A BRIEF HISTORY OF WINE.

Talking about wine is talking about the human being himself, about our own nature and our own culture. For that reason, it seemed like a great idea to take up the articles on this blog with a brief history of wine., from its imprecise origins to its roots in both western and eastern societies. We will therefore take a quick tour of the most important moments in the development of both wine and wine culture, ranging from the first harvests to the present day. We will not discover anything new, that is clear, (and summarizing thousands of years of wine history in just 1000 words could even be considered an exercise in daring) but our intention is none other than to start at the beginning, making this article the The starting gun for many others who will come and that we hope will be as exciting to read as for us to write them. We already begin with this brief review of the history of wine.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF WINE

The history of wine is inseparably linked to the history of gastronomy and agriculture, where the grape has played a fundamental role in both cases. Its adaptability to almost any environment (mainly due to its low water and mineral needs and its enormous regenerative capacity) has allowed it, like humans, to spread to practically every corner of the globe exposed to temperate climates. Undoubtedly this has been one of the main reasons why the vine first and the wine later, have accompanied man by the hand on his journey through time and space.

Origins

Until recently, archaeologists dated the birth of wine in ancient Sumerian (Mesopotamia) to the Bronze Age (3000 BC). However, new discoveries place the origins of viticulture and viniculture in the area of ​​the Caucasus and the Middle East, which today would be Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran, where since 8000 BC (in the middle of the Neolithic) They find evidence of chemical processes that include the use of turpentine resins or tartrates. However, it is very difficult to know if these traces have to do with the production of what we know today as wine. On the other hand, given the natural tendency of the grape to fermentation, it is not easy to discern whether these processes are accidental or, on the contrary, are produced intentionally by man.

But if science has its limits in this sense, human imagery lacks them. And it is that in almost all cultures there are myths and legends that attribute the invention of wine to gods or local heroes. From Osiris for the Egyptians to Dionysus or Bacchus for the Greeks and Romans (through Noah for the Judeo-Christian tradition or Utnapishtim, Ziusudra and Atrahasis for Babylonians, Sumerians and Akkadians), wine has always been enveloped in a divine and mystical aura of which it has not managed to detach itself to this day.

Wine in Egypt, Greece and Rome

To find the first unequivocal archaeological evidence of grape harvesting and crushing, we must go back to Ancient Egypt, up to approximately 3000 years BC. However, in Egypt wine was a luxury reserved for the upper classes and priests, beer being the alcoholic beverage of choice for the people. Even so, there were religious ceremonies and festivities where wine was the main element, such as the annual New Moon celebration in the Nile Delta.

Among the varieties of wine developed by the Egyptians is the shedeh , used almost exclusively in religious ceremonies and which was considered a gift from the god Ra to men.

The Egyptians were also the first to cultivate a naturally genetically mutated grape variety with which they made white wines.

Greek wine
Image representing vintage in Ancient Egypt

The abundant commercial and cultural exchanges of the time led the wine to reach Phenicia , with the Phoenicians in charge of distributing it throughout the Mediterranean. This is how the wine reached Crete and from there to the rest of the Greek cities, being already in the year 700 BC a common drink in almost all the polis. This represented a decisive turning point for the expansion of the wine-growing culture on the European continent.

The reason for this is that although the Greeks continued to use wine in religious celebrations, the truth is that it was they who popularized it as a festive drink among the middle and lower classes of society. It should be noted however that, due to the cost of its production, the wine used by the people was mixed with water, while that used in religious libations or by the upper classes was never watered down. Another reason for mixing wine with water in classical Greece was the high alcohol content that Greek wines generally had, which used to cause ethyl poisoning in the famous symposia or family banquets so ingrained in Greek culture.

The Greeks were also the first to use additives in wine, such as plaster or sea water. They also created a drink, ptisane, in which wine was mixed with barley grains, aromatic herbs, or beer.

Image representing a symposium in classical Greece

But without a doubt, the Roman Empire was the most important agent when it came to spreading the culture of wine throughout the continent.

Wine is believed to have reached mainland Italy around 200 BC (5 centuries earlier it had already become a common drink on the island of Sicily). Almost immediately it would become a very popular drink, being the cultivation of the vine and the production of wine one of the main economic resources in southern Italy, commonly known by Roman citizens as Oenotria (“land of the grape”).

We could affirm that it is during the centuries that the Roman Empire lasts when wine is “industrialized” and becomes an important source of income for its producers, being one of the main commercial resources of the Roman economy. So much so, that its cultivation extends to all corners of the Empire, from Italy to Hispania, passing Germania, Gaul or Dacia.

It is also at this time when the techniques of grafting vine strains are developed to create different varieties of grapes with which to produce as many varieties of wine. Wooden vats are also being used to store wine in large quantities, while it continues to be transported in amphoras (as the Egyptians did) until approximately the 1st century AD, at which time the Romans began to use in place glass bottles.

Similarly, the Romans were the first to use the grape treading technique, a task assigned to slaves. On the other hand, they kept the Greek tradition of watering down the wines (also Roman wines used to be of very high graduations) and adding additives. In this way they also created several types of flavored wines similar to vermouth that were very popular in their time, such as nectaulis or mutidanum. Another very popular drink (especially among the military classes) was posca, made with water and vinegar.

Roman mosaic depicting the transport of wine in amphorae

Wine in the Middle Ages

The Visigoths settled in the Iberian Peninsula (a barbarian people of Germanic origin but whose religion was Christianity) were the main protectors of the wine culture after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, even promulgating laws for the protection of vines in the Code by Eurico  . This effort to protect the vines is not surprising, since these became the property of kings and monasteries during the 7th century, with the nobility and clergy in charge of maintaining the tradition of grape cultivation and wine production.

However, with the arrival of Islam to the peninsula in the Al-Andalus period, wine became a taboo drink and although it did not disappear completely, its production was drastically reduced.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the clergy were the main supporters of the wine culture (necessary for the Christian liturgy), being in the monasteries where most of it is grown and produced. In this sense, it is worth highlighting the Benedictine monks, who created a rule that assigned each monk the obligation to produce a certain amount of wine daily. Each monastic order (Benedictines, Cistercians, etc …) was settled in a specific area, producing the wine of the region, which therefore received a specific designation of origin (Kloster, Hermitage, etc …)

In the Iberian Peninsula, after the Reconquest, vineyards began to be planted around the Camino de Santiago, especially in the areas of La Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Centuries earlier, the replanting of vines had begun in areas of Catalonia such as the Penedés, while in the 14th century the wine from Jerez and Ribeiro were already exported to England and the rest of Europe.

Engraving from Livre dou Santé, 13th century

Wine in the Modern Age

But without a doubt, in the history of wine, the other great moment of expansion came after the discovery of the New World  and the subsequent entry into the Modern Age.. Almost immediately, the Spanish galleons begin to transport wine to the colonies and just a few years later, the first vines are already being cultivated. Hernán Cortés himself, being Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, ordered the cultivation of vines for the production of wine in the area in 1525. Soon viticulture spread throughout all the lands colonized by the Spanish, to the point that the king himself Charles I, was forced to prohibit the planting of more vines for fear that the New World territories would be self-sufficient, or even rival Spain in the wine trade with Europe (at that time, one of the main assets of the Spanish economy).

Wine will arrive in North America in the late 17th century, with the first Jesuit forays into Baja California. The first vines are planted in the missions, giving rise to the variety of grape that today is called mission grape . This is the birth of California wines, which years later Benjamin Franklin would enhance by making only the wine produced in the colonies (California especially) be drunk.

However, it would be just a century later when Agoston Haraszthy (a settler of Hungarian origin) founded the Buena Vista Winery in 1857, which would be essential to make California wine a reference within the wines produced in the American continent.

Workers making sparkling wine in the Buena Vista Winery (California, USA, 19th century)

The wine today

And in this brief history of wine we reach our days, times in which wine, thanks to globalization and improvements in international transport, has spread to the 5 continents. However, we must emphasize that wine has not always had it easy in these last 2 centuries.

First he had to deal with powdery mildew, a deadly vine disease caused by an erysiphales fungus. Years later it had to survive perhaps the worst plague that the vine has faced in its history: that of the phylloxera fly (also known as aphids), which brought it to the brink of disappearance, forcing winegrowers to use all your resources in stopping this dangerous plague. 

But wine has not only had to deal with pests or diseases, in this century it has also had to face laws such as Prohibition, which closed wineries and vineyards throughout the United States, seriously endangering production. the country, or the Great Depression, which swept away another good part of the American wine industry.

Even so, in Europe things were even worse and wine had to survive 2 World Wars, in which a large part of the European vineyards was destroyed.

However, after the 2nd World War, the wine industry (driven by new technologies) began to grow little by little and, in the same way, the wine culture spreads to all corners of the planet. Wines are diversified, the figures of the sommelier and the oenologist grow, laws are created for their protection, appellations of origin are promoted and defended, signature wines are developed and, more recently, natural, organic and biodynamic wines have emerged. that promulgate a return to the origins both in the cultivation of vine and in the production of wine itself.

We can therefore affirm that, after a rather turbulent first half of the twentieth century, in the last decades of the last century and in the years that we have been, wine has experienced a new boom that is far from having peaked. And that is cause for joy, since as I have seen throughout this article, wine, like human beings, is a survivor that has accompanied us from the Neolithic to the present day, being a very important part of our culture, our religion, our gastronomy and, ultimately, our lives.

And so far this brief history of wine. We can only hope that the trip has been as interesting as it has been for us. Let’s toast to it!

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