History of Italian Wine

This segment describes the history of Italy as it relates to wine. Italians are very proud of their history, which still has tangible influences on modern Italian society. This is mostly just background information, but it does help give some perspective on why the Italian regions and their wines are so different from one another.

Early viticulture in Italy is credited to the Greeks, who colonized Sicily and the southern Italian peninsula. In 500 BC (shown), there were numerous Greek outposts in the south. Rome was still a small city, fighting against other neighboring tribes. The Greeks introduced several grape varieties that were the ancestors of many southern Italian varieties grown today.

Rome began expanding after 500 BC, slowly but surely conquering and absorbing all the other cultures on the peninsula and the islands by about 200 BC, including the Greek colonies. The Romans learned from their former enemies and absorbed their best technologies and ideas, including winemaking.

For the next four centuries, the Roman Empire continued to expand, eventually controlling all of southern and western Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. Everywhere they went, the Romans planted grapevines, thereby establishing the basis for today’s wine industry.

Maximum extent of the Roman Empire

Italian peninsula AD 1000After the fall of the Roman Empire, economic conditions in Europe declined and the former empire broke up into myriad constantly changing political entities. As a luxury, viticulture would have almost disappeared throughout Europe, except that the Church required wine for sacramental purposes, so monks continued to pursue viticulture and improve on winemaking techniques. As the home of the popes, Italy was naturally one of the centers of winemaking in medieval Europe.

The Italian peninsula and the islands fell under control of various local powers—families such as the Medici and Este—popes, and foreign rulers. Parts of Italy were ruled or occupied by Byzantines, Lombards, Normans, Arabs, Germans, French, Spanish, and Austrians, all of whom had an influence on regional cuisine and viticulture.

For more than a thousand years after the end of the Roman Empire, grape growing was strictly a local affair, for local consumption or sacramental use. Grapevines mutated, cross-pollinated, and evolved into innumerable different varieties. Some variations proved more suitable for winemaking in a particular area and were cultivated, while less suitable ones were removed. Throughout Europe, grape varieties became associated with the specific places where they produced the best wine, and appellations were born.

Italian peninsula AD 1796Because Italy was so fragmented by political boundaries, cultural rivalries, and mountainous terrain, hundreds of unique grape varieties developed in relative isolation throughout the country. The foundation was set for the vast array of wine appellations, styles, and varieties that exists today in Italy. In addition, in more recent times, a few grape varieties that were renowned in other countries were introduced into Italy, especially in the areas that had cultural or political ties with France, Spain, or the Germanic countries.

Italian peninsula mid-1800sUnification of Italy as one country for the first time since the Roman Empire came about in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1861, most of modern Italy reunited as the Kingdom of Italy. Later additions were Veneto and Friuli (1866), Lazio (1870), and Trentino–Alto Adige (1919).

The monarchy lasted until the end of World War II. In 1946, the Italian kingdom became a republic, and in 1957, Italy became a founding member of the European Economic Community. Important dates in Italy’s recent wine history include 1963, when the first Italian national wine law was established, and 1992, when a major overhaul of the 1963 wine law was passed.

European UnionIn 1993, the European Union was created out of the European Economic Community to more closely coordinate politics and economics across Europe. That coordination came to the wine industry in 2008, when the EU established a wine law that began to shift control of wine from individual countries to the EU government.

And that brings us to our final major topic for this lesson: wine law.

Next topic: EU Wine Law

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