For more than 30 years I have studied plants, particularly of the prairies and Ozark regions of the central United States. During this period, I have read hundreds of journal articles and books related to the history of plant uses by humans. I thought it would be interesting to the readership to share some of this history since plants have played a major role in shaping world societies.
Alcohol has been an integral part of the celebration welcoming January first of a new year since at least the development of the Gregorian calendar. Today as ever before the popular alcoholic drink associated with this celebration is champagne, the sparkling wine.
A brief history of wine
Wine making, according to some authorities, originated nearly 8000 years B.C. Wine is the only alcohol that is produced by nature in the fermentation process that involves fruit and yeast (a type of fungi related to the morels).
Wine grapes were domesticated about 4000 B.C. in western Asia. Wine primarily was used by the Egyptians for religious ceremonies, quite like the practice carried out today by many religions. It did not become popular as a drink until some 2000 years B.C. during the Grecian empire.
The early Greeks, but not the Romans, stored wine in containers that were smeared with pine pitch to prevent leakage. This practice is likely the reason why Greeks today prefer a resinous flavored wine known as retsina.
“Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends.”
Tom Waits (American singer/songwriter)
Wine making reached France about 600 years B.C. Around 1860 disaster hit the French vineyards when root-feeding aphids nearly destroyed the grapes from the genus Vitis. But wine grapes produced in the United States were resistant to the aphids, and cuttings were sent to France to be grafted on their rootstock (still done today). [See note in forum message below]
Unfortunately, the North American grapes sent to France introduced a pathogen far more lethal than the aphids. This pathogen infected the leaves of the grapes resulting in the death of the plants. Within 10 years of the original introduction of the North American plants, the wine industry in France nearly was destroyed.
The French wine making industry in essence was saved by a French farmer. In 1885, Alexis Millardet, professor of botany at the University of Bordeaux was walking by a local farmer’s vineyard when he found grapes that were healthier looking than those of other vineyards. It turns out the farmer was spraying his grapes with a mixture of copper sulfate and lime to keep people from picking and eating them. This treatment became known as the Bordeaux mixture and was the first widely used fungicide.
The fungicides for grapes today contain copper and are used as a prophylactic to prevent infection of the plants. Unfortunately, rain washes the copper fungicide off and so several applications are employed. In some areas, this has lead to a build-up of copper in the soil to toxicity levels.
Wine making in the United States began with the Spanish in California in 1769 (although Columbus introduced plants into the West Indies on his second voyage). By the middle of the 1800s, the wine making industry in California was successful and growing and eventually developed vineyards in what is now known as Napa Valley.
Okay, now for champagne
Champagne is made by adding more sugar to wine that contains active yeasts and then tightly capping the bottle. The carbon dioxide now trapped in the bottle causes the wine to effervesce or sparkle when opened.
The problem with this process known as secondary fermentation is that yeast cells and other particulates settle in the bottle causing new methods to be developed in order to remove this material and make the champagne more desirable without loosing the bubbles. A better quality champagne is one in which sugar is added to produce the bubbles. A cheaper champagne is created when carbon dioxide is pumped into a still wine at the time of bottling.
So while celebrating the coming year, enjoy the champagne knowing its history dates back 4000 years or more. Oh, by the way, Bacchus (also know as Dionysus) is the Thracian god of wine. He represented the beneficial uses of wine as well as its ability to cause intoxication.
Dr.Timme is the director and curator of the Theodore M. Sperry Herbarium at Pittsburg State University.
Johnson, H. 1978. The Story of Wine. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Levetin, E. and K. McMahon. 2003. Plants and Society. McGraw-Hill, New York.Simpson, B. B. and M. C. Ogorzaly. 1986. Plants in Our World. McGraw-Hill, New York.
Webb, A. D. 1984. "The science of making wine". American Scientist 72: 360-367.