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Where Does Wine Come From?

First developed by the Phoenicians, viticulture was eventually spread by the Romans into Gaul, where it was turned into the wine we know today.

By Bernard Burtschy

PARIS - During the Earth's glacial periods, vines managed to survive the brutal elements inside various "climate shelters' across the globe. They made their official foray into human culture within these regions at the end of the last such period, which ended nearly 10,000 years ago. The most fertile wine regions were on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, in the present-day nation of Georgia. Portugal was also a shelter, which explains the abundance of its very distinct grapes today.

As for the wine that we know in the modern age, its exact origins are still being discovered. It is likely that it was invented by chance given that grape juice has a strong natural propensity to ferment. The American historian Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania argues that humans developed a variety of cereals (such as rice in China and millet in Africa) based on their ability to be converted into alcoholic beverages. Based on evidence collected from jars excavated in Georgia, McGovern dates the first wines to 6000 BC.

Despite its importance, wine never succeeded in replacing beer in Mesopotamia or Egypt, as it was reserved for the pharaoh, his family and their offerings to the gods. In Greece, however, where it was tied directly to the origin of civilization, wine was synonymous with culture. In the eyes of many, it was even divine. Dionysus, Son of Zeus, was a god in his own right who embodied both the pleasures and excesses associated with wine, and the challenges for man to learn to master them.

As their civilization expanded, great Greek wines became famous and were exported around the Mediterranean region. Thrace, southern Italy and Celtic Gaul were the biggest consumers. Amphorae, the painted ceramic vases that were used for carrying the wine, are now housed in historical museums throughout Europe.

Stamps on these amphorae showed the exact origin and vintage of the wines that were exported. A hierarchy of different wines became well established, and the Greeks quickly learned how to age and store wine. Much of what we know about wine today is in fact ancient wisdom.

The first Greek colonies in southern Italy were founded in the eighth century BC, and the first Italian vintages date back to around the same time. The Etruscans copied the style of Hellenic life and develop their own vineyards: their wines were exported in small, easily recognizable top-shaped amphorae.

Gaul Becomes a Principal Wine Market for the Romans

The first great Roman wines appeared around the second century BC, and many were aged significantly before they could be enjoyed: 15 years for a Falernian, 25 for a Sorrento. The cellars of many great connoisseurs, including Hortense and Scaurus, became highly renowned. Some vintages were greatly sought after, such as 121 BC, which was considered the best for several centuries.

The amphora, which was coated with resin or pitch to prevent oxidation before being sealed with lime mortar, proved to be an excellent method of preservation for the wines. Roman wines were exported in great quantity as their distribution followed the expansion of the Empire. Two thousand years ago, when marine traffic dominated the Mediterranean region, a single ship could carry up to 10,000 25-liter amphorae and Roman wine was consumed everywhere from the Channel coast to the East Indies.

Wherever the Roman Legion went it planted vines and olive trees, the true markers of civilization. Although the cultivation of olive trees was limited by climate, the grape vine was able to spread through almost all regions of continental Europe. In what is present-day France and Belgium, the Gauls were originally beer drinkers. Eventually they would become major consumers of Roman wine, and by the second and first centuries BC, Gaul was the Romans' primary wine market.

Although the Greeks had established a beachhead in Marseille 2500 years earlier, it was not until the Roman conquest of 52 BC that Gallic wine really took off. Soon after, the planting frenzy became so great that the Emperor Domitian was forced to halt wine production in the year 92: wine had overtaken the land, and the wheat was running out.

As the Gauls passed from consumers to producers, they began storing their wines in barrels, as they had stored their beer for centuries before. More suited than amphorae for road transport, the Gallic barrels soon took over Europe, pushing aside the more established Roman wines - a fine example of innovation upsetting the market. The only drawback was that the wine aged poorly in these containers. It was not until the end of the 17th century, with the introduction of the mass-produced bottle, that the French finally moved away from this traditional method. The rest is (delicious) history.

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👋 Konta!*

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[*Papiamento, Dutch Caribbean]

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