This week, in celebration of our Ancient Wine Collection, we’re going on a tour of wines in the ancient world with an excerpt of our book “Everything You’d Ever Care to Know About Wine (and probably a bit more).”
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The birthplace of wine was likely the country of Georgia. And there are several contenders for “world’s oldest vine.”
But the oldest variety still growing is more than likely the limnio, widely planted in Northern Greece but first documented on the island of Lemnos by writers such as Homer and Aristotle.
The vines are hardy and late-ripening, producing aromatic and full-bodied red wines that can be produced as varietals or blended with cabernet sauvignon and a range of other Mediterranean varieties such as grenache and xinomavro.
However, the Greeks were not the earliest cultivators. Let’s take a tour of ancient wine regions.
More on that in a moment. But first… Can sommeliers really figure out a mystery wine’s identity down to its vintage?
This week, Julien takes us behind the curtain of “blind” taste tests… and lets you in on the secret system to accurately guess wines & their vintages…
Wines of the Ancient World (Continued)
Grape cultivation arrived in Egypt from the Levant around 3000 BC but wine in Ancient Egypt, mostly red, carried with it a host of superstitions. The Pharaohs didn’t even drink it, believing it to be the blood of their ancestors who died while battling the Gods (their blood splattered on the earth which then sprung vines). The drunkenness that accompanied drinking wine was attributed to its sinister mythical origins.
The practice of winemaking considerably predates Ancient Egypt (which unified around 3100 BC). The earliest known winery was discovered in September 2010, inside a cave that served as an underground burial complex in modern-day Armenia. Relics uncovered include a wine press, a clay fermenting vat, baskets, and even organic grape remains. Carbon-dating suggests that the winery was operational around 4100-4000 BC. According to the Book of Genesis, Noah supposedly disembarked the Ark at Mount Ararat where he proceeded to plant vines and make wine – only 60 miles from this cave.
The Armenian discovery lent support to the widely-believed theory that wine originated somewhere between eastern Turkey, the Caucasus and the Zagros Mountains in North Western Iran, where in 1968 a team led by the eminent archaeologist Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania discovered traces of (grape) wine in clay jars, dating back to 5400 BC.
More recently, in 2017, a team of Georgian, European and North American researchers discovered traces of wine in clay pottery at two sites in the Georgian Caucasus 30 miles south of Tbilisi, dating back to an astounding 5980 BC.
There is considerable evidence of wine-trading and production across ancient Persia, and the city of Shiraz was for many years synonymous with wine-culture and winemaking. Wine even makes an appearance in ancient Persian mythology. One particular legend tells the story of a harem princesses who fell out of favor with the mythological King Jamshid, and was banished. In a deep depression, she tried to poison herself by drinking a jar labeled “poison” containing spoiled grapes. In actuality, the grapes had fermented into wine; instead of killing the princess they lifted her spirits. Buoyed, she showed her discovery to the King who loved this new potion so much that he accepted her back and decreed all grapes in Persepolis be dedicated to winemaking.
Although systems of codified law date back to around 2000 BC, the most notable documented laws regarding wine sale and consumption date to the reign of Hammurabi (c1810 – c1750 BC), the 6th King of the First Babylonian dynasty, ruling over a large area of modern-day Iraq. The code of Hammurabi was inscribed on a stone slab (or stele) and displayed in a public place, was revolutionary in dictating specific (and very harsh) punishments for specific crimes. Law 110 states: “In the event a virgin of the temple [sells liquors] or enters a bar for the purpose of drink she shall be burnt up.” Law 111 says: “An innkeeper delivering liquor [on credit] shall be repaid at the harvest 50 “ka” of grain.”
In ancient Greece the host would always take the first sip from the wine vessel to honor the guests and ensure the wine had not been poisoned. The Greeks also diluted their wine according to varying ratios – Homer’s Odyssey mentions 20 parts water to one part wine but other sources put the ratio as high as three or four-to-one.
Traditionally the Greeks did not drink wine with meals, but did so at “symposiums,” a particular Greek institution in which men would amuse themselves through debate, conversation and other entertainment including music and dancing. Wine (the strength of which depended on how serious a level of debate was to be expected) was drawn into pitchers from a large jar called a krater before being poured into the men’s cups. In contrast to later Roman symposiums, women were prohibited from attending. Reflecting an early understanding of the dangers of excess, the Athenian poet Eubulus in his 375BC play Dionysius quotes the God of Wine on guidelines for consumption:
“For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine any more - it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.”
We’ll continue with Greece, and get into Roman wines, next week.
The Wine Explorer