I doubt the Romans contemplated the tannins in their grapey grogs. The end goal was drunkenness, mixed with gorging on food and other bodily pleasures. But Rome’s ancestors to the southeast are the true geniuses who most likely invented wine. Earthen jugs crusted with a reddish, wine-like substance were found several years ago in present-day Iran, dating to 5,000 B.C. Ironic, since if you were caught drinking wine there today, you’d rot in prison.
Back then, grapes in the Middle East grew near the Mediterranean, Caspian and Black Seas, where the rich soil helped vines thrive. The Egyptians, harvesting grapes from the Nile River Basin, offered wine for postmortem pyramid parties and also used bottles to pay taxes. But we’re not talking the quality cabernets so carefully crafted today; they used fruit growing wild in the wilderness. Greece recently found grape pressings from 6,500 years ago, accompanied by desiccated figs, presumably added to sweeten the pot. In fact, wine in ancient times tasted so bitter, additives were crucial — like honey, olive oil, black pepper and juniper berries.
But their sweet tooth eventually rotted out. Centuries later, the partying, yet clever, Romans realized a voluminous need for more swilling, so they farmed their favorite fruit. They classified, cared for and cultivated hundreds of grape varieties, learning more and making higher-quality wines. Under their leadership, wine production and consumption spread throughout the continent, and France (aka Gaul) ascended to wine domination. In fact, Burgundy in southeast France is the birthplace of many grapes, like chardonnay, pinot gris and noir, which were created around 200-300 A.D. Using DNA dating, they’ve traced all of today’s chardonnay clones back to one Burgundian mother vine.
But throughout history, grapes in Galilee (present-day Israel) continued to thrive. But they still wallowed in cloying sugar. I’ve often wondered if Jesus drank dry French instead, but my research revealed no definitive wine pairing menu at the Last Supper. Perhaps a sweet, port-like wine swirled in his chalice, or maybe he turned his water into merlot or cabernet. Who knows, but his miserly magic would come in handy today at many occasions. After the fall of Rome around 500 A.D., religious influence destroyed the wine scene in the Middle East, but wine consumption ran rampant in Europe. And they all rejoiced.
Fast forward to the early 1400s, when European grapes headed to the New World — and promptly died. An indigenous American root louse called phylloxera ate its way through the delicate, newbie vines, so our forefathers resorted to fermenting the immune, thick-skinned native varieties. Then, in 1863, cuttings from these vines traveled to the Old World, where the bug jumped off and ran free, decimating a good chunk of France’s vineyards. It took a humble horticulturist from Texas to figure out how to fix the increasingly pesky problem — grafting the almost-extinct European vines onto the resistant American roots. He saved the day, so when you drink your way through a bottle of French wine, kiss a horticulturist, then an Italian.