From Barrels of Wine to Bottled Vintages: The Emergence of the Modern Wine Industry in Early Modern Europe, c. 1600–1800

People have been drinking wine in many areas of the world for more than 8,000 years. Most of the time, it was produced, stored, and sold in ways that differed from modern practices. In fact, until a few hundred years ago, people kept wine in wooden barrels for maturation, as well as for storage and transportation. Putting wine in glass bottles was an innovation of the modern wine industry.

Similarly, the scientific methods used to change the taste of wine only emerged in the last 400 years. This is because the modern wine industry only really began in the early modern period, specifically in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Modern Wine Industry

Financial Growth and the Economy

The modern wine industry is closely connected with changes in the politics, economies, and societies of Europe between 1600 and 1800. For instance, the seventeenth century saw the emergence of modern capitalism in the cities of London, Amsterdam, and Antwerp. Here, merchants began using modern financial instruments to offer lines of credit. They also began speculating on economic markets with their excess capital. This set off fiscal processes that have transformed the modern world.[1]

The financial expansion that occurred led to the development of modern consumer society. In countries like England, The Netherlands, Spain, and France, a middle class developed with sufficient wealth to buy consumer goods. These included products such as sugar, coffee, tobacco, and goods produced in Europe. These goods were becoming increasingly plentiful as the economies of Western Europe expanded. Wine was produced in ever larger quantities as capitalism developed and Europe turned into a consumer society.[2]

The Glass Wine Bottle

The growth of the European wine industry led to many changes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One of the most tangible was the decision to store wine in glass bottles. Glass was expensive to produce centuries ago. Wine producers began bottling their products when glassmaking became more common and the advantages of glass storage were more understood. By the end of the seventeenth century, storage in glass bottles had superseded its containment in wooden barrels across Western and Central Europe.

Yet even by 1700, what one would have encountered when buying a bottle of wine would differ greatly from what one sees on the shelves today. The bottles used were much wider and compressed, with a short neck. As a result, they resembled an onion or an inflated balloon. Only in the eighteenth century did the modern wine bottle, with its short, wide body and tall neck, emerge. Its ultimate form arrived in 1821 when “H. Ricketts & Co. Glassworks, Bristol” built a machine that produced uniformly shaped bottles.[3]

Wine bottles from 18th Century England

The Cork Stopper

Additionally, there was a similar evolution in the methods used to seal these new wine bottles during the period. Most bottles before 1700 had a ring of glass below the neck, with a piece of string tied to it. This string had a stopper connected to it, which sealed the bottle. Often this was another piece of fitted glass, like a decanter lid today.

However, from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, cork wood from cork oak was increasingly the preferred method of closing wine bottles. At first, it was only partially inserted into the neck of the bottle. Still, following the invention of the corkscrew in Britain in the 1670s or 1680s, it became increasingly possible to insert the cork fully into the neck of the bottle. With all these updates, the wine had gone from something sold in barrels or other vessels in the sixteenth century to something bottled and corked by the early nineteenth century.[4]

Modern Wine Industry

Cork wine stoppers

Denominating Wine by Geographical Region

It was also during the early modern period when denominating wine emerged according to the geographical region or terroir where the grapes had been grown. The first instance of geographical delimitation possibly occurred in Italy in 1716. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de Medici, established Chianti and Carmignano as distinct wine production regions. The process was formalized in Portugal forty years later when the Duoro Valley was delimited as a distinct wine-producing region.

However, France was where the process matured. Thus, in the second half of the eighteenth century, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne emerged as wine-production regions. Such areas are synonymous with viticulture today. Eventually, this concept spread across Europe, the New World, and other regions.[5]

The Modern Wine Industry and the Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution was another European social and cultural trend that also significantly affected the wine industry by the eighteenth century. In particular, modern chemistry had a considerable bearing during this time on methods of changing wine and improving its quality.

They developed new scientific methods, transforming wine production and improving its quality. For instance, they refined wine clarification. Similarly, chaptalization, a practice whereby the final alcohol strength of wine is increased by adding more sugar to the grape juice during production, was developed in France during the second half of the eighteenth century.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, they produced Botrytis wines (wines made of overripe grapes infected by Botrytis cinerea with the form “noble rot”) for the first time. This required allowing grey fungus, Botrytis cinerea, to develop on grapes before picking them to produce a particularly concentrated sweet wine with a unique flavor. These are just some of the many scientific methods developed in the eighteenth century to produce different tasting wines and wines of superior quality.

Formal Centers of Oenology

Eventually, in the nineteenth century, the introduction of scientific methods to viticulture gave way to the foundation of formal centers of oenology. They established the first of these at Sachsen in eastern Germany in the early 1810s. In 1828, they opened the Magarach Institute at Yalta in the central wine-producing region of Crimea. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the Institut d’Oenologie founded at the University of Bordeaux and similar centers opened as far away as California.

Consequently, these changes amounted to a transformation of the European wine industry by 1800. At the beginning of the period, they primarily stored wine in barrels and other vessels. Countries like France, Italy, and Spain were already famed for their wine, but there was no delimitation of distinctive wine regions, and the sort of scientific methods used in winemaking today were unheard of.

However, by 1800, all of that had changed. The wine was stored and sold in modern wine bottles closed with cork. Increasingly, they became marketed as wines from Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, Chianti, and other regions synonymous with quality old world wine. Thus, the two centuries between 1600 and 1800 were revolutionary in developing the modern wine industry, as with so many other aspects of the contemporary world.

On this Day

October 31, 1723 – The sixth Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de Medici, died at the Pitti Palace in Florence. Cosimo is remembered for many things, including inflicting huge damage to the Tuscan economy and imposing strict moral laws on the duchy. Still, he was a genuinely progressive innovator. In 1716 Duke Cosimo introduced delineating wines according to the geographical region or terroir of production.

He did this for the Chianti and Carmignano regions. It was forty years before this innovation was copied for the Duoro Valley region in Portugal in 1756. The idea then emerged in France to delineate regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne.[12]

June 5, 1756 – Jean-Antoine Chaptal was born in Nogaret, France. He would become a chemist, physician, statesman, and agronomist. Chaptal had a specific interest in chemistry and how it could develop the French wine industry. Thus, he wrote his famous book, Traité théorique et pratique sur la culture de la vigne, published in France in 1801. He popularized a method of strengthening the alcohol content of wine by adding more sugar to the grape juice during production.

French chemist Pierre-Joseph Macquer developed this method, but in recognition of his role in popularizing it, this form of amelioration became known as chaptalization.[13]

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[2] Peter Musgrave, The Early Modern European Economy (London, 1999), esp. pp. 59–85.

[3] ‘bottles’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[4] ‘closures’, ‘cork’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Helen McKearin, ‘Notes on Stopping, Bottling and Binning’, in Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 13 (1971), pp. 120–127.

[5] ‘delimitation, geographical’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[10] [accessed 28/5/22].

[11] J. B. Gough, ‘Winecraft and Chemistry in 18th Century France: Chaptal and the Invention of Chaptalization’, in Technology and Culture, Vol. 39, No.1 (Jan 1998); ‘Chaptal, Jean-Antoine’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[12] ‘delimitation, geographical’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Harold Acton, The Last Medici (London, 1980).

[13] J. B. Gough, ‘Winecraft and Chemistry in 18th Century France: Chaptal and the Invention of Chaptalization’, in Technology and Culture, Vol. 39, No.1 (Jan 1998); ‘Chaptal, Jean-Antoine’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

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