A Brief History of Wine

It is generally now accepted that wine was discovered by accident somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, the agriculturally generous expanse of river valleys extending from the Nile to the Persian Gulf. Despite the fact that archaeologists have traced the origins of wine grapes back tens of thousands of years, the first evidence of wine having actually been made from grapes comes from a clay pot found in ancient Persia dating from around 10,000 years BC.

The early civilisations in this region owed their existence to the rich soils, and it is here that the wine grape first thrived. Separate waves of the great, ancient, seafaring cultures of the ancient world (firstly the Phoenicians, then the Greeks, then the Romans) took the vine and the secrets of winemaking with them on their travels along the shores of the Mediterranean and Europe.

Despite popular myth, the grapevine was introduced to southern Gaul (which is now France) long before the Romans arrived. The Romans did, however, teach their sophisticated cultivation methods to the native Gauls and also introduced hardier varietals to the northern regions of France.

During the time of the Crusades, the European Christian soldiers brought back new strains of Vitis vinifera to Europe. During this period the two most important regions of France, Burgundy and Bordeaux, further developed their reputations for producing quality wines.

When Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the early 12th century, part of her dowry included the vineyard areas of Bordeaux and neighbouring Gascony. The pale-red wine of these regions gained favor in England, where it became known as Claret, and by the mid 14th century the port of Bordeaux was shipping the equivalent of a million cases of wine per year to Britain.

By the end of the 17th century, France had become recognized as being the greatest of the wine-producing nations. The French Revolution in 1789 had a negative impact on wine production in Burgundy. The vineyards there were seized from the Church and the noblemen, and were given instead to the people. Unfortunately few of them were given enough acreage to produce their own wine.

Thomas Jefferson wrote enthusiastically of the quality of French wine in correspondence to friends and encouraged the planting of European wine grapes in the New World at the end of the 18th century. These early attempts at wine cultivation in the American colonies were largely unsuccessful, and the transplanting back and forth of European and native American vines brought a destructive vine louse to Europe. The result of this was the famous phylloxera blight of the late 1800s, which destroyed most of the vineyards across both France and Europe as a whole.

Missionaries were responsible for the first vines planted in New Zealand, back in 1819. The Australians, however, were ahead of their neighbours (the first bunches of grapes were picked in the Governor’s garden in the late 18th century, and were grown from vines transplanted from South Africa’s Cape).

By this time, the South Africans had been making wine for almost 150 years. Indeed the Cape Province’s first vineyard was planted in 1655 by its first governor, Jan van Riebeeck. Initially, the wines produced were of pretty low quality and were intended for domestic consumption. During the 20th century this quality increased, improvements in transport techniques resulted and a growing demand for the wines of the New World, particularly from the UK increased production further.

In 1905 an effort was made to establish consistent standards for all of the important aspects of wine production, including grape varieties, alcohol content, region of production and vineyard yields. France passed a series of laws, collectively known as the “appellation d’origine controlee” laws, which guarded the famous place-names of France and guaranteed that wines bearing their names have, and still meet, rigorous controls. Italy followed this lead soon after with their own set of laws, the “denominazione di origine controllata” and “denominazione di origine controllata egarantita”.

The New World producers took a different approach and while Old World producers made their blended wines and wines named after the areas were they were made (for instance, Chablis or Champagne), their New World counterparts were making what are known as varietal wines, where the grape variety that goes into the wine takes pride of place on the label. It became much easier for the average person to choose and buy wine, afterall all you needed to know was whether you liked the taste of a Merlot or a Pino Noir for example. Willamette Valley tours

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