Our Guide to the History of Your Favorite Tippls, Wine
Origins of Wine
Wine was probably discovered by accident somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, the agriculturally generous expanse of river valleys extending from the Nile to the Persian Gulf. Although archaeologists have traced the origins of wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) back tens of thousands of years, the first evidence of wine having actually been made from grapes comes from a clay pot found in Persia (now Iran) dating from around 10,000 years BC.
Early civilisations in the region owed their existence to the rich soils, and it is here that the wine grape first thrived. Separate waves of the great, ancient, seafaring cultures of the ancient world – the Phoenicians, then the Greeks, then the Romans – took the vine and the secrets of winemaking on their travels along the shores of the Mediterranean and Europe.
The grapevine was introduced to southern Gaul (France) long before the Romans arrived. The Romans, however, taught their sophisticated cultivation methods to the native Gauls and introduced hardier varieties to the northern regions.
During the time of the Crusades, the European Christian soldiers brought back new strains of Vitis vinifera to Europe. During this period the two most important regions of France, Burgundy and Bordeaux, further developed their reputations for producing quality wines.
In 1152, Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine (whose lands included most of southwest France), and her dowry included the vineyard areas of Bordeaux and neighbouring Gascony. The light-red wine of these regions gained favour in England, where it became known as Claret, and by 1350 the port of Bordeaux was shipping out the equivalent of a million cases of wine per year.
17th and 18th Century
By the closing years of the 17th century, France was becoming recognised as being the greatest of the wine-producing nations. In 1663, Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary about tasting the wines of Ho Bryan (today’s Haut-Brion).
However, the French Revolution in 1789 had a negative impact on wine production in Burgundy. The vineyards there were seized from the Church and the noblemen, and were given instead to the people – few of whom were given enough acreage to produce their own wine.
19th Century: The Phylloxera Blight
At the end of the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson wrote enthusiastically of the quality of French wine in correspondence to friends and encouraged the planting of European wine grapes in the New World. These early attempts at wine cultivation in the American colonies were largely unsuccessful, and the transplanting back and forth of European and native American vines inadvertently brought a destructive vine louse to Europe. The result was the phylloxera blight of the late 1800s, which destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe. This disaster, however, was not without its benefits – the devastated vineyards inspired new cultivation techniques and a redistribution across Europe of wine-making expertise.
New World Wine
In 1819, missionaries were responsible for the first vines planted in New Zealand. The Australians were quicker off the mark – the first bunches of grapes were picked in the Governor’s garden in 1791, grown from vines transplanted from South Africa’s Cape three years earlier.
By then, the South Africans had had a head start of almost 150 years; the Cape Province’s first vineyard was planted in 1655 by its first governor, Jan van Riebeeck. Initially, the wines produced were of pretty low quality and were intended for domestic consumption. However, during the 20th century, improvements in transport techniques and a growing appetite for wine resulted in a growing demand for the wines of the New World, particularly in the UK.
In 1905, an effort was made to establish consistent standards for all of the important aspects of wine production, including grape varieties, region of origin, minimum alcohol content and maximum vineyard yields. France passed a series of laws, collectively known as the “appellation d’origine controlee” (AOC) laws, which guarded the famous place-names of France and guaranteed that wines bearing their names have met rigorous government standards.
In 1963, Italy followed suit with their own set of laws – “denominazione di origine controllata” (DOC) and “denominazione di origine controllata egarantita” (DOCG). With these laws, Europe set the standard for the entire wine world in legislating the integrity of wine.
While Old World producers made their blended wines and wines named after the areas were they were made (for instance, Chianti or Chablis), their New World competitors were making what are known as varietal wines, where the grape variety that goes into the wine took pride of place on the label. It became much easier for the average person to choose and buy wine – all you needed was to know that you rather liked the taste of a Shiraz or a Reisling.
Within the past ten years, we’ve seen our supermarket shelves become an atlas of the wine world. Wander down any wine merchant or supermarket aisle, and you’ll see wines from Italy, France, New Zealand, Australia, Portugal, Chile and the USA, stacked alongside bottles from more exotic origins, such as Greece, Canada, Uruguay and Morocco.