Written by John St. Mark

Monday, 08 September 2008

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flavors and aromaswine and spirits

Wine History

Wine History - Wine Barrels

Wine was with us long before recorded history began; it has been said that winemaking is as old as human civilization itself.

At present we have archeological evidence of wine going back about ten thousand years. Ancient artifacts with identifiable wine residue have been uncovered in many places, but based on the concentration of artifacts and the diversity of sub-species of the wine grapevine now present, we believe that winemaking began somewhere in the area known as the Transcaucasus (where modern-day Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and parts of Turkey and Iran are located.) Many of the social, religious, medicinal and ceremonial uses of wine have their origins in the ancient world.

Wine was already a popular commodity among the wealthy and powerful in Ancient Mesopotamia. King Hammurabi of Babylon included several articles regulating the production and commercialization of wine in his celebrated legal code (c. 1760 B.C.)

The Egyptians also developed a sophisticated wine culture. The masses drank beer, but wine production was a Pharaonic prerogative; the best wines were reserved for the elite of Egyptian society. Wine urns in Tutankhamen’s tomb (c. 1350 B.C.) featured hieroglyphic "labels" with information including the winemaker's name, the vineyard, the type of wine and the vintage (expressed as a specific year in the reign of a particular Pharaoh.)

"Wine is life."

The prolific maritime traders of Phoenicia, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, were introducing wine (along with the phonetic alphabet) to populations around the Mediterranean around 1,000 B.C. This practice was continued by the Greeks and later by the Romans, who developed viticulture throughout their Empire. Many of modern Europe's most famous vineyards were originally planted during this period. The great physicians, philosophers and poets of the classical world were lavish in their praise of wine; perhaps Petronius was the most succinct when he said "Wine is life."Egyptian Pyramids

In the first century A.D. in Egypt, Coptic monks began the tradition of winemaking in Christian monasteries. As the church gained wealth and power it acquired or developed many of the great wine producing properties in Europe. The Cistercian order, established in 1098 in France, emphasized a return to working the land, and its growth in the ensuing period led to the spread of quality grape varieties to regions around the continent.

When the Vikings first visited America (c. 1000) they named it “Vinland” because of the profusion of wild grapevines they observed. Those vines were of a different species, however (classic wine grapes are from the species vitis vinifera; we can talk about grape varieties in a later column) and the American vines yield grapes that aren’t well suited to producing wines in the traditional styles (they can be - and are - used for winemaking, but they produce wines that are different.)

Within a few years of landing in the Americas, the Spanish were taking grapevines to their colonies in what is now Mexico; in 1524 Hernan Cortes decreed that planting vineyards would be a condition of Spanish land grants. Among other uses, wine was needed for religious rituals; the Spanish missionaries planted their own grapevines, and eventually introduced winemaking as far north as Sonoma in California.

In the 1600s, as colonization was extending wine production to various places around the globe, advances in glassmaking technology resulted in cheaper, stronger bottles, and cork came into use as a closure. This enhanced the potential for storage and transport, thereby expanding wine's commercial possibilities.

European colonists on America's East Coast had high hopes for a wine industry of their own, but found that their imported grapevines generally didn't thrive due to certain pests native to the eastern states. Some of those pests eventually got back to Europe and devastated vineyards there; one in particular, phylloxera (a kind of aphid that, in the larval stage, lives underground and attacks the vines' roots) proved impossible to get rid of. After suffering terrible losses, it was found that some American grapevines are resistant to phylloxera, and that vitis vinifera vines could be grafted onto American rootstocks. With some exceptions, that is now the practice worldwide.


Recovering a vineyard ravaged by disease is a costly and time-consuming process; some producers were tempted to mitigate their losses by selecting grape varieties and agricultural practices for rapid growth and high yield rather than optimum quality. Beginning in the 1920s in France, regional organizations were established which regulated the sort of grapes that could be planted and the agricultural and winemaking methods that could be employed. The contemporary incarnations of those organizations, whose stamp can often be seen on the back label of wine bottles from traditional wine producing regions, are considered guarantors of quality and authenticity, and provide an indication of the style of wine one should expect.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) first explained that fermentation is not a "spontaneous event" but rather a consequence of microbiological activity. Since that time, we have learned a great deal about wine from a scientific perspective and our understanding of the processes involved has given us some ability to control them, leading to improvements in wine quality throughout the world. At present there is more wine - and better wine - available than at any other time in history. More people than ever before are enjoying good wine.

It is argued that excessive manipulation of natural processes to suit mass-market demands has led to generic, "global" wine styles that reflect winemaking technology rather than the land where the grapes are grown. There is some truth to that argument, but as more and more consumers cultivate their own preferences, I think that we will see renewed interest in diverse wines that can offer us a broad range of enjoyment.

The Wine Messenger


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