The Origins and History of Winemaking

The Archaeology and History of Grapes and Making Wine

A vineyard in Carcassonne, France

Pakin Songmor / Getty Images 

Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from grapes, and depending on your definition of "made from grapes" there are at least two independent inventions of it. The oldest known possible evidence for the use of grapes as part of a wine recipe with fermented rice and honey comes from China, about 9,000 years ago. Two thousand years later, the seeds of what became the European winemaking tradition began in western Asia.

Archaeological Evidence

Archaeological evidence of winemaking is a little difficult to come by because the presence of grape seeds, fruit skins, stems, and/or stalks at an archaeological site does not necessarily imply the production of wine. The two main methods of identifying winemaking accepted by scholars are the presence of domesticated stocks and evidence of grape processing.

The main mutation incurred during the domestication process of grapes was the advent of hermaphroditic flowers, meaning that domesticated forms of grapes are capable of self-pollination. Thus, vintners can pick traits they like and, as long as the vines are kept on the same hillside, they need not worry about cross-pollination changing next year's grapes.

The discovery of parts of the plant outside its native territory is also accepted evidence of domestication. The wild ancestor of the European wild grape (Vitis vinifera sylvestris) is native to western Eurasia between the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas; thus, the presence of V. vinifera outside of its normal range is also considered evidence of domestication.

Chinese Wines

The real story of wine from grapes begins in China. Residues on pottery shards radiocarbon dated to around 7000–6600 BCE from the Chinese early Neolithic site of Jiahu have been recognized as coming from a fermented beverage made of a mixture of rice, honey, and fruit.

The presence of fruit was identified by the tartaric acid/tartrate remnants at the bottom of a jar. (These are familiar to anyone who drinks wine from corked bottles today.) Researchers could not narrow down the species of the tartrate between grape, hawthorn, or longyan or cornelian cherry, or a combination of two or more of those ingredients. Grape seeds and hawthorn seeds have both been found at Jiahu. Textual evidence for the use of grapes—although not specifically grape wine—date to the Zhou Dynasty circa 1046–221 BCE.

If grapes were used in wine recipes, they were from a wild grape species native to China, not imported from western Asia. There are between 40 and 50 different wild grape species in China. The European grape was introduced into China in the second century BCE, along with other Silk Road imports.

Western Asia Wines

The earliest firm evidence for winemaking to date in western Asia is from the Neolithic period site called Hajji Firuz, Iran (dated to 5400–5000 BCE), where a deposit of sediment preserved at the bottom of an amphora was proven to be a mix of tannin and tartrate crystals. The site deposits included five more jars similar to the one with the tannin/tartrate sediment, each with a capacity of about nine liters of liquid.

Sites outside of the normal range for grapes with early evidence of grapes and grape processing in western Asia include Lake Zeriber, Iran, where grape pollen was found in a soil core just before around 4300 cal BCE. Charred fruit skin fragments were found at Kurban Höyük in southeastern Turkey by the late sixth through the early fifth millennia BCE.

Wine importation from western Asia has been identified in the earliest days of dynastic Egypt. A tomb belonging to the Scorpion King (dated about 3150 BCE) contained 700 jars believed to have been made and filled with wine in the Levant and shipped to Egypt.

European Winemaking

In Europe, wild grape (Vitis vinifera) pips have been found in fairly ancient contexts, such as Franchthi Cave, Greece (12,000 years ago), and Balma de l'Abeurador, France (about 10,000 years ago). But the evidence for domesticated grapes is later than that of East Asia, although similar to that of the western Asia grapes.

Excavations at a site in Greece called Dikili Tash have revealed grape pips and empty skins, direct-dated to between 4400–4000 BCE, the earliest example to date in the Aegean. A clay cup containing both grape juice and grape pressings is thought to represent evidence for fermentation at Dikili Tash. Grapevines and wood have also been found there.

A wine production installation dated to circa 4000 BCE has been identified at the site of Areni-1 cave complex in Armenia, consisting of a platform for crushing grapes, a method of moving the crushed liquid into storage jars, and, potentially, evidence of the fermentation of red wine.

By the Roman period, and likely spread by Roman expansion, viticulture reached most of the Mediterranean area and western Europe, and wine became a highly valued economic and cultural commodity. By the end of the first century BCE, it had become a major speculative and commercial product.

The Long Road to New-World Wines

When Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson landed on the shores of North America circa 1000 CE, he dubbed the newly discovered territory Vinland (alternately spelled Winland) due to the profusion of wild grapevines growing there. Not surprisingly, when European settlers began arriving in the New World about 600 years later, the prolific potential for viticulture seemed obvious.

Unfortunately, with the notable exception of Vitis rotundifolia (known colloquially as the muscadine or "Scuppernong" grape) which flourished predominantly in the South, most varieties of native grapes settlers first encountered did not lend themselves to making tasty—or even potable—wine. It took numerous attempts, many years, and the use of more suitable grapes for colonists to achieve even modest winemaking success.

“The struggle to make the New World yield wine such as they had known in Europe was begun by the earliest settlers and was persisted in for generations, only to end in defeat over and over again,” writes award-winning culinary author and professor of English, Emeritus, at Pomona College, Thomas Pinney. “Few things can have been more eagerly tried and more thoroughly frustrated in American history than the enterprise of growing European varieties of grapes for the making of wine. Not until it was recognized that only the native grape varieties could succeed against the endemic diseases and harsh climate of North America did winemaking have a chance in the eastern part of the country.”

Pinney notes it wasn't until the mid-19th century colonization of California that things truly changed for American viticulture. European grapes flourished in California's mild climate, launching an industry. He credits the development of new hybrid grapes and accumulated trial and error with widening the scope of winemaking in more challenging and diverse conditions outside California.

"By the beginning of the 20th century, the growing of grapes and the making of wine across the United States was a proven and important economic activity," he writes. "The hopes of the first settlers, after nearly three centuries of trial, defeat, and renewed effort were at last realized."

20th-Century Wine Innovations

Wines are fermented with yeast, and until the mid-20th century, the process relied on naturally-occurring yeasts. Those fermentations often had inconsistent results and, because they took a long time to work, were vulnerable to spoilage.

One of the most significant advances in winemaking was the introduction of pure starter strains of Mediterranean Saccharomyces cerevisiae (commonly called brewer's yeast) in the 1950s and 1960s. Since that time, commercial wine fermentations have included these S. cerevisiae strains, and there are now hundreds of reliable commercial wine yeast starter cultures around the world, enabling consistent wine production quality.

Another game-changing—and controversial—innovation that had a huge impact on 20th-century winemaking was the introduction of screw-cap tops and synthetic corks. These new bottle stoppers challenged the dominance of traditional natural cork, whose history dates back to ancient Egyptian times.

When they debuted in the 1950s, screw-top wine bottles were initially associated with "value-oriented jugs of wine," reports Allison Aubrey, a James Beard broadcast award-winning journalist. The image of gallon jugs and inexpensive fruit-flavored wines was hard to overcome. Still, corks being a natural product were far from perfect. Improperly sealed corks leaked, dried out, and crumbled. (In fact, "corked" or "cork taint" are terms for spoiled wine—whether the bottle was sealed with a cork or not.)

Australia, one of the world's leading wine producers, began to rethink the cork back in the 1980s. Improved screw-top technology, along with the introduction of synthetic corks, gradually gained headway, even in the high-end wine market. While some oenophiles refuse to accept anything other than cork, most wine aficionados now embrace the newer technology. Boxed and bagged wine, also recent innovations, are becoming increasingly popular as well.

Fast Facts: 21st Century U.S. Wine Statistics

  • Number of wineries in the United States: 10,043 as of February 2019
  • Highest production by state: At 4,425 wineries, California produces 85% of the wine in the U.S. That is followed by Washington (776 wineries), Oregon (773), New York (396), Texas (323), and Virginia (280).
  • Percentage of adult Americans who drink wine: 40% of the legal drinking population, which amounts to 240 million people.
  • U.S. wine consumers by gender: 56% female, 44% male
  • U.S. wine consumers by age group: Mature (age 73+), 5%; Baby Boomers (54 to 72), 34%; Gen X (42 to 53), 19%; Millennials (24 to 41), 36%, I-Generation (21 to 23), 6%
  • Per capita wine consumption: 11 liters per person each year, or 2.94 gallons

21st-Century Wine Technology

One of the most interesting innovations in 21st Century winemaking is a process called micro-oxygenation (known in the trade as “mox”) that reduces some of the risks associated with aging red wine by traditional methods in which red wines are cellared in cork-sealed bottles.

Tiny pores in cork let in enough oxygen to permeate the wine as it ages. The process “softens” the natural tannins, letting the wine’s unique flavor profile develop, usually over long periods of time. Mox mimics natural aging by incrementally introducing small amounts of oxygen to wine as it’s being made. In general, the resulting wines are smoother, more stable in color, and have less harsh and unpleasant notes.

DNA sequencing, another recent trend, has enabled researchers to trace the spread of S. cerevisiae in commercial wines for the past 50 years, comparing and contrasting different geographical regions, and according to researchers, providing the possibility for improved wines in the future.

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