The oldest evidence of winemaking comes to us from the Caucasus region and the Middle East (where the present-day countries of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Iraq intersect).
(map of Caucasus and Near East)
Wild grapes grow in this region. Neolithic humans probably enjoyed eating the sweet fruit of these vines. Pottery containers appeared during the late Neolithic era, about 11,000 BC. The first wine probably fermented spontaneously when grapes were stored in a pottery vessel. The weight of the grapes broke some of the skins, juice collected at the bottom of the pot, and wild yeasts started to consume the sugars in the juice, creating a mildly alcoholic beverage. It did not take people long to figure out how to make this happy juice on purpose.
The oldest evidence of human winemaking comes to us from the country of Georgia and dates to about 6,000 BC. Eight thousand years later, Georgia has a healthy wine industry and claims to be “The Cradle of Wine.” In neighboring Armenia, archaeological evidence of a complete winery dates to 4,100 BC. This winery includes both a wine press and fermentation vats. The Greeks were producing wine by 4,500 BC. There is widespread evidence that the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations had domesticated grapes and created extensive winemaking industries by 3,000 BC.
“Egyptian winemaking about 1500 BC.”
The Canaanites developed a strong wine culture in what is present-day Lebanon. During the Iron Age, they were succeeded by the energetic Phoenicians. The Phoenicians founded Carthage, which spread the wine trade throughout the region. Ships laden with amphorae of wine would occasionally sink, later to be found by modern-day archaeologists. The Carthaginians probably brought wine grape cultivation to the western Mediterranean lands of Spain and France well before the Romans colonized these areas. Significant evidence exists for their influence on the Etruscans in Italy, also before the Roman heyday. Crete certainly felt their effect, as well as mainland Greece.
Greece in fact probably acquired winemaking from several sources and directions. By whatever means it arrived, it flourished. By the classical era, Greek wine would come to set the standard for the Mediterranean world. Greeks introduced viticulture (grape growing) and winemaking to colonies in areas as diverse as Italy, Sicily, France and Spain. The Greeks even had a god specifically for wine (and partying): Dionysus, called Bacchus by the Romans. When Rome supplanted Greece as the definitive Mediterranean civilization, it further developed both viticulture and winemaking. Under the Romans, most of the present-day wine producing regions of Western Europe were established.
“A Roman wine shop sign from Herculaneum.”
The accepted date for the “fall” of the Roman Empire is 476 AD. Although the so-called “Dark Ages” were to follow, European winemaking would flourish under the umbrella of the Catholic Church. The Church needed wine to celebrate mass. Monastic orders like the Benedictines and Cistercians expanded winemaking throughout France and Germany. Over the centuries, in many regions, monks carefully developed both viticulture and winemaking as a labor of love, keeping careful records of which plots of land, down to individual vineyard rows, produced the best grapes for the best wine. In the northern parts of France (like Burgundy) and in Germany, monks used meticulous care to produce quality wines in areas of marginal climate, creating the ancestors of today’s cool-climate wines. The monastic wine culture continued for at least a thousand years.
“A monk making sure the wine is just right.”
For several reasons, by the modern era, France came to lead the world of wine.
- One reason has to do with climate. France straddles the Mediterranean and continental climates of Europe, resulting in a great variety of wine types and concomitant expertise.
- France’s rivers supported an excellent wine transportation system, bridging the Mediterranean and Atlantic Europe and giving wine access to international markets.
- France’s rival and trading partner England also played a part in making France the leader. The marriage of England’s Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1158 brought vast areas of southwestern France, including Bordeaux, under English control, and gave the English a taste for French wine that persisted long beyond England’s loss of its French territories in the Hundred Year’s War (1337-1453). The light red Bordeaux wine that came to be called “Claret” became a part of British culture (and both red and white Burgundy would eventually follow).
- Champagne for one, would not exist without the British, whose glassmakers were the first to produce bottles that could withstand the pressure of all those bubbles. “It’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne,” Winston Churchill is reputed to have said.
- The French Revolution (1789-1799) saw great upheaval and the expropriation of monastic vineyards, but it also ushered in an age of standard setting, the metric system being a prime example. Although some of the first wine standards were put into place in Portugal, France was the first country to create a truly organized national wine place naming system, the controlled appellation system, which became the international model. French wine, and British enthusiasm for it, proved a powerful combination.
Let’s look for a moment at those wine grapes we consider “international” varieties (they grow all over the world and are made into wine all over the world). Among red grapes, these are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. These are all of French origin. The white grapes are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris (or Grigio), and Riesling. Riesling is German; the other three are French. Sometimes you see Chenin Blanc and Sémillon, both French, on the list.
Wine producers all over the world are planting Tempranillo and Garnacha (from Spain), Sangiovese and Barbera (from Italy), and even Assyrtiko from Greece, but the French grapes are still the biggies. It’s worth noting that Malbec, which thrives in Argentina, and Carménère, which is big in Chile, are both originally French. Ditto for Uruguay’s Tannat. Australia’s number one grape Shiraz is actually Syrah, originally French.
It is worth adding that British tastes and market also made the international market for fortified wines like Portugal’s Port and Madeira, Spain’s Sherry, and Sicily’s Marsala (which was actually invented by Englishman John Woodhouse in 1773).
The wine world will undoubtedly evolve and generate competition for the Cabernets and Chardonnays, the Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs, especially when you consider climate change and global warming. Even here, the Brits have a leg up—the warming climate is having the effect of transforming England into a country that not only buys wine, but that also produces it.