Tracing the Historic Wine Trail


The rich history of viticulture and vinification parallels the journey of prehistoric man to the ancient world to 21st century. No one knows who was the first brave soul to taste fermented grapes, but the historical, undocumented moment probably occurred wherever wild grapes grew. Our curious, very observant ancestors who counted the stars were obsessive observers of the natural world. Visualize early man picking a strange fruit from a vine and popping a grape tentatively in his mouth. Picture him relishing its fruity flavor. Then imagine how the pleasure doubled after he tasted a grape that ripened and fermented naturally, adding a frisson of alcoholic pleasure to his experience. A sip of an alcoholic libation must have been considered a gift from the gods. It became a challenge to reproduce the intoxicating sensation of fermented juice.

Evidence supports the early connection between man and wine. Archeologists prove wines fermented from grapes, rice, and figs were a regular feature in the life of Neolithic man. For centuries, stomping was probably the most efficient way to release juice from grapes. Storage of the fermented juice was next. Innovations in pottery containers used to store food and liquids went hand in hand with developments in bread, wine, and beer. The discovery of an Iranian drinking cup with traces of wine residue revised earlier estimates of the date of 5000 B.C.E. and possibly further back.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and Egyptian hieroglyphics that depict winemaking and drinking confirm wine’s important role in early civilizations. Greek frescoes and pottery decorations depict wine growing, harvests, and the role wine played in celebrations. Greek and Roman writers, including Homer and Virgil, described the pleasures of wine and winemaking techniques. One hundred and forty references to wine are found in the Old Testament and the Talmud. The book of Deuteronomy describes the arrival of Moses in the land of Canaan and how he sent twelve spies from Israel’s twelve tribes to explore the fertility of the region. All came back with discouraging reports except for Caleb and Joshua, who returned with a large cluster of grapes, figs, and pomegranates to prove the land’s fertility. The New Testament citesthe function of wine for religious practices and pleasure. Writers and philosophers throughout time have lauded wine’s healing powers

But it was the Romans who exerted the biggest influence on viticulture as they expanded their empire, planting grapes to satisfy the thirst of their legions. Perhaps wine was safer and more enjoyable to drink than local water. Roman conquerors accepted wine as payment for tribute and taxes, and their love affair with wine it ensured the development of grape production and winemaking across the empire. Wine was so revered by the Romans it had its own god—Bacchus. The actual taste of Roman wine will forever remain a mystery, but it may have been sweet and thick, reportedly diluted with water and flavored with lemon peels, fermented fish oil, or pepper.

Alcoholic beverages were prohibited when Islam rose to power in Europe and the Middle East. Viticulture declined, except where Moslems permitted Christians to make wine for religious purposes. As Christianity spread across Europe during the Dark and Middle Ages, monks at powerful Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries pushed the boundaries of viticulture to Northern Europe’s cooler regions.

Explorers had a hand in the spread of winemaking. Norsemen sailing west from Greenland in the eleventh century may have been the first to discover wild vines in Greenland and North America. During the Age of Exploration at the end of the fifteenth century, the crews on ships like the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria included a cooper who made barrels to hold provisions for the voyage. Water became undrinkable on long voyages, so barrels filled with wine or rum slaked a sailor’s thirst, a custom that continued well into the nineteenth century. Gold and the Fountain of Youth eluded avaricious explorers sailing along the eastern coast of North America, but a wealth of wild grapes was a serendipitous find. European settlers migrated across the United States with their rootstocks and winemaking skills, creating new varietals by crossing their European Vinifera Vines with native grapes.

Viticulture moved with immigration to new lands making a gradual shift from European wines to those produced in North and South America and South Africa. Competition provoked countries with long traditions of winemaking to develop new markets and state-of-the-art techniques. Vintners from the Old and New World wine regions continue to perfect their mastery over nature and to elevate winemaking by combining science, art, and a labor of love.

Nations with a limited heritage in viticulture, like India and China, are racing to be contenders in the wine market. Marco Polo took note of wine production in Cathay during his historical journey, so it’s not a surprise to find the Chinese with a a long tradition of turning rice and fruit into wine, engaged in wine production. By 1892, European grape varieties were introduced into China and a Westernstyle winery was built. A French friar in 1910 converted a church graveyard near Beijing into a wine cave and hired a French oenologist to produce both red and white wines. In recent years, joint-venture partnerships with foreign winemakers are helping the Chinese adopt Western viticultural and winemaking techniques. Entrepreneurial farmers with small plots of land around the Great Wall and elsewhere the country are experimenting with a host of imported grape varietals to see which are best suited for China’s immense range of terroirs. The wine trail continues to trace its way around the world.

1 Response to “Tracing the Historic Wine Trail”

  1. 1 Iris
    March 20, 2018 at 3:31 pm

    What a captivating history lesson! — as only a former history teacher turned wine writer could produce.

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