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Wine is an alcoholic beverage made of grape juice through fermentation. A few dozen grape types produced by the vine plant Vitis vinifera are of particular interest to wine experts. Popular varieties include cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir, and zinfandel. Where these grapes grow determines much of a wine’s character. Differences in weather and lighting conditions, soil, and temperature are distinguishable in the taste of wine so that the same grapes result in different wines in different regions. Details of the fermentation process and aging further profile the end product-be it red, white, rose (blush), sparkling, sweet, or dry.
The history of wine is a history of global trade by powerful economic actors. The story begins in Mesopotamia and Caucasia roughly 8,000 years ago. The know-how traveled to Egypt in 3,000 years and reached Greece 1,000 years later. Greek colonizers and merchants introduced wine to the Mediterranean sphere: To present-day Italy, France, Spain, and northern Africa. Imperial Romans then domesticated wine further north, in today’s Britain, Germany, and northern France. When the Romans left these areas by the 5th century, the seeds of contemporary vineyards had been planted. These were typically located along rivers, the most important channels of transportation in this era. By the Middle Ages the Christian Church had emerged as the most powerful producer and trader of wine, with monasteries as the most important centers of innovation. Wine dominated the European beverage market until the 18th century, when imports from the colonies (chocolate, coffee, and tea) gained popularity, distilling and preservation techniques of other alcoholic beverages developed, and water in European cities became safer to drink. Competition encouraged innovation, creating the foundations of modern wine. Wine clearly is a culturally specific (Western) product with origins in particular climatic, historical-cultural, and economic conditions.
Over the past century the wine business has industrialized in form and become global in scale. Most of the production still comes from Europe, although the New World has gained power in the market. The leading wine producing countries are France, Italy, Spain, the United States, and Argentina. In each country wines have intensely local and regional roots. The production comes from strictly defined regions that only use certain methods and varieties of grapes. Famous wine regions include Bordeaux in France, La Rioja in Spain, and Napa Valley in California.
The legal definition of these regions, their maximum annual crops, and the alcohol contents of their products exemplify the detailed controls and regulations applied to wine by authorities and specific regulatory bodies. Producers, their organizations, and national governments use regulation to control the quality of wines, to protect their reputation, and to improve their sales. Local and national governments may tax the licensed producers, distributors, retailers, and consumers of wine. This revenue is typically used to cover social costs related to alcohol consumption. International tariffs may apply to the import and export of wine for reasons of market protection and revenue.
Some regulations connect to cultural, social, and moral values, which often dictate where, when, and by whom wine can be purchased and consumed. Many countries have set legal age limits to the consumption of wine and prohibit driving under its influence, but how young is too young, how much is too much, or how strictly the control is enforced varies from one society to another. Social tolerance for visible intoxication also varies significantly both at the level of societies and socioeconomic class, so that one can speak of “drinking cultures.” Some religious communities consider the consumption of all alcoholic beverages unacceptable, whereas others shun intoxication but find deep symbolic or metaphorical meaning in wine consumed in sacred rituals. The importance of wine to human social life is reflected in artistic representation-in paintings, literature, and various forms of contemporary popular culture.
Wine thus connects to identity in multiple ways. A globally famous wine is a source of local, regional, or national pride and influences the identity and landscapes of the place associated with the wine. Wine tasters and other specialists have professional group identities supported by expert vocabularies and know-how. Wines profile their consumers: What wine is served, in what situation, to whom, and how may function as a powerful indicator of socioeconomic status, cultural knowledge or background, and lifestyle.
Over the course of tough competition small family-owned wineries have merged into multinational production companies with complex ownership structures. The distance between the producer and the consumer, and between the botanical and the chemical, has grown: Wine is still an agricultural product, but it is increasingly produced under strict technological control and consumed in urban, post-industrial environments far from the original production region. Because of their reputation, consumer identities, and available profit, there is demand for wines to routinely travel over long distances. This movement of trendy consumables may be criticized from a perspective of environmental sustainability. On the other hand, environmentally-aware wine drinkers have grown increasingly interested in the sustainability of production. Interest in local produce and urbanites’ recreational needs have reconnected wine consumers and producers through sustainable, moderately scaled forms of wine tourism.
The delicate relationship between wine production and the natural environment shapes the future of the business. Unexpected side effects of global exchange have been well-traveling plant diseases and pests, which have seriously damaged wine production in Europe (especially in the 1870s), the United States (contemporary California), and New Zealand. In some areas, methods of biological or chemical pest control have created further problems by damaging soils and water supplies or by altering the balance of species. At worst, these problems may threaten entire regions and their wine-dependent economies.
- J. de Blij, “Viticulture and Viniculture in the Southeastern United States,” Southeastern Geographer (v.27, 1987);
- P. Dickenson and J. Salt, “In Vino Veritas: An Introduction to the Geography of Wine,” Progress in Human Geography (v.6, 1982);
- Daniel W. Gade, “Tradition, Territory, and Terroir in French Viniculture: Cassis, France, and Appellation Controlee,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (v.94, 2004);
- Hugh Johnson, World Atlas of Wine, 4th (Chancellor Press, 2002); Tim Unwin, Wine and the Vine (Routledge, 1991).