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History of wine

The history of the vine is closely linked to that of human civilisation. Sought out and domesticated way back in Antiquity, the vine accompanied the development of trade throughout the ages, gradually gaining ground and today being grown all over the planet. Wine as we know it can be a symbol of power, wealth and conviviality; it has a very exciting history behind it.

Wine’s origins

In its untamed state, the vine is a prolific, fast growing creeper. It would seem, although some doubt remains, that it was first tamed by man to produce wine in the Caucasus, on the edges of Turkey, Russia and Iran. From there, vines then spread eastwards via Persia all the way to India and China, but above all westwards, conquering the world from the Mediterranean Sea thanks to the Phoenicians and the Greeks. Today, there are vineyards on all five continents.

In Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and in the Nile Valley, low-reliefs bear witness to the presence of vines and organised winegrowing. From their birthplace in the Caucasus, vines travelled to Ancient Egypt.

Maritime trading between the two shores of the Mediterranean started to develop, making this one of the most prosperous regions of that day.

Vines appeared in China during the Han dynasty.

The Gallo-Roman period

Gallia Narbonensis was powerful and strategic at that time. It was also a major wine-producing region and fostered the dissemination of vines along the Mediterranean coastline. The Allobroges, a Gallic people from the Grenoble region, introduced vines to the north of the territory with each new victory. Meanwhile, the Bituriges Vivisci selected a grape variety suited to rainy climates and planted vineyards near to present-day Bordeaux to underscore their commercial positions.

Burdigala (present-day Bordeaux) became the capital of the Roman province of Aquitaine. There were vines there.


Emperor Domitian ordered that Gallia Narbonensis be stripped of its vines as Italian wines were under increasing threat. 50% of Mediterranean vineyards were thus wiped out.

The sage Probus granted the Gauls the right to plant vines and to produce and sell wine.

The Middle Ages

A new winegrowing landscape emerged. Bishops, individuals of the greatest importance, were keen to nurture quality vineyards around and about the city. The number of monasteries increased, providing hospitality in the numerous production zones. At a time when communications had barely started to develop, 750,000 hl of Bordeaux wines were already being exported to England every year.

Abbot Molesmes founded a community of Cistercians at Cîteaux. They were the first to select vines, to improve production methods, and to seek out the best soil and the best microclimates.

18 May 1152

Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II of England. Their marriage promoted the export of Bordeaux wines to England.

Maître Vital Dufour, Prior of Eauze (in the Gers, France), wrote a scientific encyclopaedia entitled Livre très utile pour conserver la santé et rester en bonne forme (Very Useful Book for Staying Fit and Healthy). The book is kept in the Vatican library in Rome. It describes treatments, and constitutes the earliest first-hand testimonial referring to Armagnac, putting a date to its invention. The author lists forty benefits of "Aygue Ardente", the brandy that later was to take the name of the area producing it: Armagnac. This would make Armagnac France’s oldest eau-de-vie (brandy).

Creation of the Clos Vougeot vineyard in Burgundy by the monks of Cîteaux Abbey: the first truly structured winegrowing estate. It laid the foundations for promoting Burgundy wine.

Afraid that new and extremely productive grape varieties would diminish the quality of Burgundy wines, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, prohibited Gamay grapes from being grown in Burgundy, favouring Pinot Noir. 

A booming business

French vineyards expanded in the 16th century, stimulated by the Dutch, who imported white wines to distill them and make "brandevijns". One century later, the European market for brandies fostered the emergence of Cognac and Armagnac and their subsequent worldwide success.

Corks and bottles became the norm from the end of the 17th century, adding a new dimension to the wine business: wine was now easier to preserve and to export. The arrival of the railway was then all it took to make wine the national drink in France.


Holland became independent from Spain and gradually overtook England as the number one export market. Aquitaine, meanwhile, had become a French province once more.


Dom Pérignon discovered the principle of sparkling wine at Hautvillers Abbey.


Law of 22 July 1791, the first of its type, protecting consumers against falsifications and deceit in relation to drinks. It provided for a fine or prison sentence for anyone selling drinks falsified with harmful ingredients.


A huge epidemic of powdery mildew on vines in France seriously endangered production. In the South of France, almost two thirds of the vines were destroyed with dramatic consequences, notably for families who earned their living from winegrowing. There was a mass exodus of winegrowing populations. In three years, wine production fell from 39 million hectolitres to 11 million.


Phylloxera devastated France’s vineyards at the turn of the century. This tiny yellow aphid from the United States attacked the roots of the vine and, from 1864, gradually destroyed practically every vineyard in the country. By grafting French vines onto American stock that could withstand phylloxera, French wine was able to rise from its ashes. The crisis had generated a shortage of wine and fostered fraudulent practices: Vin de Terroir was diluted with wines from other regions, and even artificial wines cropped up. This situation spurred the authorities to give wine a legal definition: "produced by completely or partially fermenting grapes or fresh grape juice."

Louis Pasteur. © DR

Pasteur furthered our understanding of microbiology. Wine could be kept better, and aged.

The botanist Planchon identified the destructive agent in phylloxera: phylloxera vastarix.

Fraud Prevention Department created in France. It continues to keep an eye out for irregularities in the production and sale of wines in France.

Winegrowing today

In 1936, France adopted a system that would foster the emergence of recognised and dynamic winegrowing areas by protecting the authenticity and the quality of their wines. Creating the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) was a way of raising the standards of all winegrowing: progress in agronomy and oenology was embraced in the cultivation of vines and the production of wines. At the end of the ’60s, Vins de Pays were created, providing an opportunity to restructure the wine industry towards greater quality. Technical progress was embraced on a massive scale, making France’s wine economy a veritable reference on a planetary scale.


The Comité National des Appellations d’Origine des Vins et Eaux-de-vie was founded, destined to become the INAO – the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine in 1947. The first AOCs were created.


A university diploma in oenology was created to disseminate the considerable technical and scientific discoveries throughout vineyards.


Creation of the Office National Interprofessionnel des Vins (Onivins), a public establishment responsible for managing the winegrowing sector. In 2005 it merged with Oniflhor to form the Office National Interprofessionnel des Fruits, des Légumes, des Vins et de l’Horticulture, aka Viniflhor.


Promulgation of the so-called "Évin" law pertaining to advertising for alcoholic drinks in France.


Publication of a European Union regulation that extended the European quality labels Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) [AOP in French] and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) [IGP in French] to the wine sector. This precise regulation helped French Vins de Pays on their way towards recognition as Protected Geographical Indications (IGPs in French). Meanwhile, "Vins de Table" came together under the Vins de France banner. As for VDQSs (Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure), they disappeared in favour of the PDO and PGI labels (respectively AOP and IGP in French).

List of AOPs and IGPs on the INAO website:
In "Type/Catégorie" select "4.1 Vins"
In "Signe" select "AOP" or "IGP"


Publication of a European Regulation defining the vinification processes that can be used in organic agriculture, applying such processes to organically grown grapes to produce organic wine. The resultant wine can be labelled "organic wine". The European "organic agriculture" logo features on the label.

© DR



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