History Wine

The history of wine spans thousands of years and is closely intertwined with the history of agriculture, cuisine, civilization and humanity itself. Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest wine production came from sites in Armenia, Georgia, and Iran, dating from 8000 to 5000 BC.[1][2][3] The archaeological evidence becomes clearer and points to domestication of grapevine in Early Bronze Age sites of the Near East, Sumer and Egypt from around the third millennium BC.[4]

Evidence of the earliest European wine production has been uncovered at archaeological sites in Macedonia, dated to 6,500 years ago.[5][6] These same sites also contain remnants of the world's earliest evidence of crushed grapes.[5] In Egypt, wine became a part of recorded history, playing an important role in ancient ceremonial life. Traces of wild wine dating from the second and first millennium BC have also been found in China.[7]

Wine, tied in myth to Dionysus/Bacchus, was common in ancient Greece and Rome,[8] and many of the major wine-producing regions of Western Europe today were established with Phoenician and later Roman plantations.[9] Wine-making technology, such as the wine press, improved considerably during the time of the Roman Empire; many grape varieties and cultivation techniques were known and barrels were developed for storing and shipping wine.[9]

In medieval Europe, following the decline of Rome and its industrial-scale wine production for export, the Christian Church became a staunch supporter of the wine necessary for celebration of the Catholic Mass. Whereas wine was forbidden in medieval Islamic cultures, its use in Christian libation was widely tolerated and Geber and other Muslim chemists pioneered its distillation for Islamic medicinal and industrial purposes such as perfume.[10] Wine production gradually increased and its consumption became popularized from the 15th century onwards, surviving the devastating Phylloxera louse of the 1870s and eventually establishing growing regions throughout the world. 

Early history

Through an extensive gene-mapping project in 2006, Dr. McGovern and his colleagues analyzed the heritage of more than 110 modern grape cultivars, and narrowed their origin to a region in Georgia[11]. Additionally, tartaric acid has been identified in ancient pottery jars by Patrick McGovern's team at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Records include ceramic jars from Neolithic sites at Shulaveri in present-day Georgia, (about 8000 BC),[1] Hajji Firuz Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of present-day Iran (5400–5000 BC),[2][12] and from Late Uruk (3500–3100 BC) occupation at the site of Uruk, in MesopotamiaUniversity Museum"The Origins and Ancient History of Wine". The identifications are based on the identification of tartaric acid and tartrate salts using a form of infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR). These identifications are regarded with caution by some biochemists because of the risk of false positives, particularly where complex mixtures of organic materials, and degradation products, may be present. The identifications have not yet been replicated in other laboratories.

Little is actually known of the early history of wine. It is plausible that early foragers and farmers made alcoholic beverages from wild fruits, including wild grapes of the species Vitis silvestris, ancestor to modern wine grapes. This would have become easier following the development of pottery vessels in the later Neolithic of the Near East, about 9,000 years ago. However, wild grapes are small and sour, and relatively rare at archaeological sites. It is unlikely they could have been the basis of a wine industry.

In his book Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), McGovern argues that the domestication of the Eurasian wine grape and winemaking could have originated on the territory of modern day Armenia and Georgia, and spread south from there.[13]

The oldest known winery is located in the "Areni-1" cave in the Vayots Dzor Province of Armenia. Archaeologists announced the discovery of this winery in January 2011, seven months after the world's oldest leather shoe, the Areni-1 shoe, was discovered in the same cave. The winery, which is over six thousand years old, contains a wine press, fermentation vats, jars, and cups. Archaeologists also found grape seeds and vines of the species Vitis vinifera. Patrick McGovern commenting on the importance of the find, said, "The fact that winemaking was already so well developed in 4000 BC suggests that the technology probably goes back much earlier."[3][14]

Domesticated grapes were abundant in the Near East from the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, starting in 3200 BC. There is also increasingly abundant evidence for winemaking in Sumer and Egypt in the third millennium BC. The ancient Chinese made wine from native wild "mountain grapes" like Vitis thunbergii[15] for a time, until they imported domesticated grape seeds from Central Asia in the 2nd century. Grapes were also an important food. There is slender evidence for earlier domestication of the grape, in the form of pips from Chalcolithic Tell Shuna in Jordan, but this evidence remains unpublished.

Exactly where wine was first made is still unclear. It could have been anywhere in the vast region, stretching from North Africa to Central/South Asia, where wild grapes grow. However, the first large-scale production of wine must have been in the region where grapes were first domesticated, Southern Caucasus and the Near East. Wild grapes grow in Georgia, northern Levant, coastal and southeastern Turkey, northern Iran or Armenia. None of these areas can, as yet, be definitively singled out.

Legends of discovery

There are many apocryphal tales about the origins of wine. Biblical accounts tell of Noah and his sons producing wine at the base of Mount Ararat. One tale involves the legendary Persian king, Jamshid and his harem. According to the legend, the king banished one of his harem ladies from his kingdom, causing her to become despondent and wishing to commit suicide. Going to the king's warehouse, the girl sought out a jar marked "poison" which contained the remnants of grapes that had spoiled and were deemed undrinkable. Unbeknown to her, the "spoilage" was actually the result of fermentation caused by the breakdown of the grapes by yeast into alcohol. After drinking the so-called poison, the harem girl discovered its effects to be pleasant and her spirits were lifted. She took her discovery to the King who became so enamored with this new "wine" beverage that he not only accepted the girl back into his harem but also decreed that all grapes grown in Persepolis would be devoted to winemaking. While most wine historians view this story as pure legend, there is archaeological evidence that wine was known and extensively traded by the early Persian kings.[16]


The Phoenicians were the recipients of winemaking knowledge from eastern areas and, in turn, through their extensive trade network were essential in distributing wine, wine grapes and wine-making technology throughout the Mediterranean. The Phoenician use of amphora for transporting wine was widely adopted and Phoenician-distibuted grape varieties were important in the development of the wine industries of Rome and Greece.

Ancient Greece

Much modern wine culture derives from the practices of the ancient Greeks. While the exact arrival of wine in Greek territory is unknown, it was certainly known to both the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures.[8] Many of the grapes grown in modern Greece are grown there exclusively and are similar or identical to varieties grown in ancient times. Indeed, the most popular modern Greek variety, retsina, a strongly aromatic white wine, is believed to be a carryover from when wine jugs were lined with tree resin, which imparted a distinct flavor to the wine.

Evidence from archaeological sites in Greece, in the form of 6,500 year-old grape remnants, represents the earliest known appearance of wine production in Europe.[5] The "feast of the wine" (me-tu-wo ne-wo) was a festival in Mycenaean Greece celebrating the "month of the new wine".[17][18][19] Several ancient sources, such as the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, describe the ancient Greek method of using partly dehydrated gypsum before fermentation, and some type of lime after fermentation, to reduce acidity. The Greek writer Theophrastus provides the oldest known description of this aspect of Greek wine making.[20][21]

Dionysus, the Greek god of revelry and wine and frequently referred to in the works of Homer and Aesop, was sometimes given the epithet Acratophorus, by which he was designated as the giver of unmixed wine.[22][23] Dionysus was also known as Bacchus[24] and the frenzy he induces, bakcheia. In Homeric mythology wine is usually served in "mixing bowls" it was not traditionally consumed in an undiluted state and was referred to as "Juice of the Gods". Homer frequently refers to the "wine-dark sea" under the intensely blue Greek sky, the Aegean sea as seen from aboard a boat can appear a deep purple.

The earliest reference to a named wine is by the lyrical poet Alkman (7th century BC), who praises "Dénthis", a wine from the western foothills of Mount Taygetus in Messenia, as "anthosmías" ("smelling of flowers"). Aristotle mentions Lemnian wine, which is probably the same as the modern-day Lemnió varietal, a red wine with a bouquet of oregano and thyme. If so, this makes Lemnió the oldest known varietal still in cultivation.

Greek wine was widely known and exported throughout the Mediterranean basin, as amphorae with Greek styling and art have been found throughout the area, and the Greeks had possible involvement in the first appearance of wine in ancient Egypt.[25] The Greeks introduced the Vitis vinifera vine[26] and made wine in their numerous colonies in modern-day Italy,[27] Sicily,[28] southern France[29] and Spain.[26]

Ancient Egypt

In Egypt, wine played an important role in ancient ceremonial life. A thriving royal winemaking industry was established in the Nile Delta following the introduction of grape cultivation from the Levant to Egypt c. 3000 BC. The industry was most likely the result of trade between Egypt and Canaan during the Early Bronze Age, commencing from at least the Third Dynasty (2650-2575 BC), the beginning of the Old Kingdom period (2650-2152 BC). Winemaking scenes on tomb walls, and the offering lists that accompanied them, included wine that was definitely produced at the deltaic vineyards. By the end of the Old Kingdom, five wines, all probably produced in the Delta, constitute a canonical set of provisions, or fixed "menu," for the afterlife.

Wine in ancient Egypt was predominantly red. A recent discovery, however, has revealed the first ever evidence of white wine in ancient Egypt. Residue from five clay amphorae from Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb yielded traces of white wine.[30] Finds in nearby containers led the same study to establish that Shedeh, the most precious drink in ancient Egypt, was made from red grapes, not pomegranates as previously thought.[31]

As with Egypt's lower classes, much of the ancient Middle East preferred beer as a daily drink rather than wine, a taste likely inherited from the Sumerians. However, wine was well-known, especially near the Mediterranean coast, and figures prominently in the ritual life of the Jewish people going back to the earliest known records of the faith; the Tanakh mentions it prominently in many locations as both a boon and a curse, and wine drunkenness serves as a major theme in a number of Bible stories.

Much superstition surrounded wine-drinking in early Egyptian times, largely due to its resemblance to blood. In Plutarch's Moralia he mentions that, prior to the reign of Psammetichus, the ancient Kings did not drink wine, "nor use it in libation as something dear to the gods, thinking it to be the blood of those who had once battled against the gods and from whom, when they had fallen and had become commingled with the earth, they believed vines to have sprung." This was considered to be the reason why drunkenness "drives men out of their senses and crazes them, inasmuch as they are then filled with the blood of their forbears."[32]

Roman Empire

The Roman Empire had an immense impact on the development of viticulture and oenology. Wine was an integral part of the Roman diet and wine making became a precise business. Vitruvius' De architectura (I.4.2) noted how wine storage rooms were built facing north, "since that quarter is never subject to change but is always constant and unshifting."

As the Roman Empire expanded, wine production in the provinces grew to the point where the provinces were competing with Roman wines. Virtually all of the major wine producing regions of Western Europe today were established by the Romans.

Wine making technology improved considerably during the time of the Roman Empire. Many grape varieties and cultivation techniques were developed and barrels, invented by the Gauls, and later glass bottles, invented by the Syrians, began to compete with terracotta amphorae for storing and shipping wine. Following the Greek invention of the screw, wine presses became common on Roman villas. The Romans also created a precursor to appellation systems, as certain regions gained reputations for their fine wines.

Wine, perhaps mixed with herbs and minerals, was assumed to serve medicinal purposes. During Roman times the upper classes might dissolve pearls in wine for better health. Cleopatra created her own legend by promising Mark Antony she would "drink the value of a province" in one cup of wine, after which she drank an expensive pearl with a cup of wine.[21] When the Western Roman Empire fell around 500 AD, Europe went into a period of invasions and social turmoil, with the Roman Catholic Church as the only stable social structure. Through the Church, grape growing and wine-making technology, essential for the Mass, were preserved.[33]

Ancient China

Following the Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220) emissary Zhang Qian's exploration of the Western Regions in the 2nd century BC and contact with Hellenistic kingdoms such as Fergana, Bactria, and the Indo-Greek Kingdom, high quality grapes (i.e. vitis vinifera) were introduced into China and Chinese grape wine (called putao jiu in Chinese) was first produced.[1][34][35] Before the travels of Zhang Qian in the 2nd century BC, wild mountain grapes were used to make wine, notably Vitis thunbergii and Vitis filifolia described in the Classical Pharmacopoeia of the Heavenly Husbandman.[35] Rice wine remained the most common wine in China, since grape wine was still considered exotic and reserved largely for the emperor's table during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), and was not popularly consumed by the literati gentry class until the Song Dynasty (960–1279).[34] The fact that rice wine was more common than grape wine was noted even by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo when he ventured to China in the 1280s.[34] As noted by Shen Kuo (1031–1095) in his Dream Pool Essays, an old phrase in China amongst the gentry class was having the company of "drinking guests" (jiuke), which was a figure of speech for drinking wine, playing the Chinese zither, playing Chinese chess, Zen Buddhist meditation, ink (calligraphy and painting), tea drinking, alchemy, chanting poetry, and conversation.[36]

Medieval Middle East

In the Arabian peninsula before the advent of Islam wine was traded by Aramaic merchants, as the environment was not well-suited to the growing of vines. Many other types of fermented drinks were produced in the 5th and 6th centuries, including date and honey wines.

The Muslim conquests in the 7th and 8th centuries brought many territories under Muslim control. Alcoholic drinks were prohibited in law, but the production of alcohol, in particular wine, seems to have thrived. Wine was a subject of poetry for many poets even under the Islamic rule. Even many Khalifas used to drink alcoholic beverages during their social and private meetings. Egyptian Jews leased vineyards from the Fatimid and Mamluk governments, produced wine for sacramental and medicinal use, and traded wine throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Christian monasteries in the Levant and Iraq often cultivated grape vines; they then distributed their vintages in taverns located on monastery grounds. Zoroastrians in Persia and Central Asia also engaged in the production of wine. Though not much is known about their wine trade, they did become known for their taverns.

Wine in general found an industrial use in the medieval Middle East as feedstock after advances in distillation by Muslim alchemists allowed for the production of relatively pure ethanol, which was used the perfume industry. Wine was also for the first time distilled into brandy in this time and period.

Medieval Europe

In the Middle Ages, wine was the common drink of all social classes in the south, where grapes were cultivated. In the north and east, where few if any grapes were grown, beer and ale were the common drink of both commoners and nobility. Wine was imported to the northern regions, but was expensive, and thus seldom consumed by the lower classes. Wine was necessary for the celebration of the Catholic Mass, and so assuring a supply was crucial. The Benedictine monks became one of the largest producers of wine in France and Germany, followed closely by the Cistercians. Other orders, such as the Carthusians, the Templars, and the Carmelites, are also notable both historically and in modern times as wine producers. The Benedictines owned vineyards in Champagne (Dom Perignon was a Benedictine monk), Burgundy, and Bordeaux in France and in the Rheingau and Franconia in Germany. In 1435 Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen, a very rich member of the Holy Roman high nobility near Frankfurt, was the first to plant Riesling, the most important grape of Germany. Nearby the winemaking monks made it into an industry, producing enough wine to ship it all over Europe for secular use. In Portugal, a country with one of the oldest wine traditions, the first appellation system in the world was created.

A housewife of the merchant class or a servant in a noble household would have served wine at every meal, and had a selection of reds and whites alike. Home recipes for meads from this period are still in existence, along with recipes for spicing and masking flavors in wines, including the simple act of adding a small amount of honey to the wine. As wines were kept in barrels, they were not extensively aged, and therefore were drunk quite young. To offset the effects of heavy consumption of alcohol, wine was frequently watered down at a ratio of four or five parts water to one of wine.

One medieval application of wine was the use of snake-stones (banded agate resembling the figural rings on a snake) dissolved in wine against snake bites, which shows an early understanding of the effects of alcohol on the central nervous system in such situations.[21]

Jofroi of Waterford, a 13th-century Dominican, wrote a catalogue of all the known wines and ales of Europe, describing them with great relish, and recommending them to academics and counsellors.

Developments in Europe

In the late 19th century the Phylloxera louse brought devastation to vines and wine production in Europe. It brought catastrophe for all those whose lives depended on wine. The repercussions were widespread, including the loss of many indigenous varieties. On the positive side, it led to the transformation of Europe's vineyards. Only the fittest survived. Bad vineyards were uprooted and better uses were found for the land. Some of France's best butter and cheese, for example, is now made from cows that graze on Charentais soil which was previously covered with vines. "Cuvees" were also standardised. This was particularly important in creating certain wines as we now know them today Champagne and Bordeaux finally achieved the grape mix which defines them today. In the Balkans, where phylloxera did not hit, the local varieties survived but, along with Ottoman occupation, the transformation of vineyards has been slow. It is only now that local varieties are getting to be known beyond the "mass" wines like Retsina.

The Americas

Grapes and wheat were first brought to what is now Latin America by the first Spanish conquistadores to provide the necessities of the Catholic Holy Eucharist. Planted at Spanish missions, one variety came to be known as the Mission grapes and is still planted today in small amounts. Succeeding waves of immigrants imported French, Italian and German grapes, although wine from grapes native to the Americas is also produced (though the flavors can be very different).

During the phylloxera blight in the late 1800s, it was found that native American grapes were immune to the pest. French-American hybrid grapes were developed and saw some use in Europe. More important was the practice of using American grape rootstocks grafted to European grape vines to protect from the insect. This practice continues to this day wherever phylloxera is present.

Wine in the Americas is often associated with Argentina, California and Chile, all of which produce a wide variety of wines from inexpensive jug wines to high-quality varieties and proprietary blends. While most of the wine production in the Americas is based on Old World varieties, the wine growing regions of the Americas often have "adopted" grapes that are particularly closely identified with them, such as California's Zinfandel (from Croatia), Argentina's Malbec, and Chile's Carmenère (both from France).

Until the latter half of the 20th century, American wine was generally looked upon as inferior to European product; it was not until the surprising American showing at the Paris Wine tasting of 1976 that New World wine began to gain respect in the lands of wine's origins.

Australia, New Zealand and South Africa

For wine purposes, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other countries without a wine tradition are also considered New World. Wine production began in the Cape Province of southern Africa in the 1680s as a business for supplying ships. Australia's First Fleet (1788) brought cuttings of vines from South Africa, although initial plantings failed and the first vineyards were established in the early 1800s. Until quite late in the 20th century, the product of these countries was not well known outside their small export markets (Australia exported largely to the United Kingdom, New Zealand kept most of its wine internally, South Africa was closed off to much of the world market because of apartheid). However, with the increase in mechanization and scientific winemaking, these countries became known for high quality wine. A notable exception to the above statement is the fact that in the 18th Century the largest exporter of wine to Europe was the Cape Province of what is today South Africa.

  1. David Keys (28 December 2003). "Now that's what you call a real vintage: professor unearths 8,000-year-old wine"The Independent (independent.co.uk). http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/now-thats-what-you-call-a-real-vintage-professor-unearths-8000yearold-wine-577863.html. Retrieved 13 January 2011.
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  3. "'Oldest known wine-making facility' found in Armenia"BBC News (BBC). 11 January 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12158341. Retrieved 13 January 2011.
  4. Verango, Dan (2006-05-29). "White wine turns up in King Tutankhamen's tomb"USA Todayhttp://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/columnist/vergano/2006-05-29-tut-white-wine_x.htm. Retrieved 2007-09-06.
  5. Ancient Mashed Grapes Found in Greece Discovery News.
  6. Mashed grapes find re-write history of wine Zeenews
  7. Wine Production in China 3000 years ago.
  8. The history of wine in ancient Greece at greekwinemakers.com
  9. R. Phillips A Short History of Wine p. 37 Harper Collins 2000 
  10. Ahmad Y HassanAlcohol and the Distillation of Wine in Arabic Sources
  11. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/now-thats-what-you-call-a-real-vintage-professor-unearths-8000yearold-wine-577863.html
  12. Depiction of Wine in Persian Miniature (MS Word document)
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  16. T. Pellechia Wine: The 8,000-Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade pg XI-XII Running Press, London 2006 
  17. Mycenaean and Late Cycladic Religion and Religious Architecture, Dartmouth College
  18. T.G. Palaima, The Last days of Pylos Polity
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  20. Caley, Earle (1956). Theophrastis On Stone. Ohio State University. Online version: Gypsum/lime in wine
  21. Wine Drinking and Making in Antiquity: Historical References on the Role of Gemstones Many classic scientists such as Al BiruniTheophrastusGeorg AgricolaAlbertus Magnus as well as newer authors such as George Frederick Kunz describe the many talismanic, medicinal uses of minerals and wine combined.
  22. Pausanias, viii. 39. § 4
  23. Schmitz, Leonhard (1867). "Acratophorus". In Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology1. Boston, MA. pp. 14. http://www.ancientlibrary.com/smith-bio/0023.html
  24. In Greek "both votary and god are called Bacchus." (Burkert, Greek Religion 1985)
  25. year old Mashed grapes found World's earliest evidence of crushed grapes
  26. Introduction to Wine Laboratory Practices and Procedures, Jean L. Jacobson, Springer, p.84
  27. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, Brian Murray Fagan, 1996 Oxford Univ Pr, p.757
  28. Wine: A Scientific Exploration, Merton Sandler, Roger Pinder, CRC Press, p.66
  29. Medieval France: an encyclopedia, William Westcott Kibler, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, p.964
  30. White wine turns up in King Tutankhamen's tombUSA Today, 29 May 2006.
  31. Maria Rosa Guasch-Jané, Cristina Andrés-Lacueva, Olga Jáuregui and Rosa M. Lamuela-Raventós, The origin of the ancient Egyptian drink Shedeh revealed using LC/MS/MS, Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol 33, Iss 1, Jan. 2006, pp. 98–101.
  32. "Isis & Osiris". University of Chicago. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Isis_and_Osiris*/A.html.
  33. History of Wine
  34. Gernet, Jacques (1962). Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276. Translated by H. M. Wright. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Page 134-135.
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  36. Lian, Xianda. "The Old Drunkard Who Finds Joy in His Own Joy-Elitist Ideas in Ouyang Xiu's Informal Writings," Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) (Volume 23, 2001): 1-29. Page 20