A man in the Vineyard

For thousands of years, wine has been an integral part of human history and culture, and the techniques and processes used to produce it have evolved through the long history of winemaking. But, although wine is made today on a much bigger scale, a winemaker from Ancient Greece or Rome would understand many of our viticultural and winemaking practices.

In this article, we'll explore some of the major innovations in the history of ancient winemaking and how they impacted the wines we drink today. By understanding the history and evolution of winemaking, we can better appreciate the art and science behind every bottle.

Where Did Wine Originate?

The history of winemaking began in 6500 BC in the Caucasus region, near modern-day Georgia. Archaeologists have found ceramic jars containing residues of tartaric acid, a component of grapes, indicating that ancient people were fermenting grape juice into wine. From there, winemaking spread to the Middle East, with evidence of wine production in Iran dating back to 5000 BC.

As civilization expanded, so did the practice of winemaking. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans embraced wine as part of their cultures. In Egypt, it was used in religious ceremonies and as a medicinal treatment in Egypt. The Greeks associated wine with Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, and incorporated it into their drinking parties. The Romans refined winemaking techniques and spread viticulture throughout their vast empire.

Ancient Winemaking Techniques

Fermentation With Natural Grape Yeasts

Fermentation is the process by which yeast converts the sugars in grape juice into alcohol. Today, winemakers add specially developed yeasts. In ancient times, they relied on the natural yeasts on the grape skins and in the air to carry out this process, a spontaneous or natural fermentation technique.

The use of natural yeasts in winemaking can be traced back to the earliest days of wine production. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans made wine using this method, as did winemakers throughout Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years.

Natural fermentation begins when grapes are crushed, and the juice is exposed to the air. The yeasts on the grape skins and in the environment feed on the sugars in the juice, turning them into alcohol and producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Fermentation can take several weeks, depending on the temperature, sugar content, and other factors.

One key advantage of natural fermentation is that it allows for the development of unique and complex flavors in the wine. The natural yeasts on the grapes can vary from region to region and even from vineyard to vineyard, giving each wine a distinct character reflecting its terroir.

However, natural fermentation also has some drawbacks. Because the process relies on wild yeasts, it is unpredictable and difficult to control. The yeasts may not be as efficient at converting sugars to alcohol, leading to stuck fermentations or off-flavors in the wine. There is also a higher risk of spoilage from bacteria or other microorganisms that may be present on the grapes or in the environment.

In some cases, winemakers would use a technique called "pied de cuve," where a small amount of fermenting must from a previous good batch is added to the new must to kickstart the fermentation process. This technique is still used by some natural winemakers today.

The Invention of the Wine Press

The invention of the wine press was a significant milestone in the history of winemaking. It allowed for a more efficient and effective way to extract juice from grapes, which led to the production of higher-quality wines.

The earliest wine presses were likely developed by the ancient Egyptians, who used a simple wooden plank and lever system to press grapes. This basic design was later improved upon by the ancient Greeks, who created a more sophisticated press that used a large wooden beam and a windlass to apply pressure to the grapes.

However, it was the ancient Romans who truly revolutionized the wine press. They developed a large, mechanical press that could process large quantities of grapes at once, significantly increasing wine yields.

The Roman wine press consisted of a large, shallow basin where the grapes were placed. A heavy wooden beam, called a "prelum," was lowered onto the grapes, applying pressure and causing the juice to flow through a series of channels and into a collecting vat.

The prelum was often made of a single, massive piece of wood, which could weigh several tons. It was raised and lowered using a system of ropes and pulleys or screws, which were operated by a team of workers.

The technology of the Roman wine press spread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world, and design variations were used for centuries. In fact, some traditional winemaking regions, such as Champagne and Burgundy, still use wine presses that are based on the Roman design.

Today, modern wine presses use various technologies, including hydraulics, pneumatics, and even robotics. These presses can be highly automated and can process huge quantities of grapes with minimal human intervention.

Vine Training

Vine training is the practice of manipulating grapevine growth and shape to optimize yield, quality, and ease of management. Ancient winemakers developed various techniques for training their vines, laying the foundation for modern viticulture practices.

One of the earliest forms of vine training was the bush vine method, where the vine grew freely without any support. This method was simple and easy to maintain, but it often resulted in low yields and inconsistent fruit quality. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks were known to use this method, as evidenced by artistic depictions of grapevines in their art and literature.

As winemaking became more sophisticated, ancient winemakers developed more advanced vine training techniques. The Romans were particularly known for their expertise in viticulture and were responsible for many innovations in vine training.

One of the most important techniques developed by the Romans was the use of trellises and other support structures to train the vines. By training the vines, the Romans increased the amount of sunlight and air circulation around the grapes, which improved their quality and reduced the risk of disease.

The Romans also developed techniques for pruning and shaping the vines to optimize their yield and quality. They would carefully select the most productive shoots and remove any weak or diseased growth, a practice known as "spur pruning." They also experimented with different vine spacing and row orientation to maximize sun exposure and minimize the risk of frost damage.

Another innovation developed by the Romans was the practice of grafting. The Romans created more resilient and productive vines by grafting a desired grape variety onto the rootstock of a hardy, disease-resistant vine. This technique allowed them to expand viticulture into new regions and adapt to changing environmental conditions.

The techniques developed by the Romans spread throughout Europe and beyond, and many of them are still used in modern viticulture.

The Impact of Soil Types on Viticulture

The ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who is often considered the father of botany, was one of the first to recognize the impact of soil types on the quality of grapes and wine. He described how different soils, such as sandy, rocky, or clay-rich soils, could influence the flavor and character of the resulting wine.

Theophrastus observed that grapes grown in sandy soils tended to produce wines that were lighter in color and body, with a more delicate flavor profile. In contrast, grapes grown in rocky or gravelly soils were found to produce wines with more intense flavors and deeper colors. These wines were often higher in tannins and had a longer aging potential.

Theophrastus also recognized that the climate and weather patterns of a particular region affect the quality of the grapes and the resulting wine. He noted that grapes grown in cooler climates tended to have higher acidity and lower sugar levels, while those grown in warmer climates had lower acidity and higher sugar levels.

For example, the Cabernet Sauvignon wines of Bordeaux, France, are known for their deep, complex flavors and excellent aging potential. These qualities are often attributed to the region's gravelly soils, which provide excellent drainage and force the vine roots to grow deep in search of water and nutrients.

Ancient soil analysis laid the foundation for the concept of terroir, the understanding that the combination of soil, climate, and other environmental factors in a particular region can profoundly impact the quality and character of the wine produced there.

In Conclusion

The history of winemaking is a fascinating journey spanning millennia and countless cultures. From its beginnings in the ancient world to the highly sophisticated techniques used today, winemaking has always combined art and science. 

Modern winemakers benefit from a deeper understanding of wine blending, the biochemistry of fermentation, and the impact of hundreds of components on wine's taste, aroma, and mouthfeel. However, every one of the thousands of wines we stock at Wine Deals owes something to ancient winemakers who laid the foundations on which today’s wine industry is built.