Some wine-drinkers might have a religious experience while drinking a glass after work. But what they might not know is that wine actually played a powerful role in early religion. For example, the centrality of wine to the Christian Eucharist is widely believed to have preserved the secrets of viticulture and winemaking following the collapse of the western Roman Empire. The assumption is that amongst the chaos, travel and trade became so difficult that it was easier for isolated Christian communities to cultivate their own vines rather than import wine. It was also assumed that nothing as sophisticated as wine could possibly have been accomplished by assorted Goths, Franks and Visigoths, from which it followed that winemaking must have been entrusted to the learned monks.
There is, however, little evidence for this. On the contrary, it’s known that the Germanic tribes that overran Rome were extremely fond of wine. They would’ve needed to be stupid as well as fierce to destroy great swaths of the very vineyards that quenched their thirsts. And, of course, they didn’t. Records made by surviving members of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy confirm the existence of vine cultivation and winemaking in 5th-century Gaul.
As for the church, from the 6th century onwards, bishops and monks were certainly making wine in Western Europe, but in nearly every case, the vineyards they cultivated were gifts from royalty or local nobility, suggesting non-monastic vineyards not only survived, but also flourished after the fall of Rome right up until the Middle Ages. But by then, monks and monasteries had become the most important winemakers on the continent, and the largest holder of vineyards.
The second most important contribution Christianity made to the history of wine? The introduction of wine to the Americas.