It’s harvest time and the Hands on Harvest is coming up on 22 and 23 February. We have been thinking about just how much wine has changed over the centuries.
Wine has been around for a phenomenally long time. At some point, we can’t be sure exactly when, people discovered that if you collected and crushed grapes together to get the juice and left it for a while, something pretty interesting happened. And it wasn’t just in Europe. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of wine in China going back to at least 4,600 years and it’s even part of recorded history in ancient Egypt where wine was ceremonially important. The first evidence we have of wine dates back to around 7,000 BC in modern day Georgia (the country in the Caucasus not the American state!) where vitus vinifera grew wild.
It seems that initially wine was exclusively for the upper echelons but we can raise a glass to the Greeks for democratizing wine and for organizing the planting and cultivation of vines for wine, not all that dissimilar to the way things are done now. They stored wine in ceramic containers (amphora) which they sealed with wax, a clever innovation allowing them to drink wine year round. The Romans followed the Greek example and improved wine making techniques, planting vines wherever they conquered and settled – even in chilly Northern England! But, as we know, vines are best suited to a Mediterranean climate so it’s no surprise that the cultures surrounding the Med embraced wine as part of everyday life. It’s even deeply embedded in the two major monotheistic faiths of the region: Judaism and Christianity. And Mohammed promised wine to the Muslim faithful in the afterlife …but not this one!
Following the decline of the Roman Empire it was left to enthusiastic Christian monks to become Europe’s chief wine makers. Their experimentation with different varieties and wine making techniques led to innovations which are still used today. Regular consumption of wine outside Mass really took off in Europe from the 15th Century but was temporarily knocked back by phylloxera, which transformed the face of wine.
The microbiologist Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization in 1862 as a method of treating milk and wine to prevent sickness. Before his pioneering work, making wine was something passed from father to son in the tradition of apprentices. The methodology, devised over the years through a lot of trial and error, ‘worked’ but nobody quite knew why. Pasteur’s discovery and the science of viniculture introduced things we now take for granted, like cleanliness.
Gradually wooden barrels replaced terracotta jugs for storing and transporting wine. Glass bottles and corks were introduced in the 17th century but wine still tended to be moved in casks either by ship or overland. Wine merchants could then sell wine to the public either by filling up the customer’s own jug or in a bottle. But there was widespread ‘fudging’, not dissimilar to the modern day scandals; inferior wine could easily be relabelled as fine wine, fine wine could be watered down to stretch it or wine from hotter areas (sometime even non wine ingredients) could be blended in to give pale wine some extra colour. Baron Phillipe de Rothschild is credited with coming up with the idea of bottling wine on site, as late as 1924, to ensure quality control which turned out to be quite a lucrative initiative for him!
Rising world affluence in the latter part of the last century allowed people to indulge their taste for wine on a more regular basis and to increased demand. Temperature controlled transportation and innovative shipping methods now mean that wine lovers can enjoy wine from all over the world (we have previously written about Old World and New World wine growing areas).
What’s certain is that our appetite for wine has grown exponentially since it was first discovered. There are many challenges, and of course opportunities, to the modern wine industry. It remains to be seen if the plethora of small producers can continue to survive against a few international giants and the increasing trend of buying wine from a supermarket, or if variety and quality will ultimately wine the day.
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