History Says… 6,000 Years of Wine Making
Wine is far older than recorded history, emerging with civilization itself from the East. The evidence from tablets, papyri, and Egyptian tombs fills volumes. Mankind — working, quarrelling, loving, and worrying — comes on the scene with the support of a jug of wine.
Pharaonic wine, however vividly painted for us to see, is too remote to have any meaning. Our age of wine has traceable roots, and begins with the Greeks and Phoenicians who colonized the Mediterranean about 1500 BC. That was when wine first arrived where it was to ultimately make its home: Italy, France, and Spain. The Greeks called Italy, “The Land of Vines,” just as the Vikings called America, “Vineland,” based on the profusion of native vines 2,000 years later. North Africa, southern Spain, Provence, Sicily, the Italian mainland, and the Black Sea all had their first vineyards in the time of the Greek and Phoenician Empires.
The wines of Greece were lavishly praised and documented by her poets. In Athens, there was a fashionable after-dinner game that consisted of throwing the last few mouthfuls of wine from your cup into the air to hit a delicately balanced dish on a pole. Smart young things even took coaching in the finer points of “kottabos.” However, such treatment of wine, and the knowledge that it was invariably known as “a wine cup,” flavored with herbs, spices and honey and diluted with water (sometimes even seawater), cause us to question its quality. We have no way of knowing whether the wines would appeal to us today. It is indisputable that the wines of different islands of the Aegean were highly prized for their distinct characters. Chios, in particular, was a supplier in constant demand. Greeks industrialized winegrowing in southern Italy, Etruscans in Tuscany and further north, and the Romans followed.
Much was written about wine and winemaking in ancient Rome. The greatest writers, even Virgil, wrote instructions to winegrowers. One sentence of his, “Vines above an open hill,” is perhaps the best piece of advice given to a winegrower. Others were much more calculating, discussing how much work a slave could do for how little food and sleep without losing condition. Roman wine was produced on a very large scale, and business calculations were at the heart of it. It spread across the Empire, until Rome was eventually importing countless shiploads of amphoras from her colonies in Spain, North Africa and the entire Mediterranean.
How good was Roman wine? Some apparently had extraordinary powers of keeping, which in itself suggests that it was well made. It was frequently concentrated by heat, and even smoked to achieve what must have been a Madeira-like effect. On the other hand, Pliny, whose Natural History contains a complete textbook on wines and winemaking, recommends the boiling of concentration must be in vessels made of lead “to sweeten it.” The resulting lead-oxide poisoning must have been excruciating, in addition to the cholics, eventual blindness, insanity and death that resulted, which were never connected with their cause. Some pains were merely put down to bad vintages.
Yet, the Romans set the stage for today’s wine. They had all that is necessary for aging wine, not being limited to earthenware amphoras like the Greeks, although they used them. They had barrels just like modern barrels, and bottles not unlike modern bottles, since the art of glassmaking came from Syria to Rome. Most Italians of 2,000 years ago probably drank wine very like their descendants today — young, rather roughly made, sharp or strong according to the vintage. The quantities they drank, though, were prodigious; the Roman orgy is by no means a flight of later imagination.
Even the Roman method of cultivation of the vine on trees, the festoons which became the friezes on classical buildings, is still practiced here and there in the south of Italy and northern Portugal. The Greeks – or perhaps the Etruscans from Tuscany – took wine north to southern Gaul, yet the Romans domesticated it there. By the fifth century, when they withdrew from what is now France, they had laid the foundations for almost all of the most famous vineyards of the modern world. To name a few — Burgundy, Mosel, Bordeaux, Alsace, and Priorat, Galicia in Spain.