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Wine in the Mediterranean

Wine is as old as civilization and has had a major impact on shaping it. There is evidence that wild grape vines were growing millions of years ago but the production of wine is generally believed to have started in Neolithic times (8500 - 400 BC) in the near east. This was at the time that people began to live in settlements, domesticating animals and growing crops. The greater security of settlements gave rise to the development of a more diverse culture and cuisine. The Neolithics are credited with first production of bread, beer and later wine.

A brief history of wine in the Mediterranean

A necessary condition of wine making was the ability to store it. Pottery vessels have been found with traces of wine dating back to 6000 BC in the northern Zagros mountains of what is now Iran... the first real evidence of wine production. Other places in the eastern Mediterranean continue to claim that they were first. Cyprus, Georgia, Lebanon and others claim to be the cradle of wine but the specific place of origin is perhaps unimportant. What is significant is that wine began in a part of the world that was accessible and which led to its rapid spread to other areas.

By 2700 BC Egypt had a flourishing wine production in the Nile delta and trade with other countries in the eastern Mediterranean. Wine motifs are evident in the tombs of the pharaohs. There is evidence that the Egyptians were sophisticated in their wine tastes and some wines were prized more than others.

There are biblical references to wine including the first miracle at Canaan when Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast. Noah planted a vineyard on Mount Ararat after the flood and is not only the first recorded vineyard owner but also the first recorded drunk having consumed too much of his own wine.

The subsequent Greek and Roman civilizations spread wine and its importance throughout the Mediterranean. The Etruscans and Phoenicians also played a part. Wine became an important item of trade and the continued discovery of large quantities of Greek amphorae around the entire Mediterranean is evidence of this.

However, it was the Romans who really firmly established the importance of wine throughout the region after their defeat of the Greek empire. By 125 BC the Romans occupied or had control of the entire Mediterranean basin. Wines from Italy were traded throughout the region and important maritime trading posts such as at Narbonne and Beziers in the Languedoc were established with wine as a major product. In time, many of these areas that were importing wine began to produce and sell their own. Vines from these trading posts gradually spread inland, firstly to the Rhone valley, then Burgundy, the Loire, the Moselle and finally the Rhine.

Wine became an important part of daily life for many Romans. The wine was different from what we drink today. It was often mixed with herbs, honey and other, more noxious substances. Undoubtedly, one reason for drinking wine was that it was safer than drinking the water but wine was a source of pleasure and sociability. The ruins of Pompeii (a town of 30,000 people) have revealed 160 wine bars. Most of the wine would have been red since white wine, particularly sweet white wine, tended to be reserved for special occasions and for higher ranking persons. As well as drinking large quantities, the Romans also furthered the development of wine making techniques and were the first to introduce wooden barrels. The Romans also appeared to have knowledge of how to seal the wine containers (and therefore protect the wine from oxidization) and valued wines that were 10 to 25 years old.

The collapse of the Roman empire (around 400 AD) and the beginning of the Dark Ages meant that wine development was put on hold....but not abandoned. By this time, wine was an important part of the Roman Catholic church and expertise retreated into the monasteries from where it would be revitalized in the Middle Ages. The sacking of Rome and the forces of Islam effectively ended the dominance of the Mediterranean as a wine producing and trading area.

The Moslem invasions of the seventh century caused the Mediterranean to become an Arabian sea. This put an end to most maritime traffic and commercial activity and an end to the importance of wine in these traditional wine producing areas. By this time, however, wine was part of everyday life throughout Europe and in big demand.

Led largely by the Dutch, northern Europe sought new ways to access wine. This led to the increased development of vineyards particularly in northern France and the Rhine. By the twelfth century Flanders was the chief export country for French wine. The Mediterranean was too dangerous.

England has a major impact at one point in the history of wine. Wine and England changed significantly in 1152 when Henry Plantagenet (the future Henry I) married Eleanor of Aquitaine. This meant that the lands of Bordeaux were ceded to the English crown For the next 300 years Bordeaux benefited from preferentially low tariffs on wine shipped into England This began the continuing English love of Claret (red Bordeaux). It also signaled the demise of the English vineyards which had prospered since the days of William the Conqueror when England had an estimated 1,000 vineyards.

At the same time that England was enjoying the fruits of its relationship with Bordeaux, the church was rapidly becoming the major power in wine. The Benedictines - the black monks - had prospered through the rule of Charlemagne and had acquired substantial vineyards particularly in Burgundy. Gevrey-Chambertin, Romanee-Conti and La Tache were all under the ownership of the Benedictines The indulgences of the Benedictines led to the formation of the Cistercians white monks the Trappists) who promised a more austere way of life. They in turn acquired French vineyards in Beaune, Meursault, Pommard, Chablis. Sancerre and Provence. Other orders followed including the Carthusians. These orders became major centers of learning and wine understanding and quality developed significantly. Some of the monasteries retreated to a quieter life while still growing grapes and producing wine... in areas that included the Mediterranean, particularly Spain.

Politics and religion continue to play a part in the development of wine. In recent times, the most significant development has been the independence of the formerly French territories in north Africa Tunisia Algeria and Morocco. In the earlyl950s these countries represented around two thirds of the international wine trade with much of the wine being shipped into France and blended with French wine These countries became increasingly important after Phylloxera devastated many of the vineyards in France and created a wine shortage. Most of the vineyards in these countries were owned or managed by French nationals. The struggles for independence (most acute in Algeria the biggest producer) led to very strong anti French feelings. The fact that the newly independent countries were now run by Muslims also meant that wine was (almost) a forbidden product The French left, wine production plummeted and the vineyards were largely abandoned Since then there have been some attempts to increase wine production. Morocco produces small quantities of French style wine. Tunisia continues to produce wine as does Egypt but they are now rarely found outside these countries.

Today the coastal areas of the Mediteranean remain significant wine producing areas although their worldwide importance has reduced. Inevitably, some former wine producing areas have been lost to real estate development. Many of those that remain are focused on local grape varieties, or owned by small dedicated producers. These additional factors mean that many wines of these wines are not easily accessed in other parts of the world. The Mediterranean climate with warm, dry, sunny summers, cool evenings, mild and wet winters remains conducive to grape growing.


Arthur Till has been interested in the fruits of the vine for many years and shares his enthusiasm for wine with others through wine appreciation courses, a wine group and the tours he organizes.