Wine History 101: What is wine and how it came to be

While recently reading a book called About Wine by J.Patrick Henderson, I was interested to learn more about the history behind the wine I drink so often. I thought it might be interesting to share with you wine history in a nutshell.

According to Henderson, wine was first consumed in Persia (modern-day Iran) in 5000 to 6000 B.C.  Wikipedia states that archaeological evidence exists for other early wine production at about 6000 B.C. in Georgia, and about 4100 B.C. in Armenia.

The Persians first made their wine from dates and other fruits available in the area.  It wasn’t until 3000 B.C.  that Vitis vinifera, a species of grape native of the Black and Caspian Seas was used by the Egyptians and Phoenicians to make wine.

In 1000 B.C. the Greek empire spread wine making throughout the Mediterranean region of Europe, Italy, France, and Spain. Because wine was the center of many spiritual and religious ceremonies, the Greeks created a deity, Dionysus, in honor of wine, and no festival could be complete without wine. At this time, however, wine was made from raisins or late-harvested grapes; these methods resulted in heavy, sweet almost syrupy liquid wine.

It wasn’t until the Romans started to develop technological advances in viticulture (grape growing) and enology (study of wine making) that wine started be aged in barrels for up to a century at a time. As the Roman empire grew, so did the expansion of vineyards and wine practices into countries such as Spain and Portugal.

During the Middle Ages, it fell upon the Catholic Church to develop and maintain the secrets of viticulture and enology—a practice which, under Pope Gregory the Great, made the church quite profitable and also encouraged the expansion of wine production and vines throughout Europe. The Church closely controlled wine making, and it required all grapes to be pressed in monasteries, for which the church would require a 10% “donation” of production.  The wealth created by wine production allowed the monks to dedicate themselves to studies of viticulture and enology. As the church grew, so did the cities that formed around these monasteries. It was during the reign of Charlemagne (768-814) that medieval viticulture and enology reached its peak.

It wasn’t until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the great European Renaissance that the Church’s authority was disputed, most notably by Martin Luther. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Church had lost most of its political and economic power, and the majority of the vineyards passed to private hands.

The nineteenth century, the golden age of wine, was not only the greatest and most advanced period for viticulture and enology, but also the most devastating period in the history of wine making.

During that century, Louis Pasteur, the famous microbiologist, had identified that the fermentation of grape juice into wine was a result of action by microorganisms.  It was also during this time that Phylloxera, a topic I had discussed earlier in this web site,destroyed the vines of Europe.

Phylloxera, a root louse, or aphid, a small sap-sucking insect that feeds on roots and leaves originally from the eastern United States, was brought over to France on a merchant ship.  In 1868, it affected all of southern France and by 1874, had reached Germany. It was during this time that many French winemakers had established vineyards in Spain, on the other side of the Pyrenees in hopes to save the vineyards.  Nevertheless, by the late 1800s, Phylloxera had spread to all wine-making regions of Europe. It wasn’t until the introduction and use of rootstock from North America that the European revival of the wine industry began once again.

During this time and into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, those with economic means took their vines and knowledge of European wine making elsewhere, planting vineyards in other places in North America, as well in South America, Australia, and South Africa.

It was also during this time that World War I halted the production of European wine making, and Prohibition in 1919-1933 created a decline in the demand for wine. However, after World War II, returning U.S. servicemen came back with a newly acquired taste for European wine, and by the 1950s, wine interest and consumption was again on the rise. In the 1960s and 1970s, the New World took steps towards naming wines after grape varieties, as compared to the traditional European naming system involving geographic denominations such as La Rioja and Bordeaux. Public taste in North America began to move from sweet, fortified wines to dry table wines, marking the beginning of the wine market we know today.