Wine is probably the most storied and legendary beverage conceived by mankind, and its history goes back literally to Biblical times. This makes for some surprisingly fun trivia hunting; wine is the beverage that always has another surprise in store!
Wine's first purpose was as a water purifier! A long time before modern methods for sanitizing water, primitive peoples developed one foolproof method for ensuring that water was safe to drink: they'd mix in the fermented juice from fruit and found the alcohol was sufficient to kill any harmful organisms.
The fermenting of beer and wine was one of the first applications of alchemy and hence chemistry, going as far back as the year 1000 B.C.
Wine has an important place in more than half of the world's religions. Jewish practitioners say a blessing over wine on holidays, and Passover is observed with four cups of wine. Wine makes an appearance throughout Christianity, with even one of Jesus' miracles being to turn water into wine. It is used in the Eucharist of both Catholic and Protestant religions. The ancient Greeks had the god Dionysus, the god of wine and with it, of both madness and ecstasy. Of the major world religions today, only the Islamic ones specifically forbid wine.
While we assume that glass bottles of wine is the preferred standard, glass bottles only came into use after the 18th century. Before this time, wine was traditionally stored and transported in bulk, usually in wooden barrels or clay casks. For individual-sized serving, it would be carried in a wineskin, usually made from leather and originally lined with resin to keep them from leaking.
The use of oak barrels is frequently touted as a contributor to the taste of wine. But actually, oak was originally used simply because oak wood was plentiful and widely used in the old world, as an all-purpose storage container. Oak wood has a tight grain which makes it leak-proof. Oak barrels also favor the aging of wine because they allow very controlled exposure to oxygen.
One of the reasons that so much fuss is made over the proper serving temperature of wine is that human taste-buds function differently at different temperatures. Sweeter tastes come through better at room temperature, while more savory tastes come through better at colder temperatures.
The world's most influential wine critic is currently Robert J. Parker, Jr. The lawyer-turned-wine-snob is responsible for creating the 100-point wine rating system widely used today. It is said that a 100-point rating from him is enough to drive up the price of a wine. This effect has even given rise to the term "Parkerization" in the wine world, which is the tendency of many establishments to base their purchasing habits on what Parker's review says this week.
Of the top wine-producing nations in the world, France still ranks number one at 5.3 million tonnes per year. Italy (4.7 tonnes) is second, Spain (3.6 tonnes) is third, and the United States (2.2 tonnes) is fourth. Australia is in sixth place, but very nearly tied with, of all countries, China! However Australia is the fourth largest exporter of wine and has the third largest market share.
The "French paradox" has it that the French have a diet rich in fatty foods, yet have one of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. It is the French paradox that led to the realization that wine, which the French consume in great quantities, is beneficial to the heart.