We will probably never know for sure the ancient origin of wine in prehistory. The earliest record of a grape-fermented drink is from northern China, where archaeologists have recovered 9000-year old pottery jars. Wine had reached the Balkans by c. 4500 BC and was consumed and celebrated in Ancient Greece, Thrace and Rome. Archaeological evidence suggests it is a Neolithic discovery c. 9000-4000 BCE, perhaps in the Zagros mountains in present-day Armenia and northern Iran where a recovered wine jar has been dated to 5400 BCE. where the natural occurrence of the wild grape Vitis vinifera, wild cereals to feed local communities, and around 6000 BCE the pottery so useful in the processing and storage of the wine coincide to provide the suitable conditions. European Vitis vinifera grows from Portugal in the west to Turkmenistan in the east, Germany in the north to Tunisia in the south. Selection for cultivation resulted the use of hermaphrodite plants (separate males and females often occurred in nature and this made pollination more difficult) with larger bunches and larger individual fruits containing more sugar than the wild form. Wine-growing probably spread from the Mediterranean to Etruscans, Phoeniceans, Greeks and Assyrians although Chinese paintings indicate wine-drinking well before the time of the ancient Greeks.
A Viking expedition and discovery of North America, headed by Leif Erikson about five centuries before Columbus, noted a large number of wild grapes and named the new land Vinland (Wine Land) although the indigenous people did not make wine. American grapes were harnessed for wine production in the 1830s but infestations of phylloxera devastated the vinyards until European disease resistant stocks were used.
Throughout history, wine has been consumed for its intoxicating effects, which are evident at normal serving sizes.)
Wine is produced from the fermented juice of crushed grapes, the yeasts present in the fruit skins converts the natural sugars to alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide.
Wine-making occurred in the ancient eastern Mediterranean including today’s Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. Egyptian King Scorpion I was buried with 700 jars of Levantine wine. Vinyards were established in the Nile delta and I production underway by 3000 BCE and in Mycenean Greece and Minoan Crete by 2500 BCE, grown alongside barley and wheat, sometimes twining around the olive and fig trees. As elsewhere at this time imbibing wine was a diversion of the wealthy elite. Assyria was a region especially suited to grape production, clay tablets from Nimrud indicating that in about 785 BCE the royal palace was supplying its household of 6000 people with one qa (litre) of wine each day. Herodotus notes that by 430 BCE wine was the major sea freight to Babylon along Euphrates and Red Sea. But transport and limited supply made it expensive so fermented date palm wine was used as a cheaper substitute – in any event through the first millennium BCE Beer ceded its popularity to wine.
Th Domesday Book (1086) records 38 vineyards.<sup
Cultural traditions we associate with the Greco-Roman classical period often have their forerunners in the earlier civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
There is a detailed written account of the ceremony that marked the inauguration of the new Assyrian capital city of Nimrud in about 870 BCE. The account tells of the magnificent palace of King Ashurnasipal II with its many halls decorated with ornate murals, the roofing constructed from the fine woods of juniper, cypress and cedar, and the rooms with bronzed and guilded doors and ornate furniture. Surrounding the palace were ornamental waterfalls and canals, with an elaborate formal garden containing not only useful plants like palms, cypresses, olives, plums, figs and grapevines but also plants brought back as trophies from the King’s ruthless but successful military campaigns into distant lands.
Ashurnasipal entertained on a grand scale, his foreign guests claimed to number 5000. The message conveyed to them was plain: here was a devout man of wealth, sensitivity, and far-reaching but merciless power who enjoyed what the world had to offer. He was prepared to share his bounty cautiously with neighbours but would be merciless to those who would not comply. Inscriptions on alabaster bas-reliefs reveal the King’s unbroken blood-line, his military exploits and favourable relationship with the gods, but pictorially as a hunter and warrior. One shows him as host to a banquet with attendants minding his every whim. Balanced on the tips of the fingers of his right hand is a shallow bowl almost certainly made of gold. The bowl contained wine. Guests recline on wooden couches with attendants ready to replenish bowls during the drinking ritual. Though Osiris was the god of wine, wine itself was the tears of the god Horus.
This model of the successful state with idyllic palace and garden overseen by a ruler connected to the gods was a microcosm of empire – inspiring the pride of citizenry and admiration and fear of foreign dignitaries – it would echo down the ages. Wine was associated with power, prosperity and privilege.
Beer was also served at the feast but wine was now available, at great expense, from vineyards on the slopes of mountains in north-eastern Mesopotamia. Wine was only available to a wealthy elite.
Wine was an integral part of Mediterranean life around which social custom and religious rituals as libations were performed especially during formal Greek symposia when diluted wines were drunk from a communal broad and shallow handled bowl called a kylix, often illustrated on the bottom with unusual or risqué scenes. Romans continued the wine tradition which also became in later years part of the Eucharist or Communion.
(This approach to life can be viewed as the achievement of excellence (arete) by means of orderly competition – fulfilling your purpose by achieving your maximum potential)
Like the Mesopotamians ancient Greeks associated the drinking of wine with civilization, refinement, and sophistication. Your place in society was demonstrated through the quality of your wine and the rituals and behaviour you exhibited when drinking it. From the seventh century BCE serious wine production began on a grand scale for export by sea with Hesiod’s Works and Days giving detailed instructions on viticultural best-practice. Vinyards were established not only at Athens, Sparta and environs but also on Greek islands such as Chios, Lesbos, and Thasos whose distinctive vintages, stored in branded amphorae, were especially sought-after. ‘By the fifth century BCE, Greek wine was being exported as far afield as southern France to the west, Egypt to the south, the Crimean Peninsula to the east, and the Danube region to the north’
The Greek symposion
Considered sophisticated social role-models worthy of emulation the drinking culture of the ancient Greeks would be taken up by the Romans, their rituals clearly evident in today’s western drinking customs.
Greek drinking started with a preference for wine.
Wine, like other alcoholic beverages, opened up a new psychological realm and was treated as a gift from the gods, Dionysus, , being the youthful god of wine who had brought the grape from Asia Minor. Affluent, powerful, and aristocratic Greeks would celebrate this gift at highly ritualised private drinking parties of about 12 to 30 people. Social sophistication was measured through the observance of traditions of furniture, dress, rituals and general behaviour. This was a male affair that took place in the andron (mens’ room). Often at the centre of the house this room was decorated with appropriate murals and furniture (guests would recline on special couches, a cushion under one arm, an ancient tradition imported from the east) the stone floor was graded to the centre to facilitate cleaning.
Diluted wine was served using a jug or ladle into shallow two-handled bowls, the cyclix, occasionally a deeper bowl called a cantharos, or a drinking horn, the rhyton. Pottery drinking vessels were decorated in the black-figure or later red-figure style with Dionysian scenes, sometimes bawdy, although the really wealthy would use drinking vessels made from gold and silver.
The carefully ordered proceedings were managed by the symposium host or symposiarch. Food was served first with little drink then, after clearing the room, the serious drinking began with a series of libations (the pouring of a liquid offering; a toast). In Athens there were three libations – to the gods, fallen heroes and ancestors, and to Zeus. A few females were permitted as entertainers, musicians, and to serve food and drink and during the libations a flute was often played and all would then sing a hymn. Decorative garlands of flowers and vines would be donned and sometimes perfumes and oils applied.
The wine to be drunk was stored in a large urn-shaped bowl or krater with water added from a three-handled hydria according to the judgment of the symposiarch, a proportion of 1:1 being considered strong. Various methods were used to cool the wine in hot weather, mostly by storing it in a well.
The degree of intoxication was carefully managed by the symposiarch who was expected to observe the Greek virtue of moderation in all things. After all, drunkards could become insolent and boring, even violent, while abstainers were unable to share in the communal sense of well-being.
Choice of activities and entertainment to accompany the drinking would vary – perhaps a musically accompanied recitation of Homer or other literary work; the guests challenging one-another with improvised poetry and witty chatter; perhaps a formal discussion on political, philosophical, or educational topics.
Inevitably the alcohol would sometimes gain the upper hand, beginning with the guests flicking wine at one-another (known as kottobos). Sometimes prostitutes would be brought in as the party turned into an orgy and drinking competition. Loyalty to a particular group of drinking partners (hetairea) could be demonstrated by roaming the streets singing and shouting together and fighting might break out.
In the Republic Plato maintained that the symposion was an excellent test of human nature. Things could easily get out of control but with application of appropriate rules and restraints the benefits would outweigh the disadvantages. His ideal was to ‘speak and listen in turns in an orderly manner’ – which, in principle, is the idea of a symposium today.
The Roman convivium
Ancient Greeks were hypocritical about equality. There were many attempts to curb the excesses of their aristocrats and treat fellows as equals. We regard Greece as the source of democracy but it was a democracy in operation only within a privileged minority. In reality Greeks embraced slavery and the inferior place of women in society. Romans did not angst over such matters: they were unashamedly hierarchical from the start even though they perceived themselves as simple farmers.
Quantities of Greek wine had been imported to Italy by the Etruscans as evidenced by archaeological unearthing of Greek drinking paraphernalia. When Athens was overrun by the Roman forces of Sulla in ?88 BCE the golden days of Greece were over, but Romans deferred to Greek sophistication adopting Greek philosophy, architecture and art, political ideas, a modification of the Greek alphabet and Greek-style villas for drinking parties. Young Romans destined for leadership were tutored by educated Greek slaves. Greek and Roman gods were given equivalence as Dionysus (Greek god of winemaking and the grape, orgiastic ecstasy, and the theatre) became indistinguishable from the Roman god Bacchus.
By 200 CE Rome had conquered not only the Greeks but had sacked Phoenicean Carthage giving them command of the Mediterranean, Greek wines were being replaced by wine from the increasingly plentiful Roman vineyards that had plundered the best grape varieties from Greek sources. Already in 70 CE Pliny the Elder had recorded 80 distinctive Roman wines as small-scale production was changing into a major commercial enterprise on vast villa estates. Roman ascendancy could be measured by the population of its capital which climbed from about 100,000 in 300 BCE to 1 million in 0 CE. As the Roman Empire expanded so people adopted its ways and wine was a Roman household staple. But the quality of the wine and the manners associated with its consumption would depend on your social station. At a banquet the kind of wine you were served would depend on your social status which would also be obvious from the seating arrangement.
Famed wines included Caecuban, Surrentine, and Setine but the most auspicious wine of all was Falernian which hailed from the region of Campania on the slopes of Mount Falernus south of Naples. Different Falernian vintages were sourced from grapes grown at different altitudes, the most sought-after being grown on the estate of Faustus the son of the famous General Sulla. These wines would improve with age and were stored for ten years or more, the white wines taking on a golden hue over time.(p.76) In summer wines would be chilled with snow brought down from the mountains, an indulgence that caught the critical eye of Pliny the Elder who was constantly on the eye-out for excess. Conspicuous consumption might attract the attention of the poor so ‘sumptuary laws’ were passed regulating the amounts of money to be spent on food, drink, and entertainment including the kinds of meat that could be eaten. An extraordinary proportion of Roman revenue was being spent on fashionable silk clothing for Roman wives, but husbands too could not resist this oriental import and so male use was banned by law.
Of all the Falernian vintages the most famous was that of 121 BCE called Opimiam Falernian after that year’s consul, Opimius and especially popular with Julius Caesar. A 160-year-old Opimiam was drunk by Emperor Caligula in 39 CE.(p. 76)
Wine was noted for its medicinal use. One of the world’s finest collections of wines was accumulated by successive emperors in the cool imperial cellars in Rome.
Galen was a Roman physician who followed in the steps of the great Greek physician Hippocrates. Galen’s views on the causes of illness would persist for 1000 years. He maintained that the body consisted of four ‘humours’: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Temperament was determined by the relative proportion of these humours- so you might be melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and so on. Illness was an imbalance of the humours was usually corrected by foodstuffs classified as hot, cold, wet, and dry or by bloodletting. Cold, wet foods produced phlegm, hot, dry foods yellow bile and so on. Only in the nineteenth century did western medicine shake off Galen’s ideas. Wine, regarded as hot and dry, was used to treat wounds and as a general pick-me-up and in 170 CE, as physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius he sought the most excellent wine by sampling all the wines in the royal cellar that were over 20 years old. Not surprisingly he concluded that the best was a Falernian but we do not know which one.
Like the Greeks the Romans watered down their wine although the mixing was left to the discretion of the individual drinker. Additives like herbs, honey, rose water, even sea water (as used by the Greeks) were used but mostly with lesser quality wines. Even lower on the social scale was Posca, a more-or-less watered-down vinegar served to the soldiers of the 350,000-strong (at its peak) Roman army and Lora, made from left-over skins of more auspicious pressings, and served to slaves.(pp. 80-81)
Classical grape varieties
A few winemakers supply varieties of wine that purportedly date back to Greek and Roman times. The Mastroberardino winery near Naples supplies three cassical varieties: Greco di Tufo a white grape introduced to Italy by the Greeks; Fiano di Avellino a white grape that was a Roman favourite that they called Vitis Apiana; and Anglianico a variety sold from the winery as its favourite under the name Taurasi.
Christian & Jewish use of wine
The death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE (despite regular dosage of Falernian) is taken as the end of Rome’s Golden Age. Emperor Theodosius I in 395 CE divided the empire between his two sons as eastern and western halves, the western half soon crumbling as Germanic Visigoths rampaged through Rome in 410 CE, the city ransacked again in 455 CE by Vandals.
Many Roman traditions persisted during the subsequent fusion of Germanic, Christian and Roman cultures. Britons clung to beer as their preferred beverage but elsewhere the wine drinking continued, linked to Christianity through Christ’s conversion of water nd wafer symbolise the to wine at a wedding, his first miracle performed at a wedding by the Sea of Galilee. Wine was mentioned many times during Jesus’s ministry but most poignantly as the offering of wine to the disciples at the Last Supper from which is derive the most important ritual of Christianity, the Eucharist, in which the taking of wafer and wine symbolise Christ’s body and blood.
Like many Christian traditions this was an adaptation of the old Greek and Roman tradition, Dionysus and Bacchus associate with spiritual miracles and experience, resurrection, and the drinking of wine as a form of communion.(pp. 85)
In the Middle Ages alcoholic cider was popular with notable regions in Normandy and Brittany in France, Galicia and Asturias in Spain but wine-making was most popular especially in the monasteries especially on the fine soils of Burgundy where the Cistercian monks had settled, growing the grapes in walled enclosures called clos and when the monasteries went into decline landlords continued the lucrative trade.
Islam & wine
In the Arab world, after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, the drinking of wine, even as a medicine, was condemned, possibly a consequence of Muhammad’s experience of a brawl between two of his drunken disciples. Drinking and gambling thenceforth carried heavy penalties in the Muslim world.
To some extent the old European tradition of wine in the south an beer in the north remains. The wine almost invariably taken with lunch in France or Spain is more likely to be beer, perhaps taken without a meal, in Britain or Germany. Regardless, wine is the more sophisticated of the two and with more critical consumers. We still mind our table manners, the courses of food, position of cutlery, degree of debauchery, topics of discussion, when wine is drunk at a dinner party. The Greeks and Romans are peering over our shoulders checking that all is in order.
Today he overall area dedicated to wine production comprised of 80,000 sq km of vinyards or 20 million acres (FAO, 2013) and the wine production centres have moved from the Mediterranean and Europe to Australasia, South Africa, and the Americas with in the order of 10,000 grape cultivars recorded. At the turn of the 21st century global production of grapes was 60-70 million tons a year, or about 30 billion bottles, put into a market worth about $100 billion.