With so many different Italian wines it is not surprising that there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties of grapes grown throughout the vineyards of Italy. After all, a good Italian wine will often consist of a blend of at least two grape varieties and it is increasingly rare to find a wine that is made using a single grape.
Many of these grapes have a history that is almost as enchanting as those of the wines that they are used to make. It could also be argued that there are few amongst them that have survived the test of time quite like the vitis vinifera grape. What is most interesting about the grape is that it is considered the base for many of the more famous grapes that are now used in wine production, with many being able to trace their roots back to vitis vinifera.
Here we take a look at the history of the grape, from its earliest cultivation through to its spread into Italy and beyond over the centuries.
The grape is one of the oldest in the world and humans are thought to have been able to cultivate it all the way back in the Neolithic era, which took place between 10,000 BC and 2,000 BC. Back then it was used mostly as a food source, though there is some evidence that it was also used to make wines. However, in those ancient cultures it also had a medicinal purpose, which lead to early farmers and foragers valuing it highly. Many people of the time believed that the sap from the grape could be used to cure problems with the eyes.
Even in those early days the grape had already made its presence known in many different areas. It was prevalent in southwest Asia, Georgia and Romania to name but a few. However, the earliest known records of the grape being actively cultivated and used to create wine come from Ancient Egypt. It was mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh in addition to appearing in a number of hieroglyphics, where it was discovered that the wines made from the grape were reserved for dignitaries, priests and the pharaoh himself.
Its spread into Italy was most likely helped by the Greeks, who introduced a number of different winemaking techniques to the region, particularly in southern Italy. These techniques were then improved upon by the early Etruscans in the region, who even managed to develop an export trade, often using grapes of the vitis vinifera variety, long before the Romans eventually arrived.
The Roman Era
When the Romans first began to flourish, the creation of wine took an important place in their society and they quickly started to develop and refine the techniques that had been learned from the ancient Etruscans.
However, the later era of the empire was marred by war, decline and overall conflict, which in turn had an effect not only on viticulture as a whole, but also the vitis vinifera grape and its reputation. For a number of years the practice of winemaking was reduced from the important aspect of trade and instead reduced to smaller vineyards that were sustained on the local level, rather than flourishing throughout the country.
This continued right through to the late 900s, with winemaking moving out of the localities and becoming almost exclusively reserved for religious orders. Many small vineyards appeared in or near monasteries, while wine on the whole was no longer exported. In terms of pure popularity, this era was probably the worst for the grape, as it was for the wine trade in general as it no longer existed to any appreciable degree.
As the Renaissance began to take further hold, the wine trade once again picked up steam and began to become an important part of Italian society. As the populations of towns and cities increased, as did the spread of wealth and an increasingly artistic movement that desired wine, the growth of grapes that belonged to the vitis vinifera genus and its offspring began to flourish once again.
During this era, a lot of attention was paid to the methods used in creating wines, which is believed to have given rise to some of the many techniques used during the modern age. With such a focus on scientific techniques, plus further exploration of different grape varieties and how they could be used, Italy started to see the development of some of its most famous wines during this period.
As for the vitis vinifera grape, it started to spread once again and even made its way to South America alongside most of the countries in Europe. Today the grape accounts for the vast majority of the world’s wine production and grapes that belong to vitis vinifera are found in a huge amount of Italian and foreign wines throughout the world.
As mentioned, the term vitis vinifera no longer refers simply to a single grape, but also to the many other varieties and hybrids that have come into popular use as a result of the grape.
Amongst them are the following:
Perhaps one of the most popular white wines, at least in international territories like the UK and US. In Italy the chardonnay grape is usually blended with others to create various types of wine. Amongst the Italian wine that makes use of the grape are Albana, Viognier and Procanico. However, it has gained even more popularity in its native France and in the US, where it is readily cultivated.
Often confused with chardonnay, the pinot blanc grape is considered to be an offshoot of pinot noir, which itself traces its roots back to the vitis vinifera grape family. Much like chardonnay, it is more widely produced in France but is also popular in Italy where it is blended into a wide variety of wines.
The history of Italian winemaking is intertwined with the continued popularity of vitis vinifera and the many grapes that fall under its banner. Without it, the history of winemaking may have been very different indeed.