Wine in the western world
The history of wine in Spain is the history of wine in western Europe. Long before the foundation of Rome in the eighth century bc, Phoenician traders were shipping wine from the river-ports of Asia Minor (Anatolia) across the Mediterranean in clay amphorae, bartering it along the north coast of Africa and the south coast of Europe for commodities like wheat, olives, sandalwood, perfumes, carpets and whatever else could profitably be traded. The Pillars of Hercules (the ancient name for the promontories flanking the Strait of Gibraltar) were then at the very edge of the world they knew, but that was soon to change when these early traders began to travel further afield, venturing south to do business with the scattered tribes of the west African coast.
Before long it became expedient for them to have a permanent base at the western end of the Mediterranean, and they established the city of Gadier (modern-day Cadiz) around the year 1100 bc. The city grew in importance and wealth at what was then the crossroads of world trade, and migrants from Greece began to arrive. It is not known whether the founders of Gadier or the new inhabitants planted vines in the area around the city (now the area where sherry is produced) but by about 500 bc wine was being made there, based on the wines of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean--sweet and naturally strong, as it needed to be to survive rolling sea journeys, a hot climate and inadequately sealed clay jars.
As trade and early civilization spread inland, other areas of what was to become Spain developed their own agriculture, including vineyards and ways of making wine. The basic method of making wine was very simple and still survives today in some country areas: a stone trough was excavated from a hillside as a receptacle for the harvested grapes; these were trodden in it by foot. The cloud of carbon dioxide gas released by the fermentation process blanketed the juice and prevented oxidation and, once the process was complete, a plug was removed from the side of the trough to allow the wine to run off into suitable vessels which would typically have been clay or earthenware jars. These were then left so that fermentation could complete in its own good time and, when the cloud of gas had dissipated, the jars would be topped up to brim-full to provide an airtight seal. This, and the small surface area of the mouth, reduced oxidation and was a reasonably efficient way of keeping the wine drinkable. Moving it about was a different matter, but as most wine was made, sold and drunk locally, this was not a problem. So it was to continue until the arrival of the Romans.
Rome annexed Spain after a long and bloody war with Carthage but was in full control by the end of the third century bc, and it was the Romans who turned winemaking from a cottage industry into a major business. This was because it was becoming prohibitively expensive to transport wine for the occupying legions from Italy. The obvious solution was to make it locally, and this is what the Romans did, even doing some early work in researching which vine varieties were best suited to which soil. In this way the primitive local winemaking methods were "industrialized" on a relatively large scale.
The next major influence on the viticulture of Spain was the invasion of the Moors from North Africa in ad 711. Their occupation peaked in the year 929 and then receded southeastwards until they were finally expelled from their last stronghold in Granada in 1492. The intervening years had seen variously prohibition, vineyards turned over to the production of table grapes and even occasional business ventures in which Moorish governors permitted the making of wine for export to Christian-ruled areas of Spain. However, the Moors' major contribution to Spanish viticulture was the introduction of distilling, which happened some time after the year 900 (no-one is quite sure precisely when).
The Moors used the process to obtain the dry extract residue for use in art, design and cosmetics, and the spirit for antiseptic and medicinal purposes, but the winemakers found quite a different use for it. They discovered that the problem of oxidation of wine could be solved by the simple expedient of fortifying it with grape spirit. This preserved the wine's traditional sweetness, increased its alcoholic strength and made it more easily transportable, which was an important consideration with the gradual opening up of export markets.
By the time the Moors left, the fortified wines of southwestern Spain were reckoned the world's finest and were finding their way far across the seas as the age of exploration got under way.
From "Encyclopedia of Wine"
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