Italian Wine History: Learning the Basics
Italian wine history starts with the very first wines that originated in Ancient Egypt. Ancient texts, including the Old Testament of the Bible, have many references to the drinking of wine. Wine was made in the ancient Greek, Minoan, and Etruscan civilizations, all of which had some sort of root in the Italian peninsula, beginning the millennia-old tradition of Italian wines.
The Italian peninsula is one of the oldest wine-growing regions on the planet due to the climate and the presence of cultures that appreciated the breadth and depth of wine. When you are talking about Italian wine history, you have to talk about the ancient peoples that brought it there in the first place. It is believed that ancient Spanish peoples brought wine vines into Sicily, Sardinia, and other Italian regions centuries after Phoenicians and Arabs planted the first Vitis Vinifera vines (originating from Ancient Egypt) in Italy, beginning Italian wine history and a centuries-long tradition.
The Etruscans, the people who ruled much of the Italian peninsula from 1200-550 BCE, also loved their wine. After the Etruscans, their inheritors, the Romans, picked up where they left off. The Romans truly refined wine in their time, creating Falernum, Caecubum, Mamertinum and other many other heady wine. The ancient Greeks of Mycenae also settled in southern Italy and Sicily in the 800-600 BCE and found the climate perfect for growing grape vines. They were so grateful for this land that they named it “Oenotria,” or “the land of wine.”
The Ancient Romans loved wine. Their wine contained a lot more alcohol and was usually more powerful, sturdy, and acidic than modern wine. The Romans customarily mixed wine, making wine that may have otherwise been impotable with water to make it good to drink. The Romans by and large preferred sweet wines, and their most prized wine was a white wine from their best wine region, the Falernian region located near modern-day Napoli. The Romans also mixed honey and other additives (such as herbs and spices) with this wine, creating an aperitif called mulsum. It was now uncommon to mix salt into wine, or even chalk to reduce the wine’s acidity.
If you are going to study Italian wine history, you have to look at the unprecedented population explosion in Rome from 300 BCE – 1 AD, when the demand for wine increased by leaps and bounds. The Romans made enormous contributions to the art of viticulture; they are often credited with the use of trellises and props in the cultivating of wine grapes. Most historians recognize the Romans as the first people to understand that wine that is aged properly simply wines taste better and they would often age their wines 10-25 years. The Romans improved the ancient Greek presses that were used for extracting grape juice for wine and figured out what grapes grew best in certain climates, which increased the amount of wine that was created. The Romans were also the first people to understand that wine kept in tightly-closed urns improved after aging.