During the course of human history, wine has played an integral role in enhancing the social fabric of numerous cultures and civilizations. At one time wine was consumed as soon as it was fermented into juice and alcohol. As humankind evolved, so too did winemaking – and wine preservation.
Winemaking, and therefore the quality of the resulting wines, was enhanced by increasingly sophisticated techniques for fermenting grapes in a suitable processing − and sanitary − environment. Wine preservation, and therefore the ability to age wines for future consumption, was enhanced by the advancements made in storing wines to increase their ability to age in ideal conditions.
The art and science of wine preservation has been centered on two aspects of the life cycle of wine: stabilized temperature and oxidation prevention.
Many techniques have been employed over the centuries.
Early winemaking, which some believe goes back as far as Neolithic times, was undertaken on an ad hoc basis: grow native grapes in open fields, induce fermentation by crushing them and then consume them (quickly) before oxygen and bacteria rendered them unpalatable and possibly dangerous. Early man quickly realized that wine was as much a social lubricant as a healthy source of liquid nourishment.
Several years ago, a team of archeologists found the remnants of a basic winery in a cave in Armenia. They determined that the winery and traces of wine unearthed were over 6,000 years old. Among their key findings were a wine press, wine cups, fragments of grapes – and clay storage vessels buried in the cave.
Through trial and error, the ancient winemakers had determined that this method of storage was optimum for the necessary temperatures, humidity and darkness for fermenting and storing grape juice. Six millennia later, in spite of significant technological advances, winemakers store and age their wine in caves, at similar temperatures as the ancients.
The ancient Romans and Greeks used these clay storage jugs extensively. Ancient shipping documents refer to these vessels as amphorae. Composed of available local clay, amphorae were the preferred shipping containers for many perishable food products stored on ancient ships plying the long sea voyages between Greece and mainland Western Europe. Watertight amphorae have been discovered on ancient sunken ships near Sicily containing wine, oils and various spices, several of which were still preserved after centuries under water.
Here in the 21st century, aging wines in amphorae – and concrete – is gaining traction in the United States and Western Europe as alternatives to stainless steel and hardwoods.
The Romans perfected wine storage when they conquered and planted grapes in northeast France. They discovered that the limestone caves in the region designated as Champagne were ideal for storing wines. The extensive caves they excavated are still in use today and are considered the preferred storage method.
Fast forward to modern times. Cave and cellar storage continue to be the preferred method to maintain and age wines. Even with the advent of mechanical cooling, many winemakers – and their cost accountants – prefer natural caves for their temperature consistency and cost efficiency.
In the last century, as coal mining began waning on the East Coast of the United States, mining entrepreneurs transported their boring equipment to California wine country, digging out hillsides to form natural caves. Their scientifically validated criteria for creating the ideal cellars? The ancient natural caves of the Romans and Greeks in Eastern and Western Europe.
Another unintended influence of the ancients: at least one American and several European winemakers are experimenting with aging wine underwater. Encouraged by still-viable wines found on both ancient and modern sunken ships, these winemakers feel that the ocean offers the ideal temperature, pressure, darkness and swaying motion to age wine.
Here in the 21st century, restaurants and in-home wine cellar owners follow similar principles for ideal storage. The ideal temperatures for most wines are 50 to 60 degrees. Humidity levels should 60 to 70 percent. Optimum level of light? Zero. Not coincidentally, these are the same natural conditions found in the ancient caves in early civilizations.
To quote the familiar refrain: everything old is new again.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.