1. A brief history of wine
Grape vine fossils have been found that date back as far as sixty million years, so the grape plant is quite old and is likely to have been known to early humans. However, the intentional growing and fermenting of grapes would be easier for a settled society than for a nomadic society. The oldest wine making equipment ever discovered known dates to 7000 BC, long after bread making was known. Thus, although it is probable that wine making emerged many centuries before this equipment was made, all of the evidence points to wine making as occurring after agricultural settlements had appeared.
Whenever it first appeared, by 3000 BC, wine was well-known in several areas, notably Egypt. As far as we know, the Egyptians developed the first recorded techniques for pruning and training vines, they classed wines based on quality, and they stored the wine in earthen jars that they buried in the earth, presumably for temperature control.
The exploring Phoenicians are credited with carrying grapes to points around the Mediterranean. There is some evidence that grapes were in parts of Spain even prior to the arrival of the Phoenicians, so most likely there multiple routes by which grapes were introduced to new lands. The Phoenicians were however, diligent students and they recorded much about wine making and grape cultivation.
The Greeks also carried wine on their journeys and they are known to have been particularly enthusiastic about the potential of southern Italy for grape-growing. They planted vines wherever they traveled and developed some trade in wine. Their most lasting contribution however, is bringing wine to the lower classes of their society. Until then, wine had been a beverage of the wealthier classes. The Greek increase in production and the introduction of the cult of Dionysus ensured that there would be both product and interest in all sectors of society.
Notwithstanding the contributions of so many other civilizations, the people who had the most influence on the history of wine, and whose influence continues today, were the Romans. As long ago as 1000 BC, the early Romans began to seriously study their grape vines. As they built an empire, they continued their work. Once they established their dominance of the Mediterranean in the second century BC, they turned their full attention to wine. Seemingly obsessed, the Romans carried vines with them wherever they traveled, fought, or conquered. One can almost envision the checklist of a Roman leader: “Spare sword, extra tunic, dagger, new helmet, grape vines.”
The Phoenicians had consolidated their knowledge of viticulture into a treatise that the Romans captured when they destroyed Carthage. Recognizing the importance of the work, the Roman Senate ordered it translated into Latin and distributed throughout the empire. This was a remarkable decision that had long-reaching effects in years to come.
The Romans of course were almost relentlessly pragmatic, which made them ideal engineers. If the vines didn’t produce ripe enough grapes in a given area, they tried other varieties. If those varieties didn’t work, they tried alternative methods for obtaining more and better juice. If those methods didn’t work, they shipped wine from other lands. They recorded everything that they observed about grapes and vines - colors and varieties, growth habits and ripening traits, climate and soil preferences, pest and disease susceptibility. They also learned to fertilize, irrigate, prune, and manage vineyards so as to obtain the best fruit.
By the first century, the Romans had learned to store wine in barrels rather than in skins or earthenware pots. Barrels were strong and not likely to break. With barrels, it became possible to transport to all parts of the empire. Taking advantage of the technology, wine was exported from Italy to cooler places without much of their own wine, like what is modern-day Germany and England, but also to Spain and the vast area called Gaul. In fact, to provide markets for the Roman wine producers, wine making was prohibited beyond the Alps.
Unfortunately for the Romans, their decision to spread winemaking knowledge and their obsession with taking grapes to every part of their empire created problems for the winemakers at home. The prohibition on wine making beyond the Alps proved impossible to enforce. Gaul, most of which is today known as France, proved to be an ideal place for grape growing and wine making. Even worse for the Romans, its rivers made transportation possible and its integration into the empire made shipping and travel fairly safe. Eventually Gaul was shipping so much wine to Rome and the rest of Italy that the Emperor issued an edict forbidding the importation of wine from Gaul, lest the local Roman producers be completely put out of business.
Who can know how the earliest wines looked, smelled, and tasted? We can only rely on descriptions that have been written by the ancients, as well as the winemaking knowledge that we have today. The known preferences of early wine drinkers can probably be attributed to the limitations on their choices.
The Romans preferred sweet wines and sometimes added honey and herbs. Wealthier people preferred white wines. Interestingly, the Romans came to prefer aged wine, considering wine at twenty years to be at its peak for drinking. This may have been because much of their young wine was quite harsh. They did distinguish between wine that was meant to be drunk while young and that which could be aged, but it is doubtful that much, if any of it would have been appealing to modern palates. Things like gentle handling, cold maceration, racking, protection from oxygen and so forth, that can produce softer wines, are quite recent developments and were neither known nor options for the Romans.
Farming is always a precarious activity. As the growing season draws to a close, tension increases because an entire season can be lost by late hailstorms, drought, animals, earthquakes, invasions, frost, or countless other natural and man-made disasters. Understandably then, farmers are anxious to pick the grapes as soon as there is sufficient sugar to produce wine. On the other hand, we know now that not every part of the grape ripens at the same time. Picking as early as possible can result in wine with aggressive acidity and “vegetal” flavors, especially from red grapes.
Finally, we understand today that fermentation is not a mystery but rather it is the result of yeast. We can select specific strains of yeast with particular and predictable traits.
The Roman preferences become clearer if one considers all of these issues. White wines tend to be high in acid while red wines can be harsh and bitter. To compensate, one can add honey and let the lower classes drink the red wines. To increase the sugar content of the juice naturally, the growers might let their grapes hang on the vines until they began to dry. However this risks weather damage, so an alternative is to pick the grapes and dry them on straw mats. This is also a technique that could be used if the region or the vintage do not allow adequate ripening. The resulting additional sugar of course, could also increase the alcohol content of the wine. Consequently, the Romans usually added water to their wine, considering it low-class and barbaric to drink the wine straight.
Since the wines were probably fairly harsh as a result of rough handling and pressing, honey and herbs and sometimes even chalk would be added. And for the same reason, aged wines were preferred to young wines.
Eventually the empire faded and with it the power of Rome, but the influence and the basic outlines that the Romans had developed remain in place today. The Romans are credited with bringing some of the “indigenous” grape varieties to what is present day Austria, Germany, Hungary, and France; with developing trellises and arbors and training methods for the vines; with correlating grape varieties and wine making techniques to climate and environment; with developing the technique of laying grapes on straw mats to dry; with storage in wooden barrels; with developing Bordeaux as a port for shipping wine from France to the British Isles; and with placing France at the center of the world wine industry.
Today we distinguish between what we call “table” wines and another category that we call sweet, or “dessert” wines. Clearly the ancients did not make such a bright-line distinction. So how did the distinction come about, how were the sweet wines developed and how do the methods used to produce them differ from those used to produce other wine? The next sections will look at different types of sweet wines.