A Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade

Historically, wine and vine have been vital to European culture and civilization. However, little research has been carried out on the history of viticulture and the wine trade among several geographical regions of Europe.

Geography of wine is important to characterize its taste and price. Generally, geography of wine is studied from various perspectives, including the effect of the natural environment, the expansion of the vine, and adopting of viticulture, among others. Besides these factors, politics, economics of the geography,  government policies for agriculture and market dynamics also play important roles. Although viticulture and wine geography are interrelated, wine geographers have ignored the cultural impact on the viticulture of a region.

Nevertheless, this study will focus on symbols as a primary geographic entity to understand its viticulture and the development of wine trades in several regions.

Symbols and Society

Symbols are a true representation of the prevailed culture in a geographical region. One of the most important symbols of Mediterranean culture is the vine and the goods it yields, including wine and other alcoholic beverages. During the extensive anthropological studies into the meaning of symbols, historians and some geographers have recognized the relevance of rituals and symbols associated with wines. Most of these studies have focused on the symbolism of a geographical region and concluded that symbols are “an ideologically charged and immensely sophisticated cultural product”. For most of Europeon cultures, the symbols have an excellent fit with the cultural backdrop of viticulture. As a result, there is more to wine and vine than just their overt depiction via viticultural settings[1].

In the early European cultures, wine was a depicted as a symbol of fertility and ecstasy. The vine’s status as a fertility symbol was first depicted in Roman regions. The symbol may be explained by the fact that new life sprouts from the wood of an old and near-to-death wine. Once the symbolic link was established; wine, grapes, and other products created from them were all included in this larger symbolic image of fertility. Similarly, early civilizations in South-West Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean created and propagated a religious awareness that may have contributed to the emergence of vine symbolism. The depictions had intellectual concepts referred to in a straightforward way tied to transmission and reinstitution[2].

Similarly,  grapevine and wine were frequently referred to in Jewish and Christian scriptures and imagery. Therefore,  viticulture flourished in the post-Roman era. Medieval vineyard owners profited significantly from the sale of their wine in religious gatherings once it was recognized that wine was necessary for the Christian Eucharist. After the religious acceptance, this was the first time that a wine market had been established and managed by the state and church across Europe. Nowadays, only a small percentage of the world’s wine consumption is for religious reasons due to their diminishing symbolic importance.

Similarly,  in later centuries, wine became a significant and critical part of the burgesses’ rituals in northern Europe. In order to continue making money from wine manufacturing, merchants and producers had to maintain and promote the product’s symbolic worth throughout time[3].

When researching the historical geography of viticulture development, it is essential to focus on how certain cultural traits related to viticulture get ingrained into the civilizations and how they are transported to other nations as a part of their cultural assemblage. Historically, wine had been an integral part of the culture of Europe’s upper classes. The culture was exported to other geographical locations by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who had conquered most of the Mediterranean area nearly 2,000 years ago. Similarly,  winemaking was carried to new places by Europeans who colonized and ruled significant parts of the Americas, Africa, and Australasia[4].

The history of viticulture in several regions may be traced back to the early European immigrants’ desire to promote their cultural identities in new territories. There might be a link between this aspiration and the viticulture origin in South Africa today. A more complicated picture shows that it was closely tied to the emergence of new economic systems and cultures as European imperialism expanded around the globe. This relationship was solid throughout the Industrial Revolution[5].

Production and Trade

The evolution of viticulture in several geographical locations has been driven by two fundamental economic cycles: production and trade. They have profoundly affected wine’s history, social, and ideological setting. We can classify the labor relations, vinification, and grape cultivation as part of the production process. While distribution, marketing, and commerce are part of the wine trade. As economic structures have been re-organized in the colonized regions, the growth of grape cultivation and the wine industry have co-occurred in several parts of the world[6].

 Geography of Viticulture

Figure 4. Map Showing the Spread of Viticulture between 1AD and 600 AD with Trade Routes

In many geographical locations, grape growing and winemaking methods have remained almost unaltered. In places of Portugal, Greece, and Italy, you may still find wine made in the same way as it was 2,000 years ago[7]. In the earlier times,  winemaking was an example of a home economic activity with grape farming and wine production. However, nowadays,  wine making has become a market-driven monoculture of vines that produce wine to satisfy demand outside the country[8].

Discussion of the labour system used to grow grape vines and make wine from those grapes is necessary for viticulture production to be complete. In the Roman economy, the enslaved people worked and their costs were accounted for in the wine price. During the medieval era, when viticulture became a part of the feudal economies of central and northern Europe, it demanded the establishment of new wine businesses and vineyard expansions with a commercial[9].

Also read:


December 27, 1703: The Methuen Treaty was signed between England and Portugal in 1703 AD. The signing of the Methuen Treaty resulted from fighting on the European stage.  The English merchants utilized a variety of tactics throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to spread viticulture in several parts of Europe. Consequently, there was a significant increase in the trading of port wine between the United Kingdom and Portugal[10].

Want to read more? Try these books!

The Geography of Wine- How Landscapes, Cultures, Terroir, and the Weather Make a Good Drop Wine and the Vine- An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade


[1] Abraham-Thisse, S. (1984) ‘The Hanse and France’, in A.d’Haenens (ed.), Europe of the North Sea and the Baltic: the World of the Hanse, Antwerp: Fonds Mercator, 229–40.

[2] Allen, H.Warner (1961) A History of Wine: Great Vintage Wines from the Homeric Age to the Present Day, London: Faber & Faber.

[3] Anderson, B. (1982) Vino: the Wines and Winemakers of Italy, London: Papermac.

[4] Barty-King, H. (1977) A Tradition of English Wine, Oxford: Oxford Illustrated Press.

[5] Barty-King, H. (1977) A Tradition of English Wine, Oxford: Oxford Illustrated Press.

[6] Bishop, G.C. (1980) Australian Winemaking: the Roseworthy Influence, Hawthordene, South Australia: Investigator Press.

[7] Badler, V.R. The archaeological evidence for winemaking, distribution, and consumption at Proto-Historic Godin Tepe, Iran. In The Origins and Ancient History of Wine; McGovern, P.E., Fleming, S.J., Katz, S.H., Eds.; Routledge: London, UK; New York, NY, USA, 2003.

[8] Belgiorno, M.R.; Lentini, A. Cyprus in the Prehistory of Wine: Archaeology, Legends and Archaeometry on a Symbol of God; Associazione Culturale Armonia: Rome, Italy, 2017.

[9] Zohary, D. The domestication of the grapevine Vitis vinifera L. In the Near East. In The Origins and Ancient History of Wine; McGovern, P.E., Fleming, S.J., Katz, S.H., Eds.; Routledge: London, UK; New York, NY, USA, 2003; pp. 23–30.

[10] Walford, A.R. (1940) The British Factory in Lisbon, and its Closing Stages Ensuing upon the Treaty of 1810, Lisbon: Instituto Britânico em Portugal.

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , By Published On: October 31, 2022Last Updated: February 27, 2024

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!