A Brief History of Wine

Mankind has been drinking wine for thousands of years and we’ve been producing it ever since we learned to farm. It’s a core element of human history and has played an important role in all aspects of civilization; from agriculture to religion to culture. We feel that our Wine Fortnight would be remiss if we didn’t discuss the history of this libation. What follows is a VERY brief history of wine, from antiquity to the modern era, that will hopefully provide a better understanding of how it’s produced and consumed today. 

Welcome to FMMS’ Fortnight of Wine! As the harvest season approaches, we thought it would be the perfect time to take a deep dive into that most wonderful of elixirs. Over the next two weeks, we’ll have a few more posts than usual as we explore wine’s ins and outs, after which we’ll be be back to our regularly scheduled programming. So grab a glass of your favourite and read on, for as Andre Simon said, “Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.”

Monday, September 15 – A Brief History of Wine
Wednesday, September 17 – Varieties of Wine
Friday, September 19 – Sangria
Monday, September 22 – Conversations with a Wine Connoisseur
Wednesday, September 24 – Our Wine Tasting Experience
Friday, September 26 – Conversations with a Winemaker

“No thing more excellent nor more valuable than wine was ever granted mankind by God.” – Plato


“In vino veritas, in vino sanitas” (In wine there is truth, in wine there is health) – Roman Proverb

Evidence of wine dates back to prehistoric times, with the first evidence of the fermented beverage showing up between 7,000 and 6,000 B.C. Recently, archeologists found a full cellar of wine from the bronze age, 3,000 years ago. This is a very long time ago, and thinking about it hurts my head, so lets start off with the Greeks and Romans and the fabled discovery of wine by Dionysus (Bacchus for you Romans out there), the God of Wine.


The Greeks, The Romans, and The God of Wine

Bacchus - Caravaggio

Somewhat Sober Bacchus (a painting by Caravaggio)

Wine was extremely important in Greek and Roman culture and society, so much so that they even had a God of Wine. The story goes:

Zeus (in good old Greek God fashion) was having an affair with a mortal woman named Semele and happened to get her pregnant. Hera, Zeus’ wife, found out about the affair and was understandably upset about it. So upset in fact, that she tricked Semele into asking Zeus to reveal himself to her. Apparently, mortals cannot look at undisguised Gods without dying (come on, who doesn’t know that, really?) so she died in the resulting torrent of lighting and fire when Zeus took off his disguise and revealed his true form. Being the compassionate, but slightly weird, guy that he was, Zeus took the as-yet-unborn fetus from Semele and sewed it into his thigh. When the baby was born, he sent him far away so that he could escape Hera’s wrath. This child eventually travelled back to Greece, but not before learning how to cultivate wine. This child was Dionysus, and he was the first person to learn how to cultivate wine, spreading the knowledge of wine across the world, and probably getting pretty drunk while doing so. His discovery was so important that when he made it back to Greece he was rewarded by being immortalized as a God.

Bacchus after drinking an entire bottle of Bordeaux and half a bottle of Sherry, courtesy of Disney

Bacchus after drinking an entire bottle of Bordeaux and half a bottle of Sherry, courtesy of Disney

Regardless of what you think of this story, wine was very important in ancient Greece and Rome. It was widely used in medicine and religious ceremonies. In ancient Rome, it was often prescribed as a cure for many mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. It was also seen as a necessity for everyday life and was consumed by all social classes.

Wine also plays a large role in Christianity; Jesus turning water, and eventually even his blood, into wine and the religious symbolism that carries to this day. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it largely survived thanks to the Roman Catholic Church and its use of wine in the celebration of mass.


The Middle Ages (Is that a wine fountain in your backyard?)

In the middle ages, wine was still a very common drink, especially in Southern Europe where it continued to be enjoyed by all social classes. In Northern Europe, grapes and wine were hard to come by, so most of the lower classes stuck to beer. However, the nobility still enjoyed good wine. King Henry the VIII loved it so much that he had a wine fountain built in the courtyard of his castle at Hampton Court.

Where do I buy one of these things?

Where do I buy one of these things?

As previously mentioned, wine was also crucial for the celebration of Catholic mass, and as such, many vineyards during the Middle Ages were established, owned, and operated by Catholic monasteries. For example, the Benedictine monks owned vineyards in Champagne, Burgundy, and Bordeaux.

Dom Perignon, Patron Saint of Rappers and other Hip Hop artists

Dom Perignon, Patron Saint of Rappers and other Hip-Hop artists

The Modern Age (The Old World Meets the New)

Many of the vineyards of Europe survived the middle ages and are still in operation to this day. These include the Chianti vineyards of Italy and the Bordeaux vineyards of France. The wines produced in the old vineyards of Europe are generally referred to as “Old World” wines and have a very rich and long tradition.

In contrast to these wines are the “New World” wines which are grown in other parts of the world and have a less lengthy history. European grapes were first brought to the Americas by the Spanish and were used to make wine for Catholic masses. As more and more settlers began inhabiting the colonies, wine production began to take off in these parts of the world. Some great wines can now be found all over the world, from Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Canada, and Australia, to name a few.

Napa Valley Wineries (insert source)

Napa Valley Wineries (Wikipedia)


Grapes and Regions

Wine can be characterized by the type (or types) of grapes it is derived from, or the region it was made in. For example, some common types of grapes are; Merlot from France, Sangiovese from Italy, and Riesling from Germany, while Bordeaux and Chianti are specific regions where wine is made. Bordeaux wine, for example, is made in the Bordeaux region of France and dates back to Roman times. It is made from a variety of grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

We will delve into this a little further over the course of the FMMS Fortnight of Wine, so stay tuned!


… And so Much More

There is so much rich history surrounding wine, and if you are truly interested here are some great sources to learn more:

If you are VERY interested in wine, you could even quit your job and try for a PhD in wine Science (yeah, that’s right…  It’s an actual thing).

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