Winemaking During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

As previously discussed in the September 22, 2014 post on ancient wines, our ancestors who lived more than 2,000 years ago believed that the gods actually lived in the grapes they harvested and the wines they drank. Drinking wine allowed them to transcend their normal lives and commune with these gods. Yet, as the influence of Christianity grew, the Christian church began restricting the use of sacred wine and making clear distinctions between it and secular wine. Now, instead of sacred wine being used to commune with the gods, it was used to atone for sin, bringing forgiveness rather than transcendence. Also, it was often only the church priest, acting as Christ’s representative on earth, who consumed sacred wine during religious services, not the ordinary people in the congregation.

Middle Age vine pruning and winemaking

Outside of religious services, there was an abundance of secular wine during medieval times. The most important function of secular wine during the early Middle Ages (400-900 A.C.E.) was to provide nourishment to those who drank it, due to its calories and its ability to quench thirst. The alcohol content of this beverage also killed bacteria and made it one of the safest beverages to consume, far safer than ordinary water.

The Catholic Church and Winemaking

Who was supplying wine to the masses? Often it was the priests, monks, friars, and nuns of the Catholic Church, because they were the ones who largely cultivated and planted vineyards and harvested and fermented the grapes. After the fall of the Roman Empire and up to at least the Renaissance, the workers of the Catholic Church were not only largely responsible for putting wine on the table of the average person in Europe, they also were primarily responsible for selecting and propagating the first quality grape varieties. Indeed, many historians assert that it is not an exaggeration to claim that as Christianity spread throughout Europe, so did vineyards and winemaking.

The Catholic Church strongly influenced medieval winemaking

Benedictine and Cistercian Monks played a prominent role in the development of European viniculture. For example, late in the 12th century, after establishing 120 convents in Portugal, the Cistercians not only became the main keepers of agricultural knowledge, they also provided training to their faithful congregations on how to grow grapevines and make wine. Medieval kings and feudal lords also owned vineyards and made wine, but they gave a great deal of land to the Church, with much of it turned into vineyards. Beyond the clergy and royalty, ordinary people were often very much involved in the winemaking process. With so many people living in the countryside, the fall grape harvest mobilized everybody—including children—in the picking and the processing of grapes.

A medieval grape harvest involved all age groups

The Short-Lived Prominence of English Wine

One historical fact that may surprise you is that England was a leader in grape growing and winemaking through much of the Middle Ages. At the end of the 11th century there were perhaps 50 vineyards in the southern half of the country—most associated with the church—that produced wine. These vineyards prospered for more than 300 years, making England an important center of European winemaking. Around the same time, farmers in the English-controlled area of Bordeaux France developed a thriving wine industry and exported much of their wine to their English overlords. When the “little ice age” of the mid-1500s sharply reduced the yield of vineyards in England, the French Bordeaux and Burgundy regions along with the German Rhine Valley region emerged as the great centers of grape growing and winemaking that they remain to this day. England never regained its early prominence as a wine region.

The Typical Taste of Medieval Wine?

How did medieval wine taste? By most accounts, it generally tasted horrible, at least by contemporary standards. As in earlier times, wine in the Middle Ages was not stored in corked bottles because neither corks or glass wine bottles had yet been invented. Wines, especially those fermented dry, spoiled quickly due to exposure to air and the absence of sulfites. Some historians guess that even the better quality wines made in Europe during this time period were most likely inferior to those made in ancient Rome and Greece, because the latter were often infused with resin and stored in clay vessels, giving them some protection.

Medieval winemakers failure to “top up” their barrels led to  oxidized and sour-tasting wine.

Although medieval wines may have tasted fine when first put into wooden barrels and casks, winemakers during this time had not yet learned the importance of periodically “topping up” their wine containers as the new wine slowly evaporated inside. Racking wine off its lees was also not practiced, meaning that most wine contained a fair amount of dead yeasts, making it murky in appearance. Most wine sold for higher prices in the autumn when it still contained the preservative fizz of carbon dioxide and was young and fruity.

While barrel- and cask-stored wine rapidly deteriorated in taste and aromatic quality, a great deal of medieval wine tasted and smelled much worse. For the lower-caste serfs and laborers, they typically drank wine stored in animal hides, which imparted rancid flavors that competed with the already existing vinegary taste. Yet even this foul tasting liquid was generally more sanitary than pure water, so people consumed it, mixed with water, about 3 liters per day. Wine was even consumed at breakfast, often in the soup.

Virtually everyone drank wine during the Middle Ages, often during all hours.

A 14th century French author, writing about morality and home management, advised young wives not to drink wine… before 9am. When people couldn’t afford wine to mix with their bacteria-laced water, they would mix water with grape pomace—pressed skins, stems, seeds, and pulp—and drink this concoction for hydration.

Because wine went sour so quickly, various remedies were developed to either preserve it or to restore the “life” to wine. One common technique to preserve wine was to pour a thin film of olive oil over wine to protect it from air. One French remedy to restore the life to wine involved first soaking and then boiling wheat in water, and then tossing this hot wheat into a cask filled with sour wine. If the wheat didn’t restore the wine to life—which there is no reason to believe that it would—you were supposed to next toss in a basketful of well–washed sand (good luck with that!). However, by far the most popular solutions for coping with sour wine were the addition of flavorings, like spices, honey, and herbs. Just like the ancient Greeks and Romans, people in the Middle Ages drank a great deal of this adulterated wine. Then, in the Late Middle Ages (during the 15th century), winemakers on the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe began using sulphur to preserve wine. Even though sulphur’s chemical composition would not be understood for at least another 200 years, its use in this small area of Europe was an important technological advance that would eventually replace the traditional methods of preserving or “fixing” wine using honey, resin, spices, and other flavorings.

Taverns were frequented by all levels of society, with wine being the alcoholic beverage most often consumed, at least until the early 1600s.

Common Daily Intoxication

Although water-diluted wine was relatively low in alcohol, the women and men (and children) who consumed it—especially during the hot summer months—were probably at least a bit intoxicated most of the time. Drinking bad-tasting wine until one was flat-out drunk was not at all unusual, and medieval folklore used animal designations for describing how people behaved when at various stages of intoxication: mild intoxication made one act like a sheep, moderate intoxication caused one to behave like a lion, high intoxication made one act like an ape, and extremely high intoxication resulted in hog-like behavior. Medieval taverns were very popular, but they had a mixed reputation. They were places where people made business deals, hired employees, and socialized, but they were also where drunkenness and rowdy behavior occurred. In 13th century Paris, there was a tavern for every 600 inhabitants and in 14th century Avignon there was one for every 150 inhabitants; many adults drank an average of one gallon of wine or beer per day.

Wine Receives Serious Competition

By the late Middle Ages (1300-1500 A.C.E.), the growth of northern Europe’s urban population led to an increased demand for commercial wine to be shipped or carted long distances where grapes were not locally available. This wine was still often sour tasting, but it generally tasted better than its main alcoholic competitor, grain-based beer. Although most medieval beer was extremely bitter and spoiled within a week, beer’s value soon began to rise when German brewers started using hops, which made the brew less bitter and longer lasting. As Europe entered the cultural movement of the Renaissance in the 14th century, a period of time known for cultural innovation and creativity, beer became more of a commercial product like wine. And, unlike wine, beer could be produced throughout the year, so it generally was less expensive than all but the worst wines. Now drinking wine was no longer a necessity of daily living, but was a choice people made between an ever-growing number of beverages.

In the 1600s, commercial beer brewers and distillers began challenging commercial winemakers’ dominance in the marketplace.

By the early 1600s, a number of Europeans were shunning wine, especially the all-too-common sour-tasting dry wine, and instead drank good-tasting hoppy beer. Others were drawn to new fashionable nonalcoholic drinks such as tea, coffee, and chocolate that became available through international trade, while others began drinking distilled spirits. Up until the 1600s, Europeans generally thought of distillation as being reserved solely for the apothecary craft of producing high alcoholic liquid medicines. Then the Dutch began promoting alcoholic spirits as an alternative to sour-tasting wine; they distilled bad wine into brandy and flavored it with flowers, herbs, sweets, and spices. Soon distilling spirits became big business throughout Europe, which greatly contributed to wine being put further on the defensive as the beverage of choice. More and more, wine was perceived as old-fashioned, the drink of generations past and not the preferred drink of “cultured” people. Clearly, winemaking was in desperate need of new ideas and innovation. But who or what was going to step forward to rescue wine? Stay tuned.

Author’s 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.

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