Wine Keeps Truckin' - Exploring the 1600s

Wine Expands into the New World and Beyond

By Nina Bernheim
Apr 08, 2020
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Picking right up from our last installation on wine’s history and evolution, we leap directly into the ambitious world of territorial conquests, a feat not possible in today’s world where lands are all already charted and mapped out.  The excitement factor appeals to us however, as we absorb the explorer’s thirst for excitement and adventure. We imagine this sentiment is less shared by those who were habitants of the new “uncharted” lands before the explorer’s arrival, but for the sake of historic context, we’ll explore through the eyes of the adventurers.

Viticulture owes a great deal to man’s inherent desire (and greed) for pushing the geographic envelope and seeking new lands.  Catapulting into the new century, adventurers and explorers began to seek out new territories for their homelands and those footing their bills.  Think of Columbus and his “discovery” of the New World (for Spain), Ponce de Leon claiming Florida and Puerto Rico for Spain, Hernan Cortez, responsible for decimating local tribes and claiming Mexico for Spain, Sir Walter Raleigh staking out Virginia for England, and De la Salle exploring the Mississippi and staking out Louisiana for France.  With new conquerors staking their claims, Old World traditions and practices were carried over to new lands. Vines were planted throughout Central America (Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Mexico and even Cuba). Wine production took off so well that Spanish kings banned the sale of New World wines to protect their own Spanish wines - the first case of commodity mercantilism.  Wine production the US took off a bit later, with cultivation of local vines along the Eastern and Western coasts; Virginia and California were the hot spots, with grapes even taking root in Texas. These are just the Spanish exports - the Dutch transplanted vines to South Africa, and the English later transported vines to Australia. The world of wines, as Bartolotta notes, was being brought into a New World of its own.

While explorers were bringing the literal fruits of their lands to new territories, they also were bringing the figurative fruits - wine itself.  Here they encountered a new obstacle: transportation. Due to volatile conditions found on all large boats (temperature, balance, storage, etc.) wines brought over for colonisers oxidised and turned to vinegar, not ideal drinking conditions.  Wines traded and sold in the Old World also faced similar issues with storage and turning sour. Necessity is the mother of all inventions, so the English and Dutch discovered that by burning the inside of the wooden barrels used to store and ship wines with sulfur dioxide candles (SO2) wines were stabilisd and didn’t turn into vinegar - hurrah! 

They might have picked up this trick from the Romans, who purportedly did the same thing. Also worth remembering, the much beloved Sherry, Port, and Marsala wines were all crafted around this time, when producers added Brandy to wines to halt fermenation but keep natural sugars present. This resulted in sweet, smooth wines, called fortified wines, which experienced much success in the sophisticated European markets. 

Merchants and producers were on the hunt for a better solution - enter the glass wine bottle.  Glass had been already used by Phoenicians and in Renaissance Italy (used by the Medici family to flaunt their power and wealth), but had fallen out of use when the need to ship greater quantities of wine took over.  Glass bottles also showed up periodically before the 1600s, but were the domain of the elite and wealthy, as glass production was in the hands of specialized artisans and noble families that could afford to purchase the artisans works. 

In fact, leading families often commissioned personalized bottles, with their coat of arms or other private elements included. They were able to thumb their collective noses at the rest of the world and emphasize their power, their wealth, and their exclusivity with this trick.  The creation of specialized glass bottles was also a genuis marketing ploy by wine estates to highlight their wines. A genuine precursor to modern marketing tactics, anyone purchasing these rare bottles was sponsoring and endorsing the estate’s wines. And we think our era created the concept of influencers!   

Fast forward a few years and a few contentious war threats from England, and we arrive at the middle of the 1600s.  Declaring that England’s forests were better used to create warships (rather than private or commercial use), wood became off-limits to artisans and workshops.  Workers switched to coal for their furnaces which produced much higher heats (and the beginning of enviromental catastrophe), resulting in stronger, more resistant glass.  The fascinating Sir Kenelm Digby, an exciting and dashing figure is widely credited with being the father of the modern wine bottle (and a consummate ladies' man, even faking his own death to extricate himself from an affair with a member of Royal society!).  Digby revolutionized wine packaging, using an innovative glass blower system and reinforcing his sand with select metals and oxides. The final result was a darker, thicker, heavier glass bottle perfect for the storage of wines and protecting its contents from possibly damaging light.  Bingo - we have a vessel for ageing - something not successfully seen since the Romans!

One final detail before we head on to our next historical exploration is re-use of cork to seal these new glass bottles.  Having already been used in the era of the Romans (are you at all surprised?), cork was re-presented as the ideal stopper for glass bottles.  With its porous structure, ability to allow in microscopic air particles into the wine, allowing wine to evolve and mellow, and its long-production lifespan, cork provided a natural alternative to other bottling and corking methods.  This has guaranteed, along with the storage in a glass bottle, a wonderful attention to detail and a passageway to how we enjoy wines even today.

Be sure to further your wine history knowlege with some more historical forays into the world of wine - check them out here on Mamablip's Blog index.

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