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The history of wine in Italy

No culture is defined by their wine like Italy. As Burton Anderson noted in his work The Wine Atlas of Italy, just a few decades ago, a daily supply of basic village wine cost Italians less than their daily supply of bread. “The Wine Bible” author Karen MacNeil notes that “In Italy, wine is food… wine and bread are as essential to an Italian dinner as a fork and knife (probably more so).”

Photo from vigour on Flickr and used thanks to the Creative Commons license.

Introducing grapevines to Italy

Who is the genius that we must thank for planting vines in Italy? According to Life in Italy, a fascinating website about Italian culture and a must-read for anyone traveling to Italy, it was the Greeks who first recognized Italy’s potential for wine. After settling in present-day Sicily and southern Italy, the Greeks were so impressed with the fertile land that they decided to import vines and give the land the name Oenotria, which means “land of wine”. It only seems fitting that a culture with Dionysus, the god of wine, would be the ones to see the winemaking potential in a new country.

We must also pay homage to the Etruscans, a group of people who settled in Central Italy, for founding the wine industry of modern day Tuscany and for being incredibly ahead of their time when it came to winemaking technology. The Etruscans took the grapevine introduced by the Greeks, cultivated it into highly desirable wines, and considerably improved on winemaking. In Lucio Sorre’s “A Salute to the Etruscan Origins of Truscan Cuisine”, Sorre notes:

Incidentally, our sophisticated 20th century enotechnicians boast about their advances in temperature-controlled fermentation. The Etruscans were ages ahead of them, though their techniques obviously differed. After crushing the grapes, the must was poured into clay containers which were buried deep in the ground. Here the temperature was considerably lower. When the fermentation cycle was completed, the wine was then stored in cellars located even deeper in the earth than the fermentation vessels.

Roman influence

As the Roman Empire expanded, demand for wine increased. (No surprise here: the Greeks were not the only ones with a god of wine!) Wine production kept up with this demand, and wine became an intricate part of Roman society.

When we talk about wine from the Roman Empire, we should not mistake it for modern day wine. The wine of the Roman times was very different than our typical Chianti or Barolo: wine was often mixed with water to decrease the wine’s incredibly high alcohol content, and because the Roman palate preferred sweet wines, they often drank sweet whites from a prized region, Falernian, which is near Naples. Today, Italians are “purists” when it comes to wine, but the Romans mixed their wine with honey, added herbs and spices, salt… or even chalk!

The Romans may have had some strange ideas when it came to serving their wine, but they deserve credit for improving many winemaking processes: they introduced the use of trellises, improved Greek wine presses to extract more juice and were masters of determining which grapes thrived in which climates, leading to higher quality wines and bigger yields.

The Romans may have also been the first to recognize potential in a wine, and preferred wines aged ten to twenty-five years. They also realized that to effectively age wines, they needed airtight containers, and thus invented the wooden barrel. It is believed that they might have also been the first to use glass jars and corks.

At the height of the Roman Empire, wines were exported to other parts of Europe, and other regions adopted the winemaking practices which the Romans invented or improved upon. But with the fall of the Roman Empire, demand for wine decreased. Although some Roman Catholic monks continued to produce wine during the Dark Ages, its popularity did not increase until the Renaissance.

Recent history

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Italian wine was often criticized for its poor quality. The government responded to this criticism by establishing the DOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata) and stricter wine regulations. Both the quality and the reputation of the wine improved.

Today, the things which made the wild, indulgent Etruscans so famous are still embraced in Italian culture: good food and good wine. This is perhaps best expressed by MacNeil, who offers her Italian friend’s explanation for the Italian attitude toward food and wine: “If someone drinks a little much wine, the Italians don’t say he has drunk too much. They say he hasn’t eaten enough food”. At Sedimentality, we love that approach to food, wine and life.