‘In vino veritas’ is a wise old saying used in many languages, meaning ‘in wine, truth’. Wine is a wonderful gift from nature, with human expertise. Consuming it moderately does make life richer.
Wine has been a part of our history for millennia, and organically part of our culture and cuisine.
Wine and altered consciousness have been considered mystical and religious since people began fermenting grapes. The Ancient Greeks worshipped Dionysos, the Romans had Bacchus and ritual wine consumption was part of the Jewish tradition, as in Jesus’ Last Supper, which is an integral part of the liturgy of the Christian Church.
Wine has had an important role throughout our history, but real wine production and consumption increased from the 15th century: let us now look back at its origins.
The earliest archaeological evidence of wine production is from Armenia (6,100 BC), Georgia (6,000 BC) and Iran (5,000 BC).
The word’s oldest known winery was discovered in the Areni-1 cave, Vayots Dror province, Armenia, and it dates to 4,100 BC. It contained a wine press, fermentation vats, jars and cups, and vitis vinifera seeds were also found.
In ancient times, the reputation of Armenian wine was very well known.
Domesticated grapes were prevalent in the Middle East – in Sumer and Egypt – from the beginning of the Bronze Age.
In antiquity, wine making and consumption began to have a greater role in major empires, like those of Ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, China, Greece and Rome.
In Egypt, grape cultivation was introduced from the Levant (historical geographical term for the Eastern Mediterranean) around 3,000 BC. A royal wine making industry developed in the Nile Delta. The flourishing wine making industry is shown on scenes found on tombs walls, depicting grape cultivation, wine making and commerce.
Wine in Ancient Egypt was definitely red, but some clay amphorae with traces of white wine were found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Ancient Phoenicia (modern-day Syria and Lebanon) had a significant impact on the history of wine. Thanks to its great geographical position, Phoenicians developed a maritime trading culture between 1,550 BC and 300 BC, expanding their influence from the Levant to North Africa, the Greek Isles, Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula.
Wine was considered a worthy offering to God or kings, which increased its trade value in the ancient world. By 1,000 BC, the Mediterranean wine trade significantly increased, and so did the Phoenicians’ extensive maritime trade network. They didn’t only trade with wine produced in Canaan, but also wine from their colonies – most significantly wine from Carthage (modern Tunisia) – and port cities around the Mediterranean Sea.
Through their trade and contacts they spread their knowledge of wine making, viticulture and several ancestral varieties of the Vitis vinifera species of wine grapes.
They contributed to the dissemination of wine knowledge to several regions that today have significant wine making industries, like Lebanon. Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, France and Portugal.
The Phoenicians and Carthaginians had a direct influence on the wine-growing making nations, as did the ancient Greeks and Romans who later spread viticulture across Europe.
One of the most important ancient texts on the history of wine, wine making and viticulture is attributed to Mago the Carthaginian writer.
The Phoenicians could plan vineyards according to favourable climate and topography and produce different wine styles, and they encouraged the use of amphorae for transporting and storing wine.
In Ancient Greece domestic cultivation had begun by the early Bonze Age (around 3,000 BC), but viticulture had existed even earlier, in the late Neolithic period.
Ancient Greece had a significant influence on the ancient European wine making cultures of the Celts, Etruscans, Scythians and Romans.
Ancient Greeks developed new methods of viticulture and wine production that they shared through trade and colonisation with early wine making cultures – these have since become big wine producing nations such as France and Italy.
The Greek city-states founded colonies throughout the Mediterranean and brought the grapevine with them. The earliest colonies were formed in the southern parts of the Italian peninsula and in Sicily, which was already rich with grapevines. Those colonies were followed by Massalia in southern France and the coast of the Black Sea where wine making developed significantly, promoting the Greeks’ wine trade in the process.
Some wine historians believe that the Greeks introduced viticulture to Spain and Portugal, but other theories suggest that the Phoenicians reached those parts earlier.
In Greece, wine had a huge importance from a trade point of view and for religious, social and medical purposes.
The cult of Dionysos was very active, and many festivals were held through the year in honour of the god of wine.
The medical use of wine was well developed in Ancient Greece. Hippocrates himself conducted research on the topic, and he used wine for treating various symptoms and conditions. Wine was prescribed by Greek doctors, and Greeks were also aware of its negative health effects, especially from over consumption.
Greeks were pioneers in wine production in many ways. They introduced larger wine production sites where they were able to produce more styles of wine at a time. Greeks used large clay jars to grow and produce wine, which made it less space consuming.
The wine was transported in amphorae stamped with the name of the producer, year and wine style. Greeks innovation also consisted of the usage of cork from the 5th century BC.
Wine trading developed significantly thanks to Greek traders.
The Roman Empire had a huge impact on viticulture and oenology, and it had a fundamental influence on the European wine making.
Since prehistoric times, wild grapevines have grown on the Italian peninsula. Ancient Greeks had influence through their settlements in southern Italy, but the earliest recorded evidence of the Greek influence is from 800 BC. The Etruscans also had a big impact on the peninsula’s wine making. Incidentally Etruria was situated around one of the most famous and most wonderful modern wine making regions, Tuscany.
Rome expanded from a settlement into a kingdom and subsequently into a republic and absorbed the knowledge, culture and techniques of wine making from the regions that it conquered and integrated into the Roman Empire. The Greek settlement of southern Italy was under Roman control by 270 BC, and Etruria was conquered by the 1st century BC; also the Punic Wars and the culture of Carthage had also a huge affect on Roman viticulture.
The rise of the Roman Empire promoted technological progress and developed the awareness of wine making, which spread throughout the empire. For this reason, the Roman Empire had a unique impact on the history of wine making, and on the major present-day wine making regions of France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Germany.
Wine was part of the Roman culture in every sense. We have many records, such as frescos about wine making, wine consumption or worshipping Bacchus. Many Roman writers, such as Cato, Columella, Horace, Martial, Varro and Virgil gave us the first real studies about wine culture and wine making.
Wine had social, religious and medical use in Roman times.
In the golden age of Rome, wine was more a part of everyday life than a luxury enjoyed only by the elite, as in Greek culture.
‘Industrial’ wine production began with the Romans, as they developed huge vineyards in the south part of the peninsula and in North Africa, Spain and France. This facilitated expansive wine production and sales to supply a large population, both rich or poor.
Romans used wine widely for medical purposes, but they believed that wine also had the power to heal and harm. Cato wrote profoundly about the medical use of wine, so we can have a greater picture about the contemporary thinking and practice.
The usage of wine for religious purposes had an extreme significance in Roman times. The cult of Bacchus was present in central and southern Italy, as was the cult of Dionysos in Greece. In 186 BC, however, it was banned by the Roman Senate.
From the 1st century AD, a Christian sect emerged, where wine had a special role as ritual wine consumption due to its role in the Eucharist, which commemorates Jesus’ Last Supper. The Christian Church emerged and had a bigger, dominant and importance influence in Rome, and also on the word of wine.
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, the old world fell into crisis, as did wine production and consumption, and this will be the topic of our next post…
Maria Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West
Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of wine
Rod Phillips, A short history of wine
Black Glazed Pottery Wine Jug, Greek, 4th Century BC, Flickr
Ancient Roman Amphorea, Herculaneum, Flickr, Photo: Jerzy Kociatkievicz