The History of (Wine) Grapes

In 2017, archeologists published a discovery. Grape and wine production has been around for even longer than they thought. How did they know? In an excavation site from the Early Neolithic Era (6000 BC), pieces of ceramic jars had evidence of wine production. Remnants of tartaric acid and other compounds found in wine were discovered on these jars.[1] The history of (wine) grapes is forever connected to the history of wine. If grapes hadn’t been so easy to ferment, they likely wouldn’t have been domesticated so long ago.

While we’ve been enjoying a glass (or jar) of wine since likely the dawn of humanity, the grapes we were using weren’t exactly the same. For one, there wasn’t such a variety. Look at any wine store, and the number of grapes you can choose from varies from the common Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio to varieties you’ve probably never heard of, like Saperavi and Godello. So how did we get here?

Here’s the grape’s history, the world’s most popular fruit.

The History of (Wine) Grapes

How Old Are Grapes?

The history of grapes (Vitis) is millions of years old – long before humans figured out they could eat them. Grapes were around before the Ice Age, and there were three main varieties: the European (Vitis vinifera or the common grape), Asian, and American species. The very earliest grape evidence we have is from 67 million years ago and fossil records show that some early Asian varieties were in China 26 million years ago. [2]

Evidence suggests that people were consuming grapes right after the Ice Age – tens of thousands of years ago. At first, people would gather wild-growing grapes in Eurasia. But once humans learned they could ferment grapes, they started domesticating them. It took many more years for grapes to be used in agriculture. [3]

When we speak about the history of grapes, we’re speaking about how humans domesticated this fruit so they could more easily enjoy wine, and the process has been around for many years.

The Very First Domesticated Grapes

The more modern history of wine grapes is a history of human intervention. We think that the very first grapes were domesticated around 8000 years ago or maybe even before that, thanks to the archeological evidence of wine. Grapes easily turn into alcohol, making them one of the first crops to be domesticated. Because humans really do love wine!

The Wild Growing Eurasian Grapes were rampant in the area between the Black Sea and Iran, they were hardy plants that produced small berries. When humans started domesticating the plant, they chose grape vines for sugar content, self-pollination, and larger fruits. Grapes became unintentionally less hardy in the process. Although there are still wild grapes today, how our ancestors were able to create the modern Vitis vinifera is unclear since there used to be so much cross-pollination between wild and domestic grapes. [4]

It’s no coincidence that the first evidence we have of wine-making is from the motherland of grapes. Georgia, to this day, has over 500 varieties of grapes, and the location of the wine remnants from 6000 BC.

Historical documentation that grapes grew in this area goes beyond archeological artifacts. The book of Genesis in the Bible says that Noah planted a vineyard and made wine after the flood (Genesis 9:20). This would’ve been in Mesopotamia, near where scientists think viticulture began.

Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard.
He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent.

Grapes made their way to Armenia and Northern Greece over 6000 years ago. It’s not clear if they spread or if these civilizations started to domesticate grapes on their own.

Soon grapevines had spread throughout the Mediterranean, often crossbreeding with other wild species. The Hittites likely spread the plant far and wide thanks to their movement through Crete, Bosporus, and Thrace.

The History of (Wine) Grapes

The Roman’s Earliest Wine

Grapes arrived in Rome when the Greeks did. The Greeks brought their vines and their wines to Italy, although it’s likely there were already wild grapes growing there. When the Romans defeated Carthage, they planted huge plantations of grape vines that were often run by enslaved people. [6]

The history of wine grapes in Europe is intimately intertwined with the history of the Roman Empire. During the height of the empire, the Romans conquered vast territories throughout Europe, bringing with them their knowledge of viticulture and winemaking that had been handed to them by the Greeks. They planted vineyards in every corner of their new empire, from England to North Africa. And as the Roman Empire expanded, so did the production of wine grapes. [7]

By the end of the Roman period, there were vineyards all across Europe, producing wines enjoyed by the rich and poor. The legacy of the Roman Empire can still be seen in Europe today, where wine grapes are grown in almost every country.

The Romans developed grape production methods that are still being used today. The Romans discovered that grapes grew better on trellises and used presses to extract juices.

The wine that the ancient Romans were drinking was stronger and sweeter than our wine today, but the grapes that were being cultivated had almost the exact same DNA. Because grapes are usually grown using trimmings instead of seeds, genetic mutations were uncommon. That being said, the Romans cultivated different varieties of grapes. Roman historians like Pliny, Strabo, and Columella spoke at length about them. These Roman grapes were spread throughout the Roman Empire and became the grapes we know and love throughout the world. The wines from France, Spain, and Italy all have direct roots in these Roman grapes.

So, what were these grapes?

The Romans grew several different types of grapes, including the Falernian grape. Pliny the Elder considered this grape the best wine at the time.

There is now no wine known that ranks higher than the Falernian;
it is the only one, too, among all the wines that takes fire on the application of flame.[8]

Other types of Roman wines included the Alloborgica, Biturica, and the Rhetica. These wines were made from different types of grapes, each with its unique flavor. Some were only enjoyed by the rich, and others were for everyone.

The Romans were also known for their white wines, which were made from a variety of different grapes. White wine would be reserved for the upper class.

Ancient China and Grapes

While the Western world generally comes to mind when we think of viticulture, China has been producing grapes for thousands of years. In fact, the Chinese have enjoyed grape wine for longer than they’ve made rice wine.

The ancient Chinese were among the first people to cultivate grapes for wine. Archeological evidence indicates that grape wine was produced as early as the Western Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BC). An archaeology team from China and the United States discovered remnants of a variety of alcohol at two archaeological sites 20 kilometers northwest of Rizhao in 1995. Seven of the ceramic pots discovered at the sites were specifically used for grape wine. There were also grape seed remnants found.

The discovery of these ancient wines confirms that the Chinese have been producing grape wine for centuries. The method of winemaking has changed over time, but the basic process has remained the same. Grapes are harvested and then crushed or pressed to extract their juice. The juice is then fermented with yeast, usually in a large vat, and then aged in oak barrels or clay jars.

Wine has always been an important part of Chinese culture. In the 130s and 120s BC, a Chinese imperial envoy of the Han dynasty opened diplomatic relations with several Central Asian kingdoms, some of which produced grape wine. The wine was often served at banquets and other important occasions. It was considered a sign of wealth and prestige to serve fine wine from China’s own vineyards.

Wine drinking might’ve ultimately caused the downfall of the Chu dynasty. We have evidence that wine drinking was a normal social activity during this time. One poem states:

We have bent our bows;
We have our arrows on the string.
Here is a small boar transfixed;
There is a large rhinoceros killed.
The spoil will be presented to the visitors and guests,
Along with the cup of sweet wine. [9]

Today, wine continues to be popular in China. There are now more than 1,000 wineries in China, and wine consumption is growing rapidly. In fact, China is now the world’s fifth-largest consumer of wine. Grapes are still grown in many parts of China, and some of the best wines in the world are now being produced in this ancient country.

The History of (Wine) Grapes

North America’s History of Grapes

North America was the land of grapes long before Europeans arrived on its shores. The first Vikings nicknamed the land “Vinland” because of the abundance of grapes growing there.

“I have not been much further off, but still have I something new to tell of; I found vines and grapes.”
“But is that true, my fosterer?” quoth Leif.
“Surely is it true,” replied he, “for I was bred up in a land where there is no want of either vines or grapes.”
They slept now for the night, but in the morning, Leif said to his sailors:
“We will now set about two things, in that the one day we gather grapes, and the other day cut vines and fell trees, so from thence will be a loading for my ship,” and that was the counsel taken, and it is said their long boat was filled with grapes.
Now was a cargo cut down for the ship, and when the spring came they got ready and sailed away, and Leif gave the land a name after its qualities and called it Vinland, or Wineland.[10]

These wild American grapes were different than the European grapes that would later be introduced to the continent. They were small and tart, and natives often enjoyed them.

When European varieties were brought over, they died in the new environment. It turns out that a North American aphid was infecting the European grapes. When the North American vines were sent back to Europe to be studied, this aphid spread to many French vineyards. Now, many vineyards in France and North America are a hybrid of the American riverbank grape and European varieties, which led to increased hardiness.

One of the oldest grapevines in the world is the Mother Vine, which is located in North Carolina and goes to show the lengthy history of grape growing in the Americas. This 440-year-old grapevine was probably planted by Native Americans or early settlers. It was first spotted in 1584 by an English explorer named John White. Today, the Mother Vine covers ⅓ of an acre of private property. It grows a type of muscadine grape that is not domesticated, the white scuppernong grape.[11]

Grape and wine production have a long and storied history, with different cultures around the world playing important roles in shaping how we make and drink these beverages today. Whether you’re a wine lover or just enjoy learning about new things, we hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the history of grapes and wine. To learn more about some of the most interesting moments in grape and wine history, be sure to check out other articles on This Day in Wine History, where we explore everything from ancient winemaking techniques to modern trends in the industry. Cheers!

This Day in Wine History

79 AD: Pliny the Elder died. Pliny the Elder was an author and philosopher. He wrote extensively on wine in Rome, and we know much about the history of grape cultivation at the time thanks to his writings.

Want to read more? Try these books!

History of (Wine) Grapes, The History of (Wine) GrapesHistory of (Wine) Grapes, The History of (Wine) Grapes

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

[1] University of Toronto. “Archaeologists find earliest evidence of winemaking: Discovery of 8,000-year-old wine production in ancient Middle East.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 November 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171113153813.htm>.

[1] Demei, LI. The history of Chinese winegrowing and winemaking. 24 Decemeber 2013.

[1] University of California – Irvine. “Genomic study reveals clues to wild past of grapes: Humans may have gathered them for 15,000 years before cultivating the fruit as a crop.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 November 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171102140521.htm>.

[1] Grassi F, Arroyo-Garcia R. Editorial: Origins and Domestication of the Grape. Front Plant Sci. 2020 Jul 31;11:1176. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2020.01176. PMID: 32903797; PMCID: PMC7438903.

[1] Genesis 9:20-21. English Standard Version.

[1] Wine Academy. A quick history of Italian wine. https://www.wineinvestment.com/ca/learn/magazine/2019/07/a-quick-history-of-italian-wine/ 23 July 2019.

[1] Trinklein, David. Grapes: A Brief History. https://ipm.missouri.edu/MEG/2013/8/Grapes-A-Brief-History/ 7 August 2013.

[1] Gill, N.S. “Ancient Roman Wines.” ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/preferred-ancient-roman-wines-120633.

[1] Poo, Mu-Chou. “The Use and Abuse of Wine in Ancient China.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 42, no. 2, 1999, pp. 123–51. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3632333. [1] Grœnlendinga saga – The Saga of the Greenlanders. Chapter 4. https://notendur.hi.is/haukurth/utgafa/greenlanders.html

[1] Pugh, Kari. Kari PughThe Mother Vine: The oldest grapevine in North America still grows on the Outer Banks. https://www.pilotonline.com/history/vp-coast-mother-vine-0729-20220729-scfzxbfsb5brrjbt4eofzdsada-story.html 29 July 2022.

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