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The Long History of Vineyards and Wine – Upended

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GrapevineThe influence of ancient Roman and Greek explorations and settlements on winemaking is well-known. But it was with great surprise that I read a headline last week that dates the planting of grapevines well before our understanding of wine production by humankind.

It is well-known in oenological circles that remnants of a winery and winemaking implements dated 8,000 years ago were recently discovered in the country of Georgia. Last week a genome study by a prestigious group of scientists determined that grapevines were planted in Georgia and in the Levant (ancient Israel, Lebanon and Jordan) 11,000 years ago. This makes the Roman and Greek influences on modern winemaking seem quite recent.

With that news headline swirling in my mind, this week I decided to reprise a column I wrote more than 10 years ago in The Examiner. It certainly has changed my perspective of the wines we are consuming in 2023 A.D.

“It’s like putting new wine in old bottles.”

I recently heard this timeworn phrase as a politically charged comment on proposed federal legislation. I began thinking of this in the context of wine.

The wine industry has evolved more in the past decade than perhaps in the previous century. The introduction of new technology and new techniques has raised the overall quality, quantity and diversity of wines available to consumers. Has there been a sea change in winemakers’ approaches to making wine? Or more appropriately, is it possible to discover or create anything new in an industry that has been plying its craft for at least 6,000 years?

Have the shifting sensibilities of winemakers evolved to the point where they are now putting new wine in new bottles? Has science – in the form of DNA testing, sophisticated soil analysis and innovative electronic equipment – substantially 1) changed the inherent characteristics of grape varieties and 2) supplanted the traditional means of making wine?

And lest I totally run askew of logic, let me stretch my metaphor once again. Have the noted advances achieved in winemaking over the past decade in fact created throwback wines? Are old wines being put in new bottles?

Allow me to dwell on this last premise.

For all of the recent advancements evident in wines being introduced in the market each week – under the influence of scientists, winemakers, marketers and consumers – it seems to me that, in a number of cases, what I am drinking today did not exist in the 1900s. Yet many of these wines bear a resemblance to those produced by our forefathers for centuries. Consider these points:

  1. New farming techniques are proliferating. As chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides were being introduced in the 1950s, many American and European producers embraced them wholeheartedly, abandoning the organic practices of past millennia.

Fast forward to the 21st century. There is a growing movement to a “new” symbiotic relationship with nature. Each year the use of chemical products in vineyards declines; centuries-old terms such as organic and biodynamic are in vogue. In fact, many of today’s farming practices are strangely similar to those employed by the Roman Empire as it planted grapevines across its vast holdings around the Mediterranean Sea.

  1. Winemakers in California and Oregon are producing new Pinot Noir wines that have never existed before. At last count there are now over 200 clones of Pinot Noir vines being planted – and their grapes blended – in some fashion. However, the centuries-old mother rootstock of these plants emanated from the Burgundy region of France where it still flourishes today. New Pinot Noir wines are being evaluated on their heritage and the subtle variations from their baseline French ancestors.
  2. Similarly, in Italy, Super Tuscans are heralded as new wines. What makes them unique are grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, grapes not indigenous to Tuscany. Yet these new wines have been produced in Bordeaux for centuries.

Old wine in new bottles. It sounds counterintuitive, but the rich history and traditions of wine are clearly evident in the exciting and vibrant new offerings in today’s marketplace. Don’t be fooled by their disguise.

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. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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