The History of Wine

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Podcast Transcript

For thousands of years, wine has been one of the most important beverages in the world. 

It has been consumed by common folk and by emperors, and it can be made in a surprisingly wide variety of geographies. 

It can be made by backyard vintners as well as by megacorporations. 

It is so important that it plays a central role in some religions, yet it is completely banned by others. 

Learn more about the history of wine and winemaking and how it has changed over the centuries on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get into a discussion of wine and its history, it would probably be worthwhile to provide a brief definition of what exactly wine is. Today, wine is considered to be an alcoholic beverage created by the fermentation of the juice of grapes. 

Technically, you can make wine from the juice of any fruit. A simple search of the internet will come up with wines made from a wide variety of fruits, such as cherries, apples, watermelons, pears, plums, blackberries, blueberries, and many more.

However, historically and still today, the vast majority of wines come from grapes. The association with grapes and wine is so strong that absent some additional adjectives, it is assumed that anything called ‘wine’ comes from grape juice. 

For the rest of this episode, unless otherwise noted, when I talk about wine, you can assume that I am talking about wine made from grapes. 

The early evidence of something that you could broadly call wine comes from a place that isn’t usually associated with wine…China.

At the archeological site of Jiahu in central China, 9,000-year-old pottery shards have been discovered with traces of a rice/honey wine still on them. Hawthorn berries or a local wild grape may have been used in the creation of the wine. 

It isn’t known where winemaking was discovered, but in all probability, it was discovered accidentally in multiple places. Someone crushed some fruit, made some juice, and then it accidentally fermented. In this respect, the origins of wine are similar to the origins of cheese. 

Eventually, people figured out how to replicate the accident and then began to do it on purpose. 

The earliest evidence of intentional wine-making with grapes, something that most of us would recognize as wine, dates back 7400 years. It was found in Hajji Firuz Tepe, a Neolithic village in Iran’s northern Zagros Mountains. There, the bottoms of amphorae were found with sediments of tannin and tartrate crystals. That is something that is only found naturally in large amounts in grapes. 

The pottery shards also contained resin from the terebinth tree, which according to Pliny the Elder, was used as a preservative in wine, which indicates that the wine production here was intentional. 

Moving beyond trace molecules found on pottery shards, the first evidence of a dedicated wine-making facility was found in Armenia. Dating back about 6000 years, the Areni-1 cave complex shows evidence of crushing grapes and moving the liquid into storage containers. 

What isn’t known is exactly when grape domestication first took place. While we know people in this region were using grapes to make wine, we don’t know when they began cultivating grapes. Evidence of grapes in the form of grape seeds goes back at least 12,000 years, with seeds found in caves.

Regardless of where and when grape domestication took place, winemaking and grape cultivation spread rapidly throughout the near east and Eastern Mediterranean. 

By about 3,000 BC, winemaking was evident in Persia, Egypt, Greece, the Caucuses, and other places. The importance of wine in these cultures can be seen in the stories which developed around the discovery of wine. 

The Hebrew bible attributes the creation of wine to Noah after the great flood. The Greeks believed wine-making was taught to humans by the god Dionysus.  In Persia, the legend holds that one of the wives of a legendary king tried to kill herself by drinking the remains of spoiled grapes marked as poison. Instead of dying, she quite enjoyed it and shared her discovery with the king. 

The Phonecians traded in wine across their extensive trade network in the Mediterranean. The Greeks greatly advanced the science of winemaking, including developing methods of wine production and preservation.

The ancient culture which did the most to advance winemaking and wine growing was undoubtedly the Romans. Their empire encompassed all the area around the Mediterranean Sea, which is one of the best grape-growing regions in the world. 

They were able to export not just wine but wine-growing knowledge all over their empire.  They were also able to adopt best practices from all the people they conquered, including the Greeks, Phonecians, and Egyptians. 

Wine in Rome was central to their civilization. Wine was considered a democratic drink that was consumed by everyone, from slaves to emperors. The quality of the wine they drank may have been different, but everyone drank wine every day, save for young children.

The average amount of wine consumed was estimated to be about half a liter per person per day or about ? of a modern bottle of wine.

Roman consumption of wine was very different from how people drink wine today. In fact, even the most devoted wine enthusiasts would find Roman wine traditions to be very odd. 

For starters, they almost never drank straight, undiluted wine like you would today. They would drink their wine diluted with water, which lowered the alcohol content and also made the wine go further. Wine was usually diluted at a ratio of one to one. Sometimes seawater was used to give it a salty taste.

They also would often add flavoring to their wines in the form of herbs and spices. Lavender and thyme were popular additions to wine. Some wines were put inside smokehouses to give them a smoky flavor and to accelerate the aging process. 

Honey was also a popular additive to give wine a sweeter flavor. Amphorae were often lined with resins to give the wine a particular flavor. One variety of wine called Retsina was produced that way over 2000 years ago, and it is still produced today. 

The most prized wines in Rome were sweet white wines. A lower-quality of wine was called posca. Posca was a sour wine that hadn’t quite yet become vinegar. It was the wine that was served to Roman soldiers because of its low cost and low alcohol content. 

The lowest quality of wine was called lora. This was nothing more than water soaked in already pressed grape skins, then pressed again. Lora was reserved for slaves and the poorest of the poor.

When the Roman Empire eventually fell, wine production and wine consumption didn’t fall with it. 

The late Roman Empire saw the rise of Christianity. In Christianity, Jesus performed a miracle turning water into wine and drank wine with his apostles at the Last Supper. Wine was used in Christian religious ceremonies, which ensured that even in regions that didn’t grow wine, at least some wine was imported. 

The rise of Islam, and its prohibition on the consumption of alcohol, saw a decrease in wine cultivation in the Levant and other areas under Muslim control. However, it never entirely disappeared as many people continued to drink wine in private and limited production was allowed.

During the golden age of Islam from the 8th to the 13th century, scholars and alchemists did experiment with wine and wine distillation as both a medicine and for use in perfumes. 

In the Middle Ages, wine continued to be the primary beverage for people from all walks of life for people in Southern Europe. In Northern Europe, people tended to consume beer and ale. 

Grape varietals greatly expanded during this period allowing for the creation of different types of wine from different-tasting grapes. Many vineyards during this period were operated by monasteries that made both sacramental wine and wine for general consumption. 

The 15th century saw the first appellation system developed in Portugal. Appellation refers to the type of grapes and the region grapes are grown to define a type of wine. Appellation still exists today in the form of strict legal rules for what can be called certain types of wine, such as Bordeaux, a Resiling, or Champaign. 

The biggest thing to happen to wine In the 15th and 16th centuries was the attempt to bring viticulture and wine-making to lands outside of the old world. 

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they assumed that it would make for excellent wine growing. It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. In certain places, the climate was warm and not too dissimilar to what could be found around the Mediterranean. 

However, they were never able to make the same quality wines as they could in Europe. 

The problem with the quality of wines in places like Mexico and Colombia was that European grapes simply didn’t adapt well. There were diseases and pests that didn’t exist in Europe, plus the climate wasn’t exactly the same.

There were, however, some areas where European grapes did do well. In particular, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. These regions could produce enough wine that the Spanish colonists who lived there didn’t have to import wine from Spain.

Today, Peru isn’t known as a major wine producting region. Peruvian wine production began to decline after a major earthquake in 1687 destroyed much of the wine producing infrastructure. When the Jesuits were expelled in 1767, they were forced to sell their vineyards in Peru, and the expertise in wine growing went with them.

Grapevines were brought to South Africa with the founding of Cape Town in 1659. Wine quality in South Africa was considered to be much higher than those of the Americas for decades. By the late 18th century, wine from the Constantia region outside of Cape Town became a favorite of European royalty. 

Vine cuttings from South Africa were brought to Australia with the First Fleet that arrived in 1788. These first vines failed, but by 1820 a fledgling wine industry had developed in Australia. 

The first vineyard in New Zealand was established in 1836 by James Busby, who had also helped establish wine regions in Australia

Wine in the United States was considered a failed experiment for decades. Despite attempts by many people, no one was able to produce a quality wine. 

It wasn’t until the settlement of California in the 19th century that a region was found that was suitable for wine production. European grapes were able to grow there and produce wines that couldn’t be made elsewhere in the United States. 

The late 19th century saw a crisis in European wine production. The Phylloxera louse infected vineyards all over Europe. An almost microscopic insect that is native to Eastern North America. 

Phylloxera attacks the roots of grape vines, and European vines were particularly susceptible. For a while, it looked like the entire European wine industry would be destroyed. The eventual solution was to graft European vines onto the roots of native grape plants from the Americas.

A side effect of the phylloxera outbreak was the development of the modern wine industry in Europe. Some native varietals were lost, some vineyards were repurposed, and some wine regions such as Champagne and Bordeaux developed mixtures that define their wine regions today. 

A major development in wine production took place after the second world war. The fermentation process in wine requires yeast, and natural yeasts were always used. This resulted in very uneven quality. 

In the 1950s and 60s, starter yeasts began to be used in wine production around the world. This resulted in more consistent quality even at higher rates of production.  

Despite the phylloxera outbreak and the growth of wine-producing regions in the New World, it was generally considered that European wines, known as old-world wines, were superior. 

However, in 1976, at an event known as the Judgement of Paris, on which I’ve done a previous episode, a panel of wine experts gave California wines top prize in a blind tasting of both white and red wines. 

The Judgement of Paris opened the eyes of wine enthusiasts around the world to the quality, not only of wines from California but from other New World wine-growing countries as well. 

Today, wine is big business. The worldwide wine industry is estimated to be over $260 billion dollars annually. The largest wine-producing countries in the world are still areas where the Romans once grew wine, Italy, France, and Spain.  Following them are the New World wine-growing countries of the United States, Australia, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa. 

There are thousands of different wine varietals grown in the world today, the vast majority of which have very small plantings. Most wine produced and consumed in the world only represents one or two dozen different types of grapes. 

The top wine grape varietals in the world by acreage are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache, and Sauvignon Blanc. 

The future for wine doesn’t look that radically different from its past. It isn’t the sort of thing that changes very much or for which there is much demand for change. 

The biggest changes are in new wine-producing regions such as China, Turkey, and India, as well as developments in storage, such as the move to artificial corks, twist-off caps, and wine in a box….

Wine and the wine industry are one of the few things which have remained constant over the span of millennia. While the consumption and production of wine have changed, it remains an important part of the lives of millions of people. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today I have a special long-distance dedication. I was recently contacted on Twitter by Joanne from Singapore, who wrote:

Hi! My husband LOVES your podcast and makes all of us listen to it in the car. It’s definitely not easy to get an 8 and 12 year to be completely silent for 10 minutes, but sometimes he is successful! He also loves to test them afterward to see how much they have absorbed ?. 

Would love to get this read on your podcast to really surprise him!! He’s not an easy guy to impress 

Thanks, Joanne! I want to say a big thank you to you, your husband Anand, and your children for listening to the show. I’m glad to hear that you are all enjoying it.

Singapore is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I think it is arguably the best food city in Asia. Whether it’s laksa, chicken rice, or something from a neighborhood hawker stand, there is always something good to eat.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.