Wine: Culture and Economy

Wine: culture and economy. Above all, wine is a food product, which, on gaining commercial importance, has also become a part of our economy. At the same time, wine also forms part of the classical Mediterranean agricultural trilogy (together with wheat and oil) and is a fundamental ingredient of our daily diet as well as an essential part of religious feasts, festivities and a form of escape. For all these reasons, wine is said to form a part of the Mediterranean civilisation and the term “wine culture” is often used.

Society and Life

During the last years we have witnessed an international revival of the interest in wine that goes further than cuisine. Market liberalization, thanks to the creation of the European Union and the World Trade Organization in 1993, gave new momentum to international trade. At the same time, tax reduction on alcoholic beverages under 15° and medical discoveries about the virtues of wine to fight against cardiovascular diseases or as a cancer prevention aid raised the interest of a lot of new customers.

The process can be perceived mainly in countries with less wine consumption tradition but high purchasing power, such as English-speaking countries, Japan and new rich countries in the rest of the world. Besides, in these countries as well as in the old Mediterranean countries with a long wine tradition like France, Spain, Italy or even Switzerland and Germany, wine has turned into an emblem of quality of life, social standing and even a high culture level.

We could say economy and culture walk hand in hand in the production of this «fruit of the vineyard and labour of men», tradition in Mediterranean diet and civilisation. In Christian liturgy wine is no less than sacred when it is turned into the blood of Christ. Consecration and deification of wine is linked to Israelite tradition and other ancient civilisations such as Mesopotamian, Egiptian (Osiris) and Greek (Dionysius), from whom the Romans took Bacchus or the Liber Pater.

We can state that in the origin of what we call Mediterranean civilisation today, wine has been an essential element from the moment it took part in different facets of life: wine is nourishment, energy source and escape, sacred element and, of course, sustenance of the vine grower and business of the merchant. There is only one other crop, wheat, with the same attributions, but it lacks the connotation of refinement, prestige, variety and delicacy that wine has.

A Bit of History: The Westward Spread of Wine

Ancient eastern tradition (myths, biblical texts, etc.) and contemporary archaeology agree that the origin of the cultivated vine and therefore wine must have been located in the Caucasus region and the Zagros Mountains (currently Armenia, Azerbaijan, Persia) and then spread westward through Mesopotamia, Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt and Greece. The first remains of wine production date back to year 3000 before Christ and were found in the Zagros Mountains, but it was not until the eighth and seventh century before Christ that it was introduced in western Mediterranean coastlines.

The most plausible interpretations of archaeological remains agree that Phoenicians and Greeks were the first ones to bring wine and then the art of vine growing and fermentation to our shores, where they tamed native wild vines. Phoenicians navigated the North African route and colonised the Spanish shores from the mouth of the Guadiana River to the mouth of Júcar River, where they left clear markings of their oenological practices in El Puerto de Santa María (Doña Blanca Castle) and Denia (Benimaquia). The Greeks, after crossing Italy and the south of France (Massalia), brought vines and wine to the Catalan coastline (Emporion) and possibly to the gulf of Valencia (Sagunto).

The Romanization process starting in the second century before Christ meant the ultimate incorporation of the culture of wine to Catalan and Valencian coastline. Abundant archaeological information collected both on land and on the seabed proves that wine activity and the worship to Liber Pater were widespread in our shores, especially in the Laietania region, from Mataró to Baetulo (Badalona) and Barcino (Barcelona); in Tarraco and its environs and in the area of Saguntum and Dianium (Denia). Literature of the time already mentions, although with different opinion, the existence of a variety of wines being exported to Rome and to the legions guarding the border with Germania: wines from Laietania, Tarraco, Saguntum, the Balearic Islands… although none more prestigious than the one from Lauro, a town some have identified with current Liria (Valencia) but most authors prefer to locate in Laietania.

Islamization of these lands at the beginning of the eighth century did not bring the end of the vineyards; not even the end of wine production. Valencian and Balearic Muslims (most of them Iberian natives converted to Islam) never stopped drinking wine, although because of the Koranic law it was silenced as much as possible and the Muslim chronicles of the time describe only production and use of grapes and raisins.

The Medieval Push

With the following Christianisation of the territory (tenth to thirteenth centuries) wine recovered its position and started to be present in every aspect of medieval society. In the absence of other beverages and stimulants, wine accompanied meals and was used in parties and leisure time; it was an essential part of the servings in monasteries and nunneries, in amounts between 250 and 750 ml; It was part of the salary paid to workers and labourers (in servings of up to 1.5 litres per person/day), and also of the pay of those serving in the military. It was also part of the meals shared with poor people in the cathedrals and, of course, of the big feasts of kings and noblemen, in amounts of up to three or four litres per person.

In these circumstances it was logical that wine should become also business and that some regions would specialise in its production. Thus did the Catalan regions of Bages, El Vallès, El Maresme, El Penedès and El Camp de Tarragona, while in Valencia El Baix Maestrat, La Vall del Palància and L’Horta d’Alacant did the same. On a lesser scale, Inca and La Alcudia in the island of Majorca followed the same path. Soon, in the middle of the fourteenth century, the harbour in Alicante received every November the fleet from Flandes to carry back their famous red wine or fondillón (the most expensive wine in Europe at the time), triggering the start of a flourishing trade that would survive until the nineteenth century.

From the Liqueur Revolution to the Phylloxera Crisis

From the seventeenth century on, a new derivative of wine, liqueur, would mark the beginning of a new spread phase. Indeed, alembic distillation, made famous in the Western world by Valencian doctor Arnau de Vilanova during his stay in Montpellier, started to be used massively first by the Dutch in the Netherlands and then in the French region of Les Charentes. Large-scale production of spirits in Spain started in Reus and Tarragona, and spread later to the rest of Catalonia and Valencia (Sagunto, Torrent, Aspe), and to the island of Majorca (Felanitx). Towards the end of the eighteenth century the production of all three together represented more than 90% of the production of liqueur in Spain, and was one of the main sources of foreign exchange.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the wine sector was shaken by different events. On the one hand, the demand for wine grew faster than ever due to the process of industrialisation and urbanisation. On the other hand, the arrival of three new diseases from America (oidium, phylloxera and mildew) wreaked havoc on European vineyards. The destruction of French vineyards due to phylloxera starting in 1868 favoured the demand of Catalan and Valencian wines, and led to a new spread of its culture, reaching 350,000 ha of vineyards in Catalonia, 260,000 in Valencia and 35,000 in Majorca. Together, they represented 40% of Spanish land devoted to vineyards. The harbours in Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia and Alicante hoarded more than 80% of wine exports from Spain, again proving it was the region with the biggest wine tradition and possibilities in the peninsula.

After suffering the phylloxera in our territory (1878-1912) and although more than half of the vines in Catalonia and two thirds in Valencia were recovered (unfortunately, they became practically extinct in Majorca), wine culture turned more and more selective and took shelter in inland regions, abandoning its traditional coastal location (there were now more profitable crops for those areas). Very soon new specialties appeared: El Penedès focused on the production of champagne wines (today’s cava); In Tarragona they turned towards sweet and generous white wines and in Valencia they developed muscatel mistela. In the long run, only Penedès’ specialisation would survive, while the others focused on the making of «still» wines (between 11 and 13°).

Current Geography of the Vine

Nowadays, after a meteoric stage of modernising and adapting to new requirements of international markets, Catalan and Valencian wines still have an unquestionable weight in the Spanish context, especially when we look at the figures of foreign trade. Concerning location, different wine regions are recognised, most of which gather around a Denominación de origen (DO) that watches over the authenticity and quality of its wines.

Wine surface (in hectares) and bottled exports (in hectolitres). Year 1999-2000
Denominación Origen Hectares Red Rosé White Destination
Alicante 14,900 19,200 227 575 DE,DK,NL
Valencia 15,300 92,600 5,070 62,700 UK,DE,SE
Utiel-Requena 39,650 94,300 2,200 5,200 DK,DE,SE,BE
VALENCIA 69,850 206,100 7,497 68,457
Alella 560 39 21 650 DE
Empordà-CB 2,580 4,550 541 368
Conca de Barberà 6,000 4,200 115 6,200 UK,DE,NL
Costers del Segre 3,900 8,700 260 1,800 SE,FI
Pla de Bages 500 1,300 34 40
Priorat 950 4,300 4 41 DE,UK,DK
Penedès 26,750 161,500 9,100 71,300 SE,UK,DE,DK,US
Tarragona 11,000 9,710 713 517 FR,DE
Terra Alta 8,200 444 87 271
CATALUÑA 60,440 194,743 10,864 81,187
DO Cava 32,904 739,800 DE,US,UK
DE=Germany, DK=Denmark, NL=Netherlands, UK=United Kingdom, SE=Sweden, BE=Belgium, FI=Finland, FR=France, US=United States of America

Basic data for the DOs of Valencia and Catalonia.

Foto: J. Piqueras Haba
Vineyards usually extend over big expanses in single crop form (vineyard in Campo Arcís, Requena, in autumn).


Foto: J. Piqueras Haba
Press and old barrels (Codorniu).

Foto: J. Piqueras Haba
Tile with a traditional grape harvest scene (Utiel).

Foto: J. Piqueras Haba
Liqueur alembic.

Fotos: J. Piqueras Haba
Cooperative cellar in Liria, 1945.

«We can state that in the origin of what we call Mediterranean civilisation today, wine has been an essential element from the moment it took part in different facets of life: wine is nourishment, energy source and escape, sacred element and, of course, sustenance of the vine grower and business of the merchant»



Foto: J. Piqueras Haba
Top to bottom: vines in Vilafranca del Penedès, vines and cellar in Requena and vines in Sant Pere sa Roca. The areas with DO Utiel-Requena (40,000 ha) and Penedès (27,000 ha) are two of the biggest wine regions in Spain and they stand out for their specialisation in red wines, white wines and cava.

 Foto: J. Piqueras Haba

© Mètode 2013 - 29. Online only. The wine science - Spring 2001

Department of Geography. University of Valencia.