The abridged history of wine


In a recent talk at the French embassy about the origins of wine and the role of France in making wine, one of the most consumed drinks in the world, we were taken back to biblical times.

Noah, the Bible says, was so relieved that mankind had been saved from the Great Flood that, once back on land, he planted grapevines and made wine to give thanks to God.

It is worth remembering how integral drinking wine was in the time of Jesus. It was not an indulgence, or even sinful, and, in transubstantiation, which is at the heart of many Christian faiths, wine becomes the blood of Christ.

In his first miracle in Galilee, Jesus turned water into wine to feed the many, so wine could well be described as a gift from God, and He on Earth drank wine, though the Bible warns of over-indulgence.

The talk underlined that libations were indeed part of rituals intended to honour God and were also a gesture of compassion to assist humankind in enduring life’s trials, from which we must infer the acknowledgement that wine altered how people felt and thought and that the suspension of our sense of reality was accepted, even desirable.

Other old civilisations and peoples approved of such agents, too, but nearly all of theirs were eventually outlawed as they became industrialised into powerful modern drugs. The Incas used coca (cocaine), the Himalayan people used poppyseeds (opium and heroin), the Chinese used marijuana, the Native Americans used tobacco, the Celts used hops and cereals to make ales, the British in 8,000 BC even used fermented honey to make mead, which is still served today.

Wine from grapes dates back to 8,000 BC in Anatolia, east of modern Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. It spread east, and west to Persia and the Levant, then to Egypt, where it was widely consumed from 4,000 BC, spreading further to modern-day Europe via the Greeks, who improved on Egyptian methods. They created the first wineries and cellars for maturing wines, drastically increasing output in the eastern Mediterranean, and broadened distribution to the entire Mediterranean area, including to Gaul, which was to become France.

The Greeks also made wine drinking into a socialising and civilising affair. Then, as now, a "symposium" had a rarefied air, although it means “to drink together.” In the Greek version, it was a banquet where the intelligence of the debate and discussion was “stimulated by the tasting of wine.” And wine was given divine status, not just divine consent, when the god Dionysus was created.

The culture of wine grew exponentially under the Roman Empire, which overtook Greek civilisation from 146 BC. Dionysus became Bacchus, and as was cheerfully pointed out, when we in TT have a bacchanal, we are “unknowingly paying homage to the god of wine of antiquity.”

It would be hard to argue, however, that our licentiousness could seriously rival that of the Romans, given the tales handed down in history. The figure of the equivalent of 200 million bottles of wine being consumed in Rome alone 2,000 years ago is staggering. Leaving aside the undoubted social and political impact, the production of such vast quantities suggests another huge leap in wine-making technology and the importance of winemaking as a pillar of the Roman economy.

Viticulture might not have endured, however, without some divine intervention. Into the social, political and economic vacuum created by the fall of the Roman Empire stepped the church and its bishops and 1,200 abbeys of the Middle Ages, who dedicated themselves to producing wine across Europe for religious use and consumption, selling the residue for profit to sustain the church.

They also experimented, and advanced viticulture, giving rise to some of today’s globally appreciated wines from Burgundy and Chablis.

Gaul then took up the viticulture reins and became the centre of the wine-making, producing the greatest wines. Although historically a net wine importer, Gaul became an important grower. New grape varieties had been slowly developed according to local geographical conditions, and today the popular wines we drink, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Viognier, date back to their success.

French innovations such as the barrel – light, cheap, storable and strong; the English introduction of a modern bottle with “a flat base, a reinforced neck and dark green or smoky colour,” and of corks; plus the Dutch sulphurisation of the casks to add shelf life, revolutionised the trade.

Although many countries produced and consumed wine, the world was flooded with French wine.

By the 19th century, modern viticulture had spread to the New World, but it only just survived the plague of the phylloxera parasite that attacked French vines, destroying 85 per cent of California’s French-vine production, and threatened world production. Only grafting American vine roots, which are immune to phylloxera, onto European vines successfully controlled its spread.

The rest is history. Globally we now drink 232 million hectolitres each year, most of it from Europe.

It is an extraordinary story of the success of a single commodity going back to antiquity, involving almost every continent and not a little godly help.

Thanks to Ambassador Chabert of France for permission to use his talk for the basis of this column.


"The abridged history of wine"

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