A Brief History of Wine, Part II
Hannah Rose

Hannah Rose

Sept 30, 2021 | 4 mins read
Wine Education

A Brief History of Wine, Part II

The history of wine is long—so long that it was necessary to divide our brief overview into two parts. In Part I of the series, we covered the role the Phoenicians played in the development of a wine trade; the contribution of the Greeks and Romans; and how the Christian church preserved and institutionalized knowledge related to the cultivation and production of wine.

While ancient and medieval societies planted essential seeds for wine’s development, it wasn’t until the European Renaissance (16th century) that wine—which for thousands of years was consumed like (and sometimes even with) water—went from being just another beverage to a drink that signified refinement and was drunk by choice rather than necessity.

The Renaissance marked a period of expansion: this was the age of colonial conquest, when settlers brought the first strain of Mediterranean grapes to their colonies, literally nurturing the roots of the Old World/New World distinction. In Central and South America, nascent viticulture thrived in Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Back home, glass wine bottles gained popularity as a vessel for maturing the fermented beverage.

In the 17th century, one unexpected Northern European colonial power—the Dutch Republic (present-day Netherlands)—took the reins and helped evolve the commerce and trade of wine. The dominance of the Dutch East India Company and the expansion of global trading routes brought about a flurry of innovations, including ways to fortify and stabilize wine so that it would survive long journeys.

Change was afoot in vineyards around the world during this time. As winemaking in Australia and South Africa took off, so did the popularity of Champagne. The wine may be synonymous with Champagne, the French region, but it was actually the English who invented the bubbly tipple—not the Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon, who popularized sparkling wine production in France. (Prior to the 17th century, bubbles were considered an imperfection in the winemaking process.)

As production became refined, wine was increasingly seen as a luxury good—something to be sipped, discussed and enjoyed. With a growing middle class, wine became a vehicle for demonstrating good taste, literally and figuratively! Tariffs were raised. Even still, the vast quantity of wine at this time was mediocre at best—fine wine would only have been produced in small batches. This scarcity, coupled with the newly high importation costs, served as reinforcements that further contributed to wine’s elevated cultural status. 

The 19th and 20th centuries were periods of significant change for the wine industry. With the Industrial Revolution, wine production was expanded to a larger scale. These technological gains, however, were not unchallenged. Around the 1860s, an insect native to North America, known as the saw Phylloxera, made it to European soil. With no natural defenses on the continent, the bugs were able to devour the centuries-old roots in the vineyard unimpeded, leaving the ancient vines vulnerable and susceptible to infection.

By the end of the century, millions of acres of vines had been decimated; the only solution was to replant them in their entirety, with European vine species grafted onto American rootstocks with a natural resistance to the insect. The setback was devastating, but the reset also gave winemakers the unexpected opportunity to consciously select the varieties they wanted to replant, allowing for further delineation of the specialty regions that we know today. 

Just as these new plants reached maturity, the earth-shattering violence of both world wars further hampered the industry. However, viticulture was revitalized in their wake, and the exuberance of rebuilding the post-war world ushered in an exciting new era for wine. Indeed, the industrial expansion galvanized by the wars gave way to modern winemaking equipment such as new stainless steel tanks that resulted in a more standardized product. The rise of supermarket-style shopping also changed how the average household consumed wine; for the first time, the beverage became a staple in houses outside of wine-producing regions. 

Other mid-20th century inventions included the creation of screw-cap tops and the domestication of Mediterranean Saccharomyces cerevisiae (commonly called brewer’s yeast), which allows for more controlled fermentation. (Note: commercial yeast is frowned upon by sustainable winemakers.)

Meanwhile, fresh flavors from regions worldwide began to challenge the dominance of classic regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. As wines from Australia, Argentina and California were given a chance, further-flung regions like New Zealand planted their first-ever vines throughout the 1970s. Likewise, the figure of the wine critic emerged, along with new ways of scoring wine, emboldening the general public to take an interest in the quality of their drink. Oenology, or wine appreciation, had gone mainstream. 

The coming decades will be make or break for viticulture, with climate change threatening the livelihood of producers all over the world. The packaging revolution and movement towards more ecological growth methods will also reshape our relationship to wine and help pave the way for more sustainable production.

How can you help drive a brighter future? Become a VIVANT member today and kick off your sustainable wine journey.

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Hannah Rose

Hannah Rose

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