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History of wine

“The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” – Thucydides, 5th century BC

So wrote the Greek historian, and indeed, winemaking is as old as civilization itself. Just as society finds its roots in ancient Mesopotamia, the earliest evidence we have for the cultivation of grapes and the supervised fermentation of their juices dates back to 6,000 BC in the ancient Middle East. The Egyptians recorded the harvest of grapes on the walls of their tombs; bottles of wine were even buried with pharaohs in order that they might entertain guests in the afterlife. Wine was also considered a drink of the elite in ancient Greece, and it was a centerpiece of the famous symposia, immortalised by Plato and the poets of the period. But it was during the Roman era that wine became popular throughout society. In Roman cities wine bars were set up on almost every street, and the Romans exported wine and winemaking to the rest of Europe. Soon, production and quality of wine in other regions rivaled that of Rome herself: in AD 92, Emperor Domitian decreed that all of the vines in the Cahors region (near Bordeaux) be pulled out, ostensibly in favor of the wheat cultivation the empire so desperately needed, but possibly also to quell the competition with Italian wine exports.

After the fall of Rome, wine continued to be produced in the Byzantine Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. It spread eastward to Central Asia along the Silk Route, while grape wine was known in China by the eighth century. But the spread of Islam largely extinguished the wine industry in North Africa and the Middle East. Throughout Europe, winemaking was primarily the business of monasteries, because of the need for wine in the Christian sacraments. During this period, stronger more full-bodied wines replaced their sweeter ancient predecessors (which usually were mixed with water before drinking). During the Renaissance, the virtues of various wine regions were appreciated by the increasingly sophisticated wine drinkers, and by the 18th century the wine trade soared, especially in France, where Bordeaux became the pre-eminent producer of fine wines. The development of distinctive strains of wine grapes led to the production of regional wines with easily recognisable characteristics.

In the New World, the first successful winemaking occurred in the 19th century. Somewhat surprisingly, Ohio was the first region in America to successfully cultivate grapes for wine, but it was soon eclipsed by wine production in California. About this time, grape cultivation first began in earnest in Australia. In the Old World, Champagne was establishing itself as a favourite luxury beverage, and fortified wines such as ports and sherries were becoming increasingly popular, especially in Britain. But despite the growing success of the industry, there was also a catastrophe: late in the century, the phylloxera epidemic destroyed many old European vines, a disaster that affected winemaking for decades. The plague was overcome by grafting cuttings of European varietal vines onto disease-resistant American rootstock.

Today, winemaking is a global industry, with most of the countries of the world producing wine. Machines that can harvest huge areas by day or night have increased production, and modern viticultural science has ensured that the resulting product meets uniform standards, though sometimes at the expense of quality and flavour. Indeed, there has been a recent trend toward more traditional methods of winemaking such as unfiltered wines that preserve more of the grapes’ true character.

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