History tends to underplay just how central wine has been to Western civilization. While the “drink of the Gods” has consistently fueled raucous fun, it’s also had a profound effect on religious ceremonies, cultural traditions, cuisine, medicinal practices, and commerce. Today, we are briefly tracing the history of wine, from ancient times to the medieval period.
Fermented fruit beverages were a mainstay around the globe for thousands of years before the Common Era. From China to Persia to Egypt, societies across the ancient world developed myriad techniques for preserving grape-based beverages as early as 7,000 BCE; however, the Phoenicians (modern-day Lebanon) ignited the winemaking and trading industry as a historical phenomenon beginning in 1500 BCE.
Using winemaking knowledge from the east, the Phoenicians’ invention of amphora (large earthenware vessels used to store wine underground) allowed them to ship the fermented grape liquid around the Mediterranean, establishing its status as a popular commodity. This maritime trading culture laid the seeds —literally — for the Greeks and Romans who inherited many of the Phoenician’s ancestral grapevines.
As Greek city-states grew, viticulture flourished. At this time, wine had already taken on an essential role in various religious practices, and in Greece the fermented beverage became known as the “drink of the Gods.” Festivities in honor of Dionysus, the pagan god of viticulture and wine, marked the month of the grape harvest. His cult was closely associated with freedom from self-consciousness and fear, and with bringing joy. So, it is no surprise that the celebrations Dionysus inspired were the driving forces behind the development of theatre!
In addition to amplifying its cultural value, the Greeks further expanded the grapevine’s reach, planting the precious plants in their colonies. They were the first to recognize the importance of a grape’s ecosystem in the resulting product, and developed proto-appellations for different regions.
Among these regions was modern-day Italy, and the Romans inherited this vital element of Greek culture. The Romans renamed the pagan god of wine Bacchus, and the beverage associated with his cult spread quickly throughout their empire. As they conquered new territories, new vineyards were cultivated near their garrisons, fueling soldiers and locals alike. Many of these vineyards were planted in the regions most strongly associated with Old World wine.
Yet, the Romans were drinking a liquid that would not have tasted anything like wine we know today; it would have been more concentrated and diluted with seawater. Flavor was often improved with additives such as honey, spices or herbs. In their quest to make wine inherently more palatable, the Romans made substantial contributions to oenology: they refined the proto-appellations, expanded the classification of grape varieties, and named numerous diseases that threatened the vines. In addition to inventing the first wine press, the Romans also introduced the wooden wine barrel, which allowed their wine to age and enhanced its flavor. Likewise, glass bottles became popular at this time. However, olive oil floated on top of the precious liquid to preserve it in lieu of corks.
In the centuries that followed the fall of Rome in 410 CE, the Christian church became the stable institution guiding medieval Europe. Wine was essential to the ritual of Christian mass, specifically Holy Communion, so winemaking practices were not only preserved, but deeply institutionalized. In monasteries, working the land became an extension of devotional practice. Since the average monk had more time to focus on quality than the average peasant farmer (for whom maximizing output was a priority), his theological focus played a crucial role in wine’s development.
Over hundreds of years, monasteries evolved the relationship between region and viticulture. They discerned the role of different soils, sun and climate on grape varieties and, because they were literate, recorded this knowledge for posterity, codifying oenology for the first time and cultivating its development. Meanwhile, as business boomed, medieval society introduced taxes on the product, leading to attempts to regulate wine production and distribution to ensure consistency (this would not be truly achievable for centuries, as we will see in Part 2, when the Industrial Revolution allowed for production-related innovations).
By the 14th century, the Benedictine order of Monks became the largest producers of wine on the continent. They had established vineyards in Champagne (Dom Perignon was a monk!), Burgundy, and Bordeaux in modern-day France, as well as in Reisling, Rheingau and Franconia in today’s Germany.
Even still, wine drinking was not as widespread as we know it today; wine remained expensive and was reserved mainly for religious rituals and nobility. Beer remained the drink of the people. It would be another several hundred years until the highly valued commodity was truly transformed into the complex tipple that we know and love today.