As one of the most popular beverages in the world, wine has a long history. It is a drink with many faces and wine grapes are now present on all continents, including Antarctica. Wine is a drink rich in variety and flavor. It can last for years, decades, and even centuries. Wine has enormous symbolic importance and was essential to many religious ceremonies for thousands of years. Thus, it is unsurprising that its very name sounds similar in most of the world’s languages. The English word “wine” comes from the Latin word vinum, reminding us of its paramount importance to the everyday life of the ancient Romans, who laid the foundations of modern-day wine culture, and the wine industry. Yet, wine predates the Roman Empire, not by centuries but by millennia. Join us as we walk through the history of wine in 9 amazing facts.
1. The History of Wine Begins Not in Europe but in Asia
Like coffee, another popular drink that reshaped the world, the history of wine did not originate in Europe. Instead, archaeological evidence indicates that wine was first produced in China around 9000 BCE. However, it was much different than our present-day beverage, as ancient Chinese wine was made with grapes, fermented rice, and honey. Two thousand years later, the seeds of what became the European winemaking tradition began in western Asia, in Iran. As for Europe, the first evidence for domesticated grapes comes from the Southern Caucasus, the area occupied by present-day Armenia and Georgia.
In 2016, archeologists discovered the world’s oldest winery in Armenia, dating to 4100 BCE. Among the material found in a cave were a drinking bowl and cup, a grape press, and fermentation jars. The grape juice made from Vitis vinifera, was buried underground for winter, allowing it to ferment and produce wine. According to research, the final product was like an unfiltered red wine, and would have tasted like Merlot. This wine from Armenia was also the first known beverage used in religious ceremonies, as the cave was once a burial ground.
2. Wine was the Drink of the Pharaohs and the Gods
Wine entered written history in ancient Egypt in the third millennium BCE. However, while tomb paintings show people harvesting grapes, and making and drinking the red liquid, another drink — beer — was favored over wine. There was simply not enough land to cultivate grapes, and the climate was also unfavorable for large-scale wine production. Wine remained the drink of the pharaohs and the elites, becoming a status symbol and, by extension, a drink used in religious ceremonies.
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Due to its red color, the ancient Egyptians thought wine resembled blood. Thus, it was linked to the myth of Osiris, perceived as the blood of the god of resurrection. In addition, archaeological findings suggest that wine was used in burial ceremonies and for medical purposes. Ancient Egyptians probably encountered wine grapes through trade with the mariners of the ancient Mediterranean — the Phoenicians. They also helped to spread wine culture north towards the Jewish kingdom in Palestine. As in Egypt, Jews also began cultivating wine, making it an essential part of their ceremonies. They also made it a foundation of their scriptures. Noah, the builder of the famous Ark, was also one of history’s first known vintners.
3. The Greeks Democratized Wine
The Phoenicians became key players in the wine trade, spreading grapes across the Mediterranean. However, wine took its most fateful steps in another place, becoming one of the integral elements of ancient Greek society. The earliest evidence for wine in the region comes from Minoan tombs on Crete, dating back to 3000 – 2000 BCE. In the centuries that followed, Greeks perfected the beverage. But, more importantly, they made wine widely available. No longer restricted to the upper classes, wine reflected Greek democracy. It became a staple of everyday life, for everyone from kings to commoners. Even slaves drank it. However, wine could still mark social distinctions. The best homegrown wines and foreign imports were reserved for the rich.
Ancient Greece was the first place that had different wine-producing regions. It was also the first place where wine became an essential element in intellectual debates. Philosophers and other participants at symposia (social gatherings where important matters would be discussed) drank wine to achieve clarity of mind. However, the ancient Greeks did not drink pure wine as we do nowadays. Instead, they mixed it with water. In fact, drunkenness was frowned upon. Only uncivilized barbarians would drink just wine.
4. Ancient Wine Cults Were a Big Deal
Wine was so beloved in Ancient Greece that it had its own deity. Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, was the god of wine, viticulture, orchards, fruit, and vegetation. By extension, he was also a god of fertility, insanity, and, more importantly, religious ecstasy, festivity, and theatre, whose creation was inspired by Dionysus. According to legend, Dionysus made wine, also known as “the juice of the Gods” available for everyone.
To celebrate this feat and to offer their thanks, the ancient Greeks organized unique religious ceremonies and festivals in Dionysus’ honor. Known as the Dionysia (or Bacchanalia by the Romans), the event gave the ancients an excuse to let loose from societal constraints and indulge in heavy drinking and wild behavior, including nudity and sexual activities. For a brief time, women, slaves, and even prisoners could experience the freedom of an ordinary male citizen.
5. Wine Conquered Europe Under Rome’s Banner
As the Greek city-states began to spread throughout the Mediterranean, so did viticulture. Like the Phoenicians, Greek ships would transport grapevines. They introduced the Vitis vinifera grapes to the newly colonized areas, including the island of Sicily, before eventually making their way to Rome. By the middle of the second century BC, Romans took the torch from the Greeks, making wine the central part of their culture. In addition, they fine-tuned the viticulture process, inventing wooden barrels and other techniques that helped them produce more at a quicker pace and lower cost. Packed in large amphorae, wine traveled across the Mediterranean (and beyond, to Africa, India, and China) in the hold of Roman merchant ships.
Like the Grecians, Romans made wine easily accessible to all. However, while the emperors and the senators enjoyed expensive and fine vintages, cooling their drinks with ice from the mountains, the masses drank lower-quality wines: mustum (mixed with vinegar), mulsum (sweetened with honey), and lora (bitter wine made from leftover grape components after pressing). As the Roman Empire expanded its borders, the grapevines followed in the footsteps of the legions, reaching the areas of present-day France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the Balkans, and Central Europe. In fact, the first vineyards were planted next to the garrisons to facilitate the demands of the soldiers stationed in the region. As a result, those areas gradually became the producers of the finest European wines.
6. Wine Remained a Holy Drink Thanks to the Blood of Christ
In 312 CE, Christianity became an official religion under Emperor Constantine the Great, and by 380, a state religion. The new religion embraced wine, the drink that played an important role in the Bible and in the life of Jesus Christ. Christ’s first miracle was the transformation of six jars of water into wine at a wedding in Cana. More importantly, Christ’s offering of wine at the Last Supper led to its role in the Eucharist, the central ritual in the Christian religion where the red liquid symbolizes Christ’s blood, his ultimate sacrifice for all mankind.
Wine’s importance to Christianity caused both the Catholic and Orthodox Church to focus on wine cultivation and production. As a result, monks in Italy and France and their counterparts in the Byzantine Empire began working as vintners, perfecting winemaking technology under the caring gaze of Saint Tryphon, the patron of vineyards. However, the rise of Islam, and the ban on wine consumption in the Quran, led to the gradual withdrawal of viticulture from the eastern areas of the former Roman Empire to some degree, limiting wine drinking to the courts, churches, cities, and villages of Christian Europe.
7. Chile Is Home to the New World’s First Winery
Viking sagas described a fantastic land on the other side of the Atlantic, filled with wild vines and wine of excellent quality. They called it Vinland. While the Vikings probably reached North America at the end of the first millennium CE, it would take four more centuries for the Europeans to establish a permanent presence in the New World.
The first explorers and colonizers of North and South America brought guns, germs, and viticulture. The first winery in the Americas was established in Chile in the 16th century. This is not surprising, as wine was inseparable from the Roman Catholic Church, which fueled the colonization. From Chile, the missionaries traveled to Argentina. Up to the present day, these two countries are world famous for their regional grape varieties.
In North America, the first attempts to establish vineyards took place in Florida by the French and later Spanish colonists. By the end of the 18th century, Spanish colonizers had brought grapes to the Pacific Coast. Soon, California became the center of wine production on the continent. The region remains home to the oldest and largest producers of wine in the United States. Nowadays, California is the fourth-largest wine producer in the world, after France, Italy, and Spain.
8. Wine Took Over the Globe — But Was Banned in Japan
Wine traveled on ships all around the globe. When the Dutch East India Company established the first colonies in South Africa, they planted vineyards in the region. In this way, the Dutch secured a steady supply of the tasty liquid for the sailors traveling on their long journey from Europe to Asia. After the English seized the colony, they further increased production to fill the needs of their large trade fleet. In 1787 British ships reached Australia, bringing the first African grapes to the continent. Finally, in the early 19th century, wine production became one of Australia and New Zealand’s leading industries.
However, there was one region where wine encountered strong resistance and was even pushed back. In the 16th century, the Portuguese reached the coasts of Japan, establishing trade missions. As a part of their attempt to convert the Japanese to Catholicism, the Jesuits introduced wine to the natives. However, the conversion program and wine-making hit an obstacle after Japan’s reunification at the century’s end. To prevent growing Western influence, the Japanese banned Christianity and wine consumption. It would take three more centuries for the grapevines to reappear in Japan during the Meiji restoration when the nation embraced Western culture. At this point, wine was now present on all the continents except Antarctica.
9. The History of Wine Comes Full Circle: Wine Is Booming China
The history of wine ends back where it started: in China. While the most famous wine comes from Europe, the Americas, South Africa, and Australia, China is nowadays one of the world’s largest consumers and producers of wine. Rice wine, cherished for millennia, has retained its popularity among the Chinese. But wine made from native and European grape varieties has also grown in status.
In recent years, wine took that last step toward conquering the entire globe. Wine is now grown even on the Earth’s most remote continent – Antarctica. Admittedly, production is low scale, but as global warming is heating up wine regions, some countries are eyeing Antarctica’s newfound potential as an ice wine region. Wine even left Earth’s orbit and landed on the Moon during the historic Apollo 11 mission. Like the humans who enjoy its taste and aroma, wine knows no limits. We can only imagine the next step in the rich history of wine.