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The History of Wine

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  • Next Tuesday is Global Drink Wine Day, who knew? It is an unofficial holiday which is celebrated annually, mainly in the U.S and Australia, on February 18th. The purpose is to celebrate the joy and health benefits of wine. After all, wine is a beverage which has played an important role in human history for thousands of years. Besides, drinking it has also been shown to aid all kinds of different ailments – everything from liver disease to heart disease, if it’s consumed in moderation.

Andi Healey

Web Manager

The History of Wine

Wine making can be traced back over 9,000 years to about 7000 BC in China. This is when the Chinese began making an alcoholic beverage from wild mountain grapes. However, even archaeologists admit that this probably isn’t the earliest time that humans began making wine, but it almost certainly happened by accident. One of our more fortunate ancestors would have likely eaten a few overly ripe bunches of grapes and had a surprisingly good time as a result.

Around 880 BC, the Greeks began experimenting with wine manufacturing and, as a result, they began to perfect it. During this time, wine became not only a symbol of religion and trade but also one of good health. In fact, wine was so important to the Greeks, they had a god of wine, named Dionysus. As the Greeks began to colonize other areas around the Mediterranean, they took their wine with them and it was around this time they colonized the southern portion of Italy, thereby introducing wine to the region.

If the Greeks started the ball rolling, then the Romans really gave it a good kick down the road. The Romans, as you probably know, conquered most of what we now consider to be the Old World, in terms of wine production. As they marched and built civilisations around Europe, they brought their industries with them, including olive oil and wine. The great vineyards of Spain, France, Germany and Italy owe a lot of their history to the Romans and their love of wine. They were also amongst the first to look at wine as a quality product and wrote down many of their thoughts on the matter. Pliny the Elder is often referenced in wine books, and his works show that there was already an understanding of site selection, vessel types and even the introduction of appellation; Falernian was a much talked-about cru from Campagnia, responsible for long lived, powerful wines 2000 years ago!

In 380 A.D., the Roman Empire adopted Catholicism. During this period, wine would become an important part of the Catholic sacrament, so it was necessary to spread the cultivation of grapevines and the production of wine. Catholicism began to spread across Europe and as it did, wine went along for the ride.

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The Church and Wine – Medieval Europe

Wine in Medieval Europe was strongly defined by the church and in particular, it's thirstiest members; monks. Simply put, working as a monk in Medieval times left one with a little more time and space than your average labourer, and this time was mostly spent in service to God. However, gardening and crop production was a very important part of a monastery’s work and vines were an important crop indeed.

Between the various orders of monks, Riesling was planted in Germany, the vineyards of Burgundy were organised and eventually classified and Champagne moved from a still red wine to a sparkling white.

The impact the monks had on our understanding of viticulture can't be overstated. The evolution of wine as a product is largely a process of trial and error, even today, and the monks put in hundreds of years of groundwork, learning the differences in soils, aspects to the sun, grape varieties and so on. The fact that they were able to read and write also meant that this information was, for the first time, properly recorded and so passed on to future generations to improve upon.

By the late Middle Ages, wine was well established and could be found just about everywhere in Europe. Which is probably why it’s no surprise that it was introduced to Mexico and Brazil by the conquistadors during in the late 15th century. Wine began to spread all over the Americas during the 16th century as Spanish missionaries spread from Mexico to Chile to Argentina. While the French claimed Canada as their territory during this time, it wouldn’t be until the 17th century that they began establishing permanent colonies and vineyards there.

The French also imported grapevines into the state of Virginia, in the early American colonies but they didn’t take off quickly because of the region’s Puritanical roots. Despite this, however, wine making did eventually spread along the Eastern Seaboard of what would become the United States. Wine production in the US really didn’t take off, however, until Thomas Jefferson – the first Minister to France and future U.S. President – became enchanted with French wines and decided to take French grapevine cuttings to Virginia, with the aim of creating an American wine that would equal the quality of French wines. These humble beginnings would then lead to the establishment of the American wine industry.

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Phylloxera, World Wars and Upheaval – Modern History

The 19th and 20th centuries were periods of great change for the wine industry, particularly in Europe. Post-Industrial Revolution, we'd figured out how to do things on a larger scale and wine production really started to pick up.... only to be repeatedly knocked back by the whims of nature and mankind.

The 1860s saw Phylloxera annihilate much of Europe's vineyards, to the point where it was feared they may never recover! This insect, native to North America, feeds on the roots of vines and allows the plant to become infected; there is no cure once this has begun. Swathes of European vineyards were laid low and by the end, the vast majority had to be completely replanted from scratch. The solution was to graft European vine species onto American rootstocks, which had developed a natural resistance to the insect over thousands of years of cohabitation. Whilst this was arguably the wine industries biggest ever challenge, it also allowed for regions to completely reset themselves and choose the varieties they wanted to replant with. The vines chosen are largely the same varieties we now associate with classic regions!

By the early 20th century, we were back on track, only to find ourselves in the two greatest wars that mankind has ever inflicted on itself. The fields of France became a battleground for over a decade, churned up and sowed with destruction. Entire generations of young men were mown down, whilst countries struggled to recover for decades afterwards from the war effort. A dark period for us all, and the wine industry didn't escape this tumultuous period unscathed either.

A New Era – The Last 50 Years

By the 1960s, the world had started to emerge from the shadow of World War II. Industries were revitalised and we began our most exciting period of history yet. From a wine perspective, there were huge changes afoot. Ready access to modern wine-making equipment such as stainless steel tanks, meant that clean, fresh wines started to become the norm, as well as wines that didn't require customers to lay them down for several years before drinking. The old strangle-hold of classic regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne started to loosen as they were increasingly challenged by winemakers from across the world; looking at the UK wine market from the 1980’s (when I started drinking) to today, there is an unbelievable difference in the selection available!

Supermarkets started to stock wine and before you knew it, it was becoming a house-hold beverage across Europe, not just in wine producing regions. Wines from Australia and Argentina started to creep onto the world markets, the Judgement of Paris put California firmly on the map and New Zealand planted their first ever Sauvignon Blanc vines in the 1970s.... we all know how well that turned out!

Critics became relevant for the first time and Robert Parker, for better or worse, brought the wine industry into the mainstream with his 100pt system of scoring. Wine education started to flourish and the general quality level of wine rocketed upwards. If you started drinking wine in the 1980’s, you are allowed to feel a little smug!

Wine has never been in a more exciting, interesting place and today we're absolutely spoilt for choice when it comes to the selection available and the quality levels across the board. Fashions come and go, and the current trend is for refreshing wines, lighter in alcohol and fresher in fruit profile. From South America to France, from Australia to Spain, there's so much excellent wine out there today, it's hard to know where to start at times!

The Future – What Next?

The next 50 years are going to be pivotal for wine. With climate change already having an impact on some of the world’s most classic regions, some of the most venerable estates are introducing grape varieties more suited to the warmer temperatures. Can you imagine a Bordeaux without Merlot? Or Burgundy without Pinot Noir? It's hard to imagine, but it seems increasingly likely.

Change isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, and one of the beauties of wine is its diversity. Expect to see more and more people seeking out wine from the lesser known corners of the world, visiting and bringing it back with them! I also expect to see a dramatic rise in sustainable viticulture, which is a trend that's gained momentum over the last 10 years. Organic and Biodynamic estates are more popular than ever, and long may that continue!

Last but not least, don't forget that we're all a part of this incredible story. The wines we drink, the stories we tell and the memories we make together, that's what it's all about. Who knows what people will be writing about in a thousand years when they consider the history of wine, but we know that we'll be a part of it!

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