Wine History – The Origin of Wine Making

Who doesn’t love France? After all, this is the country that invented joie de vivre – a hedonistic way of life that literally embraces the joy of living. France is fabulous for so many reasons, the food, the stunning scenery, the beauty of the French language, the climate (well, in the south at least), the amazing light (ditto) and yes, the wine. France has appropriated le vin to such an extent that sometimes it is hard to remember that there are other wine-producing countries in the world (and there are, and they are many). There is certainly no denying that French wine is a major, if not the major, player in the wine investment world, but is the country really responsible for its most famous export? After all, French fries are Belgian, the French Horn was invented by a German, French mustard is English and French kissing comes from America. 

Where Did Wine Come From Originally?

So France, time to put your money where your mouth is. Are you the country that invented winemaking? Well, non. Scientists say that some 8,000-year-old pottery fragments found in Georgia in 2017 reveal the earliest evidence of grape wine-making. The earthenware jars were found in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi and contained residual wine compounds. Some of the jars also had images of clusters of grapes and men dancing, no doubt brought on by the effects of the wine. “We believe this is the oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine,” said Stephen Batiuk, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto. 

The fact that these fragments were found in Georgia is not that surprising. ​​Georgia has long been considered the birthplace of wine, since findings in South Caucasus traced the production of wine all the way back to 6,000BC. It is believed that these early Georgians discovered grape juice could be turned into wine by burying it underground for the winter  – or longer in some cases – in large, terracotta pots called qvevris. These amphoras could hold gallons of wine and the wine produced from them was allegedly considered the best in the world (at the time). So, le vin n’est pas francais, after all. 

History of Wine Making

Perhaps it might be prudent at this stage to give a quick timeline of wine from those first findings in Georgia to today. 

  • 6,000 BC – Earliest known production of wine is dated to 8,000 years ago after findings in Georgia reveal residual wine compounds in earthenware remains.
  • 4500 BC – Wine arrives in continental Europe through migrating tribes from the Balkans.
  • 4000 BC – Remains of the oldest winery dating to 4,000 BC were found in Armenia. 
  • 1600 BC – Chinese dynasty burial ceremonies demonstrate use of  wine pottery. 
  • 1323 BC – Tutankhamen’s tomb is sealed with several wine jugs. Modern analysis confirmed that the jugs contained red wine.
  • 400 BC – Wine in India is mentioned for the first time. 
  • 1st millennia BC – Wine became commonplace in the ancient empires of Greece and Rome. 
  • 1st millennia AD – After the decline in the Roman empire, the Christian church takes over as the main producer of wine in Europe.
  • 12th century – Monasteries develop vineyards in France, notably in the regions of Champagne, Burgundy and Rhine Valley.
  • 14th, 15th and 16th century – Production and commercialisation of winemaking started by several catholic monks. Wine becomes the drink for both the bourgeoisie and commoners. Lack of clean water in Europe boosts consumption of wine.
  • Early 17th century – Production of glass allows great improvement in storing and transporting wine.
  • 1729 – Ruinart, world oldest French champagne house is founded.
  • 1789 – French Revolution. Many estates are ransacked, confiscated or destroyed.
  • 1825 – Mass production of wine starts in the United States.
  • 1855 – French Classification system is introduced. The system is still valid today. 
  • 1864 – First sighting of Phylloxera in France. The insect managed to ravage the majority of the world’s vineyards for nearly 20 years.
  • 19th and 20th century – Wine production begins worldwide. Vineyards in California, Australia, South America and New Zealand gain acclaim.
  • 1976 – A Californian wine beats its French competitors and wins first place in the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting.
  • 2006 – Total wine production intended for export reaches the 8.3 million tons, with Italy (1.7 million), France (1.4 million) and Spain (1.3 million) having the biggest market share.
  • 2010 – A single bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc is sold at auction for over $300,000. This equates to the world’s most expensive wine sale ever. 

History of Wine in France

While the history of wine in France can be traced back to the 6th century BC, it really became a “thing” when the Catholic church retained and capitalised on its stronghold over the country during the early part of the first millennia. With much of the country in thrall to the Catholic church, monks became the superstar viticulturists akin to today’s Michel Rolland and Stéphane Derenoncourt. Certain monastic orders became synonymous with elite wine regions such as the Benedictines of Cluny who came to own most of what is now Gevrey-Chambertin by 1273. The Benedictines are also the original owners of the Romanee Conti vineyards, and any wine investor worth their salt knows that these parcels of land are more valuable than gold. 

Fast forward a few hundred years or so to the colonisation era. Early French settlers in the USA brought vines with them in the 16th century and attempted to grow their country’s famous drink on American soil. They weren’t always successful – it would take another 200 years or so until quality allowed mass production to become possible. Today nearly every strain of international grape in the US originates from France. 

While it may have taken a while for winemaking over the pond to get going, France’s domestic produce was under threat. Not only had the Revolution resulted in the loss or damage of many great estates, but just as the country was back on its socialist feet and Napoleon had introduced the (in)famous 1855 Classification, the deadly phylloxera bug was detected. This silent, stealthy killer came from the US on vines that were naturally immune to the pest and were being imported to Europe. 

In France alone, it is estimated that over 6 million acres of vineyards were destroyed due to this tiny, destructive louse (the death toll for vines worldwide was much higher). Once the bugs latched onto the roots of the European Vitis vinifera vines, the damage began. Acre after acre of vine was destroyed, sending the French into complete turmoil. It seemed there was little to be done.

So how did they control and destroy this tiny beast? Well, the answer brings with it a healthy dose of European irony. Remember that the bug arrived on American vines? As the American vines – the original patient 0 of phylloxera were immune to the bug, the solution was to pull up the European roots and plant American vine roots, grafting the European (vinifera) vines onto them. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but to fix an “American” problem, European winemakers had to dig up their ancient vineyards and replant them with American roots. An American problem was solved with an American solution. But it took some time to get there. 

Thus what we think of as the golden era of ‘French wine’ didn’t really begin until the end of the 19th century. The 20th century’s two world wars didn’t help matters either and many estates all over France’s wine regions were left to practical ruin after WWII. As you can imagine, the maintenance, not to mention the renovation, of a wine estate is phenomenally expensive and many producers had to reduce their yield enormously in order to simply stay afloat. Bordelaise estates that did not benefit from being in the 1855 classification started to get left behind and it is only relatively recently that many of these estates have got back on their feet. But thanks fully that is all behind us. Huge injections of cash from both personal and fortunes and corporate ventures have succeeded in giving France’s wine heritage a new breath of life. Vast improvements in the understanding of viticulture and winemaking mean that today, there is simply no other country that makes wines like France. 

History of Italian Wine

Italian wine should not be overlooked when thinking about Europe’s greatest wine players. The country’s 4,000 year old wine heritage is every bit as rich as France’s, and perhaps even has the edge over its continental neighbour. It’s empire was one of the world’s finest, and so great was the ancient Italian love of wine that they even named a god after it. Legend has it that the Roman god Bacchus and the wild festivals that celebrated him, Bacchanalia, got so out of hand that they were eventually banned by the Roman Senate.

Italy followed the same path as France in regards to the Catholic Church appropriating fertile parcels of prime wine growing terroir. With wine being produced as an important part of the sacrament, the country made a name for itself in the middle ages for producing wines that made it worth going to church for! 

As in France, phylloxera destroyed many of Italy’s best vineyards in the 19th century and, with less money than France, replanting was focussed on quantity rather than quality. Throughout much of the 20th century, Italy laboured under a reputation of producing cheap table wines. That all changed in the 1960s when the government passed a series of laws that would augment and control the quality of Italian wine. The country’s modern era of winemaking had begun. 

Today, the country is coming in from the cold in terms of wine investments. Italian wines show phenomenal ROI, often for a much lower entry price than many French wines of similar quality. Investors should look out for big, bold, Barolos and Barbarescos from Piedmonte, complex, ageworthy Brunellos from Tuscany and dazzling Amarones from Veneto.

Learn more about Italian wine regions by reading our detailed article.

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