History of Wine Cellars

In vino veritas, or ‘in wine, truth’: according to archaeologists, the first evidence of wine-making can be traced as far as six thousand years ago, which makes wine older than any written records. However, the history of wine storage and wine cellars began centuries later.

Originally, wine was made for immediate consumption so there was no actual need of cellaring. In time, though, merchants began approaching early winemakers with the aim of exporting their produce. The ancient Greeks stored their wines in amphorae, containers made of terracotta with two handles that could easily be stacked on top of each other in the hold of a ship. At the time, few people were concerned with how the wine was stored, as little was known about the effect storage conditions had on the quality of the wine.

But as wine became more and more popular, people began to realize the need for proper storage. Environmental changes in temperature and humidity accelerate the wine aging process: excessive exposure to oxygen, or oxidation, can cause the wine to turn bitter. Too little oxygen, on the other hand, might prevent the wine from maturing. To gain and retain its rich taste, wine needs to breathe but higher temperatures increase the pace of breathing, while low temperatures tend to slow it down.

One of the first mentions of storing wine underground appears in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado”, where a murderer lures his victim underground. Tempted by the murderer’s promise of a rare Amontillado sherry, the poor man goes deeper and deeper until he’s entombed alive amongst the barrels inside the Italian catacombs.

As macabre as the poem might be, it’s not far from the truth. A team of archaeologists recently discovered what is claimed to be the oldest and largest wine cellar. Located amongst the ruins of an ancient Canaanite city in today’s northern Israel, the cellar is dated back to 1,700 BC and consisted of a 5×8-meter storage room, conveniently located next to a large hall that was likely used for banquets.

When thinking back to the first wine cellars, you should imagine something quite different from the custom-built spaces we enjoy today. Romans are credited as the first to develop wine cellars but their efforts were far from successful. As Greek and Phoenician merchants began trading wine between the Mediterranean cities, the Romans took the wine trade up a notch. They expanded the viticulture beyond the Mediterranean area, reaching some of today’s most popular wine-producing regions in France, Spain, Germany and Portugal. The different areas provided different environmental conditions which led to newer flavors and variety being created.

To sample and enjoy the new tastes, the Romans began storing their wine in fumantorires. The fumantorires were smoke-filled rooms, usually located just next or above the kitchens. The smoke preserved the wine but the high temperature sped up the oxidation process and often ruined the flavor of the wine. Soon enough, the richer Romans began dedicating entire rooms – cella vinaria – to the conservation of wine. A step closer to the modern view of wine cellars, these rooms were still located on a ground level and thus, subject to extreme fluctuations in humidity and temperatures. The wine was drinkable but far from enjoyable.

As people gained a deeper understanding of the intricate relationship between the environmental conditions and the quality of the wine, Romans turned to their catacombs – subterranean cemeteries that spanned for miles under most Roman cities.

As wine was reserved for the most affluent of people, cellars, though widespread, were normally built for other uses besides storage of wine. Wealthy merchants and wine producers were amongst the few who could afford to have underground rooms dedicated entirely to the storage of wine: such have been found in places like Pompeii, Gaul, and parts of Spain but there are still a long way from today’s custom wine cellars.

The concept of a wine cave or a cool cellar was born as the result of circumstance. The first cool wine cellars only became popular when builders began using stone as their principal material. Architectural laws in most large cities required that each house be built on an arch to minimize the impact of shifts in the ground. This, in turn, created the perfect environment for conserving wine underground: going as little as 10 meters under the surface provides a constant temperature of around 12°C with no seasonal variations.

Though the Romans were certainly on the right track as far as wine conservation is concerned, it was the French who modernized the ancient wine cellars and began the practice of digging wine caves. These were different from the cellars which were normally used for storage of grains and vegetables (and as such, provided higher temperatures) and were the first steps towards the custom wine cellars we’re accustomed to seeing today.

Today, the term wine cellar can refer to anything from an under-counter wine refrigerator in a kitchen to a larger wine cabinet or an entire space designed for storage, display, and tasting of wine. In general, there are two types of wine cellars – active and passive; the active wine cellar is climate-controlled and regulates the temperature and humidity, while passive wine cellars tend to be built underground and instead of actively regulating the environmental conditions, they simply prevent climate fluctuations. A wine cellar and consulting expert like Papro Consulting can help you determine which type of wine cellar is best for you.

We’ve gone a long way from the smoke-filled rooms that produced bitter wine with a flat flavor: today’s wine cellars are custom-built designer spaces that showcase your wine collection and are designed to enhance the aesthetics of your home.

Papro Wine Cellars