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A Brief History of Wine

Seeing as it’s grape harvest time in Italy, we thought it would be fun to look at the history of that iconic element of Italian culture: Wine.

It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that the history of wine goes back to very ancient times. While a glass of wine casts an image of sophistication and celebration in today’s world, its story throughout the millennia reflects a multiplicity of purposes ranging from the practical to the sacred.

To follow is a brief history of wine covering its varied and interesting functions through the ages. Enjoy! Some of these facts may surprise you.


Wine as a Way to Preserve and Improve Food

The original purpose of wine is the one given to us by nature: the preservation of food. The alcohol and increased acidity resulting from the fermentation of grape juice create an environment that impedes the growth of bacteria; a very useful thing in a world without refrigeration. In ancient times, the risk of waterborne diseases was a real concern, even in advanced civilizations, so wine was a safe source of fluids and calories.

Being a natural inhibitor of spoilage, wine has been used over the centuries as a preservative for other foods. Its almost-magical use in cooking is not a modern discovery, either; the particular way in which wine can add flavour and depth to sauces, stews, and marinades has been known since days of old.

The Cultural and Economic Impact of Wine

Of course, the alcohol that results from the fermentation of grapes not only preserves a food source but also alters our consciousness, opening the doors to merriment and conviviality. In this sense, wine has had a profound cultural and social impact across the globe. Its association with important gatherings, celebrations, and hospitality has been a constant over the history of humankind. (In Ancient Greece, the symposium was a social gathering where food and wine were consumed and philosophical discussions ensued; today, we do the same thing at a dinner party.) Above all, the expression of goodwill symbolized by the sharing of wine can be a gateway to forming friendships and forging alliances, a unique and universal social custom that remains timeless.

With social importance comes economic impact, and wine became a major trade commodity in the ancient world, both within and between cultures. Our human tendency to give nature a hand found a brilliant outlet in viticulture, quickly elevating winemaking to a serious craft and a serious economic activity in many ancient societies. Wine Spectator might have been thousands of years off but a civilization’s reputation for quality wine production still managed to get around in distant epochs.

Wine was seen as a symbol of wealth and social status in numerous ancient cultures. In Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, Persia, Mesopotamia, and India, wine was considered a luxury item reserved for the aristocracy and royalty. If Tetra Paks had existed thousands of years ago, they would not have contained cheap wine for the masses; if you drank wine, it meant you had money and a pedigree.

With wine playing such an elite role in society, it only follows that wine production was seen as a marker of cultural advancement. The cultivation of grapes and the production of good wine became associated with a more civilized society. Looking at the phenomenon of world-class wine production around the world today, it appears not much has changed in several thousand years.

Wine and the Sacred

Wine’s significance in cultural circumstances over the course of time is as salient as its significance in sacred affairs. It has played a central role in the religious practices and rituals of many ancient cultures. In Ancient Greece and Rome, for example, wine was a libation, a drink poured in honour of deities during ceremonies and sacrifices. In Taoist ceremonies, an alcoholic beverage is presented as an offering to ancestors.

Throughout the ages, wine has continued to find a ceremonial place amongst the world’s diverse religions. In the Jewish faith, the Kiddush blessing is recited over wine to sanctify a holiday, a festival period, or Shabbat (the Sabbath). In Taoist and Shinto rituals, wine is used to epitomize purification and establish a sacred space. As a symbol of redemption, wine is a central element in both the Passover Seder and the Christian Eucharist. In Tibetan Buddhist practices, alcohol is an emblem of transformation, facilitating the evolution of negative emotions and worldly attachments into wisdom and compassion.

The themes of connection and community cross the boundaries of East and West thanks to the ceremonial use of wine: at Jewish weddings, the bride and groom share a cup of wine to represent their union and commitment; at Shinto ceremonies, the sharing of sake is seen as a means to foster friendships and strengthen communal bonds.

Wine and Health

Wine was believed to have medicinal properties in many ancient civilizations and was often infused with herbs and other ingredients to create therapeutic potions. The legendary Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed wine for its health benefits.

Today, the impact of wine on our health is a rather hotly debated topic and the subject of much research. While research has its merits, the writer of this newsletter would like to comment on the empirical evidence gained by living in Tuscany for more than a decade, which is that the benefit of a glass of wine extends beyond its physiological effect.

There is something wondrous in the simple act of gathering together to drink some wine, something that feels therapeutic to the soul. Perhaps it is sharing in a social custom that has existed since pretty much the dawn of civilization that evokes this marvelous reaction. Perhaps it is the passion and skill of a winemaker in symbiosis with the miracle of nature that one finds embodied in a glass of wine.

Whatever the explanation, there is no doubt that good wine in good company is not only one of the great pleasures in life but also something that brings us together in a fundamentally human way. We might even go so far as to say that wine is a thing that holds us together. In good times and in tough times, in joyous moments and in solemn ones, a fitting aspect of this elemental but multifaceted beverage will surely emerge as a perfect pairing to the occasion.

DriverInRome would be pleased to accompany you on a discovery of Italy’s wine regions and culinary heritage with a private car and driver.  Please contact us regarding popular or custom itineraries.

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