History of wine – fruit of the soil and Man’s labours

By Emilie Aires

Step into the traditional world of wine through the ages, through its myths and symbols

Whether wine-producing properties, inns, abbeys or old cellars, wine is intimately associated with a great many venerable country estates. Many celebrated vintages come to life through the pages on this site, ruby, pale straw, terracotta or old gold … but this noble beverage has a heritage all of its own. It is incumbent on intoHistory to pay it homage: as its production has spread to so many countries for countless centuries! The fruit of particularly labour-intensive savoir-faire, wide-ranging in its diversity, wine drinking is the epitome of refinement. It appears in our myths, religious traditions, symbols and artistic currents. Why don’t you let us entice and charm you with its history of wine? Never again will you enjoy a glass of wine without feeling a deep respect for this offering from time immemorial. Particularly if you savour it in the shade of an historic mansion!


At the Castello di Roncade, in the countryside round Venice, guests share the historic Renaissance villa with the domain’s great vintages which are stored there in barrels © Castello di Roncade

The strange destiny of a fruit juice with its inexplicable mutations

Shock and amazement in Mesopotamia 5000 years ago: grape must either rots abysmally or spontaneously ferments and becomes a very strange drink, which certainly has great appeal and whose effects are even more so. And which, when taken to excess, may somewhat modify our behaviour and view of the world.

Vinification remained a mysterious and haphazard process until Louis Pasteur‘s discoveries. What cannot be explained was often associated with the sacred prior to 18th century philosophical thought and Western positivism in the 19th century. Wine was associated with worship in the ancient Assyrian and Mediterranean world and in the Bible and Christianity. From the earliest times it has had a social and cultural role, been an object of trade and a way of life.

A drink of the Gods

Many foods can ferment so can all fruits (or nearly all), producing amazing, delectable and typical wines. But only the vine, and by that I mean only the vitis vinifera, gives this fabulous wine which accompanies our meals and celebrations.

history of wine ur

Surely these are cups of wine the guests at this Mesopotamian banquet are drinking? (Standard of Ur, 3000 BC – British Museum)

In Mesopotamia, fermented grape juice and beer were both considered to be means provided to men by the Gods to enable them to join them in their strange world. Sacred drunkenness, experienced in a group and religious environment enabled them to transgress daily limitations and have psychic and spiritual experiences. The Gods of Mesopotamia were anthropomorphic, they looked like men but they possessed supernatural-powers. They also enjoyed feasting, drinking and a lavish lifestyle. Banquets held in their honour in palaces and temples necessitated the adjunct of wine in deference to their status.

Do you know how to play Kottabos?

In ancient Greece and the Roman Empire as well as in Mesopotamia, sacred drunkenness took place during religious rituals. This was a way of entering into contact with the Gods. Fermentation was always an inexplicable process, seemingly divine in origin, in the same way as good and bad harvests. However, Greeks and Romans frowned upon drunkenness; it was seen to be inappropriate in good society. Wine was drunk, but up to three-quarters watered down, precisely to postpone the fatal point when control was lost, so conversations could continue when meals taken in common were followed by symposia, post-prandial moments shared by men of good society where the art of civilised living was cultivated.

Only Barbarians drunk their wine straight, as they wanted to get drunk and were unaware of the art of conversation, according to the Greeks. This was what defined civilised as compared to barbarian behaviour. The art of eating in company, in a restrained way, drinking but not to excess.

Naturally, in Ancient Greece women were not supposed to drink wine, as the ‘shock’ would be too much for them! Because wine was the God Dionysus in person! He was not the God of Wine, but the wine itself which was consumed and inhabited the drinker’s body.

history of wine

It was common practice to dilute wine which rushed quickly to the head, in the ancient Mediterranean world – Symposion scene from the diver’s tomb in Paestum. © Jean-Pierre Dalbera

intoHistoryA little game at the end of the symposion, Kottabos, made it possible to check one’s guests’ level of personal control: the aim was to project the last drop of wine in one’s cup onto a specific point on the wall in the banqueting hall. To prove oneself stronger than the wine and the God, who had just been imbibed …

The world of the Bible: « the wine that gladdens human hearts» (Psalm 104, 15)

Histoire du vin dans l'antiquité

Wine drinking in Israel was known in the Bronze Age, as this testimony from a grape presser (with bare feet) attests © Biblewalks

In the Jewish world, wine was regarded in a radically different manner. Noah received the vine from the Almighty after the Great Flood and wine was particularly revered in the Old and the New Testament. For the Religions of the Book, man was conceived in the image of God, not the other way round. The sacred texts now conjoined humans to avoid drunkenness, considered inappropriate, regressive and perfunctory at best in earlier polytheist religions. Wine had a good reputation in Jewish circles and Kosher (Jewish food laws), but in moderation, namely to give thanks and be appreciated as a gift of God, the soil and men’s labour.

Christians and wine in the Middle Ages

The earliest monastic writing advocates the total exclusion of wine. But faced with daily realities, Christian thinkers moderated the austerity required of the faithful. A first easing was already mentioned in the 5th century in the Rule of St. Augustine, who authorised wine on Saturdays and Sundays. More of a realist, Saint Benedict de Nursia, the great founder of Benedictine monasticism which would later lead to the Burgundian abbeys of Cluny and Cîteaux, wrote his Rule, which became a model for nearly all subsequent monastic orders: “The daily consumption of wine is tolerated as long as it is moderate”.

Histoire du vin à l'abbaye de Citeaux

The cellar in the Château de Gilly – today a prestigious hotel-restaurant – stored barrels of Clos de Vougeot, produce by the monks of Citeaux Abbey in the 14th century© P. Hardel

To the North of the Loire, wine is somewhat rare and of indifferent quality. Monks were mostly served with barley beer. However, wine was essential for The Eucharist. It was also often served in the Apothecary, where its disinfecting and anesthetizing properties were very valuable. In the monastery’s guesthouse, wine made a better impression at table for prestigious guests, notable pilgrims, local dignitaries and the great and famous who were passing through. All monasteries therefore tried to have a vineyard in the immediate vicinity or a bit further afield, to avoid having to transport wine over long distances.

As the Middle Ages waned, from the 13th century, improvements in routes and the climate called for the end of this self-sufficient regime in favour of more international exchanges. Many monasteries sold off their vineyards to private producers and bought their wine from professional merchants. Consequently, some villages were able to develop thanks to wine production. So, in the Moselle valley, the vineyards (originally planted by Cistercian monks in the 12th century), ended up progressively burgeoning along all the slopes in the valley. The town of Bernkastel-Kues organises an annual Wine Festival dedicated to the wine vocation of a great many villages in the region.

Histoire du vin en Moselle

In the heart of Bernkastel-Kues, reserve a stay in the Märchenhotel, the oldest wine-tasting cellar in town. © Märchenhotel

So what’s your tipple?

The wine produced in the North of France is often a simple ‘vin de table‘. It is produced in most regions by local farmers with no special skills. This beverage has not left much of a mark in the history of wine as it did not occupy a very representative niche in commercial exchanges.

From antiquity onwards, dieticians made a distinction between different types of wine, adapted to different social classes. The rivalry between white wine and red wine was comparable, up to the 18th century to that between white bread and brown bread.  For example, for the ‘leisured’ classes, the social elite, only delicate wines, whites or clarets were suitable. On the other hand, manual labourers needed to drink fortifying red or black wine.

Histoire du vin bourgogne

Depending on the vinification method used, black grapes produced red wine or white wine – harvesting scene on a lord’s estate on a 15th century tapestry from Cluny Museum (Paris).

In 1607, a very successful scientific work the Thrésor de santé, stated: “Black wine and strong red are heavy, earthy substances which weigh a person down, causing obstructions in the liver and pancreas; they are strong tasting and engender stomach pains … However, they are good for vintners and labourers: for once they have been digested through the workings of the stomach and work, they serve as a solid and substantial food, providing men with the strength they need to work hard.”

The agronomist Olivier de Serres, a property owner in Vivarais, confirms the farmers’ taste for strong red wines. His advice is not to let such wine macerate too long but to add some dyer grapes to give the wine colour and satisfy the taste of the wine farmers. “Thus big, juicy red and black grapes are procured without being allowed to macerate for thirty or forty days as some wine farmers do. An appropriate drink for labourers, who, thanks to their continual hard work, digest it easily, which is the effect keenly sought by them, just as white wines and clarets suit the leisured classes”. The perception of wine was still influenced at this time by an ancient belief whereby wine was almost automatically transformed into blood and had therefore to be consumed at the most appropriate temperature for the human body.

history of wine

White wine tasting in the “Oyster lunch” by French painter Jean-François De Troy (1754) – Condé Museum in Chantilly.

It is nonetheless true that at that time wine was considered infinitely healthier than water, which caused many diseases and even more fantasies. However, cases of addiction had already been clearly identified.  Laurent Joubert, a doctor from Montpellier pointed out in 1580 that “in our mountains (I mean those a little further from the hills and plains which produce wine), the poor only drink pure water and thus live longer; neither are they ill as often as those around here (down the valley); However, the ignorant common folk and above all the labourers have such a fondness for wine that they cannot imagine living without it. Whether sick or well, they always crave it, even if suffering from a high fever”.

England embraces Port

At the end of the 17th century, the Anglo-French conflict forced British merchants to buy much more wine from Portugal. The Douro valley wine enjoyed the best reputation – it was rich and full-bodied. It was brought down river from the mountains to the town of Porto. To enable it to cope better with the North Sea crossing, merchants were in the habit of ‘fortifying’ the wine by adding a dash of spirits at the end of the fermentation process. This also had the effect of inhibiting the action of the yeasts and maintaining some grape sugar in the beverage.

Histoire du vin au Portugal

An extraordinary evasion in the history of Port in the rooms of this manor lost among its vines! © Casa das Torres de Oliveira

The elegant 18th century

history of wine bottle

Two 18th century bottles of wine © égoïté

The increasing use of glass bottles – what a change from goatskins – brought about two remarkable innovations: a second fermentation (and champagnisation) and a longer ageing process! Initially, bottles were simple containers, easier to transport and stock than barrels and less costly. The wine was decanted into bottles precisely to free up the barrels. It was only by chance that this second fermentation in the bottle was discovered; it enabled the wine to acquire a delicious effervescence. For still wines, ageing in the bottle, far from the wood of the barrel, enabled it to absorb wine tannins, as well as soften and improve it as it aged.

history of wine mucha

Moët & Chandon was founded in 1743 – label designed by Alfons Mucha.

A solid glass bottle and wire muzzle are instrumental in converting it into sparkling wine during the second fermentation. Initially by chance, then following numerous intuitive attempts, some vintners managed to acquire a relative mastery of the process and enable some rather modest wines, emanating from quite unprepossessing regions to become fashionable. Tradition attributes the invention of this ‘Champagne method’ to the celebrated Dom Pérignon.
Effervescent wines such as la Clairette de Die and la Blanquette de Limoux were known and had been perfected back in 1530-1531, but the Champagne region would make this phenomenon its own and commercialise white wines from black grapes which benefited enormously from this transformation.  Charles-Maurice Talleyrand, Prince of Bénévent, the great politician, considered gastronomy as a diplomatic weapon in its own right and champagne as the wine of civilisation. It was that simple!

The 19th century – a complete overhaul

The disastrous crisis of phylloxera, a root-burrowing insect which destroyed the vines in just a few years would devastate the vineyards in Europe from 1865-1870. Certain regions lost everything, while others, who replanted new, immunized vines in time, became prosperous at the expense of their former competitors. And when chemistry got into the act… The discoveries of Louis Pasteur on yeast and fermentation enabled vinification to be better understood and saw the beginning of the industrialisation of wine production. Wines which could previously not be kept for more than a year were now treated – notably by ‘sulfitage‘ – and could be consumed and sold for several years. They were now able to travel thanks to the railways and roads. Vinification in stainless steel barrels was a game-changer. The old wooden barrels offered a dynamic environment for wine while it was being matured, while the tank was particularly inert and the chemical reactions of the wine became predictable.

histoire du vin napoléon

Napoleon Bonaparte drinking his wine cold and diluted with water, despite the new fashion dictates. © Jacques Berthomeau


But above all, the 19th century saw the consumption of wine change radically in style. From now on, wine would be drunk straight, following a second fermentation in the bottle. Diluting one’s wine was seen as archaic, a sign of weakness, best left to women and children. When the petty bourgeoisie make fun of Napoleon Bonaparte because he drank his Gevrey-Chambertin cold and diluted with water, they are flaunting their own ignorance and nouveau-riche snobbery. Napoleon was simply behaving as a man of refinement under the Ancien Regime.

The 20th century – a new hand of cards!

The regrouping of small production units and cooperatives, defining domains by terroirs, labelling and ever more sophisticated analysis tools used by oenologists have profoundly modified wine quality and texture. The standardisation of flavours and the multiplication of intermediaries (merchants) has signalled the advent of mass consumption. Now that space and time can be managed, wine promotion has gone the other way. It is only very recently that old wines have fetched a higher price than new wines. Wine is now a world product. The ‘New Worlds’ produce unbelievable quantities. Non-producing countries such as China and Japan are becoming vast consumers. Wine has been emancipated from its European niche. How should it position itself against the big food-chain producers? More and more independent wine growers are seeking new avenues. Single variety wines, wines from a single type of grape without blending, offer a standard, no-fuss product.

Histoire du vin en Bourgogne

The owner of Château de Gérigny, a former wine grower in Champagne, preferred to sell his vines and devote himself to taking care and welcoming his guests in order to escape from the commercial pressure exerted on small producers. His wine recommendations are precious! © intoHistory

Towards new points of reference?

Some producers refuse ratings, official designations and specifications which are restrictive and oppressive. If they lose all official recognition – so be it! But their work and the quality of their wines pleads in their favour. However, they are cutting themselves off from large commercial outlets. They prefer to cater for connoisseurs who will seek them out, knowing their reputation. New climatic options are being explored. With global warming, wines on the plains are becoming too sweet and cannot be made into wine correctly. Whole vineyards have been ‘moved’ to more Northern regions or planted at higher altitudes.

Sleeping among the vines?

A great many historic houses are closely associated with the history of wine. Because their owner is a wine grower himself like Baron Ciani Bassetti in Roncade (Venice) or the Girao family of the Casa das Torres (Porto). Or because their house is located in the middle of a vineyard, like the Château de Serrigny, enchantingly surrounded by some of Burgundy’s most prestigious vineyards. Or because their cellars store (or used to store) stacks of aligned barrels brimming with this divine beverage. Or because they are located right next to a beautiful wine museum, like the one at the Galerie Berger. Or because excellent bottles of wine were always served to guests …

Histoire du vin en Bourgogne

The château de Serrigny has its roots in the local landscape which produced the wines of Corton, Nuits Saint-George or Clos de Vougeot. The vines in the village de Ladoix itself, one of the prettiest in Burgundy, also offer a less well known vintage, which is exquisite! © Didier Gomard (For Ailes)

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