History of the Winegrape!

My weekly video describing the last 200 million years of winegrape history in under 9 minutes!


Video Transcript
AUDIO START: [00:00:01]

Hey, everybody it is Monday and we’re out in the vineyard finally. I’m going to kind of break away again from our five questions. If you have questions about viticulture, winemaking, anything, you can always send them to me via Twitter @WesHagen or Clos Pepe at wes@clospepe.com, or on any of our Facebook pages, but today I thought we would back up a little bit and start at the beginning and I’m going to give you sort of my speculations on the origin of the grapevine. This comes from Dr. Patrick McGovern’s Ancient Wine, Dr. Patrick McGovern’s Uncorking the Past, as well as John Haeger’s North American Pinot Noir. I also read a book called A History of the World in 6 Glasses, so this is sort of a combination of reading all these things, being a full-time viticulturist for 19 years, and considering where did the grapevine come from and what does it mean to humanity and the history of mankind? And what’s really going on with the grapevines? So here we go.

Two hundred million years ago there was one continent, that continent separated into the major continents that we recognize today. At that point there was really only one grapevine. That grapevine was Vitis ampelopsis. Vitis ampelopsis began going through genetic mutations in these various places and generally became the American, European, and the Asian subspecies of grapes. In China, in the village of Xiaozhou pottery shards were discovered and they were carbon dated back to 9600 BCE that showed tartaric acid crystals on the interior of the pottery shards so we know that about 10,000 BCE, 12,000 years ago people were carrying around jars, fired pottery in China that contained some type of alcohol that included grape juice.

Now, the Chinese were never that interested in making pure, grape wine. Perhaps that’s the reason why they still mix Coca Cola with much of their red wine. But these extreme beverages were rice, and millet, and honey, and hawthorn fruit, and grapes, and all these things were combined into an extreme alcoholic beverage that was probably as medicinal as it was delicious and intoxicating. So to get to European wine we have to move forward to 6500 BCE which is about the same that pottery shards are discovered in the Transcaucases between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea showing that somewhere people were firing pottery, filling it with grape wine, and trading it from village to village.

So the commerce of wine is about 9,000 years old in Europe. So during the mid-Neolithic or the late-Neolithic Periods we’re talking about periods where people were actually making wine, trading wine in Europe, specifically in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Some people would also include the Turkish Highlands. Now, in that region what enabled mankind to make wine is the last ice age receded, opened up the area between the Black and the Caspian Sea for human habitation and as humans went into this area what they found was delicious fruit and nut trees growing everywhere, and parasitizing these nut and fruit trees where they grape vines would hang these gorgeous, jeweled clusters of fruit.

Now, humans would’ve seen birds eating this fruit. Humans would’ve seen squirrels eating this fruit and other animals, and some of these birds and squirrels would actually wait for the fruit to ferment on the vine. It would eat fermented grapes and fall drunk out of these trees. So some people think, in general, we imitated drunk animals in learning how to make wine. I don’t really believe. I believe that human beings brought grapes back to their villages, put them in stone basins and as they ate this fruit once in a while it would get a little old and they wouldn’t finish the fruit and it would begin to sort of rot and get kind of wet and sloppy at the bottom of this stone. Someone decided after they saw the magic bubbling happen they would taste this fruit and say, “Wow, there’s something going on there. It changes my perspective to sort of mundane and sober to a little more intoxicated and heavenly.” So that Paleolithic Eucharist really was the first time that wine was probably tasted from those grapes in Europe in a way that would’ve been considered semi-modern.

Why I call it semi-modern is that same culture developed and found a hermaphroditic vine in this area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea somewhere near a village called Zagros right in the Black Mountains and the Transcaucases. When they learned about that stuff what they were able to do was they could take the hermaphroditic vine and domesticate it. So after we have domesticated the European grapevine, Vitis vinifera sylvestris became Vitis vinifera vinifera. We had the hermaphrodite vine that would produce 10 times as much fruit as a female, and of course the male vines produce no fruit so the hermaphrodite was a really key thing to getting us thinking about how to make wine into a culture.

So the village of Zagros by 5500 BCE was producing 200,000 liters of wine a year; that’s 50,000 gallons. The same production as Robert Mondavi Napa in 2005. So how did they get there? Well, first of all they had the hermaphrodite vine. They were making massive amounts of wine in underground clay bunkers because they didn’t have anything large enough to keep that volume of wine in and keeping it under the ground kept it cool. So being underground, having things you could put underground was a great way to sort of insulate wines when they were young.

So this first wine culture, really the European wine culture in the Transcaucases around the sixth millennia BCE led to a development of a domesticated hermaphrodite vine. That vine was passed around the Transcaucases, passed around Turkey and Asia Minor, passed around the Middle East, down into Egypt. Egypt is burying King Tut pretty soon with vineyard designated, winemaker designated jars of wine for the afterlife. 1500 BCE in Greece the Greeks create a wine that’s so expensive that 15 gallon then trades for a team of 30 oxen. That’s very, very expensive booze. That culture, once the Greeks have developed it, the Greeks did a couple things with wine like inventing democracy, inventing philosophy. All of these things became very important to the Greek symposia where landed gentry would sit around drinking wine and discussing these things which became the basis of democracy; having a discussion in a group of people and of course the drinking would allow them to become more passionate about what they were saying. They would never get drunk, but they would never be sober.

So these discussions were probably a little bit quicker and more decisive than anything we would see in the Senate or in Congress today. Sometimes I wonder if a drink in Congress or a drink in Senate, not to say they don’t have drinks during lunch, but maybe if it was actually allowed within chambers it would allow things to go faster. But anyways, the Greeks got it then the Romans got jealous and when the Romans got the wine culture everywhere that the Romans went throughout Europe they dropped off these different grapes which would mutate into the local varietals. For example, Traminer, gorgeous grape that’s grown in northern Italy, it was taken over the Alps into Germany and the cool climate produced a lot more terpenes and as they kept certain plants from vineyard to vineyard replanting the vines they noticed that the Traminer picked up a very spicy character. The word for spicy in German is wurtzig so Gewurtztraminer became the spicy version of Traminer as it was genetically mutating and changing due to climate.

So literally every grape that is of European heritage today from Arneise to Zinfandel came from one hermaphroditic vine that emerged from the Transcaucases almost 9,000 years ago. So as we look at the genetics of any grape we can trace it back to see how close it is to that original red grape. All grapes in nature are red because as a bird looks for something to eat it will ignore green grapes and go right for the red grapes. That color pigment is actually a visual indicator to the birds that the fruit is sweet enough to eat and it has a seed that’s viable enough to be spread.

So the vines have this little trick of turning their grapes red to entice birds to eat them. The bird goes to a different part of the forest, goes to the bathroom, seed drops in some beautiful fertilizer and that’s the way grapevines expand sort of their natural boundaries, but really the Romans did a better job than the birds spreading grapevines throughout Europe. And everywhere they dropped them off whether it was Spain, Germany, Italy, France, anywhere that the Romans went I think that you saw that those local varieties—the locals after the Romans left decided, “The kind of wine we want to grow is X.” So they allowed the random genetic mutations of those vines to change until the vine was perfect. Then they used those vines to replant their vineyards over and over, and that’s the way grapevines developed. That’s the way the grapevines went throughout Europe.

I think next week we can talk a little bit about the movement of European grapevines into the New World and how the New World plays into the history of wine, but as of right now you have 200 million years of history from the first Pangea all the way through the Romans, so maybe next week we’ll do sort of the Romans to Pasteur, and then maybe another week we’ll do Pasteur till tomorrow. So thank you very much for listening. Send those questions in if you have them and until then keep drinking good Pinot Noir.

AUDIO END: [00:08:51]