Vitis Vinifera is one of the most widely cultivated fruit crops in the world today, and it is grown on every continent except for Antarctica. Vitis Vinifera is a member of the 60 plus family of Vitaceae and consists of sub species in the tens of thousands. Vitaceae is believed to be over 65 million years old, however, even though it is such a widely cultivated species today, we know little about its specific origins and history.
Vitaceae is found throughout Asia, North America and Europe,, with a preference for subtropical, Mediterranean Climate and temperate climatic conditions. Initially, Vitaceae was spread by continental drift before humans even began to populate the earth and use the fruit from the vine as a food source. While the other members of Vitaceae are important cultivators for food and juice, it is specifically vitis vinifera that has become important in viticulture and winemaking.
The vine of vitis vinifera is known as a liana - a long, woody vine with a flaky bark, which can grow up to 35 yards long, typically, with long, broad leaves and bears a fruit berry known as a grape. Depending on the sub-species, the grapes can be green, red or purple-skinned and the pulp is usually a light green or yellow color. Wines made from vitis vinifera gain their color from the skins and not the juice or pulp. Domesticated vitis vinifera has hermaphrodite flowers and does not require pollination for fruit to develop, in this way, it is easy to distinguish between wild and domesticated vines, as wild vines are dioecious, meaning they have to be pollinated to bear fruit. (Learn more in "The Anatomy of the Grapevine Explained."
The Obscure Origins of Vitis Vinifera
We remain relatively unsure of the exact origins of this ancient grapevine. While archeological evidence tells us that humans have been using grapes from Vitis vinifera to make wine from 7,000 to 6,000 B.C., botanists have used seed morphology to try to differentiate the difference between wild grapes and modern cultivators, as so little is actually known. Seed morphology is simply observing the differences between different collections of seeds. When trying to discover the history of Vitis Vinifera, researchers use archaeobotanical methods to observe and classify Vitis vinifera seeds from archaeological sites in different parts of the world.
Differences in seeds from the past and modern seeds let researchers understand how Vitis vinifera has developed and evolved. The seed morphology has also helped establish a timeline of the geographic spread of the vine throughout history. But still, the exact history is vague, by learning what we can and by understanding the evolution of Vitis vinifera, we understand the history of wine and winemaking more thoroughly.
From Food to Wine
Fruit from wild grapes was a known food source food during the Palaeolithic Era, however, the domestication of Vitis vinifera has been linked specifically to the production of wine. Wine production, which required domesticated vines to bear juicier fruits as well as clay vessels to store the wine, was not possible until near the end of the Neolithic period. Archeological evidence shows that Vitis vinifera was first cultivated and domesticated between the Black Sea and Iran, starting around 7,000 B.C. From there, it is believed that humans spread the vine to the Middle East, Near East and Central Europe. This spread of the vine is supported by evidence of vinification residue in clay jars in the same geographical region from that time period.
Cultivation and Spreading Vitis Vinifera
Starting around 6,000 B.C., grape cultivation seems to have spread gradually westward from the Eastern Mediterranean to Greece and Crete, though we only see wine grape cultivation and wine making in Italy and Spain starting around 1,000 B.C. and in France at around 600 B.C., with viticulture exploding in France starting about 500 B.C. Increased trade routes along the coast as well as the expansion of the Roman Empire spread plantings of the vine and knowledge of viniculture and viticulture throughout Europe. (Read more in "Wine and the Roman Empire.")
The Romans began recording the first classification of Vitis vinifera varieties, the types of soils and growing conditions preferred by the different varieties and winemaking techniques. The written records of the Romans helped establish wine growing and wine making throughout their empire. While there is evidence of considerable development of vineyards and viniculture, little is known about the ancestral cultivars and the variety diversification process that occurred. While we know the Romans started recording the domestication of the vine, the biogeography and mechanisms of grapevine domestication remain obscure, as well as the identity of the former cultivars that were domesticated. (Read on in "Why Most Vineyards are Placed on Slopes and Hillsides.")
The Family of Vitis Vinifera
While the sub-species of Vitis vinifera are too numerous to count, the grape varieties it produces can easily be classified as either white or red, depending on the color of the grape skin, which can vary from yellow to green or red to deep purple. As people made more wine, they would choose varietals that both adapted well to the growing regions of the are and that produced flavor profiles that were desirable in the wines being made.
We can assume that initially sub-species would be chosen for their ability to produce a plentiful harvest of juicy grapes and that, overtime, specific flavors would be chosen to produce specific tastes in wine, and as the vines spread, different vines would be chosen for the climate and/or soil preference of the fruit. (Learn more in "Soil Types and the Wine Grapes That Grow Best in Them.")
The biggest question we have today about the domestication and cultivation of Vitis vinifera is how did it happened? Was it a natural selection process of cross breeding, or did humans cross breed the vines? Additionally, we don’t know if this was a fast or a slow process. As researchers continue to discover new archeological sites that contain evidence of Vitis vinifera, wine growing and making and chart the morphology of seeds, they are able to draw more specific conclusions about the history of the wine worlds most loved vine.