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Monday, March 17, 2003


Greek Wines: Ancient and Modern

In literary texts from the world of classical Greece 2,000 years ago and more, certain named wines are consistently praised. This article asks two challenging, perhaps ultimately unanswerable, questions. What did those wines taste like? Can we taste them today? Like a good and nourishing meal, my proposed answer to these questions is divided into three courses.

Hors d’oeuvres
Are there any special similarities between ancient and modern winemaking and storage methods? At first sight, there are very few. The Greek wines that most of us buy today are vinified in concrete or stainless steel tanks, under controlled conditions at controlled temperatures. They are sometimes matured in oak and are bottled in glass. All this is totally different from ancient methods. In antiquity, wines were vinified in deep, half-buried earthenware vats and then stored and transported in sealed earthenware amphorae or animal skins. No ancient Greek wine had the taste of oak. On the other hand, a proportion of brine — seawater — was added to the grape juice when some ancient wines were made, including those of Kos, which were extremely popular in the Roman empire. So far as I know, no winemaker, in Greece or elsewhere, follows that practice now.

But there is one, special way in which Greek winemaking still accords with ancient taste: the addition of pine resin. Not everyone in ancient and medieval Greece liked this flavor, but it was familiar to many: partly because those earthenware vats were waterproofed with resin each year before use; partly because more resin was often added to the grape juice, in order to adjust the flavor of the resulting wine and make it less likely to spoil. It was a highly successful technique, and was adopted all over the ancient Mediterranean. So take a glass of cool, clean, refreshing retsina alongside your hors d’oeuvres, and be assured that you are enjoying a very ancient taste — one that Greece, uniquely, keeps alive.

In ancient as in modern times, many fine wines were named after their city or district of origin. Here’s a brief survey.

First, wines from the northern Aegean: the two great names here were Mende (in Chalkidike) and Thasos. The wine of Mende was popular in the fourth and third centuries BCE: it seems afterwards to have disappeared or to have fallen out of favor. According to an Athenian comedy by Hermippus, “Mendean wine is what the gods piss in their soft beds,” or so the wine god Dionysus assures an Athenian audience (fragment 82, quoted in the Epitome of Athenaeus 29e). We can gather from this remarkable accolade that Mendean was a white wine with a fresh (and divine) flavor. As for Thasian wine, “over which the scent of apples plays” (according to the same comedy), it retained its popularity and high price into Roman times — or so it appears, since recipes were invented for imitations of it. A stone inscription from Thasos attests to the efforts made by this island state to protect its wine trade: there was legislation against speculating in wine “futures” and importing non-Thasian wine to part of the mainland coast of Thrace that Thasos ruled. This last measure can be interpreted as guarantee that “Thasian” wine really was produced locally, either on the island itself or on the mainland slopes, and that it was not blended with cheap imported wines.

West of Thasos, the island of Peparethos (now Skopelos) was known for a powerful wine, recommended to one of the Ptolemies of Egypt by his court physician. Peparethan needed to mature for seven years before drinking, according to this expert. Like Thasos, Peparethos may have marketed wines that were produced not only on the island but also in mainland dependencies. Peparethos had a colony in Thrace; closer to home, there were also vineyards on the slopes of the Magnesian peninsula, south of Mount Olympus.

Some independent cities on the Thracian coast were proud of their wine, notably Akanthos and Maroneia. The latter city claimed that Odysseus himself had enjoyed its wine. It was given to him by the Thracian priest, Maron, “drawing off the sweet unmixed wine in twelve amphorae, a divine drink [says Odysseus]; and none of the slaves or servants in his house had known it, but himself and his dear wife and one housekeeper only. And whenever he drank the honeyed red wine, filling a cup he poured it into twenty measures of water, and a marvelous sweet smell rose from the mixing bowl” (Odyssey, 9.204-211). This description fired the imaginations of winemakers in Roman times. We are told that the Roman administrator, Mucianus, visited Maroneia and was given a taste of “Maron’s wine.” Mucianus found it nearly as strong, but, being Roman, he only needed to add seven measures of water to each measure of wine! Someone was being fooled here: there was no method known to ancient winemakers for adding alcoholic strength to wine.

There are few records of fine wine from the southern Greek mainland, although the early poets Alcman and Theognis both write enthusiastically about specific vineyards in Lakonia. As for Crete, that island produced the finest protropos, a special name given to the very sweet wine made from the free-run grape juice that flows from very ripe grapes while they are stacked before being pressed. Crete also made another sweet wine, a raisin wine from semi-dried grapes. Both fetched high prices among wine-lovers in classical Rome.

From the Dodecanese came the wines of Rhodes and Kos. Neither was of top quality, but they sold in large quantities in Greece and Roman Italy. Koan wine, with its admixture of brine, must have had a very distinctive flavor. The great physician Galen, who wrote about the use of wines in medical treatment, disapproved of this practice, but many people liked it. Two nearby mainland cities, Halicarnassos and Myndos, also made wine in this special style. There were many fine wines of Greek type from Asia Minor, notably those from the slopes of Mount Tmolos, between Sardis and Ephesus, and those produced in the inland district called Catacecaumene, which means “burnt-up.” Vines flourished in that volcanic soil (just as they did in southern Italy on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius).

Finally, we come to the two islands where the classic wines of the ancient world were produced. First, Lesbos, with its three terroirs of Eresos, Methymna (modern Molyvos), and Mytilene: Eresos was the best, says Galen. The greatest of all, however, was Chian wine. It was said that Oinopion, son of Dionysus, was the founder of Chios town and had personally taught Chians the art of winemaking, in particular, how to make “black wine” — which means red wine: it really does look black in an earthenware cup. This was the favorite libation of Dionysus himself in the comedy already quoted: he sings the praises of “noble and unhurtful Chian”; he speaks enthusiastically of that special vintage “from the mouths of whose jars when they are opened come a scent of violets, a scent of roses, a sacred aroma throughout the high-roofed hall, ambrosia and nectar in one. This in the joyous feast I shall give to my dear friends to drink.” The special Chian wine mentioned here might have been Ariusian, from a village on the island’s northwest tip. A few centuries later, in the early Roman empire, the wine that many regarded as the very best in the world came from that small village.

Can we trace any geographical continuities between the great wines of the ancient world and those of modern Greece? It is surprisingly difficult to make direct links. Very few of the fine wines of modern Greece come from vineyards with ancient roots. Chios does not export wine now (but I have heard that the legendary vineyards of Ariusia are being replanted!); nor does Thasos; nor does Lesbos; nor does Skopelos. Rhodian wines are okay (which is more or less what Aristotle said) but not, in my experience, really exciting. On the positive side, there are fine and individual wines to be found in Crete: I remember a strong, dry white wine from Kinnamos, in the western end of the island, and I must go back and find it again. There are some fine wines now being made in eastern Macedonia and Thrace: perhaps someone is already making “Maron’s wine” again (with less water); if not, someone soon will. Also on the positive side, although most of the ancient vineyard districts are not now producing fine wine, the ancient grape varieties surely are. Historic local varietials, not the ubiquitous chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, still do well in Greece and are much used. They cannot be traced back by name to ancient times, but there surely must be a continuity — of flavor as well as of varietal.

Having said that, I will name one red wine for your entrée. It’s Rapsani; you’ll find it without difficulty. I choose it because the vineyards of Rapsani, just under Mount Olympus, really must overlap with those that produced “gentle and bountiful Magnesian” wine (according to that same speech by Dionysus); I believe, too, that this was the same wine that neighboring Peparethos later exported to Egypt, and that the royal physician recommended to King Ptolemy.

What about the classical wines that are not linked to cities of origin? Can we find any further continuities?

There were indeed some very famous wines whose names don’t fit the geographical naming pattern. In the Iliad, Homer doesn’t mention any of those fine local wines named above. Were they not yet famous? Or didn’t Homer care about wine origins? Instead, Homeric heroes drank Pramneios oinos, “Pramnian wine,” which is a very puzzling name. There were many conflicting views about what kind of wine it was. Was it dry (as Galen thought) or sweet (as many others thought)? Was it from Ikaria (as some have argued in modern times) or from Smyrna or Ephesus (which is where winemakers marketed so-called “Pramnian wines” in the Roman empire)? It is impossible to say.

There’s another wine: Homer’s contemporary, Hesiod, in his Works and Days, advises the tired farmer laboring during hot June days to take a picnic in the shade and drink Biblinos oinos, “Bibline wine.” Again, people in later eras could discover nothing about Bibline wine. Some thought it came from Naxos, which was connected with Dionysus and his worship. Some thought the “Bibline mountains” were in Thrace, although no one could say exactly where. In the end, therefore, although one might find old-fashioned local wines on Naxos, Ikaria, or Thrace, it is only by a leap of faith that they can be linked with the “Pramnian” or “Bibline” wines of 700 BCE: the early texts are too uncertain and contradictory, and the historical gap is too wide to cross.

Finally, there is a third puzzling name for which we cannot come up with answers, but which helped to bridge ancient and modern flavors. Psithios oinos, “Psithian wine,” is not mentioned in the oldest texts, but was well-known by the time of Christ, both to Greeks and to many Romans who prized Greek wines. Virgil mentions it twice. The army pharmacist, Dioscorides, who wrote a detailed survey of medicinal substances, singles out psithia as one of the healthiest of wines and makes clear that this was the name of a grape variety. The variety was important for two reasons: the unripe grapes made good verjuice (a culinary ingredient) and the ripe and semi-dried grapes made an excellent raisin wine, which was strong and sweet. According to Roman sources, the raisin wine made from psithia and melampsithia grapes (the white and red sub-varieties) had a fine flavor “which was not the flavor of wine.” What could that mean? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it might have resembled the flavor and aroma of modern muscat grapes, which have a distinct bouquet quite unlike that of other varieties. This suggestion is made by Miles Lambert-Gócs in The Wines of Greece (p. 19). Muscat grapes, just like the ancient psithia, are especially suited to making sweet wine.

All mention of the psithia variety disappears at the end of the Roman period, around 400 CE, and Byzantine sources begin to speak of the moschatos variety. This name clearly derives from “musk,” Greek moschos, a perfume that began to be imported from central Asia at roughly the same date. So moschatos might have been a new name for what was essentially the same old psithia — people began to notice a similarity between its aroma and that of the new exotic perfume — or, alternatively, the moschatos might have been a new or improved variety replacing the old psithia. At any rate, it seems likely that there was some resemblance between the ancient variety and the modern moschatos.

Consider, then, the muscat of Lemnos or Samos, two fine modern dessert wines (the Samian has more of a honeyed taste, while the Lemnian, I think, is even better than the Samian in a good year, with a citrus note to offset the powerful sweetness). When we taste one of these modern Aegean muscats, are we experiencing once more the flavor of the finest sweet raisin wines of classical Greece and Rome?

Andrew Dalby is the author of Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece and Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices; his Flavours of Byzantium will be published later this year.
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