For quite some time I’ve been dying to write about the history of wine. I wanted to write something fun and educational without sounding too academic. I wish I could take credit for the catchy title “15 Grape Moments in Wine History.” Alas, kudos go to my friend’s husband for his help and his wit.
So, why 15 and not 20 or 25? I’m not really sure, it just seemed like a good number. 15 Grape Moments in Wine History will take you on a quick tour through the history of wine, from Neolithic Asia to the present day. Hang on to your wine glass, here we go!
- 9000-4,000 B.C.E Exact origins of wines are thought to date from around this time which coincides with the Neolithic period. Most of the information from this time is based primarily on myth and legend. However, archaeological evidence shows residue in a pottery jar found in the Zagros mountains, in modern day Iran. This evidence dates from roughly 5400 B.C.E
- 4,00-3000 B.C.E Eventually the growing of vines spread west to Greece and Anatolia ( modern day Turkey) and south to Egypt. One of Egypt’s earliest rulers was buried with 700 jars of wine. Eventually pharaohs developed a taste for wine and established their own small (very small) vineyards along the Nile around 3,000 B.C. Given the limited production, due to harsh climatic conditions, wine was reserved for the very elite. Tomb paintings attest to the drinking of wine by the Egyptian elite.
- 2500 B.C.E. Vines are introduced to the island of Crete (southwest of mainland Greece). The Minoan civilization (remember the minotaur?) that inhabited the island grew vines among other things. Vines were often intertwined with other crops such as figs, and olives. Production was limited, so again wine was considered an elite drink. Wine was also not part of the rations given to workers, reinforcing the status given to wine. It also makes evident that only a fine specimens and not lesser quality ones were produced.
- 870 B.C.E Ashurnasirpal, the Assyrian king gave a feast in his place to inaugurate the new capital of the empire: Nimrud. The feast lasted 10 days and was attended by 70,000 guests. An evident display of his wealth were the 10,000 jars of wine that were served.
- 785 B.C.E. Thanks to cuneiform tablets we have records that by this time 6,000 people in the Assyrian royal household received rations of wine equivalent to about one glass for the lowliest servant, and more depending on the skill level of the servant.
- 500 B.C.E. by the fifth century wine was being exported to France, Egypt and the Danube. Trade in wine was booming, a very lucrative business. Loss of cargo could spell financial disaster. A shipwreck from the era turned up 10,000 amphora (an earthen vessel) containing the equivalent amount of wine contained in 333,000 modern size bottles. It goes without saying that this cargo was worth a princely sum.
- 430 B.C. E. Wine was indeed precious cargo and it’s perishable nature made it almost impossible to transport over land. Wine was therefore carried in boats up and down the Tigris and Euphrates river. The journey left the boats unusable after the trek, so they had to be torn down and sold for scraps. This is a tell tale sign that points to the high regard given to wine.
- 400 B.C.E. Greeks were the first to produce wine on a large scale because the terrain and climate were conducive to grape growing. They improved the wine press and also developed the system of growing grapes in a row. This new process allowed for more vines to be planted in one area, so production increased. With higher yield and wine being more accessible to more people, the subject of exclusivity turned to the age of the wine which became symbolic of status. Wine came to be associated with wealth, so that the net worth of an individual was closely associated with his vineyard holdings.
- 7th Century B.C.E. Wealthy, and well educated Greeks held symposia, basically parties of sorts where philosophical, literature, and political discussions took place. Wine was always mixed with water, to not do was considered barbaric. These “parties” were attended only by men and held in a room called andron. Behavior while drinking wine was of utmost importance. The playwright Aeschylus stressed this importance when he said ” Bronze is the mirror of the outward form, wine is the mirror of the mind.” In other words “Behave yourself!” Of course good behavior was usually not the norm.
- 7th Century B.C.E. Even though good behavior was expected throughout the symposia, “boys will be boys”, and yes, a drinking game was sometimes part of the festivities. The game was called kottabos and went something like this: the participants would fling their last remaining drops of wines at a specified target in the room. The target could be a bowl, a bronze shaped disk or anything else.
- 200 B.C.E. By now the Romans who had conquered the Greeks had adopted the customs of drinking wine. Roman soldiers were rewarded with tracts of land on which to grow grapes. Like in Greece, wine became symbolic of civilization and refinement. The Romans also adopted wine growing techniques from the Greeks. The Romans came to grow multiple varieties. In 70 C.E. the writer Pliny the Elder recorded that at the time 80 wine types were grown in the Roman world (Roman Empire), 2/3 of those were grown in Italy. Wow!
- 170 B.C.E. If you thought wine tastings are a modern phenomena, think again! In 170 B.C.E. Galen, the physician to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius descended in to the bowels of the imperial cellars to find the “best” wine for his master to supplement his medicine. After multiple tastings of wines 20 years or older, he chose a Falernian, at the time deemed the best wine to be had. This wine was grown in a specific region south of Naples. Limited production made it expensive and coveted by the elite. Julius Caesar supposedly imbibed of this wine in 121 B.C. E., which by the way was considered the best vintage ever for Falernian.
- The Romans like the Greeks mixed in water with their wine. They also developed other mixtures and created their own unique beverages. Muslum, for example was wine with honey mixed in, a drink that was in vogue during the reign of Tiberius. Posca, another Roman concoction, was a lesser quality wine offered to Roman soldiers on military campaigns. Often posca would sour, due to the perishable nature of wine. Finally at the lowest rung of the ladder was lora, wine that was served to slaves and made from the skins and seeds of grapes.
- 87 B.C.E. Choosing the right wine to serve a guest is not often considered a matter of life or death, but of good hospitality. Well, for Marcus Antonius, a Roman politician, his high status and his host’s desire to please was his death sentence. Marcus Antonius was “on the run” sort of speak from warring political factions. He decided to ask for lodging in the home of an individual of low birth thinking it to be a safe harbor. His host sent his servant to fetch a good quality wine, one worthy of his guest’s status. When questioned by the shopkeeper about the unusual purchase, the servant gave away the name of the illustrious guest. The rest as they say is history.
- Present day: not much has changed, really. Today, wine producers are still tweaking the taste of wine through the use of oak wine barrels, grafting, and various other methods. Wine connoisseurs pride themselves in being able to identify grape, vintage, and provenance. This appreciation of wine’s qualities started with the Greeks, and continues to this day. Wine is sometimes also considered more sophisticated than beer. There are also different wines for different budgets, reinforcing the fact that finer wines are indeed a mark of status.
I hope you have enjoyed these 15 Grape Moments in Wine History. Go ahead and share with your wine and history loving friends.