History of Wine: The Modern Era

Santa Maria Novella

In European history, the modern era starts with the Renaissance or the discovery of the New World in 1492.

Despite the crisis in the Late Middle Ages, the 14th century saw great progress in art and science.

This is one of the most exciting and rich periods in history, full of new inventions, discoveries and full of great minds, great artists and brilliant polyhistors. It represents one of the most effervescent periods in human history in terms of culture, art and science.

The cultural, intellectual and art ‘reformation’ in the period that became known as the era of Humanism and Renaissance began in the affluent cities of Northern Italy in the 14th century. The word ‘Humanism’ derives from the Latin word ‘humanus’, meaning ‘human’, and means a new philosophy and way of thinking in which the human, the individual, is in the centre. ‘Renaissance’ is the French variant of the Italian word ‘Rinascimento’, meaning rebirth and signifies the renewed interest in Classical culture and a new approach to the individual in arts.

The Renaissance emerged in those parts of Europe that were most developed in terms of trade, industry and economy, with strong bourgeoisie and rich in Classical records. From this intellectual bourgeoisie class or through their financial support emerged a class that created new, enduring values for European culture.

From the 15th century, the new philosophy spread to other countries and courts throughout Europe.

This is the era of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and many other great minds.

Renaissance people looked at a person as an individual, as the centre of the universe, and emerged from the severely directed rules of the Middle Ages by developing a different relationship with God and discovering the values and joys of life.

And it is during the Renaissance when wine finally retook its rightful place in culture and everyday life. Wine and beer were part of the Renaissance man’s diet. In general, the upper class consumed wine while the lower class drank beer. Wine consumption increased compared to the Middle Ages, with daily consumption averaging between a half and 2 litres per person in the 15th century.

Usually, freshly made wine was consumed, as wine did not age well in wooden barrels, often turning into vinegar. This was shown in the prices, as new wine was around eight times more expensive than old wine.

Wine production developed significantly due to the developed skills of Renaissance farmers, economic growth, more profitable trade and the appetite for luxury goods.

Wine, as a part of life, also entered into the arts. Renaissance art reflected contemporary wine culture from representations in the Bible and classical mythology to everyday life. In Catholic countries, the main wine related themes were the Last Supper, the Marriage at Cana or the Drunkenness of Noah.

Marriage at cana Veronese

Towards the end of the Renaissance, a new European historical period – the Era of Discovery – began with Portuguese and Spanish discoveries.

The growth of the Ottoman Empire cut off trading routes to the east, so Western Europe was forced to find solutions and introduce new trading opportunities. In 1492, in the year when Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent), one of the most powerful and enthusiastic patrons of the Renaissance died, another Italian, Christopher Columbus, discovered a new world, America, and claimed it for the Spanish crown. In 1498, Vasco da Gama circumnavigated Africa and sailed onwards to India. With the Age of Discovery, a new chapter began in human history.

And so opened a new era in the world of wine also.

Despite many wars, Europe kept exploring and conquering huge parts of Africa, Asia and America. These were followed by exploration of Oceania by France, England and the Netherlands, reaching Australia in 1606 and New Zealand in 1642.


 Despite the fact that ‘vitis genus’ species existed in Venezuela, Colombia, Central America and Mexico, the indigenous peoples of the Americas did not ferment these species and so did not make wine.

The Spanish conquistadors brought the Old World’s food and plants for self consumption, so they brought wine, but transportation of it was difficult.

As the wine supply for the Eucharist was crucial, they needed to find a solution to establish wine production in the New World.

The first attempt to grow grapes was in Hispaniola (modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti) during the second voyage of Columbus in 1494.

The first successfully established vineyards by the Spanish conquistadors in America were on territory that is now Mexico. The following waves of immigrants also imported French, Italian and German grapes.

By the 16th century, Mexico had become one of the most important wine producers, and this even started to effect Spanish commercial production.

By the second half of the 16th century, Peru, Chile and Argentina seemed to be more successful as Spanish settlers established more and more vineyards.

South American wine making became so successful than the Spanish Crown banned the further establishment of vineyards in 1595, but this order was ignored. The reason for the ban was to protect Spanish wine from mainly strong Peruvian competition.

Unfortunately, the Peruvian ‘wine-boom’ ceased following a huge earthquake in 1687. Within 100 years, Peru was even forced to import wine from Chile to ensure the supply, which highlighted the emergence of Chile as a significant wine making region.

By the 20th century, the dominant wine producer countries in America were Argentina, Chile and the United States, with Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Bolivia and Mexico lagging behind.

South Africa

In the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company established a supply station in the territory that is now Cape Town. Dutch surgeon Jan van Riebeeck managed the station and planted vineyards to produce wines and grapes with the primary aim of preventing scurvy among sailors during the long voyage.

The next governor, Van der Stel, continued the work, even improving the quality of viticulture in the region. In 1685, Van der Stel purchased 750 hectares of land outside Cape Town and established the Constantia wine estate.

But the South African wine industry didn’t experience ongoing development during the centuries, and it had many ups and downs.

Up to the end of the 20th century, South African wine didn’t received much worldwide attention, but when Apartheid ended the world’s export market opened up and South African wines began to experience success.

Australia, New Zealand

The first attempt of wine making in Australia was around 1788 in New South Wales when wine cuttings were brought by Governor Phillips.

This first attempt failed, but later other settlers started successful wine making, so Australian wine became available domestically around 1820.

In 1822, wine exports started when Gregory Blaxland introduced Australian wine to the world wine market and won the first overseas award.

Australian wine production began to develop, and quality and production improved with the arrival of settlers from around Europe with their wine making skills and knowledge.

In New Zealand around 1830, the British oenologist James Busby first attempted to produce wine.

The oldest existing vineyard there was established by French Roman Catholic missionaries in Hawke’s Bay.

In 1883, William Henry Beetham was the first to plant Pinot Noir and Syrah grapes at his Lansdowne vineyard.

In 1895, the expert viticulturist and oenologist Romeo Bragato was invited by the New Zealand government to assess the winemaking possibilities. Bragato concluded his investigation that New Zealand was ideally suited for viticulture.

But New Zealand wine had to wait until 1960-70 to experience real wine growth.

In the modern times, wine production and consumption have seen enormous progress and growth worldwide. We will examine today’s wine regions in our next blog.



  1. Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine

Sandra Sider, Handbook to life in Renaissance Europe

John Varriano, Wine: A Cultural History



Santa Maria Novella, Florance, foto: flckr

Paolo Veronese, Marriage at Cana, foto: flckr

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