Wine 101 – Exploring the When

Wine has been around for as long as anyone can remember, and probably much, much longer than that. It’s always been a strong part of human culture, and synonymous with having a good time.

Contrary to its perception in today’s age, wine remains, at its core, extremely simplistic. It means sharing. It means companionship and brotherhood. If you were an ancient Roman, it meant cheerfully passing out on the floor of your domus every day after dinner.

But in spite of its simplicity, wine still remains calmly enigmatic, stumping all attempts to truly understand it. From generations of vineyard owners to the legendary Master Sommeliers alike, nobody can ever really say that they know everything there is to know about wine.

Let’s take a little jump back in time now, to about 8,000 years ago. We’ve found evidence of wine that goes that far back, in Georgia. The ancient Greeks had a God of Wine, Dionysus* – many of our modern practices are derived from theirs.
It was a pretty major part of Egyptian culture and history, too, being one of the many items that Pharaohs were entombed with.

* For those of you not interested in Classical Mythology, you’ll find multiple references (and occasional appearances) to Dionysus in the Percy Jackson book series.

Ancient Rome was one of the largest influences on the growth, study, and business of wine. If France, Italy and Germany are the most famous wine producers today, it’s because of these guys. Wine was an essential part of their diet. In fact, it got so crazy that Roman leaders actually had to uproot half their vineyards so that their people would drink less.

Following the spread of Catholicism to the rest of Europe, wine then became part of the celebration of Mass, as part of the Communion. Word soon spread about the order of the Benedictine Monks, who were working wonders with wine in the Champagne region.*

* To those of you familiar with the name Dom Perignon, he was a monk in the Benedictine Order. His contribution to the study of winemaking was immense. The most prestigious Champagne from the house of Möet et Chandon is named after him.

Wine eventually spread to South America in the 16th Century, where Mexico became a leading producer. Today, Argentina and Chile are famous wine producing areas from South America.

One of the biggest tragedies in winemaking, however, remains the phylloxera blight of the 19th Century. Scientifically speaking, phylloxera is a stupid, microscopic bug with an unjustified, unfair appetite for quality wine. It reached Europe by piggybacking on imported American grapevines.*

* Winemaking grapes (called vitis vinifera), are a different species from the American variety, which actually produce terrible wine.

It then proceeded to methodically obliterate many of France’s prime vineyards, including those in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and southern Rhône. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal, the damages were estimated to be about ten billion francs. And this was in the 19th Century.

The solution was ironic, because the same American grapes that brought the blight, ended up saving the wine business in Europe from extinction. Phylloxera attacked and poisoned the roots of the vines, and the vinifera vines were extremely susceptible to it. The American grapevine roots, however, had a natural resilience to the bug. So by grafting the American vine root onto the vinifera shoot, the problem was solved.

We may not have been there at the time, but every wine enthusiast today sheds a mental tear every time they hear about the Blight. Sigh.

Another, much more recent historical event (the good kind, though) occurred in 1976.
American vineyards had been producing wine since the 19th Century, but were always considered inferior to their European rivals (especially the French).

The Judgment of Paris, as it is called, was a competition held in Paris in 1976, where wines from different regions were blind tasted (the tasters do not see the bottle or the label, or anything that could influence their decision, apart from the taste). To everyone’s surprise, Californian wines were found to be of higher quality than the others in the blind tasting, winning both the red and white wine categories. The competition included long-time champions from Bordeaux, as well as many other established, prestigious vineyards from France.

It was a historic moment for the movement of New World Wines, giving them the necessary push to gain popularity among the masses, and eliminating the belief that good wine could come only from Europe.
Since then, the world has become more receptive to wines from South Africa, Australia and Chile, and it’s possible India might emerge as one of those markets as well.

To study wine is to the study the world, because it ages as the world does. I’ve tried to be as brief and succinct as possible, but that’s often difficult with such a vast subject. Wine has been around since prehistoric times, witnessing the rise and fall of every great empire, hundreds upon hundreds of wars, famines, floods, droughts and natural disasters, and has impacted, and been impacted by, each of those events.

And it still remains a strong part of human culture. More than 8,000 years of ripe history, and it has many, many more yet to come.

I’ll drink to that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s