The curious wine history fact is that it dates back to the very beginning of mankind. In other words, the introduction of wine history might very well coincide with the dawn of humanity itself. The truth of the matter is wine was always more than just a simple drink to us.
As the red intoxicating nectar resembles blood so much, our ancient ancestors used it in sacraments and rituals as a symbolic representation of life and a way of elevating the spirit. It was also in these early days that people found the drink beneficial to health and well-being.
According to an old Persian legend, the wine was discovered when a young harem girl decided to kill herself because King Jamshid banished her. After finding a jar labeled as a poison in the king’s warehouse, she drank it, unaware that it contained “spoiled grapes.” Not only did she not die, but felt uplifted and exhilarated. Surprised by the discovery, she ran to the king to show him what she had found. After tasting the wine, he was so enamored with the beverage that he ordered that all Persian grapes be devoted to winemaking. The harem lady was, of course, taken back to his mercy.
In a nutshell, drinking wine was always our way of celebrating life and being “happy ever after.”
PINNING THE ORIGINS: INGREDIENTS IN WINE
Of course, we’ll probably never know where did wine originate or who was the first-ever man to discover that the fermented grape juice made him feel good. But the Persian legend was on to something, deeming wine as an undrinkable poison. Many historical sources confirm that the ancient wine had a harsh taste to it. To paraphrase the Bible itself, “it bit like a snake and stang like a viper.” (Proverbs, 23:32).
Now, this sharp aroma in ancient wine is probably a result of the ingredients added to preserve the mixture from spoiling. Namely, because the ancient wines weren’t stored in bottles, they were exposed to oxygen and quickly went off. Vintners added all sorts of natural preservatives: resin, marble dust, lead, lye-ash, salt, and pepper.
On top of that, because the beverage thus obtained was unpalatable, they had to add herb mixtures to temper the flavor. The result was a thick and sticky wine that had to be cut with honey, dry fruit, or even saltwater. But that’s not even the beginning of the wine ingredients story. When somebody asks us today what wine is, a cluster of grapes would most likely first come to our mind.
However, it seems that the basic wine ingredients also varied throughout history. Ancient Chinese, for instance, made a drink from fermented rice, honey, and fruit (a beverage quite similar to modern-day sangria), while lower classes in the old Egypt drank date wine.
But over time, in the wider Indo-European region, the wine was established as the drink made purely from grape varieties belonging to the Vitis Vinifera species.
THE PREHISTORY: HOW WAS THE FIRST WINE FERMENTED?
The earliest archeological evidence of wine fermentation found has been at sites in Georgia (6000 BC), Iran (5000 BC), Greece (4500 BC), and Sicily (4000 BC). And if we pause and consider that agriculture as we know it started about 10000-8000 BC, we can reach a magnificent conclusion that it didn’t take too long for people to form a real winemaking culture. In short, the first person doing the land soon became a vintner.
However, we have to go through a significant time before finding palpable traces of wine production by fermentation. In 2007, the UCLA researchers found the first certain evidence of wine fermentation in the Armenian “Areni-1” cave – soon to become known as the first rudimentary winery.
From the contents of the unearthed inventory, scientists have reconstructed the prehistoric winemaking process. The site contained a wine press, vats, jars, cups, and Vitis Vinifera vines and seeds.
Copper Age vintners probably pressed the grapes using their feet, left the juice subsequently in fermentation vats, and finished the process by pouring wine in storage jars. The drink was then used in ceremonies honoring the dead, as testified by the drinking cups found around the graves.
COMMERCIAL WINE PRODUCTION
Once we developed writing systems, we began nurturing and spreading vintner knowledge. Hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the first wine commercialization hotbed was in Egypt, 3000 BC. Because wine was an essential part of the religious culture, the Egyptians massively produced it at the royal vineyards. Only pharaohs and priests were allowed to consume it, though – the lower classes probably drank beer and date wine.
And once the Egyptians came in contact with Phoenicians, who developed the most robust trading maritime culture of the time, wine production spread all over the old world. Namely, the Phoenicians brought wine sealed in amphoras wherever they traveled. And more importantly, they brought vines, thus disseminating winemaking itself.
But it was, of course, the ancient Greeks who established most wine-related practices that are still in use today. By 500 BC, the sacred red wine conquered the entire Mediterranean, was involved in numerous medicinal practices, and even had a god on its own – Dionysius. And while concurring, we mustn’t skip the Romans who famously invaded the world by marching on wine (water was always too dangerous to drink).
But the Romans have also sophisticated the winemaking process. They’ve started sealing amphoras with wax and labeled their wine the year, vineyard, producer, and a grape variety – much like today’s industrial winemaking process.
AGE OF DISCOVERY: MODERN WINEMAKING PROCESS
It’s somewhat a paradox that winemaking also thrived in the infamous “Dark Ages,” although it descended in quality. Because red wine was a crucial part of the sacrament, the medieval monks were the most prominent vintners. And, thanks to them, the knowledge of how wine is made remained preserved.
Also, it was in the Middle Ages that wine became the most common drink of all social classes in Southern Europe. But it was not until the 15th century that the beverage truly spread across the planet. European explorers brought vines wherever they made a settlement, and soon vineyards started growing in the New World (modern-day United States, Canada, and Latin America).
However, the genuine breakthrough in winemaking history came in the 18th century, when people used scientific methods to upgrade their production practices.
Dom Perignon, the famous inventor of Champagne, reached one such milestone in 1719 when he introduced the idea of bottling and corking wines. Before his “simple” innovation, it was nearly impossible to properly age a wine because oxygen would penetrate the storage vessels (both in the Romanian sealed amphorae and medieval wooden barrels).
Louis Pasteur conquered the other milestone when the French government assigned him to study what made some wines spoil – he noticed that yeast converts sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. In other words, the “Father of Microbiology” gave wine producers an objective knowledge base that they could use for controlled manufacturing.
However, the truth of the matter is the discovery didn’t change how wine is made. The ancient wine recipe basically remained the same. But it did provide a sound description of the chemical process behind fermentation. And the winemakers were then able to manipulate the entire procedure so that they can achieve particular results.
And the rest is, as they say, history. Or better yet – the history of wine production sophistication, through which numerous aromas and flavors march.
MODERN WINE INDUSTRY
In the end, the wine industry in our times might have more surprises in store. Namely, when China opened up its economy in the 1980ies, it became a major importer of French wine. But that’s not it. Following this “wine rush” in China, French winemakers arrive to advise locals on creating vineyards.
As reported by the media, China has the ambition to become the world’s most prominent winemaker. As we outlined in the beginning, the funny thing is it probably all started back in China. The wine history arc could be reaching its own birthplace, where traces of winemaking date back to 7000 BC.
We’ll see where it will head next.