Culinary Arts

What Is Viticulture (Winegrowing)? Learn About the History of Viticulture

Written by MasterClass

Jun 13, 2019 • 4 min read

Winemaking has been around for millennia, and contemporary vintners still use many of the same techniques and processes as their counterparts from the ancient world. Viticulturalists are the men and women who study grapes and grape production. The science of viticulture has grown with advances in science and agriculture but still requires an appreciation for the earliest winemaking techniques, some of which are over 7,000 years old.


What Is Viticulture

Viticulture is the scientific study of grapes, most often with a focus on growth and production. When the grapes are being used specifically for wine production, the study of grapes can also be called viniculture. Both viniculture and viticulture fall under the umbrella of horticulture.

The History of Viticulture

Viticulture as a science and pursuit, has existed as long as humans have been making and drinking wine. The most common grape vine, vitis vinifera, has been cultivated and fermented by humans since at least the neolithic era. Wine production was incredibly important in the ancient world. The greek historian Thucydides observed that the growth of civilization in the mediterranean coincided with the cultivation of grapes.

The Romans developed the use of stakes for grape growing as opposed to using trees. This minimized the dangers of climbing trees, which was a necessary part of wine so that viticulturists could prune away foliage to let in sunlight. As the empire expanded, viticulture expanded with it. Romans shared their grape cultivation techniques across Western Europe teaching Spanish, German and French subjects how to be winegrowers.

During the middle ages, Catholic monks made huge advances in viticultural practices. For the first time, grape varieties were studied to determine which types would be best suited to a given geographical area. Medieval viticulturalists also developed the concept of terroir and the idea that types of wine from the same region had similar character and shared traits.

Where Do Grapes Grow?

The majority of vineyards and winegrowers can be found between the 30th and 50th parallel in each hemisphere. Within these latitudes, temperatures are moderate and capable of sustaining wine grape growth. Grape growers can be found on every continent except Antarctica and the wine industry is a multi-billion dollar-a-year industry. Major wine producing localities include:

  • France: The French are perhaps the most famous viticulturalists in the world. Iconic wines come from across France, from the red wines of Bordeaux to the sparkling white wine of the Champagne region.
  • Italy: The Italian peninsula has played host to viticulture since the days of the Roman empire. Italy is the world’s largest producer of wine and produces quality wine of many different varieties.
  • Spain: Spain has a rich winemaking history which stretches back centuries. Spanish viticulturists are known for producing full-bodied red wines, including Tempranillo.
  • Germany: German wine grapes are grown largely along the banks of the river Rhine. The Romans were the first to grow grape vines along the Rhine and the tradition continues to this day.
  • South Africa: South Africa has been producing wine since the mid 1600’s. The climate of South Africa is very similar to the mediterranean and is very hospitable to viticulture.
  • California: Viticulture in California dates back to the eighteenth century when spanish missionaries planted the first grapevines. In the latter half of the twentieth century the profile of California wines grew rapidly, and California wines are now amongst the most respected in the world.

What to Keep in Mind When Growing Grape Vines?

Though the common grapevine has high levels of adaptability, it is also a very particular species of plant that requires a high degree of care. There are many factors that a viticulturist must take into consideration when caring for grapes. Chief among these are:

  • Climate: Climate is the single most important factor in shaping a grape’s flavor and a grape characteristics. Grapes require 1300-1500 hours of sunshine while they are growing and around 27 inches of rainfall. Ideally, most of this rain will come during the winter and spring months. Depending on the climate, viticulturalists must make adjustments to keep light and water within this optimal range.
  • Slope: Slopes and hills are the preferred locations for grape growers. Slopes are valued for their exposure to sunlight and their ability to be drained easily. South facing slopes are preferable in the northern hemisphere as they receive more hours of sunlight. In the southern hemisphere, the reverse is true.
  • Soil: Maintaining quality soil is vital for effective vineyard management. Soil should have good aeration, loose texture, and good drainage. Bad soil can lead to bad fruit development and low yield.

What Are the Hazards of Growing Grapes?

  • Flowering: While a vine is in the flowering phase, it is at its most vulnerable. Cold temperatures and harsh wind can produce clusters of grapes with abnormal sizes and no seeds. Warm temperatures can cause grape flowers to fall off the vine. Viticulturalists must take extra care to protect grapes during this period.
  • Oidium: Oidium is a mildew that attacks the vine and can be deadly for the plant. Oidium is particularly prevalent during colder periods.
  • Downy mildew: During warmer periods, viticulturalists need to be on the lookout for downy mildew which stains leaves. This can be treated by spraying plants with copper sulphate.
  • Fanleaf virus: Fanleaf virus leads to deformities in the grapes and discoloration of the leaves. There is no cure for the virus so viticulturalists must spot the issue quickly and remove the infected plants before it can spread.
  • Green harvest: Green harvest is when viticulturalists remove bunches of immature green grapes for the purpose of lowering yield. This allows the vine to focus energy and resources on the remaining grapes, producing a lower yield with higher quality grapes.

Viticulture is an exciting profession with a long and rich history. Learning about viticulture is valuable for anyone trying to expand their knowledge of wine and appreciation for winemaking. Find more information on the world of wine in James Suckling’s MasterClass.