and worked out the microbiology of fermentation and came up with methods to reduce wine spoilage, resulting in an improvement of wine quality.

Wine spread around the world as various colonisers colonised, with vineyards being established in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. North America had its own native vine species but these only produced average wine. Initially the European vines planted there failed to survive and the reason for this was soon clear when disaster struck the European wine industry in the mid 1800’s.  American grape species were bought into Europe for research but they unfortunately carried in new vine pathogens; in particular the fungal disease Powdery Mildew and the even more devastating Phylloxera, an aphid that likes to eat vine roots. American grapes were resistant to this aphid as the roots had a protective bark layer. The vineyards of Europe were decimated and had to be replanted with the European vine species being grafted onto American vine rootstock.

In more recent times there have been major advances in terms of viticultural management of vineyards and improved wine making techniques. Countries and regions within countries have worked out the best grape varieties for their situation; great examples being Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Central Otago Pinot Noir, Argentinean Malbec and Californian Zinfandel.    Innovative winemakers continue to experiment with different varieties so look out for New Zealand Prosecco , Tempranillo and Albarino. Climate change could also set new challenges for traditional wine regions with concerns already that the Champagne region may become too warm for Champagne production. It could be that by the end of this century areas considered too cool for grape growing today such as Northern Europe and the UK will be where it is all happening.

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