Vine cultivation for the purpose of making wine is thought to have begun in the lower foothills of the Caucasus (modern day Armenia and Georgia) around 7000 to 5000 BC. The grape followed the path of civilization and was brought south down the Euphrates and Tigris to Sumeria (Iraq) and from there into Egypt.
The Egyptians contributed plenty of technological updates to the wine-making process, most notable was a tourniquet press to separate the skins and seeds from the juice. At this point in history most wine was red and generally adulterated with herbs, tree resin, or other preservatives/flavorings.
The vine was spread throughout Europe by the Phoenicians. This merchant society would grow vines wherever they set up towns and markets. However the biggest influences on wine-making and culture until almost the middle ages were the Greeks and the Romans.
Wine was important in Greek society from the earliest times, forming part of the Greek cultural identity. Wine was used for medicine and also religious ceremonies. Wine was used as a pick-me-up, a tonic, and also an analgesic. Later, by experience it became clear that certain wines were good for the digestion or for use as a diuretic.
The Greeks worshiped Dionysus who was the patron God and symbol of wine. A ration (sponde) of wine was offered to the gods whenever wine was drunk. Drink offerings were part of prayers, and treaties were referred to as spondai because of this. The origin of pouring alcohol on the ground as an offering to the dead started in Greece.
The Greeks were also the first society to make wine available to be drunk for pleasure by all classes, rather than just a ceremonial drink. Greek Wine at this point was almost always diluted with water to about 3 to 6 per cent alcohol. (Probably safer to drink than the water alone). Basic wine would be improved by various additives including aromatic herbs and/or honey similar to a vermouth production. These would help stabilize and add aromatics to the wine. Most wine at this time would not have lasted long, succumbing to oxidation or bacterial infection.
Early Greek colonization led to the vine being taken to all parts of the Mediterranean, thus laying the foundations for viticulture and the whole later development of wine in this area.
Most modern day European wine regions owe their existence to the Greeks. Along with the Romans they spread vineyards throughout most of the known world of that time. The Romans spread the vine along Europe’s major rivers and planted wherever the legion went: The Danube, the Rhine, the Mosel, the Gironde, the Rhone, and the Loire rivers were all major Roman vineyard sites.
The regions of Burgundy and Champagne were also developed by the Roman conquest.
The Romans and Greeks also developed many different viticultural and vinification techniques, many of which were lost for centuries after their empires collapsed.
- Treading floors and Spouted vats for wine production discovered in Minoan Crete date to before 2000BC
- Hesiod’s “Works and Days” mentions pruning and harvesting techniques including drying grapes before vinification to make early forms of dried grape wines.
- Low yields and first forms of vine training techniques: Forked props and posts used.
- Theophrastus (Successor to Aristotle) noted the need to match varieties to soil type and climate.
- Early forms of “pigeage” to extract color and tannins from the grapes.
- Development of Torsion Press made of fabric to extract juice.
- Up until the 7th C AD wine was still transported in amphorae (Lined with resin or pitch)
- The Romans poured olive oil on top of their wine and used cork enclosures to prevent oxidation.
- The Romans were the first to really link the idea of terroir and the flavor of wine
- They wrote books on viticulture, aged wines, and kept records of wine tastings and vintages.
In the Middle Ages the rise and spread of Christianity was a major factor in the spread of vineyards. Burgundy was almost completely owned by the Church. In 910 the Benedictines established a monastery at Cluny, and the Cistercians founded in Citeaux in 1112.
The monks had plenty of money, time, and patience. They studied the vine and the land, making detailed notes of wines, varieties, and soil types. The Benedictines and Cistercians were responsible for the first vineyard mappings of Burgundy. The monk and cellar master at Hautvillers, Dom Perignon, was very influential on the viticulture in Champagne. The spread of Christianity and the Age of Discovery took the vine to the New World, opening up the lands of South Africa, Australia, and the Americas.
However, the spread of the vine to the American continent brought disaster to the European vineyards in the late 1800’s. The root aphid phylloxera, which was native to the east coast of the US, was brought over on some root cuttings and spread quickly throughout the European vineyards causing disaster. It was not until the 1890’s that an effective cure was found.
Europe is still the home of wine. In France, Italy, Greece, and Spain wine is much a part of the culture and lifestyle as it is a drink to be enjoyed. The newer wine regions in Australia and the US are constantly compared to their Old World counter-parts, and many of their styles are emulating styles traditional to regions in France or Italy.