Wine is the favored drink of the gods. Such a rich statement alone shows you just how ancient and culturally important this beverage is. Wine has an amazing history which starts as early as 7000 B.C and is still vibrant today.
The most unusual aspect of wine is that it has more than one beginning too. Wine has been created and re-created time and time again from one area of the world to another.
With such a complex past, we want to share everything we know about the amazing history of wine.
Brief History of Wine Timeline
Once upon a time people would press grapes with their feet and leave the juices to ferment in a barrel. Now we have large factories and fermentation tanks to create sterile and mass-produced beverages. So how did we go from there to here?
The oldest evidence of fermentation was found by Dr. McGovern in Jiahu, China. Found in clay jars, evidence of alcoholic beverages including fermented grapes, honey, and rice were able to confirm that fermentation had been around since 7000 B.C.
We don’t know if this ancient fermentation process was created between families, for special occasions, or as often as possible. Most likely, it was from a mixture of the two. Most of the evidence we have for cultural wine usage is from long past 7000 B.C. It isn’t until 6100 B.C that we are sure wineries were created.
In 2016, researchers discovered a cave in the mountains of Armenia, which had hoards of grape presses, fermentation jars, and drinking bowls. It was a large-scale area that confirmed a stable winery business had settled here. The cave was found near a significant cemetery which leads cultural historians to suggest wine was seen as part of a burial ceremony.
The oldest known connection to red wine was found in the clay pots of ancient Egypt. Although modern Egypt doesn’t produce much wine, its history is drenched in the importance of the beverage. Many stories connected to the god Osiris explained that drinking wine was like drinking the god of resurrection’s blood. The oldest evidence of white wine was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb dating back to 3100 B.C.
The first evidence we have for trading wine is in 1200 B.C. Here we see the people of Phoenicia (now considered to be modern Lebanon, and parts of Syria and Israel) taking grapevines through the Mediterranean to areas such as Greece and Italy. In their travels, they would meet those from other religions including Jewish people. It’s around this time that wine is mentioned in the Tanakh.
Wine has always been connected to religion and spirituality, but it wasn’t until the 1400 A.D that countries went to war for the godly nectar. Spain invaded Mexico and Brazil looking to cultivate the grape industry. Under the guise of religion, the Spanish missionary Junipero Serra created the first known vineyard in California, United States of America.
As you can see from this wide historical range, wine has touched every country in the world. Even if the area is no longer large wine producers, like China, they have each touched and changed the course of wine history.
When and Where Did Winemaking Begin?
Although wine and the concept of fermentation have been around for thousands of years, the culture of winemaking and the active desire to develop tastes and traditions, is generally considered to start in Georgia.
The first known collection of wine creation was in 6000 B.C in the South Caucasus - the mountains of Armenia.
The process started when Georgians realized they could bury their grapes during the cold winter months. They would keep the grapes there for up to 50 years, and then the grapes were brought back out again, as the fermentation process was completed.
Creating the wine turned into a ceremony. As a loved one was entered into the ground, the wine would be lifted from the earth, poured into a cup, and risen up to the air; celebrating entering the afterlife.
Wine And The Ancient Egyptians
In Ancient Egypt, wine was considered an exclusively royal drink. It would only be served during special occasions when used recreationally. However, there is some evidence that suggests high-ranking women drank wine during a hard childbirth.
Our understanding suggests that the Ancient Egyptians connected wine to the concept of the afterlife. It was the river which lay between our world to the world of death.
One of the easiest ways to ferment a fruit is to cover it in sugar. This is the method that the Ancient Egyptians chose.
When the sugar stays in contact with the grapes, the yeast in the sugar would start to degrade the fruit. It is a process that both releases enzymes from the fruit but also binds them to the sugar. This is how ethanol is made.
The more sugar added to the process the stronger the alcohol content would be, however, the yeast can only survive in the process if there is no more than 15% sugar in the ratio. If there is any more sugar in the fermentation process, it will only sweeten the drink.
To make the wine a deep red color, you need to include the seeds, stems, and even stalks in the process.
When everything had been prepared and fermented for a couple of weeks, the liquid was then drained from the solids and sealed with reeds and mud.
However, without a proper vacuum, the Ancient Egyptians couldn’t keep the wine for long. It would turn into vinegar in a matter of days.
Wine And The Ancient Greeks
If you talk about the history of wine to someone, normally one image pops into their head - the elegant pictures of Ancient Greeks eating grapes on a lounging chair.
This image that people envisioned isn’t through accidental media. The Ancient Greeks would use wine as a method to reach tranquility or clarity of the mind. In the era of philosophers, many people would use wine to calm their thoughts.
The idea of getting drunk would be frowned upon in Ancient Greece. Drunkenness indicated a lack of mind, so the tranquil sensation simply turns into stupidity.
You can see this effect of wine and clarity in stories such as the Iliad by Homer. Unlike in Ancient Egypt, the Ancient Greeks saw wine as a drink for everyone. It was commonplace to find grapes being grown and fermented on people’s properties. Due to the wide range of grapes available, there was still a sense of good wine and poor wine, but in general, everyone could have a taste of the thoughtful beverage.
Because wine was seen as a high-minded drink, and everyone had at least some knowledge of how to make it, there were laws that severely punished anyone caught harming the rich soils where the vines grew.
Sweet wine was the most enjoyed by the Ancient Greeks and it is still widely consumed to this day. Sweet wine with high alcohol percentages, mixed with honey and spices, is what a typical Greek wine would look like now.
The oldest evidence we have for wine in Greece dates back to 3000 B.C. There were wine presses found in the ancient Crete tombs.
As we said before, the Phoenician travelers would come to countries across the land introducing wine to many different countries. Many believe that Greece was also introduced by the Phoenicians.
As philosophical people, it didn’t take long for the Ancient Greeks to realize the natural benefits of wine, but just like every other culture, they connected the drink to a god. Soon Dionysus, the Greek god of wine was born.
Wine And The Romans
The Romans were originally a small colony within the Ancient Greek landscape. As we all know, the Romans were eventually such a large, strong, and powerful colony that they became their own entity.
Wine Barrels And Glass Bottles
Where the Greeks found tranquility in the drink, the Romans found science. They stopped the winemaking process from being a “bury it in a hole” beverage and invented the all-important wooden wine barrel.
Wine connoisseurs will know that the type of wood used in a wine barrel can dramatically affect the flavor of the beverage. This method also allows the wine to evaporate during the aging process, which in turn creates a new and stronger flavor.
The Romans were the first to put wine into glass bottles too. The oldest bottle to survive history was Roman and dated back to 325 A.D. It stayed preserved due to a cork stop.
Because of the Romans' scientific nature, they also studied and detailed the majority of diseases we know grapes suffer today.
The containment and preservation of wine were revolutionized when the Romans joined in with wine culture.
Despite all of these amazing discoveries and creations, the Romans didn’t drink in the splendor of wine straight away. Still preferring beer and mead, the Romans would create the wine for profit over pleasure.
It wasn’t until Cato, a Roman senator, wrote a book about winemaking that the collective started to appreciate wine as a leisurely drink. Like their cousins, the Greeks, Roman people preferred debates and intellectual conversion. Poetry, politics, and philosophy were what you would expect at a party.
However, the Romans and Greeks differed in how they saw physical pleasures. Romans believe that both physical and cognitive pleasures should both be celebrated. This meant that poetry and philosophy were also accompanied by orgies and drunkenness.
The History of Wine Beyond Europe
Although wine is often considered a European drink, we should remember that our earliest records show that Asia first created the beverage. Historic records show that Armenia and China contain the earliest evidence of winemaking, so let's dive into their history.
Wine And China
Although there is evidence that wine was in China since 7000 B.C, most records only show the importance of wine from 202 B.C onwards. We know that in 202 B.C the Han Dynasty interacted with the west and found happiness in the Indo-Greek Kingdom of its time. They enjoyed the grapes which were offered to them and showed what may have been their first taste of grape wine.
We know that Ancient China mixed grapes, honey, and rice in their older wine recipes, but with the Greek influence, rice wine became a commoner’s drink and grape wine stole the show.
The Han Dynasty wanted to show off the grape wine to those allowed to dine at their table, yet most of China didn’t take to the exotic drink. Instead, rice wine remained the most popular wine type until the Song Dynasty in 1279 A.D.
Wine And Armenia
As we know, the earliest evidence of wine production was found in Armenia in 6000 B.C. The wine was so important to this area of the world, that kings would slay for the vineyard.
There are letters and scribes found which show that the Assyrian kings counted how many grape farms were destroyed in the Urartian invasion. These inscriptions also declare Armenia as the “land of the vineyards” or “Khaldi” which is the god of the grape.
Wine And The Americas
When the Spanish conquistadors traveled to the Americas, they took grapes and wheat with them. Upon the invasion and conquest, the Spanish missionaries imported as many grapes from France, Italy, and Germany as possible.
As the American land was so fertile, the Spanish wanted to test out every grape plant to see how it would interact and grow on the new soil.
This forced mixed breeding meant that in the 1800s, when a mass blight took out most grape crops, the American grapes survived.
This eureka moment caused a spike in American grape profits. They were sold at a higher price, to allow other vineyards around the world to mix the anti-pest genes into older crops. This practice is still used today when phylloxera crawls back into the vines.
Archaeological Evidence Of Ancient Wine Making
Although we have mentioned that wine was originally created by using grape seeds, stems, and stalks, finding those perishable pieces of evidence in an archaeological site is nearly impossible.
Instead, researchers will search for evidence of grape processing. This means looking for grape farms or stock tools such as a grape press.
One of the main ways in which archaeologists search for grape farms is by looking for large areas of hermaphroditic grape flowers. Through domestication, farms would breed, find and then continuously breed hermaphroditic flowers of any type they were trying to cultivate. This was important to self-populate their stock without having to worry about breeding.
When large areas of supposedly natural or wild hermaphroditic grape flowers are found, researchers start research into the possibility of an old vineyard.
What Did Wine Taste Like Thousands of Years Ago?
Although the history of wine seems rich, detailed, bold, and even floral in places, most historians will tell you that ancient wine would have tasted vile.
The first thing we would need to consider is how long a bottle of wine would last. Until Roman started using glass bottles and wine barrels, the answer would have been days. It would quickly turn into vinegar which is why most wines were only given to the rich who could afford to pay high prices for quick delivery.
To make the wine last for as long as possible, ancient winemakers would add additives and preservatives such as lead, salt, paper, and herbs. They would also use resin which would make the wine thick and sticky.
If someone was to put ancient wine in front of you and asked you to say what it was, it would be unlikely that you would say “wine”.
Due to the overly sweet but dirt-like taste, it can be easy to see why some people only used the drink to find clarity. But we should also remember that we currently live in a time of detailed flavors. What we now consider to be basic foods, people a thousand years ago would have considered a luxury. So the muck they called wine, would have been a delicious treat.
Difference Between Modern And Ancient Wine
There are 5 main differences between modern and ancient wine, they are the fermentation process, the overall taste, the sweetness, the strength of alcohol, and the bottling process.
As technology advances we are able to refine and control each element with more precision, but how different has this made the beverage?
In the traditional process of fermentation, wines were picked for their flavor and ripeness. With no modern-day technology to figure out the peak element of ripeness, the fermentation process was slow.
When the grapes were large enough to be adults and just about the turn, they were placed into a jar. Sugar was added to create a sweet taste and activate the fermentation process. The pot would then be covered and placed somewhere dark. After waiting for a couple of weeks, months or years, the fermentation process would be complete.
The ancient winemaker would drain the grapes, collect the liquid and drink their newly created wine.
In our modern era, the process is largely the same, however, the amount of acid, oxidation, and bacteria are monitored to develop the exact tastes and alcohol levels we desire.
What was once an art form has turned into a science with sterilizing factories, purified fermentation tanks, and highly monitored ingredient levels. The basics remain the same though. Sugar is mixed with the grapes and left to ferment over a period of weeks, months or years.
Once the fermentation process is over, the remains are drained and stored in sterile glass bottles to allow the liquid to balance the flavors, acidity, and alcohol level as desired.
We have already mentioned that the wine of old tasted nothing like the wine we know today, but now we should explore how the flavors have changed.
For one, wine back in 7000 B.C wasn’t made with just grape juices. It was created from a mixture of fruits available to the people of the time. This is why rice wine was considered more common and popular in China as rice was a more readily available fermentable food source.
Still, rice isn’t a fruit, which meant a lot more sugar was needed to create the beverage. This is why European countries didn’t take well to the rice variety, and instead harvested wild grapes which had a higher sugar content.
In their quest to find the most sugary fruits to ferment, most wines were created with a large mix of fruits. However, the flavor was often too vinegary to drink on its own. To balance the acid, additional flavors would have been added such as thyme, hazelnuts, wheat, honey, and figs.
As we said before, it was the Romans that introduced the woody flavors we often seek out today. They did this by storing the wine in barrels instead of clay pots and then introducing glass bottles for even longer storage.
With preservation no longer a problem, the winemakers could experiment with flavors and combinations that didn’t rely on keeping the wine fresh.
Wine has always been considered a sweet drink due to the sugar needed to ignite the fermentation process. Each culture preferred the sweeter wines due to their clearer taste and their higher alcohol levels. Sweet wines were also more likely to stay fresh longer as the fermentation process would have created a longer preservation element.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that dry wines became popular. The change was due to the western mass marketing boom. Capitalism hit a massive high, and the western markets were able to produce any item faster. But as with a quick sale, the quality was poor.
Sweet wines were the easiest to make, and so every supermarket (a new concept) was flooded with cheap and poor sweet wines.
In an attempt to separate themselves from the new rise in sweet rise drinkers, critics and wine ambassadors started developing and exposing dry wines. Dry wines became the new elite drink, and with more attention and finances added to the dry wine market, winemakers were able to experiment with flavors.
The change allowed dry wines to reach the mass variety we have today, and even now it continues to outshine the sweet wines we once loved.
Ancient wines were not as strong as ours are today. This is due to the wild yeast that they would have used.
Due to our cultivated farming, and artificial selection to create foods and resources which give as much product as possible per farming episode, we have dramatically changed the yeast yield that our ancestors would have had access to.
Wild yeast would have only produced around 6% alcohol content on average. The Ancient Greeks and Romans may have been able to create distilling conditions and push that 6% to 18%, but those wines would have been rare and expensive.
Because wine would go off quickly, the current assumption is that winemakers wouldn’t bother putting so much effort into one bottle. Instead, they would make a lot of low alcohol wines.
By today's standard, you would expect a low alcohol wine to contain around 11%, the average to come in at 16% ABV, and the largest to come in at around 20% but those are rare and expensive.
Before glass bottles were invented, wine drinkers would use clay pots to store and pour their wine. These pots wouldn’t have lids or contain any sterilization process that we are aware of.
This is one reason why wine didn’t last longer than a couple of weeks once it had been fermented.
To help with the preservation process, winemakers would have used cloves, garlic, orange zest, and other natural preservatives to help the wine last for as long as possible.
When glass bottles started to be utilized by the Romans, corks were the instant stopper to make transportation easier. Of course, this leads to longer-lasting beverages and continues to be the best option for wine today.
Significance Of Wine To Ancient Cultures
Whenever wine touched a new country, it was instantly used as a connection between the afterlife and the living world.
As we said before, this is due to the first method of fermentation which required the fruits to be buried for months at a time to keep them away from sunlight. Brought back up from the ground the decaying fruits would have a new life as an intoxicating beverage.
You could argue that the method of creating wine was one of the main inspirations for stories around resurrection. For example, the story of Jesus and his rebirth coincides with the concept of wine being his blood.
Greek And Roman Wine Cultures
Although religion has always been connected with this delicious drink, it was the Ancient Greeks who turned the goldy beverage into an intellectual cup. As we said before, the Ancient Greeks believed that drunkenness was a sign of mental weakness, as wine should bring clarity of thought. If you had a weak mind or very little intellectual thoughts, then the wine would easily overcome you.
The Romans didn’t follow this idea directly and believed that drunkenness was part of a healthy lifestyle, however, their parties would often start with political or poetic intrigue which would eventually turn into a sexual and drunken experience.
Wine And Religion
If you ask anyone to make a connection between wine and religion, a common answer would be when Jesus turned water into wine. Of course, this is just a Christian response, but wine is connected to almost every religion known. And in every religion, the connection between the beverage and a deity is through the power of resurrection or sacrifice.
Wine is the blood of Jesus for Christians. Wine is the blessing of a sacrifice in Judaism. Wine is a tainted death in Hinduism. Wine is the element that connects us to deities in Tantra.
The scandal of putting something into the earth allowing it to die and seeing it come back as something new and dizzying has made a massive impact on religions around the world.
Although some have banned the drink for its dangerous and deathly connections, others have embraced the cycle of life shown in its creation.
Wine And Fertility
Religion has always had a connection to fertility. Just as people would pray or sacrifice to create a healthy crop, they would do the same for a healthy womb.
Particularly clear in Ancient Greece’s religion, the god of wine Dionysos was known to seduce people into a cuckold situation and then apologize by offering a grapevine. When the grapevine was accepted, the woman (if that was his partner) would soon become pregnant.
On the flip side, if people were to refuse Dionysos’ advances, they would be driven mad as confusion, delusion, and anger poisoned their minds - symptoms similar to drunkenness.
Today wine isn’t connected to the idea of fertility, but it is still connected to sex and passion. Following the course of expanding cultures, when fertility no longer becomes a cultural issue and the numbers of the population expands, wine’s role in the society turns from helping reproduce to helping maintain physical connections.
It is important to note that in the 21st century, health advisors are campaigning against excessive wine drinking due to health concerns. This means that the sexual aspect of wine has started to decrease, making room for a new concept - sensuality.
Wine has had a long history, much longer than most people realize. In its time it has changed from a mixture of fruits and spices fermented underground to a purely grape fermented drink produced in sterile factories.
It has changed from a drink preserved for religious burial ceremonies to the nectar of the rich, to the beverage of the intellectual, to the evening drink of the everyday person.
Despite its constant changes, it has always had three things in common - an alcoholic effect, a connection to resurrection, and an atmosphere of decadence.
Wine has been found in almost every culture in the world, and every time a new group of people touches this wonderful drink, they add a new element that shapes the beverage forever.