Wine: It All Began With Grapes And Yeast
Although there are many legends about how mankind became familiar with wine, the true origin will probably never be known. It is now thought that wine first was made in the Caucasus region about 10,000 years ago. The area we now know as Georgia seems to hold pride of place as initiating wine production. However, it is unlikely that the connection between grapes and wine would have been made at such an early date if it was not for the wild yeast that often occurs on the skin of grapes. Undoubtedly, some household had pressed grapes for their juice, left it for a while, and came back to find wine instead. It was probably a totally accidental discovery, but probably was one of the most important events in world history. The yeast is what changes the sugars in the grape juice to alcohol and makes it wine. A great deal of human life and culture has been wrapped up in wine, and it has been a major trade item for millennia.
Wine In The Ancient World
Anyone with some knowledge of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome will be aware of the importance of wine in their cultures. Although much of the wine in these areas was used for ceremonial religious purposes, it was also consumed in great quantities, either full strength of diluted with water. At some level, people probably understood that wine diminished the chance of contracting a water-borne disease if it was added to water.
An ancient wine press was found in what is now Armenia that dates back about 6,000 years, which shows that people had already been drinking wine for quite some time. Ancient Greece was probably responsible for the refinement of wine making, but it was under the Roman Empire that production was made more standardized, and a major economic factor. As the Romans expanded their territory, they brought with them the custom of drinking wine. Although a form of beer was known in northern Europe and the British Isles before the Roman invasions, wine was a new introduction to these regions.
It wasn’t long before vineyards began to appear in France and even England as root stock was planted in these areas. One important contribution that Northern Europeans made to the wine industry was the use of oak barrels to age the wine. Previously, ceramic jars had been used for this purpose, but it was found that the oak casks allowed the wine to ‘breathe’ while it was fermenting. The oak casks also added to the flavor of the wine, and these casks are still used by winemakers today.
Up to a certain point, Rome was able to export its wines north, but as the new vines began to produce, Romans found themselves in the uncomfortable position of importing wines from their conquered territories. This cut into income of domestic producers and led some of the emperors to forbid the importation of wine.
Wine Making Continues To Develop
The collapse of the Roman Empire did not spell the end of winemaking, as viniculture had spread throughout Europe by this time. Many Christian religious orders became adept at winemaking, as wine was needed as a part of the Catholic ceremony. Wine cultivation was also introduced into the New World in the 1600s, and it nearly proved to be the undoing of the wine industry. Unknown to the people who were transporting grapes rootstock back and forth across the ocean, a dangerous ‘predator’ of grape vines, the grape phylloxera, was introduced to Europe from America. While grapes from North America had developed immunity to this threat, vines in Europe had no protection.
The grape phylloxera causes the death of grape vines by the action of the nymphs of the species. Moving from the leaves where the initial eggs are laid, the nymphs travel down to the roots, where they dig in and feed at their leisure. Unfortunately, they introduce poisons into the grape roots to keep the sap flowing. Besides the toxins, very often fungal infections are also introduced that contribute to the death of the plant.
Although numberless vineyards were destroyed by this insect, it was found that by grafting grape vines from European stock onto the roots of American grapes, the plant would survive an attack. Sadly, some varieties would not graft and became extinct.
Today, winemaking is a nearly worldwide endeavor – anywhere that the climate is suited to the cultivation of grapes now sees rows of grape vines dotting the landscape. California probably became the first to break the hold of French and Italian wines, but the industry has also spread to Australia and New Zealand, as well as other spots around the globe.