The origins of wine

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


We may not know how humans were first introduced to wine but we do know that people have been imbibing since at least 4000 b.c. Maybe as far back as 6000 b.c. and maybe even further back than that.

Mesopotamia (Persia), near present day Iran, and Egypt-the end-points of the Fertile Crecent-seem to be the birthplace of ancient winemaking. And recent discoveries point to winemaking in China during the same period.

A Persian fable has it that an ancient king kept his beloved grapes in an earthen jar labeled “poison”. A discontented member of his harem drank juice from the jar in a suicide attempt, but instead of dying, she found her spirits quite rejuvenated. She shared the drink with her king, who took her into his favor and decreed that, henceforth, grapes would be allowed to ferment. Men have been buying their women drinks ever since.

Ancient Persia was truly wine country. Not only did the Persians give toasts to their gods with wine, they also paid salaries in wine. Men earned ten to twenty quarts a month, and women earned ten. The grape varieties they used to make wine are believed to be the precursors of those we use today.

The ancient Egyptians cultivated grapes and made wine in a surprising modern fashion. They developed the first arbors and pruning methods. And the grapes were stomped and fermented in large wooden vats. The wine was mostly sweet white wine, probably made from the grape we now know as the Muscat of Alexandria. As a matter of respect to the gods, the Egyptians used wine in their funeral rites. Depending on the status held by the deceased, his body and belongings were anointed with wine prior to being entombed.

Situated between Egypt and Mesopotamia along the Fertile Crescent were the Phoenicians, who sailed the Mediterranean from what is now the coast of Lebanon. Thus the grapevine-and wine- found its way to Greece, Sicily, and north-central Italy.

The earliest written account of wine that we have is in the Old Testament of the Bible. After the Great Flood, Noah planted a vineyard and made wine. With the first wine came the first occasion of drunkenness-and a lesson about moderation.

During ancient times, everyone drank wine and beer-children included. That’s not as decadent as it might sound. Frankly, drinking the water was hazardous to one’s health, and wine was a good substitute thirst quencher. If you sipped one of those old-style wines today, you’d probably notice that it was lower in alcohol than modern day wines and tasted more like vinegar with a hint of cider. But it was certainly better than the water that was available. While wine was a staple of daily life, it was consumed mostly by the rich and powerful. Beer was the drink of the common folk.

From: The Everything Wine Book by Barbara Nowak & Beverly Wichman