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Wine History in a Hazelnut Shell (Part 1)

a group of people sitting at a table with a cakean old photo of a person

Forgive the Willamette Valley reference but I am a proud supporter! For those in the know, the valley floor of the Willamette River is full of hazelnut trees, where 99.9% of the US’s hazelnuts are grown.1 What does that have to do with wine history? Glad you asked! The #1 rule of growing grapes is to plant the vines on hillsides! Wine grapes taste best when they struggle. Fertile valleys, which grow great fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts, cause wine grapes to grow big and sweet.This sugar production is excellent for eating but not for wine: it would make the finished product too watery, too sugary. Wine grapes are small with concentrated juice, thick skins and seeds, all critical for the balance needed for a great wine: alcohol, tannins, sugar, acid and of course water. 


Back to the Beginning


As mentioned in my last post, the first evidence of humans using/cultivating grapes for wine was found in China ~7000 BCE and Republic of Georgia ~6000 BCE. Armenia is the home of  the oldest recorded winery: Areni-1, along the Arpa River, built around  4000 BCE2 with later wineries uncovered in Israel, Egypt, and Sicily. While this history may be fascinating for us wine geeks, it is not all that relevant to today’s wine enthusiasts.


French Lesson #2 (see last3 post for lesson #1)


The early European wine industry, which is a major influence on the wines made and sold today, started in France in the 5th century after the collapse of the Roman Empire. France led the world in cultivating grapes for wine, refined by monks who needed sacramental wine (see Dom aka Father Perignon), had the land, the time, and the labor to experiment and find the best grapes to grow in each region: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone. 


English Invasion


In the 12th century, the marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Henry II created a wine bond between Bordeaux and Britain that remains today. England (not well suited to growing grapes back then) had a large appetite for wine and Bordeaux made more than they could consume so the wine flowed and life was good for the French winemakers and the British consumers. 

 Across Europe Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Germany, Austria all got in the game with indigenous grapes (and later International grapes to satisfy a global audience) to create the best wines they could, limited, of course, by their climates, soils and access to hillsides and water. International varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling These species of grape can be grown in multiple regions across the world, and are favored by many wine enthusiasts. 

River valleys became the favorite locations for viticulture for access to water (irrigation, and transportation), elevation (see above) and soil quality. 

Examples include:

Loire & Rhone Valleys-France

Rhine Valley-borders France (Alsace) and Germany

Douro Valley-Portugal-home of Port wine

Columbia Valley-Washington State


The Local Angle


The Willamette Valley, an ancient seabed of volcanic and sedimentary rock, joins this list of famed wine valleys, with the added geological history as the dumping grounds of massive amounts of gravel, silt, rock and boulders as a result of the Missoula Floods 10-15,000 years ago. Yes these world class floods originated in Montana and flooded Washington and Oregon, leaving behind excellent soil for agriculture of all kinds:Hillsides for grapes and valley floor for hazelnuts in Oregon, apples in Washington. This unique geological event plus the right latitude and climate created the perfect storm for growing grapes3 (see blog post #1 for more dirt(y) talk on soil) and great scenery to boot!


Phylloxera Redux


Phylloxera spoiled everything starting in the 1860’s (see post #3) and as it ravaged the wine world, winemakers fled infested areas and brought their skills to the new world: North & South America, Australia & New Zealand, South Africa. This scattering was to the benefit of wine lovers as they expanded the availability of great wine around the world. France no longer held the keys to the kingdom;winemakers made wine equal to or surpassed what was coming out of France. So OK we can give the louse a little credit for forcing the spread of winemaking to far points east west and south.


Changes in Latitudes Changes in Attitudes 


Latitude matters in the grape world! Northern or Southern hemisphere between 30-50 degrees is the accepted sweet spot of viticulture. The north band runs west from France (remember: the traditional center of the wine world) thru Spain, Portugal, the US (except the FL peninsula) and east thru Italy, Southern Germany, Austria, Greece, and Eastern mediterranean including Romania, Hungary, Israel, and parts of China. The south band runs from the tip of South Africa, Southern Australia, New Zealand and southern half of South America: Chile, Argentina. Too close to the equator is too hot and humid (mold is a threat to grape health), too close to the poles means grapes don’t ripen—not enough sugar to convert to alcohol, so what’s the point?


To Be Continued: Tune in next week for Part 2: How the US became the New World center of the wine world!




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