Ancient Wines: Not very tasty, but full of meaning

Knowing what we now know about the process of transforming grape juice into wine, there is no doubt that the first wine was produced spontaneously by wild yeasts, long before our human ancestors first made their appearance on this planet.

So, how long ago did the first grapevine make its appearance on Planet Earth? Fossil seeds of grapes have been found in 50 million-year-old rocks, but some scientists speculate that grapes’ ancestors may have been growing on the supercontinent of Pangea before the continents drifted apart, some 300 to 500 million years ago! For millions of years, other living creatures consumed these alcoholic dewdrops and puddles of wine near ancient grapevines.

So, what about human’s first interaction with wine? It sounds like it may not have been a very tasty first rendezvous, but people certainly knew how to draw meaning from the grape brew. Let’s find out more here.

Maarten van Heemskerck's Triumphal Procession of Bacchus

Maarten van Heemskerck’s Triumphal Procession of Bacchus

Wine’s Start

Fast-forward in time to our modern human ancestors who, during the Neolithic period (8500 – 4000 B.C.E), enjoyed this  seasonal gift from nature. Using food processing techniques (such as soaking, heating, spicing, and fermenting), Neolithic people in the “Fertile Crescent” of the Near East began producing bread, beer, and wine.

The horticulture of grapevines began toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E. These Eurasian wild subspecies were subsequently cloned throughout the world and today account for almost all the wine consumed on this planet.

Wine: The Gods’ Gift to Humans

Unlike ancient beer, which required humans to boil grains to obtain fermentable sugars, grape juice could be turned into wine by wild yeasts that were already co-mingled amongst the grapes.

It would be thousands of years before science revealed many of the mysteries of wine fermentation, and thus, ancient people considered the creation of wine as a magical transformation involving heat, bubbles, and an invisible vapor that could cause those nearby to faint and swoon.

In addition to its apparent magical transformation, Neolithic people quickly recognized wine’s antiseptic, antimicrobial, and anti-oxidant properties; it doubled as an ancient medicine. Add to that wine’s mind-altering effects, and it is not surprising that most ancient winemaking cultures considered it a gift from the gods.

Drinking the house wine at a restaurant in Athens, Greece

Drinking the house wine at a restaurant in Athens, Greece

When Homer wrote the Greek classic Odyssey 2,800 years ago, he described Ulysses visiting the island of the Cyclops. There he discovered that Dionysus, the most powerful of all gods, lived within grapes and that wine was created spontaneously without human intervention.

The Drinking Contest of Dionysos and Heracles

The Drinking Contest of Dionysos and Heracles

In this story, Homer was describing ancient people’s belief that juice was somehow magically transformed into wine due to godly intervention within the grape itself. Once this magical transformation was complete, those who drank the resulting godly nectar were often transported to an altered state of consciousness that lifted their spirits.  

As one ancient Greek author described it, “The gods made wine as the best thing for mortal man to scatter cares.”

Similarly, an inscription on an Egyptian tomb stated, “Give me eighteen cups of wine, for I want to drink until drunkenness, my inside is like straw.”

How did Ancient Wine taste?

What did ancient wine taste like? We’ve all seen Hollywood movies of ancient Greeks drinking wine by the boatload; it looks pretty enticing, doesn’t it? Yet, as the saying goes, looks can be deceiving, and in the case of wine, historians assure us that this was often all too true.

Although freshly made wine may have tasted fruity and not unlike contemporary wines, this pleasant taste would have been a short-lived experience, if it happened at all. Archeological evidence of wine residue found in Middle Eastern clay vessels indicates that ancient wines were often heavily infused with boiled tree resin to help preserve it.

Ancient wine pots on the Island of Naxos

If you have ever tasted contemporary Greek Retsina wine, you have some understanding of how a resin-infused wine tastes, but this is not even close to how ancient wine tasted. Such wines were not well sealed from air exposure, so they quickly became severely oxidized.

Lillian trying Retsina when she was visiting Greece in high school

Lillian trying Retsina when visiting Greece

To get some idea how many ancient wines tasted, try the following exercise:

(1) buy some cheap Retsina, (2) uncork it (3) leave it unattended in your hot garage over the summer, and then (4) pour yourself a glass.

If it tastes like Uncle Ano’s wine that everyone poured down the sink at Thanksgiving, you may be a bit closer to understanding ancient wine’s sensory dynamics. Now, for a more complete effect, add a couple ounces of salt water to the same bottle of wine glop and pour a second glass, because our ancestors often added seawater to their wine to make it more palatable. If you follow my suggestions, I bet that you will quickly remember Uncle Ano’s wine much more fondly.

Other additives often used to mask or improve the taste of ancient wine included marble dust, gypsum, lead, lime, and lye-ash.

Of course not all wine tasted this badly.  There were some ancient wines that you might actually have enjoyed drinking when freshly produced. One technique in ancient winemaking to improve taste was to twist the stems of ripe grape bunches while they still hung on the vine so that sap flow to the grapes ceased and the grapes’ sugar content became concentrated, or raisined. As early as 800 B.C.E., such sun-dried grape wine was produced on the Greek island of Cyprus, and this technique is still employed today by various winemakers throughout the world.

Gods in Wine

Given the questionable quality of many ancient wines, it isn’t surprising that wine and wine consumption was valued more for its power than for its taste, especially because this power was endowed with a religious meaning.

Becoming intoxicated was viewed as a means by which mortals could spiritually commune with the gods, which explains why intoxication rituals were a regular part of many religious ceremonies in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Samaria, Crete, Assyria, and Rome.

By the 4th century BCE, wine had become an integral part of Greek life and this city-state’s power resulted in the grapevine being planted throughout its many conquered lands (think Italy, France, and Germany).

The Romans furthered the cultivation of the grapevine in England, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, North Africa, Turkey, and along the coastline of the Black Sea.

Because many of the most powerful ancient Greeks and Romans were city dwellers, and thus, removed from pastoral life, wine also represented for them the opportunity to spiritually commune with the power of nature.

The Greek god of wine was Dionysus, while the Roman wine god was Bacchus. These gods were not thought of as simply “gods of wine,” they were “gods in wine.” As such, their spirit was evident in the act of fermentation and it was also beyond human understanding and control.

To drink wine was to take in the god and to share in his power, which was simultaneously wild and mild, mindless and insightful, hateful and loving, violent and peaceful. Representing the conflicting powers of nature, the wine god was a paradox, capable of giving both life and death. He did not represent the cultivated nature of the vintner, but rather, the untamed nature of the grapevine.

In both Greece and Rome, organizations or clubs were formed to pay homage to their respective wine god. During ceremonial dances (in which considerable wine was consumed), singing, cheering, or applauding was not allowed, and members would be fined if they became disorderly and they would be expelled if they fought with other members.

Maarten van Heemskerck's Triumphal Procession of Bacchus

Maarten van Heemskerck’s Triumphal Procession of Bacchus

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all clubs were so orderly. In fact, raunchy behavior became so problematic in some organizations that in 186 B.C.E. the Roman Senate banned festivals honoring the wine god in many areas of Italy, but the ban had limited impact in curbing either the festivals or the unwanted behavior. Whether members of my own Wisconsin Vintners Association can benefit from this ancient lesson–however they choose to interpret it–may well be determined at our next Annual Dinner Dance.

An Exalted History

As you can see from this brief overview of ancient conceptions of wine, this beverage has long held an exalted place in human societies. Indeed, an argument could be made that the ancient reverence for wine and winemaking was significantly due to the fact that our ancestors did not understand its chemical and biological nature.

Given that winemaking is very much a cultural process of invention and re-invention, in the coming posts, we will continue to explore how cultural forces and historical events shaped the history of winemaking and people’s perceptions and beliefs about wine. Hopefully, this exploration will help us better understand our own current appreciation of this beverage.

A Note: Information in this article was gathered from numerous sources, but the inspiration came from Paul Lukacs’ 2012 book, Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures. I recommend it as a “great read” for anyone interested in the historical and cultural factors that shaped winemaking over the centuries. Salute!

2 thoughts on “Ancient Wines: Not very tasty, but full of meaning

  1. Pingback: Hiking Wine: Why you should support normalizing the half-bottle of wine | the inquisitive vintner [ + His Daughter]

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