Inhabitants of the Italian peninsula and islands have been making wine for thousands of years but it was only in the sixties that a comprehensive, nation-wide program regulating the entire sector was adopted.
Numerous factors explain the vast expanse of centuries separating the advances registered in ancient times from the adoption of the modern techniques and regulations that have brought the art of winemaking to a remarkably high level.
Although techniques of cultivation and winemaking reached a relatively high level under the Roman Empire, the entire enterprise rested on shaky foundations. Science was in its infancy and most inquiries into natural phenomena were primarily speculative in nature so that theory was virtually everything, while technique was based essentially on empiricism. Observation and experience determined how certain processes might be conducted with reasonable expectation of successful outcomes. But the growing of grapes and the making of wines remained something of a hit-or-miss proposition because huge technological deficiencies, as well as a failure to apply systematically those technologies that had evolved, hampered and eventually halted progress.
For example, some ancient writers on agricultural themes suspected that "creatures" or "things" that could not be seen by the human eye caused the fermentation as well as the spoilage of wines. But they could go no further because they lacked microscopes, which would have permitted them to see those things and gain some understanding of how they functioned. Yet their empirical approach did permit some ancient winemakers to produce relatively good results. And some of the ancient techniques have been retained or revived. For example, raisin or passito wines like Amarone, which are obtained from partly dried grapes, are increasingly attracting attention and fans, although only a few decades ago most producers and critics regarded them as archaic survivals of outmoded and defective winemaking techniques. Survivals they certainly were, for the Greeks and Romans were making them more than 2,000 years ago. And the technique solved, at least in part, an extremely ancient problem, how to preserve wines, which tended to go bad soon after the harvest. Drying boosted the grapes' sugar content so that, when the fruit was pressed and the must was added to the wine already made, a second fermentation occurred. That increased the level of alcohol, a preservative, and extended the life of the wine as well as altering for better or worse its sensory characteristics.
Practices familiar to wine consumers today were already common in Classical times. Ancient sources report that identifying labels were often attached to or engraved in Roman wine containers. Consumers were able, theoretically at least, to identify the producer, source and type of a particular wine. But there have always been some unscrupulous dealers who would alter the information on the labels or dilute the wines. In nearly all countries, misrepresentation was not unusual many decades ago but in Italy the impact was limited since most wine was consumed in the same area where it was made. The consumer, therefore, often knew the producer and that familiarity provided a substantial degree of assurance. With the rise of a global wine market, the need for a more formal type of guarantee led to the creation of the modern wine appellation or denomination system.
In the 19th century wine became a commodity, widely available on markets throughout the world, only with the development of steam-powered transportation by land and sea. It was then that many Italian wines began to travel outside of their production zones. It was also in the 19th century that scientists began to lay the theoretical and practical foundations of modern winemaking. Eventually, new modes of transportation and technology were to sweep away many ancient winemaking practices, in the process creating pressures for sweeping change in many sectors. As market demands increased, so did the need to guarantee and protect the origin of Italian wines.