National Red Wine Day is celebrated on August 28. The date heralds the coming change of season, highlighted by the colors red, amber, and brown. This annual celebration invites everyone to sample the best Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, and others, along with those delicious foods that pair well with each one.
Where did red wines originate?
When we think about the origins of red wines, it is natural for France or Italy to come to mind. But, as it often happens, history tells us a different story.
The beginnings of humans’ adoration of delicious red wines predate man’s written history by several thousand years. Clay jars and other artifacts from the Neolithic Era (around 7,000 B.C.) have been discovered in several locations in China, Eastern Europe, and around the Mediterranean Sea. The jars stored early wines after harvesting, crushing, and fermenting those early grapes.
While much evidence shows that these alcohol-laden liquids were used primarily for funerals and certain rituals, some wines were likely consumed for “medicinal” reasons or simply to test their quality.
Earliest References to Wine Production
According to The Vintage News website, the first wines were believed to hold a “magical, spontaneous gift of nature.”
While older evidence of wine consumption has been noted, the oldest actual winery was discovered only recently. Researchers have traced the date of operation to about 6100 B.C.
The discovery, within a cave near Areni, Armenia, included a grape press, a wide shallow vat, fermentation jars, and cups. Here, botanists determined that the grape species of the time, Vitis Vinifera, is the same from which most wines are produced today.
The cultivation of grapes proves that human horticultural skills had developed considerably by that time. Scientists have found that the production of red wine during that time highlighted civilizations’ growing understanding of water cycles, pruning, pest control, and fermentation.
As wine production expanded in the Middle East and Egypt around 3000 B.C., many artifacts, including etchings on ancient tomb walls, depict grape harvests, crushing, and placing the liquids in special amphoras to ferment.
Notably, several amphoras found in King Tut’s tomb show traces of wine.
And as further evidence, the Holy Bible references wine frequently, most notably in Genesis when Noah drinks some following his experience during the Great Flood.
Early European Development
The knowledge and disciplines of viniculture and winemaking eventually arrived in Ancient Greece through extensive trade interaction with the Phoenicians of Northern Africa. The Greeks quickly embraced wine production and consumption with genuine enthusiasm, even adding Dionysus, God of Wine, to their long list of highly revered deities.
Around 800 B.C., much as Phoenician merchants had, the Greeks learned to transport vines that could be replanted in new areas. They spread the word and helped establish new vineyards and winemaking facilities in Sicily and regions that would later become Italy.
Expanding Through Europe
During the time of the Roman Empire’s development and growth throughout the Mediterranean region, from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D., viticulture and wine production expanded and grew with even more modern techniques. Those early Romans named their God of Wine Bacchus and spread the winemaking art throughout Europe into areas and regions we recognize today as the preeminent wine producers. These regions include Italy and Sicily, of course, and France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal.
One of the oldest operating wineries in the world is in Germany’s Mosel Valley, the Staffelter Hof, first created by Benedictine monks of the Stavelot Monastery over 1,150 years ago.
Another, the Château de Goulaine, is located on the bank of the Loire River in France and dates back to around 1000 A.D.
Symbolized by the Catholic Church
Wine has been associated with religious belief almost since it was first consumed. The earliest winemaking sites discovered by archeologists happened to be located near burial sites.
By 400 A.D., Christianity and, most notably, the Catholic Church became the prominent religious order in Europe. Red wine, recognized as a symbol of the blood of Jesus Christ, became a part of the worship and remained an integral part of the Holy Communion or Sacrament of the Eucharist with modern-day Catholics.
Red Wine Comes to the New World
The first rootstock for planting in the New World came with Christopher Columbus and the many other European explorers and settlers. Throughout the 1500s, shiploads of Spanish conquistadors and missionaries arrived in Central and South America to colonize and convert.
As expected, since red wine was an essential part of the Catholic culture, planting vineyards became a high priority for many new residents.
Finding areas of Argentina and Chile most suitable for vineyard development, the missionaries cultivated vineyards that remain in production even today.
During the late 1700s and well into the 1800s, Spanish missionaries, most notably Junipero Serra, established a mission and obligatory vineyard in San Diego, California, with vines brought from Spain.
Red Wine Production Comes to California
Eventually, by around 1805, Spanish colonizers had moved north into what is known today as Sonoma Valley and established their first vineyards there.
As time passed, more varietals than those original “mission” grapes came from Europe, and more were developed in the “New World.”
By the mid-19th Century, the first visitors to Napa Valley, some previously drawn by the Gold Rush, settled in the region and planted the first grapevines. Today, Napa Valley and its neighbor, Sonoma County, are recognized among the premier wine-producing areas of the world.
Wheeler Farms Vineyards in St. Helena
Among those early Napa Valley pioneers of the 19th Century was Charles H. Wheeler. Arriving in Napa Valley in 1871, he established Wheeler Farms, a tract close to today’s town of St. Helena.
These Wheeler Farms vineyards in St. Helena were further developed and expanded by his son, J.H. Wheeler, whose name is still featured on the labels of some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon red wines in the world.
Visitors to Napa Valley should make their reservations to visit the Wheeler Farms vineyards in St. Helena and sample some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon wines worldwide.