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On wine - ancient and modern

"Save the planet; it's the only planet with wine."

Journey Through Wine: an Atlas

This was just going to be something on a Christmas present book from my son shown at left and then I saw another general article on wine in the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Newsletter, which led me to a couple of other thoughts. Some of which are obviously potential for future posts.

The book is, as it's subtitle says, an atlas, but not just a geographical one. It is also a time atlas. Indeed it's main point of difference is that the wine producing countries listed therein are arranged in order of their first forays into production.

There are sections of time, within which there are groups of countries, each having a map of their main wine-growing areas, a brief summary of their wine producing history and various statistics such as their global ranking in terms of production, ratio of red to white wine, the main grapes uses and so on.

I guess it's not a book for the wine cognoscenti, but for somebody like me it is a useful introduction, and there are some interesting facts, and surprising entries to encounter. Did you know that they make wine in Madagascar for example? Or Ethiopia and Uzbekistan? And it's beginning to be made in Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Sweden to boot. Some of those countries make so little that none of it is exported -even Switzerland figures here - they barely have enough for their own needs, some are shooting up the list, some never will. And to this day - France, Italy and Spain account for half of the world's production.

In terms of that production the top ten - in order are: Italy, France, Spain, USA, Australia, China, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Germany. Probably no surprises there although perhaps one would have expected Germany to produce more - but then again, they do love their beer. The other significant also rans are Portugal, Russia, Romania and New Zealand. And let's not forget that 'wine' includes fortified wines such as sherry and port and spirits and liqueurs such as brandy.

The book begins with Georgia currently credited with being the birthplace of wine, although a recent archaeological dig in Armenia found:

"prehistoric traces of grape seeds, vine stems and a wine press in the bottom of a cave. ... To this day, it remains the oldest winemaking site ever discovered." Journey Through Wine.

Which sort of demonstrates one of the mildly irritating things about this book in that it will make what seems to be a definitive statement about something which is later almost contradicted. But I quibble.

So the time line according to the book goes - Georgia (6000BC), Turkey (4500BC) Armenia (4000BC) all of which are long before the invention of the wheel in 3500BC and writing in about 3250BC. Israel/Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt join in in 3000BC. From there the spread is via Romania and Moldavia to Greece and Cyprus around 2000BC thence to Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria and eventually to Italy and Rome. The Romans of course, then spread it everywhere throughout their empire, because they loved wine and needed to keep the troops happy. And the Christians helped the spread because they needed wine for their religious ceremonies.

The authors of the books say that "wine has always followed the route of civilisation", although it might be more accurate to say the route of conquest, colonisation and trade.

I did have a quick look at Georgia, which is interesting in so many ways, and quickly realised that it needs a post of its own. Over 500 endemic varieties of grapes, and an expanding industry which is now ranked 20th in the world, plus a unique amber coloured wine made from treating white grapes in the same way as red - i.e. keeping the skins on. A method that is gaining traction here in Australia in fact, with one blind tasting I found, suggesting the 2017 Ruggabellus 'Solumodo' Semillon/Riesling/Muscat from the Eden Valley as the best of that particular bunch. The next big thing perhaps? Below are pictures of the massive clay vessels lined with beeswax called qvevri, which were filled with fermented grape juice and buried underground to make that original Georgian wine. The process continues to this day and the pictures below demonstrate that fact:

The qvevir was millenia before the amphorae which are believed to have been developed around 3000BC - about the same time as the first writing. Wine long precedes writing. think about that. So I wonder who first realised that long fermentation of crushed grapes produced wine? I mean it's not obvious is it? And I'm not sure it could even be accidental - like yoghurt.

"all wine starts the same way: ripe sweet grapes are crushed, and yeast converts the sugar in the juice into alcohol. Simple. And magical." Max Allen

Australia, by contrast,

"[drew] on high-performance production equipment, great climate variations and an appropriate choice of varieties [to become] an important figure among the countries of the new world"

Number 5 in the world in fact, according to this book although it was published back in 2018 and so this may well have changed. So I checked - still number five, although Argentina has jumped up to number 6, above China. I'm guessing that China will rapidly rise up the ladder.

The Australian industry began in1881 with vines planted by Auguste D'Argent on Dr. L.L. Smith's vineyard in the Victorian champagne country, followed by another Frenchman, Edmond Mazuse, in SA in 1893. So it's now a relatively long-lived industry with some very old vines not affected by the phylloxera that devastated Europe. And shiraz. Our signature grape. Although these days there is much experimentation with new grapes and new methods.

Which brings me to something else that deserves a post of its own - sparkling shiraz - apparently Australia's favourite Christmas drink and also apparently a truly Australian thing - like liqueur muscat, blends of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, and the stelvin cap.

"rich-tasting shiraz grapes are put through the full top-quality sparkling wine process described above (first fermentation, second ferment in bottle, disgorging, extended ageing), resulting in a foaming purple glass of gorgeousness. Best Christmas wine ever." Max Allen

And most appropriately from that original Victorian champagne area.

It's now gained a highly respected reputation but it wasn't always so. Well originally it was a quality wine but then it became so popular that quality sank.

"Up until the 1970s sparkling shiraz was known as a beautifully crafted mostly dry-style bubbly wine. It was enjoyed so much it was copied and sweetened up for the trendy mass market who were sucking back gallons of overly sweet Rieslings." Conrad - The Wine Wankers

But thankfully the reputation has now been restored - and according to Conrad at The Wine Wankers, not only is it the top Christmas wine, but it also goes amazingly well with pizza.

"As usual the bubbles cut through the fat in the pizza and that tiny bit of residual sugar combined with the array of raspberry, blackberry and blackcurrant flavours just combined so well with the savouryness of the pizza. Just make sure it’s slightly chilled but not cold!" Conrad - The Wine Wankers

Sparkling Shiraz is not a favourite of mine - I think the red shiraz is far too heavy a wine for a drink whose main virtue is it's lightness. Maybe a shiraz rosé bubbly as shown here. I could be tempted by that perhaps. It looks suitably summery. The dark version looks like it should be drunk near an open fire - Christmas in June perhaps, but not Christmas on a sweltering summer's day in December.

Anyway I recognise that many love it and so this too will some time in the future be given a post of its own.

And just to finish, here are a few general tips on drinking wine from Max Allen.

Invest in some good wine glasses - we have some but we never use them and we should. After all we only have two of the best of our glasses, and there's only two of us. What are we saving them for?

Drink white wine a bit warmer and red wine a bit cooler than you think - I think he recommended taking your white wine out of the fridge about 15 minutes before you are going to drink it, and, on hot days, to put the red wine in the fridge for a bit.

Never drink the same wine twice - "Try this: the next time you walk into your local Blackhearts and Sparrows, (Dan Murphy's in our case - we are not so choosy) find a bottle you’re already familiar with ... and buy the bottle next to it. Yes, it might turn out to be a clanger. But it might also turn out to be your new favourite. Wine is, after all, all about adventure." A bit like my lucky dip inspirations for the blog this one. And not a bad idea when you have no idea what to get.

Write stuff down – and take pictures of everything - by this he meant anything - from what you thought of it, to something somebody said about it, price, vintage ... whatever. For the truly interested I think.

“it's a smile, it's a kiss, it's a sip of wine ... it's summertime!” Kenny Chesney

"Wine is sunlight, held together by water." Galileo Galilei

Thank you Bryn.


Alas I was indeed right about Graham's death. I have now been told that he died at home on 18th December.

His daughter Kirsty posted this message on his Facebook page - which we somehow missed.

"For those of you who have not been contacted personally, this is an announcement (which I hope will appear on my Dad's Facebook page, Graham Sencicle) to let his friends know that he passed away on Sat 18th Dec. Many of you will already know that he had been living with cancer for many years, and very sadly, it has finally taken him from us. He died peacefully at home with Latifah by his side and has since been buried in Malaysia. He was very much loved by his family, and I'm sure by his friends too. R.I.P. Dad xx"

I forgot to include the above photograph in my recent post. I meant to include it as showing how Graham could get even someone who always looks awful in photographs, to genuinely smile and look halfway decent. Well at least I was smiling, although I think I was at my fattest when this photograph was taken in Collioures near the Spanish/French border.

So rest in peace Graham.



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