Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

What is believed to be the first winery in the world was recently found in a cave in Vayots Dzor, Armenia, and dates back to around 6100 BC. It currently holds the title as the oldest-known winery (also, fun fact, it is home of the worlds oldest leather shoe).

It is believed that the Armenians were the first to use the barefoot method of winemaking, but there is evidence of wine production in China as far back as 7000 BC. Wherever it started, there is no doubt that the love affair between humans and wine is a long one. Wine has a very complex and interesting history with nations, consumers, and individuals who pioneered the spread of wine and wine cultivation.

Baccus by Caravaggio (1596-97)

The Rise of Wine

Along with the Armenian discovery, wine is also strongly associated with Ancient Egyptian society, but they did not start their wine production until 3100 BC when they began making a wine-like substance that was used in religious ceremonies due to its resemblance to blood.

Visiting Phoenicians took a liking to Egyptian wine and stored some to take back home. It was the Phoenician traders that began to spread its popularity to the rest of the world, taking wine to the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa. Between 1200 – 539 they came in contact with Jews who also began using wine in religious ceremonies, as they do to this day.

In 800 BC the Greeks began to perfect the art of wine-making. It became a popular symbol of trade and health, with Dionysus becoming the God of Wine.

As the Greeks expanded their empire and conquered territories around the Mediterranean, they brought wine along with them. Sicily in Southern Italy became one of the first Greek colonies on the Mediterranean to begin making its own wine, and the beverage soon traveled north, to Rome.

Giuseppe Maria Crispi ‘The Sacraments: Holy Communion’

The Romans quickly adopted wine and in 146 BC they began honoring Bacchus, Roman God of Wine. The Romans further develop the art of wine-making and the territory becomes home to some of the most famous vintages. As the Roman Empire expanded, so did their wineries, with grapevines appearing in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Some even associate Christian monks with a love of wine. They certainly became the pioneers of western winemaking technology when Rome adopted Christianity, as pressure was put on the monasteries to produce holy wine for use in Catholic sacrament. Christian monks became the master vintners of Europe, and the Church brought wine to the masses (literally, through mass).

Wine in the Americas

Bought by the Spanish conquistadors during their conquests and exploration of the Americas between 1492 – 1600, European wine entered South America and became popular in Mexico and Brazil.

The French eventually traveled further had north to Canada, where it is believed that the Norsemen, under the command of Leif Erikson, cultivated wild grapes 500 years prior. The French claimed Canada as their official territory and establish settlements in 1608. The Jesuits arrived shortly thereafter and began using the local grapes to make wine. 

North America finally began cultivating its own wine from grapes imported from Europe in 1619. The first grapevines were planted in Virginia, and from there made their way up the Eastern Seaboard. Due to the region’s puritanical culture, it took a while for wine to become publicly accepted and widely consumed.

In 1769 it is once again the Catholic church that is responsible for the widespread adoption of wine. When Spanish missionary Junipero Serra traveled to California, he brought the gospel and a passion for wine. He opened a missionary in San Diego and planted grapevines, giving the region its first local wine from a variety of the vitis grape. The beverage became hugely popular across California.

Junípero Serra

Wine Across Australian, South Africa, and New Zealand

Back in Europe, the Dutch began expeditions to South Africa in 1659 and the Dutch East India Trading Company stored wine aboard their ships to supply their sailors on their long journeys. Thus wine arrived to South Africa and the sailors began planting grapevines there to supply their return voyages back to Europe. The Cape Province became one of the best-known regions for wine-making and remains so to this day.

In 1788 British fleets traveling from the UK to Australia made a pit stop in South Africa and brought wine aboard for their onward journey. Grape cuttings from the South African vineyards were planted in Australia, and Australian wine production began.

Photo by Sparky Marquis (Mollydooker Wines)

James Busby, a British resident in Australia, was appointed as a Jurist in New Zealand. James was a wine enthusiast and considered the father of Australian wine. He brought grape cuttings from Australia to New Zealand and began wine production there in 1832.

Over the next century, as the world became more open to international trade, wine became a popular household drink and a valuable commodity. The years 1830 – 1870 saw the return of wine to the lands of Algeria, where thousands of years before the Phoenicians had planted vast vineyards. After centuries of Islamic rule that prohibited wine, the French occupied Algeria in 1830. Native Algerians adopted the French method of winemaking, and the production of French wine in Algeria hit a high in 1970, eight years after the French ceded control of the country.

Cultivation of grapes and wine making in China during Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644)

Wine Culture in China and Japan

St Francis Xavier, a Spanish Catholic Priest, brought gifts of wine to Japanese lords during the Spanish missionary visits in 1543. As the Portuguese begin converting Japanese people to Catholicism, they also began trading in Spanish wine. Japan was reunified 1587 and Christianity was banned, along with any associating factors, such as wine. The country had to wait a further 300 years before the first grapevines were planted and the Japanese people began to adopt the beverage once again.

Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, The Peoples Republic of China opened itself up to international trade and western culture in the 1980s. French wine was one of the first imports to arrive on Chinese shores and became hugely popular.

The timing could not have been better. After years of political upheaval, the Chinese Republic saw a population boom and the middle and upper classes expanded. More families began purchasing luxuries such as wine. Since then, the Chinese have had a long love affair with wine. Today, the nation is one of the largest consumers of French wine and other European products.

From ancient Armenia to modern-day China, humanity’s love of wine has stood the test of time and slowly but surely conquered the world. From kings to emperors, politicians to bureaucrats, what was originally a symbol of religious sacrament has found its way into public events, the pages of history books, and a place at the dinner table.