Wine has a long and venerable history, with references to its use cropping up in ancient texts from thousands of years ago - not least, of course, in the Bible. We know for a fact that it was firmly established in the Middle Eastern culture of around two thousand years ago, and for it to be so commonplace at that time it must have been around for quite some time before that. Viticulture was certainly a large part of the economy of the Roman Empire, and the spread of Roman civilisation included the spread of wine growing and wine drinking as the colonising soldiers moved across the Old World. In ancient Rome, a common form of wine was known as mulsum, heavily sweetened with honey, and produced on large agrarian estates largely by the slave population. What remained in the wine press after crushing the grapes - seeds and skins mainly - was often fed to livestock, or alternatively brewed into a very low quality 'wine' and given to the slaves who'd grown the grapes.
We also know that winemaking was familiar to the ancient Greeks, from whom the Romans learned so much, and there's physical evidence of this in the form of a stone wine press found in a Minoan villa on the island of Crete, dating back to around 1600 BC. The winemaking facilities discovered there appeared to be quite advanced and sophisticated, suggesting that the Minoans had been practising the art of winemaking for a considerable period before that date. Prior to this, the trail is a little less clear as we go further back into history.
The ancient Greeks had strong trading links with nearby eastern cultures such as Egypt, and although we can't be sure, it seems that it was from the ancient Egyptians that the Greeks learned to make wine. Physical evidence of wine production in ancient Egypt includes remains of wine jars and stoppers dating back to the earliest years of the civilisation, and wine was used both as a food and a medicine. Wine in pharonic times was not only made from grapes, but also from figs, pomegranates, and other fruits, a practice which continues across the world to this day in the rural production of 'country wines' such as damson and elderberry. The first great civilisation of historic times was in Mesopotamia, close to Egypt, in what is modern day Iraq and surrounding areas.
Although records from this era are sketchy, considering that writing was not invented until the latter part of the civilisation, there is evidence that wine was produced here too. A clay jar bearing traces of what could have been wine has been discovered in what is now northern Iran, and carbon dating shows that it was made around 5000-5400 BC. This is the oldest known evidence of wine consumption, but as this period of pre-history stretches back to 8500 BC, it is likely that winemaking had been known and practised for maybe thousands of years before that. So, next time you relax with a glass in your hand, ponder for a moment that what you are drinking could be the results of over ten thousand years of cumulative learning and experimentation with the magical process of fermenting grapes!.
Andrea writes for a wine guide site, 1Stop Wine, where you can read wine articles and search a database of relevant sites.