What were wines like then? They were very different from those of today. They were for the most part the result of a very primitive production, under poor hygienic conditions. They were subject of very long macerations and long stays on the lees. The wines were so full-bodied and heavy that they often needed to be diluted with water to become drinkable. At the time, the wine was appreciated above all for the color, which had to be very intense and dark, almost impenetrable. The critic at the time said that these wine ‘are drunken with the eyes‘. However, as mentioned in previous posts, something was changing. From the Renaissance onwards, the recovery of the agrarian classics of the Roman era introduced sensibility for improved quality in wine production in some cultured circles, which was expressed in the numerous agrarian treatises of the time. Not all of these texts are equally valid from a technical point of view: any scholar of the time could have dabbled in writing an agricultural treatise. Several are almost only literary works, quoting the writings of Columella (1) or little more. However, they had the merit of disseminating this knowledge. Some are interesting because they describe the production of the time in their area. Very few are truly innovative, at least in some aspects that we shall see later. Thanks to that, a small number of more quality wines began to emerge, mainly in the most dynamic territories for trade at the time. The improvement in production led to the birth of wines that were lighter than the average of the time, more pleasant to drink and also capable of greater preservation. They were the consequence of production made with more care, with shorter maceration, and decanting practices. These wines were mainly produced in some areas of northern Italy and France. French wines, in particular, had a very important boost because they found themselves at the centre of the richest and most important trade routes of the time. The epicentre of the wine trade had in fact now moved from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. I am talking about the wines of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne, which we will look at in more detail in future posts. Moreover, in the seventeenth century, advances in bottle production and distillation led to the birth of new types of wine, such as Champagne and fortified wines. Now let us delve into the production of the period.

Wine production at the time

The majority of the practices at the time was still very primitive, from the vineyard to the cellar. Vineyards were neglected. They were just pruned, often badly, or little more. It was the rediscovery of Columella that pushed for better management of them. The treatises of the time quote the Roman author almost word for word. However, they also often mix in the superstitions of their time, such as the link to the phases of the moon. Columella had given a very accurate and advanced description of the whole process of work in the vineyard, from the choice of land to the propagation of the vines, as well as the various operations, right up to the grape harvest. In particular, he urged vine growers to harvest the grapes at the best time. The common custom of the time was to harvest when one could. They often picked very early, shortly after the grapes had changed color, for fear of theft. Columella in the first century A.D., suggested deciding the right time instead by tasting and observing the color of the grape seeds, a system to which scientific validity has been acknowledged. In the treatises of the Renaissance and the 17th century, other, less functional systems were also added. Columella emphasised the importance of at least roughly sorting the grapes, discarding those that were too unripe or moldy or rotten, as well as removing leaves or other plant remains. Soderini (2) advises, again quoting the Roman agronomist, that in order to have a high-quality wine, you must also remove the stems.
The grapes were harvested in panniers or baskets, depending on the territory.  Crushing could take place in the cellar, but more often in the past the grapes were pressed in the vineyard. The crushed grapes were taken to the cellar in barrels or other containers and poured into wood vats. The grapes were usually crushed with sticks or feet, or pressed with wooden presses, as in the Middle Ages. There was no innovation until the 19th century. Today it seems trivial to us, but just decanting must/wine from one container to another was a big work in all past eras, until the 19th century introduction of the first mechanical pumps. It was done by hand with buckets or little barrels or “bigonci” (see the picture; they were called ‘brente’ in the North of Italy). Soderini describes some rare innovations, already witnessed in Roman times, of crushing the grapes on the first floor and letting the crushed grapes fall by gravity into the vats through a wooden chute (that he calls a ‘wooden cannon‘) or through a leather tube (‘leather sock‘).
Wood container to trasport grape or wine, called “bigoncio” in Tuscany or “brenta” in North of Italy.
Wine-making was still very crude on average. The quality of the wine was often still linked, as in the Middle Ages, to the amount of pressing the grapes underwent. Wines that were made directly from the grapes, often with the choice of the best grapes, were those destined for the ruling classes or for trade. The wine for the middle classes, derived from the second pressing of the marc was used, adding the grapes discarded from the more valuable wines were added. The wine for the less affluent classes was made from the third pressing of the marc, with a little water added. The last product was the ‘acquarello‘, made from marc mixed with water. It was the Latin ‘loria‘, still called “lorya” in the 14th-century statutes of Asti. As in ancient times, cooked musts continued to be produced, with different concentrations. The term ‘boiling‘ is used in the treatises of the time when describing winemaking. This word indicated both fermentation and maceration, without distinction. The ‘boiling’ times were generally very long and, above all, were the same for each type of grape or wine, averaging 20 or 30 days. There were no controls to decide when to end the process. Let us not forget the conditions of the cellars: the poor cleanliness and hygiene, the uncontrolled temperatures, as well as the total lack of knowledge about yeasts and other micro-organisms, … We can easily imagine that fermentation was very difficult under these conditions. It lasted a long time and progressed with numerous stoppages and restarts. This situation leads to the development of numerous defects in the wines. Davanzati (3) describes us (to the horror of us modern) the winemaker using a kind of square spade with which he mixes and crushes the marc and stalks in the vat. He then leaves this mash to macerate in the must/wine for days. After that, he separates the wine (racking) and puts it into barrels.
Guido Reni, “Child Bacchus”, 1620
This common way of vinification, however, began to be criticised by the most innovative authors of the time. Prominent among them in Italy was Agostino Gallo (4) from Brescia, whose treatise (1565-1566) was enormously successful for centuries in Northern Italy and France. According to him, the duration of ‘boiling‘ should not always be the same, but change with the type of grape and territory. In fact, he wrote: ‘the boiling of wines is the greatest question that is among farmers, because, seeing the many diversities of grapes, of countries, of soils, it prevents one from giving a single order that is universal’. According to him, the traditional standard ‘boils‘ of twenty or thirty days leads to the production of very heavy and bad wines, even if they take on the dark and intense color that was associated at the time with an important wine. He speaks of wines made with shorter macerations, ‘claret wines’ that he describes as much more pleasant. He writes that in Milan, ‘which delights in good drinking more than any other nation‘, they only ‘boil‘ them for 3 or 4 days, as introduced ‘even by King Ludvig in France’. He testifies that this practice also spread to the Duchy of Savoy, in Piedmont. With this system, the wines remain ‘with more beautiful color, with better flavour and with greater goodness and which also store better‘. Preference for wines with short macerations will grow over time in the more commercially oriented territories. It will culminate in some regions in the production of increasingly less colourful wines for the richer classes. The best-known example is Champagne, with the success between the end of the 17th century and the 18th century of so-called grey wines (“vin gris“), i.e. black grapes vinified white, due to the lack of maceration (‘Manière de cultiver la vigne et de faire le vin en Champagne’, 1718, anonymous). This practice has continued to the present day, although the wines are no longer ‘grey’ but absolutely clear, thanks to current techniques.
The wine was decanted into barrels at the end of ‘boiling’, where it remained until it was sold or consumed. The wines often remained for a long time on the lees at this stage, a practice that was widespread in the past but not very qualitative. Numerous alterations developed under these conditions. There are, however, those who testify to a production with racking: ‘Roman wines want to be changed from one barrel to another three or four times, otherwise they would not be preserved, and for this change the wine diminishes one barrel for every 12, as the practitioners of this trade say‘. Of course, a little volume is lost with each passage.
The recovery of Columella also led to the introduction in the treatises of the concept of the importance of temperature control during winemaking, which must not rise too much. Soderini writes the particular example of a sort of cold maceration, which was carried out with a barrel (containing the must and marc) lowered with ropes into a well. One of the most important treatises of the time for French production is “Le Théȃtre d’agriculture et mesnage des champs” by Olivier de Serres (5), 1600. He too quotes extensively to Columella. He underlines the importance of vinification in closed containers, of keeping the grapes separate for quality. He writes that it is better to change the vinification times for the different types and territories, deciding with experience, as Gallo wrote. He introduces the concept of control: to understand at what stage the winemaking is, one must often tap the must / wine and taste it. The parameter that he considers most important for deciding is the color.

Barrels, bottles and wine-cellars

Coopers in Venice
The wine containers were almost all made of wood, from the barrels to the vats, both for production, conservation and transport. The wine was tapped from the casks into carafes or other containers, to be served. The wooden containers had an important influence on the quality of the wine, linked to the poor hygienic conditions of the time. It was common for mold and other microbiological contamination to grow in these containers. Furthermore, the wood rotted and developed bad odors which it transmitted to the wine. Almost all the agricultural authors of the time write, again quoting Columella, of the importance of cleanliness for wine containers and cellars. At the time, however, that was easier said them than done. However, everyone describes his recipe to eliminate mold or bad smells. Above all, they recommend cleaning with boiling water to which aromas such as sage, rosemary, cloves, vinegar, … The old casks (badly managed) have had the reputation of bad quality for a long time for all these reasons, almost up to the present day. A curious note: at the end of the sixteenth century Giovanni Antonio Fineo proposed, without success, to replace the wooden containers with amphorae, glazed inside and out, to remedy the problems of the very frequent alterations of the wines (in “Il rimedio infallibile che conserva le quarantine d’anni il vino in ogni paese, senza potersi mai guastare”, Rome 1593). The barrels were coated with pitch for transport and this too contributed significantly to the taste of the product. The barrels were also fragile, because the hoops of that time were not made of metal like today but made with flexible branches of mulberry or willow, which are perishable and not too resistant. Breakages were therefore frequent, with the dispersion of the contents.
Giacomo Ceruti, “Boys with wine”
The authors of the time testify that the most disparate woods were used, with the advice that they were at least well-seasoned. At the time, there was no qualitative choice of the type of wood, but the essences available in the area were used such as chestnut, ash, alder, hornbeam, walnut, oak and others. The chestnut was among the most widespread in Italy, due to its great abundance. Qualitative assessments of the types of wood begin to be made only later (from the second half of the eighteenth century). The great delicacy of oak was noted, compared to all the others. In fact, oak has become the wood par excellence for wine. Wood was absolutely prevalent but there were other materials. Andrea Bacci testifies in the Renaissance that some wines destined for “elegant tables” were transported from Tuscany in glass or terracotta containers, called “truffe” (or “iuste“), or in “fiaschi”, flasks, closed with waxed cork stoppers. He mentions the wines of Porto Ercole, the red of Montepulciano, Piceno and Cerveteri. The Tuscan flask has been documented since the fourteenth century. It was a bottle covered with reed leaves (a marsh plant) so that it would not break during transport. Today the “fiasco” has practically disappeared, debased in image during the twentieth century. At the time, it was instead a luxury container. It will become widespread in the nineteenth century, with the large-scale industrial production of bottles.
A maid with two flasks tied to her wrist: detail of the Birth of John the Baptist – Cycle of frescoes (1485-1490) by Ghirlandaio, Tornabuoni Chapel – Santa Maria Novella – Florence.
There is evidence of the permanence of terracotta containers even during the winemaking phase, especially in Spain. However, they were seen as exceptions to be mentioned with curiosity, as was the Spanish use of leather wineskins. Panciroli (6) writes that the containers are “ordinarily made of wood, although in Spain they are made of earth, as still in Roman times …” (Panciroli, “Raccolta breve d’alcune cose più signalo ch’ebbero gli antica, e d’alcune altre trova da moderni …”, 1612). Andrea Bacci also describes the Spanish tinajas, where the wines were stored in clay containers even for decades, with systems still similar to the Roman ones. This testimony is also found in the notes of a Milanese merchant (“A merchant of Milan in Europe. Travel diary of the early sixteenth century”, edited by L. Monga, Milan, 1985). The Spanish production of the time was described also by Gabriel Alonso d’Herrera (7), in his treatise “Obra de agricultura” (1513).
The description of the wine-cellars architecture can be found in various agricultural but also architectural authors of the time. D’Herrera writes that there are two types of cellars, the one below and the one above the ground. According to him, those underground or carved into the stone are the best, because they allow for the right temperature for the wine (cool all year round, and not too cold in winter). He cites as an example the cellars of Sutri, near Rome, and those in Piedmont at Le Ferrere, near Susa. However, those underground must not be too humid, because the containers get moldy. Leon Battista Alberti (8) speaks of cellars in “De re aedificatoria” (1443-1452). He writes that it is necessary that the building be underground. He analyzes the elements that can condition the wine product: the temperature, the lighting, the influence of the winds, … The place must be stable, not disturbed by noise or shaking due to the frequent passage of carts. It must also be free from miasma, excessive humidity, … Palladio (9) writes the same. He says that the wine at high temperatures “will become weak and spoil”. All of them are quoting Columella again.
Jan Cossier, “Five senses”, 1630
In the seventeenth century, there were changes related to the improvement of the production of bottles, which began to be used a little more for wine. Until then, glass was used for unique high-level objects, such as those of Italian craftsmen. In the seventeenth century, the industrial technique of glass processing developed in England and, towards the end of the century, improvements were introduced which made the bottles increasingly resistant. This production then spread to the richest countries of northern Europe. The seventeenth-century bottle for wine began to spread but it was not yet a cheap container. It will only become so with the expansion of large-scale industry in the 19th century. Consider that the bottle often cost more than the contents. Given the cost and risks involved in transport, the few wines that ended up in bottles in reality mostly still traveled in barrels, shipped shortly after the end of vinification. Producers were generally unable to invest in aging and bottling. The wines were bottled at their destination by luxury wine merchants or by the few wealthy consumers who could afford it. The first to bottle were the English wine merchants, at the center of one of the most important markets of the time. The improvement of bottles also allowed the born of the production of sparkling wines and the commercial explosion of Champagne (more on that later). … continued … Authors: 1. Columella: Lucius Junius Moderate Columella, I century. A.D., he left us a work, the “De Re Rustica“, considered the first real agricultural treatise in history, for completeness and precision. He represented a model and a reference for all writers in the sector from antiquity up to the eighteenth century. 2. Giovanni Vittorio Soderini (Florence 1526 – Volterra 1596), Tuscan intellectual and politician, also left a testimony of Tuscan wine production of the time in the “Treaty on the cultivation of vines, and the fruit that can be obtained from them” (1600) . 3. Bernardo Davanzati Bostichi (Florence 1529 – 1606), a scholar in many fields, described the Tuscan agriculture of the time in the “Cultivation of vines and some trees” (1579). 4. Agostino Gallo (Cardignano 1499-Brescia 1570) was one of the most important Italian agronomists of the sixteenth century, with his work “The ten days of true agriculture and the pleasures of the villa”, dated 1564, later enlarged and published throughout Europe. Agostino Gallo describes the new agricultural economy of Padania, with the cultivation irrigated by fodder and the development of dairy production, the introduction of corn and mulberry trees. He also describes in depth the production of wine, making himself the spokesperson for the new techniques. 5. Olivier de Serres (1539-1619), wrote what is considered the first real treatise on French agronomy, “Le théâtre d’agriculture et mesnage des champs” published in 1600. He very often quotes the work of Agostino Gallo, without declare it directly. A curious aspect is that he describes how in his time the cultivation of vines married to trees was still widespread in France. 6.Guido Panciroli (Reggio Emilia 1523-Padova 1599) was a humanist and well-known jurist. He enjoyed writing this text, “Short collection of some more marked things that the ancients had, and of some others found by the moderns”, in which he recounts some uses and customs of ancient Rome and his contemporary period, published after his death. 7. Gabriel Alonso de Herrera (1470-1539), ecclesiastic, son of landowners, is considered the greatest exponent of agronomy in Spain at the time. His text “Agriculture General” (1513) remained as a reference in Spain until the beginning of the twentieth century. 8. Leon Battista Alberti (Genoa 1404-1472) was a humanist, multifaceted artist and a genius of the Italian Renaissance, who is remembered above all for his contribution to architecture. 9. Andrea Palladio, pseudonym of Andrea di Pietro della Gondola (Padua 1508-Maser 1580), was a great architect who worked above all in the Venetian Republic. He created an architectural style with his famous villas. His best known work is “The Four Books of Architecture” (1570).