Religion has been referred to as, "opium of the people." I'm certain there is much disagreement with that sentiment. However, one thing all wine lovers can agree on is that religion was crucial in providing wine for the masses.
Justinian I, a 4th century Roman Emperor, was of the mind that his empire was best united under a single faith. And the lucky faith winner in this imperial showdown was Christianity. Once Christianity became the state religion, wine became more than just tasty Roman juice, it became powerful religious accouterment. Thus, when the Western Roman empire collapsed, winemaking did not. It was preserved in Western Europe by clergymen in order to celebrate the Eucharist.
However, it's more than simply religion, which preserved viticulture, it was the monks. At the time of Rome's decline, monks were practically the only literate dwellers in Europe. Additionally, monks owned large tracts of land and had the time (that's what vows of celibacy, silence, etc. will get you) to experiment in vineyards and record their knowledge for posterity. That isn't to say that no one else was growing or drinking wine at the time. The Germanic tribes who enjoyed sacking Roman outposts were certainly fond of wine (Barbarian Riesling, anyone?). However, the monks appear to have been able to hold onto and consolidate vineyards, as well as build up a body of viticultural knowledge. Praise the monks!
As time passed, various monastic orders became winemaking experts in certain regions. For example, the Benedictines had winemaking monasteries in the Loire, Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The less famous Cistercians are believed to be the first to plant Chardonnay in Chablis. Carthusian monks made wine in Switzerland, Germany and northeastern Spain.
Of course we can all thank the Padres for bringing wine to the Americas. The Jesuits made wine in Peru, while later, in the 18th century, the Franciscans began pressing grapes in California. Would there have been winemaking in the west without the monks? Perhaps, but it would have definitely evolved much differently. Without the clergy, was there a chance that winemaking would have died out after the fall of Rome? Who knows. All I can say is, "Thank Bacchus for winemaking monks!"
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