Wine throughout history: The prehistoric age
In the first of a new series exploring wine through the ages, we look at the evidence of the very first wine production and the role it played in prehistoric civilisation.
Wine has been around for thousands of years, which helps put the quality of recent vintages into perspective – producers have a lot of historical knowledge to draw from!
The oldest known ‘winery’ was recently unearthed in Armenia, with archaeologists dating the site and its rudimentary press back to 4000BC, although traces of wine residue has been found on ceramic jars in modern day Georgia dating back to 6000BC.
Despite these findings, there’s no way researchers can pinpoint the time or event that saw grapes first fermented into wine. One popular Persian myth tells of King Jamshid who kept fresh grapes in jars to enjoy throughout the day, and when the grapes turned ‘bad’ he would label the liquid as poison. The story goes that one of his harem, banished by the king and gripped by depression, drank the poison in an attempt to commit suicide. Instead, the ‘poison’ relaxed her and she awoke in the morning feeling much more content. So taken was Jamshid with the discovery that he decreed that all grapes grown in Persepolis would be devoted solely to winemaking
This is a fairly questionable story, of course, not least because few people wake up after a night on wine feeling content. It’s more likely that early man accidentally created wine after grapes became crushed under the weight of other fruits in transit or storage, and simply took to their mildly intoxicating effect.
It’s thought that grapevines were domesticated around 4000BC, and come 3000BC vineyards were well established around the Nile delta in Egypt. But the climate was unsuited to large-scale production, so wine was imported from Levant at huge cost. As such, wine in Egypt at this stage was reserved only for the Egyptian elite. And given its likeness to blood, was used predominantly in ceremonies and during funerals.
Knowledge of winemaking spread, and by 2500BC vines had been cultivated in Greece and Crete, in a climate much more suited to viticulture. Production increased and consumption became widespread among the population, so much so that come 800BC all members of the Assyrian royal household (some 6,000 individuals) were allocated a daily wine ration.
This in many ways gave rise to wine culture as we know it today. Wine was no longer a drink reserved only for the elite, so connoisseurs set themselves apart by identifying the subtle differences between different wines. Individual regions became associated with certain styles of wine, and the relationship between wine age and quality was established.
For the ancient Greeks especially, wine formed a fundamental part of civilisation. The symposium (as depicted above, being interrupted by a drunken Alcibiades) was central to Greek life, and it was here that men would sit together, drink from a communal bowl and talk politics. However, wine at these gatherings was always diluted with water, to help delay drunkenness. Legend told that only Bacchus, the god of wine, could drink it undiluted without spiralling into madness.
It was also around this point that the Bible first makes reference to wine, in the book of Genesis, where Noah drunkenly exposed himself to his sons after one too many.
It wasn’t long before the Roman Empire overtook the Greeks as the dominant force in the Mediterranean, adopting many of their ways and transplanting vines from Greece to the Italian peninsula, and by 146BC Italy had become the world’s largest wine-producing region. The demand for wine eventually became so great that production became a commercial enterprise. Subsistence grape farmers were displaced by bigger estates that used slave labour, and food crops were pulled up and destroyed to make space for new vineyards. Soon wine was being shipped from Italy in enormous volumes to countries as far away as India.
It seemed the whole world was enamoured with wine, with Pliny the Elder, Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, writing in Naturalis Historia, “In wine, there is truth.”
By the time the BCs became the Ads (and Jesus had performed the miracle of turning water into wine), grapevines had been successfully domesticated by man, different wine varieties had been identified and practices such as screw presses and barrel maturation were the norm. The foundations for the modern wine industry had been laid.