While we love to hear about its recent history on a wine tour or from a book, no one knows exactly when the first grape was crushed, fermented and turned into a beverage. We do know, however, that as far back as Ancient Egypt, wine has played an important part in the human world of ceremony, religion and socialisation. |
Viniculture and Ancient Civilisation
As far back as 4,000 BC, the Egyptians honoured Hathor, the god of wine, with a monthly ‘day of intoxication’ and the Greek god of viniculture, Dionysus, was seen as the giver of good things including civilisation itself.
The Romans went a step further by believing that the drink was, in fact, a gift from the gods bestowed on man by Jupiter himself. And it was the Romans, with their advanced winemaking techniques, that helped put it on the map, literally.
As their empire spread out over Europe, the Romans took their favourite drink, and the knowledge of how to make it, with them. They began storing it in barrels and were the first people to begin ‘bottling’. In fact, the drink was so popular amongst the Romans and the people they ruled that most major European towns would have had their own taverns.
The Role of Religion
With wine playing such an important part in the ancient world, it is not surprising that it is so deeply entrenched in the ‘new’ religions of that time, Judaism and Christianity. In the Old Testament it is described as a blessing from God himself and in Christianity, Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine.
But for the history of viniculture, one of the most important moments, was when Christ used the red vintage he was drinking at the Last Supper to symbolise his own blood. This, of course, became part of the Christian sacrament of communion and meant that the church needed a steady supply to perform its duty.
The monks of the Catholic religion, dominant across Europe in the Middle Ages, became, through necessity, master wine makers. They often co-opted the best lands to grow the vines they needed to create it for their ceremonies.
It is said that Saint Martin, riding on his donkey through the Loire Valley, stopped and allowed his donkey to graze. His donkey began to eat the vine leaves and, tradition has it, this was where the technique of short pruning vines was born.
But while the vineyards were kept to make wine for religious purposes, the monasteries were free to sell off any surplus and this became an important source of revenue for the church. In France, Benedictine monks became one of the largest producers in Europe with vineyards in Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Today there are 109 wine appellations in France with monastic origins, 45 in Germany and 17 in Italy.
It was in the 17th and 18th century with improved standards of glass for bottling and the invention of the cork that ‘fine’ examples began to emerge. France took the lead at this time, with its Bordeaux clarets becoming hugely popular throughout Europe. It was at this time that France also extended its trade, exporting to Europe and across the Atlantic to America.
Thanks to modern advancements in technology like refrigeration and harvesting equipment, the volume of wine produced today has grown exponentially. But, as can be seen on a wine tour of some of Europe’s smaller vineyards, many producers today retain at least some of the traditional techniques used for millennia.
The ‘history’ of wine is one thing, but it is possible that our love of the grape-based drink stretches back even further than that, to a time before history.
The discovery of a storage jar from 8,000 years ago, which has been analysed by scientists, shows that Neolithic man was already creating and storing a rudimentary version of the drink. If that is the case, then maybe our relationship with this ‘nectar of the gods’ is, in fact, as old as time – now that’s something to think about on your next European Waterways wine tour.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider if you're looking for an all-inclusive, luxury wine tour barge holiday in France or other great destinations. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.
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