The History of Grapes

The History of Grapes: A Journey through Ancient Civilizations

The history of grapes and wine is closely intertwined with that of many historical civilizations, offering a fascinating journey through the centuries. For those who wish to delve deeper, we immediately highlight some authoritative sources:

- [Wine Museum of Valais](

- Prof. Piero Luigi Pisani Barbacciani, Professor of General Arboriculture

- Smithsonian Magazine - "A Brief History of the Grapefruit"
Website: Smithsonian Magazine

- Encyclopedia Britannica - "Grapefruit"
Website: Encyclopedia Britannica

- The Citrus Industry - Chapter 10: Grapefruit
Book: "The Citrus Industry, Volume I" by Walter Reuther, Herbert John Webber, and Leon Dexter Batchelor.


Let's focus on the Vitis Vinifera and its fruits, the grapes that we consume and transform today. This fruit is the result of a long relationship with humans, which began in prehistoric times when our ancestors appreciated the fruits of Vitis silvestris, the original and wild variant of the current Vitis Vinifera.


Note that domesticated vines have hermaphroditic flowers, while the sylvestris is dioecious (with male and female flowers on separate plants), and fertilization is necessary for fruit development. Changes in the shape and distribution of the seed (narrower in domestic forms) indicate that domestication took place around 3500-3000 BCE in Southwest Asia, in the Southern Caucasus (Georgia), or in the western coastal region of the Black Sea (Bulgaria, Romania). The earliest evidence of domesticated grapes was found at Gadachrili Gora, near the village of Imiri, in southeastern Georgia, dating back to around 6000 BCE.

Early Historical Records

The earliest writings about grapes and wine are found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumerian text from the 3rd millennium BCE: "The vine-dresser's wife lives by the sea, she who makes the wine; Siduri sits in the garden by the sea with the golden bowl and the golden vats that the gods gave her." Gilgamesh's encounter with the "vine-dresser's wife" may have symbolic value, as Gilgamesh sought immortality, expressed through the vine and wine, symbols also of immortality for the ancient Sumerians.

There are also numerous hieroglyphic references from ancient Egypt, indicating that wine was exclusively reserved for priests, state officials, and the pharaoh.

Diffusion in Antiquity and the Role of Rome

The spread of the Vitis Vinifera culture followed major cultural and trade routes, from the Caucasus to Mesopotamia, Egypt, through the trade routes of the Phoenicians and Minoans, to ancient Greece. Later, the Etruscans introduced vine cultivation to Rome, which became the main disseminator throughout the European region. Technical progress in viticulture was supported by abundant literature, enriched by the knowledge of other peoples in the Mediterranean basin, with significant works such as those of Marcus Porcius Cato - "De agricultura," Marcus Terentius Varro - "Res rusticae," Publius Virgilius Maro - "Georgica," and, above all, Lucius Moderatus Columella - "De re rustica" - which present biological concepts and technical guidelines still relevant today.

The varietal heritage was remarkable, with table and wine grape varieties, the latter divided into three classes based on the quality of the wine that could be obtained. Columella listed 58 grape varieties, including 12 for the table; Pliny the Elder listed 80 and reported that there were 190 in the world. In the Valais region, the ancient Romans spurred viticultural activity, but studies from the University of Basel indicate that vine cultivation was already active in Celtic times, around 600 BCE. The Rhône Valley, protected by imposing mountains, benefits from a dry climate with the lowest precipitation rate in Switzerland, warm summers, and long autumns, favorable to viticulture due to the geological characteristics of the region.

History of Viticulture in Valais: A Journey through the Centuries

The history of viticulture in Valais is a fascinating tale dating back to the Iron Age, nearly seven centuries before the Roman conquest. The first cultivation of vines was likely introduced by neighbors from northern Italy, influenced by Celtic and Greco-Etruscan cultures. Analysis of plant remains from Lake Montorge confirms viticultural activity between 800 and 600 BCE. Grape seeds with their peduncles are also present at the archaeological site of Gamsen in Upper Valais during this period. By the end of the Iron Age, containers for wine, such as goblets, spinning vases, and strainers from northern Italy, are evident.

During the amphora period (50 BCE - 450 CE) in Roman times, the people of Valais imported foreign wines. Numerous fragments of amphorae used for wine transport testify that a part of the population, likely the elites, appreciated wines from Gaul and the Mediterranean. Simultaneously, indigenous wine production was consumed daily.

Roman-style production (200 - 450 CE): From the 2nd century CE, signs of more organized production are visible in Roman villas, large farms on the right bank of the Rhône. No significant infrastructure emerged, but small objects such as curved-blade knives, early sickles, and grape seeds found in Gamsen testify to this winemaking production.

Middle Ages, the Role of Monasteries

With the end of the Western Roman Empire, vineyard acreage saw a significant reduction. Between the 5th and 10th centuries, bishops, monks, Christian religious orders, and lay nobility greatly contributed to the preservation and improvement of the viticultural heritage in Europe. Wine, in addition to being part of the diet of religious communities, was essential for the mass and communion of the faithful. The agricultural estates of monasteries and bishops, often expanded through bequests, became centers of vine cultivation. Monastic orders expanded vine cultivation in Europe to the extreme limits of latitude and altitude. With the resurgence of European civilizations, viticulture expanded quantitatively and qualitatively through continuous empirical and scientific research. During the Renaissance, viticulture was also encouraged by the development of extensive literature dedicated to the vine, characterized by an innovative spirit fully expressed in the works of Bacci, Porta, Alamanni, Soderini, Del Riccio, Micheli. These works reflect the intention to observe and describe phenomena with experience valued by reason, according to a new philosophical concept that reclaimed the earthly dimension of man.

Risk of Extinction in the 19th Century

Over the last century and the present one, viticulture has experienced crucial events and profound changes. In the second half of the 19th century, two serious diseases threatened the extinction of Vitis vinifera. The first was "downy mildew," caused by oidium, which appeared in England in 1845 and destroyed European vineyards. Viticulture, recovering from the crisis caused by "downy mildew," was again struck by an even more serious scourge, phylloxera, which appeared in Europe in 1869.

The phylloxera problem was also solved after an intense period of research, renewing viticulture with resistant rootstocks derived from certain American grapevine species. From America came the malady, and later, its remedy.

Sacred and Profane

Few fruits are imbued with mythical and religious meanings like grapes, an ancient symbol associated with deities such as Dionysus and Bacchus. This connection extends to Christian ritual, where wine holds fundamental importance. Founding myth narratives tell of the birth of vine cultivation and grape fermentation.

The etymology of the word "wine" traverses ancient languages, from the οίνός in ancient Greek to "vinum" in Latin, with Indo-European roots dating back to "wVn." The use of the term spreads in Semitic languages, with traces in Akkadian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Hebrew. The origin of this term, probably Anatolian-Caucasian, finds an echo on the slopes of Mount Ararat, the biblical location of the first vine planting according to Genesis 9:20, where Noah is protagonistic, intoxicated after the Flood.

The myth transcends the biblical territory, as shown in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a work of over 4,000 years. Here, the land of Dilmun is linked to the king of Uruk who, in his quest for "everlasting life," encounters Siduri, the beer hostess or "woman of wine." Ancient Mesopotamia considered wine as coming from distant lands, as evidenced by the term "mountain beer" in Babylon.

The Hittites associated the vine with foundation and purification rituals, while wine played a central role in the Kumarbi Cycle and in the stories of Astarte and Baal.

Greek mythology intertwines with the childhood of Dionysus, the god of wine, who taught the art of viticulture. Various myths connect Dionysus to India and tell how, upon his return, he shared the secret of wine production with men, earning the title of "god of wine." The story and symbolism of grapes and wine weave into a mythological fabric that shaped ancient cultures and continues to resonate in contemporary rites and legends."