Ancient Greece and wine

Ancient Greece and wine

The influence of ancient Greece on wine is significant not only to the Greek wine industry but to the development of almost all European wine regions and to the history of wine itself. The importance that viniculture had in ancient Greek society can be seen in a quote from the Greek historian Thucydides: "the peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine". H. Johnson "Vintage: The Story of Wine" pg 35-46 Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN 0671687026 ]

The ancient Greeks pioneered new methods of viticulture and wine production which they shared with early winemaking communities in what are now France, Italy, Austria and Russia, as well as others through trade and colonization. Along the way they markedly influenced the ancient European winemaking cultures of the Celts, Etruscans, Scythians and eventually the Romans. J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 326-329 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906 ]


Viticulture has existed in Greece since the late Neolithic period with domestic cultivation becoming widespread by the early Bronze Age. Along with olives and grain, grapes were an important agricultural crop that was vital to sustenance and community development. Through trade with ancient Egypt, the Minoan civilization on Crete were introduced to Egyptian winemaking methods, an influence most likely imparted to Mycenaean Greece.

In the Mycenaean period wine took on greater cultural, religious and economic importance. Records saved on Linear B include details of wine, vineyards and wine merchants, as well as early allusion to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Early remnants of amphorae show that the Mycenaeans actively traded wine throughout the ancient world in places like Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, Sicily and southern Italy.

One of the earliest known wine presses was discovered in Palekastro in Crete, and it is from Crete that the Mycenaeans are believed to have spread viticulture to other islands of the Aegean Sea and quite possibly to mainland Greece. R. Phillips "A Short History of Wine" pg 29-34 Harper Collins 2000 ISBN 0066212820 ]

Colonization and trade

As the Greek city states established colonies throughout the Mediterranean, the settlers brought grape vines with them and were active in cultivating the wild vines they found there. Sicily and southern Italy formed some of the earliest colonies, as they were areas already home to an abundance of grape vines. The Greek called southern part of the Italian Peninsula "Oenotria" ("land of vines"). Settlements in Massalia in the south of France and along the Black Sea coastline soon followed, with the expectation that not only would colonial wine production supply domestic needs, but also create trading opportunities to meet the thirsty demand of the nearby city states. Athens provided a large and lucrative market for wine, with significant vineyard estates forming in the Attican region and on the island of Thasos to help satiate demand. Wine historians have theorized that the Greeks may have introduced viticulture to Spain and Portugal, but competing theories suggest that the Phoenicians probably reached those areas first.

Greek coins from classical times, often imprinted with grape cluster designs, vines and wine cups, bear witness to the importance of wine to the Ancient Greek economy. With every major trading partner, from the Crimea, Egypt, Scythia, Etruria and beyond, the Greeks traded their knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, as well the fruits of their own production. Millions of pieces of amphorae, bearing the unique seals of various city states and Aegean Islands have been uncovered by archaeologists, showing the scope of Greek influence. A shipwreck uncovered off the coast of southern France included nearly 10,000 amphorae containing nearly 300,000 liters (over 79,000 gallons) of Greek wine, presumably destined for trade up the Rhône and Saône rivers to Gaul. It is estimated that the Greeks shipped nearly 10 million liters of wine into Gaul each year through Massalia. In 1929, the discovery of the Vix Grave near Burgundy included several artifacts which demonstrated the strong ties between Greek wine traders and local Celtic villagers. The most notable of these was a large Greek-made krater, designed to hold over 1000 liters of wine.

Viticulture and winemaking influences

The Greek 4th century BC writer Theophrastus left a detailed record of some of the Greek influences and innovation in the realm of viticulture and grape growing. One important technique was study of vineyard soils and matching them with specific grapevines. Homer wrote that Laertes, father of Odysseus, had over 50 varieties planted in different parts of his vineyard. Another was to control yields for the better concentration of flavors and quality, rather than increased quantity; contemporary economics favored high yields for most crops, and intentionally limiting agricultural output was far from common practice in the ancient world. Theophrastus also detailed the practice of using suckering and plant cuttings for new vineyard plantings. The Greeks also practiced vine training with stacked plants for easier cultivation and harvesting, rather than letting the grapevines grow untrained in bushes or up trees. While ampelographers have not been able to identify the exact ancestry of any current "Vitis vinifera" grape variety among grapes used by the Ancient Greeks, several varieties like Aglianico (also known as "Helleniko"), Grechetto, and Trebbiano (also known as "Greco") have distinct Greek heritage. Not all Greek viticulture techniques were widely adopted by other wine regions. Some Greek vineyards used mysticism as a way of warding off disease and bad weather; one method involved two vineyard workers taking a live white rooster and tearing the bird in half, with each worker taking their piece around the perimeter of the vineyard in opposite directions. At the point that the two workers met, the rooster would be buried in the ground by the vineyard.The Greeks practiced an early form of "pigeage" when it came to crushing their grapes. Wicker baskets filled with grapes were placed inside wooden or earthenware vats with a rope or plank above. Vineyard workers would hold onto the rope for balance and crush the grapes below with their feet. Sometimes this would be done to the accompaniment of another worker playing the flute in a festive manner. After crushing, the grapes would be placed in large "pithoi" jars where fermentation took place. The writings of Hesiod and Homer's "Odyssey" includes some of the earliest mentioning of straw wine production, laying freshly harvested grapes out on mats to dry into almost raisins before pressing. A Lesbian wine known as "Protropon" was one of the first known wines made exclusively from "free run" juice, taken only from grape clusters pressed by virtue of their own weight. Other Greek innovations include deliberately harvesting unripe grapes to produce a more acidic wine for blending. The boiling of grape must was discovered as another means of adding sweetness to the wine. The Greeks believed wine could also be improved by including additives like resin, herbs, spice, seawater, brine, oil and perfume. Retsina, Mulled wine and Vermouth are modern examples of this practice.

Greek wine

In ancient times, the reputation of a wine was dependent on the region the wine came from rather than an individual producer or vineyard. In the 4th century BC, the most expensive wine sold in Athens was wine from Chios which sold for between a quarter of a drachma and 2 drachma for a chous worth – about the equivalent of 4 standard 750 ml wine bottles today. Like early wine critics, Greek poets would extol the praises of certain wines and negatively review those that were not up to their tastes. The wines that were most frequently cited as being of good quality were the wines of Chalkidike, Ismaros, Khios, Kos, Lesbos, Mende, Niaxos, Peparethos (today known as Skopelos) and Thasos. Some individual wines that were praised were two wines of mysterious origins: "Bibline" and "Pramnian". Bibline is believed to be a wine made in a similar style to the Phoenician wine from Byblos, highly praised for its perfumed fragrance by Greek writers like Archestratus. The Greek version of the wine is believed to have originated in Thrace from a grape variety known as "Bibline". Pramnian wine was found in several regions, most notably Lesbos but also Icaria and Smyrna. It was suggested by Athenaeus that Parmnian was a generic name referring to a dark wine of good quality and aging potential.

The most common style of wine in Ancient Greece was sweet and very aromatic, though dryer wines were also produced. Wine color ranged from dark, inky black to to white. Oxidation was a common wine fault and many wines did not last beyond the next vintage. Wines that were stored well and aged were highly prized, with Hermippus describing the best mature wines having a bouquet of 'violets, roses and hyacinth'. Comedic poets would note that Greek women liked "old wine but young men". The wine was almost always diluted, usually with water or snow when the wine was to be served cold. The Greeks believed that only barbarians drank unmixed or undiluted wine and that the Spartan king Cleomenes I was once driven insane after drinking wine this way.

Wine in Greek culture

In addition to its presence as a trade commodity, wine also served important religious, social and medical roles in Greek society. The cult of Dionysus was very active, if not mysterious, and was immortalized in the work of Euripides's play "The Bacchae". Several festivals were held throughout the year in honor of the God of wine. Anthesteria was held in February and marked the opening of the wine jars from that previous fall's harvest. The festival included a procession through Athens carrying wine jars and wine drinking contests. The Dionysia included theatrical performances of both comedies and tragedies in honor of the God of wine. Wine was a frequent component at the symposium which sometimes included play of Kottabos, which involved flinging the lees from an empty wine cup towards a target.

The medical use of wine was frequently studied by the Greeks. Hippocrates did extensive research on the topic. He used wine as a cure for fevers, convalescence and as a antiseptic. Hippocrates also studied the effect of wine on his patient's stool. Various types of wine were prescribed by Greek doctors for use as an analgesic, diuretic, tonic and digestive aid. The Greeks were also aware of some negative health affects, especially of consuming wine beyond moderation. Athenaeus made frequent mention of wine induced hangover and various remedies for it. The poet Eubulus noted that three bowls (kylix) were the ideal amount of wine to consume. The number of three bowls for moderation is a common theme throughout Greek writing; today the standard 750 mL wine bottle contains roughly the amount of three glasses for two people. In his circa 375 BC play "Semele or Dionysus", Eubulus has Dionysus say:

ee also

*Ancient Greek cuisine
*Ancient Rome and wine


External links

*Greek wine history [ Greek winemakers]
*All about Greek wine [ History]

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