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Wine Geography

When approaching the topic of fine wine, it is not uncommon to encounter terms such as “Old World” and “New World”. These can be explained as very top-level sets grouping together all the wine regions in the World.

The terms refer specifically to geography, Old World being identified with Europe and New World comprehending everything outside. However, strong historical and cultural influences are equally quite evident. In fact, although the earliest evidence of wine production dates back to China around 7,000 years BC followed by Georgia and Iran, the definitions of “Old” and “New World” have much more to deal with the development and the establishment of winemaking and viticulture traditions as well as the related industries.

Old World

The Oenotrians, literally “people from the land of vines”, are believed to have practiced winemaking in Sicily since 4,000 BC. The Ancient Greeks actually referred to them as such after noticing the vast land cultivated with vines in that specific region of Southern Italy. Since then, wine has never stopped flowing throughout Europe. However, the industry expanded throughout different developmental stages, also thanks to the specific role played by each character.

The Phoenicians, who colonized the Mediterranean between 1500 BC and 300 BC, certainly have the merit of spreading the wine trade across coastal Europe. And before the Romans, evidence shows that Etruscans, in today’s Tuscany, as well as the Gauls, in today’s France, Benelux, Southwestern Germany and also in the region of Piedmont in Northern Italy, used to practice viticulture.

However, the Romans played a pivotal role in expanding winemaking throughout Europe by planting vineyards in their provinces to internally meet the demand on-site, instead of relying on import. Because of the expansion of the Empire, vineyards were planted in Spain and Germany, while in Britain, due to climatic reasons, their influence was more cultural and limited to export in relation to wine consumption habits – a trend confirmed over the centuries. In France, the Romans extensively planted vineyards in the Rhone and Bordeaux regions in the 1st century AD, and only later in Burgundy and Champagne, around the 3rd and 5th century AD respectively.

The Fall of the Empire, the Barbarian invasions and Medieval warfare put viticulture and winemaking in jeopardy. But thanks to the work of monks –  especially the Benedictine and Cistercian orders between the 11th and 14th century in Northeastern France – the knowledge was preserved.

The years leading to the 19th century were characterised by trade, modifying and consolidating the popularity of certain wine regions, resulting in the definition of consumption habits and preferences across Europe.

By the end of the 19th century, the wine industry had expanded so much that classification became necessary. Not surprisingly, it was a French region to break the news in 1855 with the famous Bordeaux classification. Other regions followed shortly and the classification evolved further over the years to enable customers to recognise the geographical origin of wine, while ensuring winemaking and production techniques.

New World

The Age of Discovery, between the 15th and 18th century, shaped the development of viticulture and winemaking outside Europe.

Several interesting elements emerge when looking at how wine is rooted into the New World. First of all, the way vines were transported is strictly related to the trade patterns of those times: not by chance, the first cuttings were carried to the most important wine regions of the New World in Spanish, Dutch and British vessels. Then, we can see the importance and key contribution of migration, mainly from France and Italy, and the subsequent expansion of the winemaking knowledge once infrastructures were established. Lastly, throughout both stages, the New World presented the challenge of diverse climates and soils, imparting a different character and style to the grapes imported from Europe.

After Cristoforo Colombo set foot on the American mainland in 1492, Spanish Conquistadors began the colonisation process. Based in the Central American islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico, they quickly ventured into the continent, conquering today’s Mexico, California and South America. Wine industries were established in Chile, Argentina and California at the beginning of the 16th century. While the first viticulture infrastructures were looked after by priests and missionaries in Chile and Argentina to facilitate the supply of wine for holy masses, California saw some real wine-fever action only later, during the Gold Rush in the 19th century.

In the 17th century the Dutch were trading massively with India and Indonesia, using Cape of Good Hope as a supply station. Due to the false belief according to which wine could prevent scurvy, the governor of the Cape Colony built a fort and established a farming community in order to provide sailors with a supply of vitamins for their journey at sea. A 750-hectare land was named Constantia and is still considered the backbone of the South African wine industry.

In the 19th century grapevines brought by the British were planted in Australia and New Zealand. The first attempt on Australian soil was actually made at the end of the 18th century, but harsh climate conditions were responsible for the rotting of stocks. The first successful endeavour and estate is believed to be the one founded by John MacArthur at Camden Park at the beginning of the 19th century. At the same time, the first grapes were planted in New Zealand. However, the first studies of viticulture in the Country date back to 1895, while the wine industry took off in the 20th century only.

Immigration played a similar role in terms of bringing the winemaking know-how into the New World, yet it unfolded at a different pace compared to the introduction of vines and the related infrastructures.

In South Africa, the protestant Huguenots moved from France in the 17th century to escape religious prosecution.

The 19th century represented a milestone for the rest of the New World: Argentina, Australia and New Zealand remarkably benefitted from the European immigration waves, with several winemakers trying to escape the devastating effects of the phylloxera epidemic by seeking fortune outside Europe.

In California, this trend was fuelled even further by the Gold Rush, with the Chinese community seeing to the construction of wineries, the planting of vineyards as well as the harvest of grapes.

Chile adopted a different approach, with local winemakers travelling to France during the 19th century to acquire the necessary skills and techniques that would then be implemented locally. For this reason, despite the Country being politically and culturally similar to Spain, Chilean wines nowadays much more resemble the French ones, including, but not limited to, the choice of grapes.

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