The History of Oenology: From Ancient Times to Modern Day

Oenology, or the science of wine, is a captivating field that marries the artistry of winemaking with the rigors of scientific study. This discipline covers everything from vine cultivation and grape harvesting to the fermentation process and sensory evaluation of the finished product. With a history as rich and varied as the wines it produces, oenology is an ever-evolving field that continues to push the boundaries of knowledge and technique.

The Ancient Origins of Oenology

The history of oenology is as old as civilization itself, tracing back to the Neolithic period around 6000 B.C. when humans first began to cultivate grapes and produce wine. The early winemakers of the Caucasus and Middle East regions began the tradition of grape cultivation and winemaking that we still see today.

The Greeks were the first to elevate winemaking into a science. They studied the effects of different soil types, climates, and grape varieties on wine characteristics, with philosophers such as Hippocrates even delving into wine’s medicinal properties.

The Romans further advanced the field, developing winemaking technologies such as the grape press and barrel and establishing viticulture across their empire. The knowledge and techniques developed during this time set the foundation for modern oenology.

Oenology in the Middle Ages and Beyond

The Middle Ages saw a shift in the epicenter of winemaking from the Mediterranean to monastic institutions across Europe. Monks refined the art of viticulture and winemaking, carefully cataloging their observations and techniques. They are credited with the invention of the “terroir” concept, recognizing that different regions produce wines with distinct characteristics.

The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods brought more scientific rigor to the field. Scientists began to understand the role of yeast in fermentation, and the microscope revealed the microbial world at play in wine production.

In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur’s work on fermentation cemented the understanding of yeast’s role in alcohol production, and his pasteurization technique helped control spoilage in wines. The creation of dedicated oenology research institutions further propelled the field into the modern era.

The Birth of Modern Oenology

The 20th century heralded an era of technological advancement and scientific discovery in oenology. Scientists started to understand the complex chemistry of wine, including the various compounds contributing to aroma and taste. Technology, such as temperature-controlled fermentation, stainless steel tanks, and sophisticated bottling lines, revolutionized the wine industry, allowing for greater consistency and quality control in winemaking.

The Future of Oenology

The 21st century has seen oenology continue to evolve, with research focusing on improving wine quality, sustainability in winemaking, and the health benefits of wine consumption.

One recent focus of study in the last decade has been on wine oligosaccharides. Oligosaccharides are carbohydrates with a low degree of polymerization, containing between three and fifteen monosaccharide residues covalently linked through glycosidic bonds. They are related to plant defense responses and possess beneficial attributes for human health. Research has examined wine oligosaccharides’ origins, techniques for isolating the oligosaccharide fraction and determining their content, composition, and structure. Additionally, their dependence on grape origin and cultivar, winemaking process, and connection between oligosaccharides and wine sensorial attributes are also being studied. Ongoing research is being conducted on the impact of agricultural aspects and winemaking techniques on wine oligosaccharides and their influence on sensorial and physicochemical properties of wines and human health.

Recent Innovations in Oenology

Oenology, like any other field of study, is not stagnant; it continues to evolve and innovate. In established wine regions such as Rioja, research and innovation are key for improving vineyard management and winemaking processes. Pioneering winemakers are exploring different techniques to create greater terroir expression and new sustainable styles of wines.

Terroir Expression

A growing trend in oenology is the focus on terroir expression. Terroir is the set of environmental factors — including soil, topography, and climate — that gives a wine its unique taste and flavor. In the Rioja region, winemakers have been exploring how to express in vinous form the attributes of specific sites. This movement is growing alongside traditional styles, marking a departure from multi-zone, multi-grower, multi-cultivar blended wines. Instead, they are emphasizing ‘single vineyard’ wines that highlight the unique characteristics of the vineyard from which the grapes are harvested.

Rioja is predominantly a red wine region, with Tempranillo grapes occupying 80% of the total vineyard area. Other grapes such as Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano combine to create a vineyard area that is 91% red. The style of these different grapes varies according to the different sites where they are grown. For instance, Garnacha requires plenty of warmth to grow and ripen and is found mostly in Rioja Oriental, which has a warm, sunny Mediterranean climate. On the other hand, Tempranillo is more widespread and can be found in cooler and higher regions such as Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta, where the higher diurnal temperature variation slows grape ripening, thereby retaining more natural grape acids and fruit aromatics.

Recent research has also demonstrated that vineyard microbes play a role in terroir expression. These microbes are part of the composition of regional and local yeast populations and contribute to that unique ‘sense of place’ that high-quality wines can express. Over time, producers have been able to exclude species or strains with detrimental effects, leaving them with a lab-cultured selection of regional yeasts which confer positive expressions of a particular terroir.

Designation of Singular Vineyards

In line with the trend of terroir expression, the appellation regulations in Rioja have been updated to allow ‘village’ wines and ‘singular vineyard’ wines. This has encouraged the production of site-specific wines, which can either be blends or single variety wines. In the first year of the ‘viñedos singular’ designation, 84 applications were approved, covering a total of 155 hectares, less than a quarter of 1% of the total Rioja vineyard. The strict rules for this designation include a minimum vine age of 35 years, manual harvest, lower yield than for other designations, and all fruit originating from the named vineyard. Nearly 90% of singular vineyard wines are from Alavesa and Alta, which together comprise about 60% of the total vineyard area【30†source】.

Innovation in the Winery

Innovation in oenology is not confined to the vineyard; it also extends to the winery. New designations run alongside traditional aging categories, allowing wines to be aged traditionally or however, the producer prefers. This could include proportions of new French oak for vanilla and clove flavor and tannin evolution. As seen elsewhere around the world, there has been a return to more neutral concrete fermentation and storage vats to focus expression more on the wine itself and less on the vessel in which it is matured.

Conclusion

The field of oenology has witnessed a fascinating evolution over thousands of years. From ancient times to the present day, the art and science of wine production have been continually refined. Today, oenology is a sophisticated and multidisciplinary field that involves aspects of botany, chemistry, microbiology, and even climatology. It’s also a dynamic field, as ongoing research continues to offer new insights into the complexities of winemaking and the myriad factors that contribute to the character of the final product.

In recent years, the trend in oenology has been towards a greater focus on terroir expression, with winemakers seeking to capture the unique characteristics of specific sites in their wines. Innovations in the winery have also played a significant role, with the adoption of new techniques and materials designed to enhance the quality of the final product.

As we look to the future, it’s clear that the field of oenology will continue to evolve, driven by scientific advancements, environmental considerations, and the ongoing quest for quality and uniqueness in the world of wine. As we continue to enjoy the fruits of this fascinating field, we can also appreciate the rich history and the depth of knowledge that underpins every bottle of wine.

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The main and best colleges on Oenology include Cornell University, NY, Texan and M University-College Station, Texas, the University of California-Davis, Michigan State University, Washington State University, California State University-Fresno, and the University of Kentucky.

Sources

  1. https://www.decanter.com/sponsored/oenology-enhanced-by-innovation-455373/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33067045/

Want to read more? Try these books!

A Natural History of Wine Viticulture, Second Edition- An Introduction to Commercial Grape Growing for Wine Production

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , By Published On: October 31, 2022Last Updated: February 26, 2024

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