Phoenician trade routes and wine in the ancient world

Recently we received a rather interesting question from a member:

I’ve read that wine was first produced in the Middle East and throughout Persia. If this is true, why aren’t we all drinking wines from those places today?

Great question – with a long, convoluted answer. But it's worth knowing if you love wine.

Many archeologists and anthropologists believe that wine was first produced around 5000 B.C. in the area that today is known as the Republic of Georgia. The country sits on the far eastern edge of the Black Sea, with Turkey to its south and the Russian Federation to the north. Grape cultivation specifically for fermenting the juice into wine is thought to have spread quickly and easily through basic trade with Turkey and Persian areas not long thereafter.

So why aren’t we all drinking Georgian wine nowadays? Well, you actually can if you want to. Georgia has maintained a robust wine tradition for millennia. Until recently, nearly all of Georgia’s wine was exported to Russia. But a few years ago, as a trade war broke out between the two nations – and then, later, an actual war – the Russians banned imports of Georgian wine. Wineries needed to find new markets and, over the past few years, began shipping some of their wine to the U.S.

This point addresses why we don’t all drink wine from the places with the deepest and longest-running grape-growing traditions – because of politics, war, religion and all the other factors that inspire or force people to move from one place to another. People take their traditions and knowledge with them, and often improve upon them in their adopted homelands.

California is a great example of this. Zinfandel, which many say is best in California, is actually native to Croatia. There they call the grape Crljenak Kaštelanski. (Try saying that five times quickly.) The grape was used for winemaking in Croatia starting around the time the Georgians were figuring out the fun of fermentation, but Zinfandel didn’t start spreading around the world until the mid-1800s. Many credit the Italians, who first adopted Zinfandel in the 1700s, for this. They called the grape Primitivo, and the Italian immigrants who settled in California in the late 1800s brought with them cuttings of the vine, planting them to make wine in their new home.

But Zinfandel actually planted its roots in California earlier than that, via a much more circuitous route. In the early 1800s, Croatia was controlled by the monarchy of Austria. There are records indicating that a Vienna nursery sent Zinfandel cuttings to a horticulturist in New York as early as the 1820s. Zinfandel was used as a table grape and for raisins on the East Coast of the U.S. until the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s, when many rushers brought the grapes with them out west. A decade later, Zinfandel vines could be found growing throughout California.

As Zinfandel’s success proves, sometimes grapes can grow better far from their ancestral homes. Another example is the French native Sauvignon Blanc, which many think is better when grown in New Zealand; or Riesling in Washington or Canada, as opposed to Germany. Perhaps more than because of politics, war or religion, it’s the time-honored practice of trade that determines the success of wine.

Let’s go back to Georgia for a moment. Say you were a winemaker there in 1200 B.C. By this point, your family’s or village’s winemaking tradition has spread far beyond Georgia, as you likely traded wine for some other good that wasn’t native to your area. Around this time, the Phoenicians were controlling trade throughout the Mediterranean – all along the northern coast of Africa to Morocco, across to Spain’s southern tip and eastward all along the coasts of France, Italy and Greece, reaching east to Turkey and back to the Phoenicians’ homeland of modern-day Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. And not only were the Phoenicians controlling trade, they’d also figured out how to grow and make wine for themselves. Today, wine is still made in Israel and Lebanon.

Winemaking was proliferating, and wine was becoming highly sought after all along the Phoenicians’ trade routes. It was a favorite of the Egyptian pharaohs to the southwest, and obviously became a part of Greek culture. Wine plays a role in one of the earliest-known written stories, Homer’s Iliad, which was created around the 8th century B.C. The ancient Romans came along soon after, and they proved to be particularly adept at not only growing grapes and making wine, but incorporating it into everyday life. The Romans expanded their empire into modern-day France, today the world’s leading producer of wine – which has been at it since 6th century B.C.

That’s not to say that things can’t change even more than they already have. Europe lost nearly all its winemaking tradition in the mid-1800s, when their vineyards were exposed to an American insect called Phylloxera, which snacks on the roots of grapevines. It was later discovered that grafting Cabernet, Merlot and other European varieties onto American grapevine roots would protect them. Today, however, many are concerned about the impact of global warming, with some scientists’ climate models suggesting that California will soon be too hot and dry for growing wine grapes.

The point is that any given moment in time is just a snapshot of wine’s incredibly long - and still unfolding – history. As geographical borders, the climate, and the interactions between groups of people change, wine will change, too.

For all we know, in 30 or 100 years, Napa may no longer be wine’s hotspot. Cabernet, Chardonnay and Zinfandel may be the products of Kentucky – or it could be that the world’s best place for wine is back in the vineyards outside Tbilisi, Georgia.