food / travel

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!