A Brief History Of Wine

Wine, that panacea of the world’s woes, is in fact, older than recorded history. The earliest evidence for the cultivation of grapes and the fermentation of their juices dates back to 6,000 B.C. The Egyptians recorded the harvest of grapes on the walls of their tombs; bottles of wine were even buried with pharaohs in order that they might entertain guests in the afterlife!

The evidence from tablets and papyri found in Egyptian tombs fills volumes, charting its emergence alongside civilization itself from the East. Man emerges boldly from the shadows, jug of wine in hand, to create an Empire. But sadly, however vividly depicted for us to see, the wine of the ancient Pharaoh’s is too far distant, too remote to have any real meaning.

Fortunately the wine we know of today has far more traceable roots that begins with the Greeks and Phoenicians who colonized the Mediterranean around 1,500 BC. That was when wine emerged to where it was ultimately to make its home. Italy, France, Spain, Africa, Sicily and the Black Sea all had their first vineyards in the time of the Greek and Phoenician Empires.

The wines of Greece were lavishly praised and documented by her poets though being flavoured with herbs, spices and honey and regularly diluted with water (sometimes even seawater) does tend to throw doubts on its quality.

What is indisputable is that the wines of the Aegean were highly prized for their distinct characters, and when the Greeks industrialized winegrowing in southern Italy, the Etruscans in Tuscany and the Romans followed suit.

In ancient Rome, the great writers, wrote instructions to winegrowers while others were much more calculating, discussing how much work a slave could do for how little food and sleep without losing condition. Roman wine was mass produced and business calculations were at the heart of it. It spread across the Empire, until Rome was eventually importing countless shiploads of amphorae from her colonies in Spain, North Africa and the Mediterranean.

Some Roman wines had extraordinary powers of keeping, suggesting that it was well made. It was frequently concentrated by heat, and even smoked to achieve what must have been a Madeira-like effect.

Pliny, whose ‘Natural History’ recommends that the boiling of wine to concentrate it be done in vessels made of lead in order to sweeten it. The resulting lead-oxide poisoning must have been excruciating, leading eventually to blindness, insanity and death. But many of the resulting symptoms and pains were never connected with their cause, many were merely put down to bad vintages.

The Greeks may have taken wine north into southern Gaul but it was the Romans who domesticated it. By the fifth century, when they withdrew from what is now France, they had laid the foundations for almost all of the most famous vineyards, Burgundy, Mosel, Bordeaux, Alsace, and Galicia in Spain of the modern world.

After the fall of Rome, wine continued to be produced in the Byzantine Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. It spread eastward to Central Asia along the Silk Route; grape wine was known in China by the eighth century.

(It’s a little known fact but the spread of Islam largely extinguished the wine industry in North Africa and the Middle East) Throughout Europe, wine-making was primarily the business of monasteries, because of the need for wine in the Christian sacraments. During this period stronger, more full-bodied wines replaced their sweeter ancient predecessors.

The journey from this point to the infamous cheese and wine party is a tortuous one but be that as it may, I shall endeavour to get there . . . next time!

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