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Thursday, November 01, 2001

Food

“This is the Nectar…”

An Occasional Series on Greek Wine




Greece is probably not where wine began. That honor is, for the moment, in dispute. The two consensus candidates seem to be Georgia, in the Caucasus, proud of its many millennia of winemaking and the region where botanists believe that the grape may have been first domesticated, and its southeastern neighbor Iran, where archeologists have found the earliest solid evidence of wine – a wine-stained jar of around 6000 BCE. Yes, it was really wine – chemical analysis has proved it.

Already as long as 8,000 years ago, people had been gathering grapes sufficiently sweet that, if you collected their juice, it would ferment into wine. There is no such evidence from prehistoric Greece – at least, not yet. But there is something else, almost equally important. A series of grape pips or seeds of gradually increasing size were recovered from successive prehistoric layers, from about 4500 BCE to 2500 BCE, carefully excavated at the ancient village of Sitagroi in Thrace. This means that the fruit, too, gradually increased in size over this long period of 2,000 years. So, already in those very early times, people in northern Greece were slowly but surely selecting vines for the size of their fruit, and probably for the fruit’s sweetness, too.

Some, at least, of the dozens of modern Greek grape varieties surely go back to that early period of homegrown development. They grew out of local forms of the wild grapevine, not out of already-developed varieties from the Caucasus or the Near East. In fact, by 2500 BCE, Greek wine must already have gained some individuality, as it was already beyond its infancy.

It is no surprise, then, that wine is listed among the stored wealth of the Mycenaean palaces of Knossos, Mycenae, and Pylos a thousand years later. Those Linear B inventories on clay tablets were time-consuming to make and awkward to store. No one would have made those lists unless they mattered. Wine (along with perfumed oil, chariots, harnesses, and the rest) evidently mattered a lot. Almost as important to the people of those palaces were their krateres, the vessels in which wine was mixed with water, and the pelikes from which they drank.

However, the struggle to make sense of the Mycenaeans and their world is a difficult one: we can read their stock lists, but not their literature. With classical Greece, it’s quite the opposite. From the Homeric poems (composed about 700 BCE) onwards, there is an unbroken succession of literary texts that tell us just what Greek people in each historical period were thinking – about wine, about pleasure, about life itself.

From archaic Greek poetry, we learn that wine had a place at every meal – and that the wine was mixed with water, as it would normally be throughout classical times. One ate in silence, and then talked and drank. This order of events was so standard that strangers are not even asked their names in The Iliad and The Odyssey until after they have been given food. Long stories were told over the wine – sometimes they were told in verse – and maybe this is the origin of the two great epics themselves.

In the storerooms of big houses, wine in amphoras was stored for many years. This heavy, aromatic wine is described as “fiery”; in a famous image, the sea itself is compared to it, oinopa ponton, “the wine-like sea.” Let’s make a safe guess that it tasted of the pine resin, terebinth resin, or mastic with which the amphoras were sealed; but, when all is said, we do not really know how archaic Greek wine tasted. However, the monstrous Cyclops, encouraged by Odysseus to try wine for the first time, thought it was just like the magical nectar that the Gods were said to drink. It was dangerous, too, as the Cyclops found: once the wine had gone to his head, Odysseus’ men were able to blind him and make their escape.

That very wine – the story goes – was acquired by Odysseus on the southern coast of Thrace, the same region in which we know that vines had been selected and improved long before, and from which came some of the best wines known in classical Athens, around 400 BCE. It is during this later period that we can draw a map of the fine wines of Greece for the first time.

These wines came from the big islands of Thasos, Lesbos, Chios, and Naxos; from the smaller island of Peparethos (now Skopelos); and from Mende and Torone in the northern peninsula of Chalcidice. There were many other wine producers all over Greece, but these were the wines that people talked about. There was a twist to some of these names, however. Peparethos had a colony in southwestern Thrace; Thasos had a string of possessions on the neighboring Thracian coast. There were vineyards along the slopes of Mount Olympus, not far from Peparethos. There were vineyards along the Asia Minor coast not far inland from Lesbos and Chios. Almost certainly, some of the wine that was marketed under those expensive names – Thasos, Lesbos, Chios, and Peparethos – had actually come from vine-growing slopes on the nearby mainland. How might these wines have tasted? We will come back to this question in a future essay.

Wine in classical Athens was as central to social life as it had been in earlier times. Whether or not people had begun to talk while they ate, it was still true that the time for serious conversation (and serious enjoyment), when the meal was over, was during the drinking. The meal was the deipnon; the drinking that followed was the symposion. This “symposium” was the setting for some of Socrates’ philosophical discussions, including the famous discussion on the nature of love that is retold in Plato’s Symposium.

The Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily set a fashion for importing the wines of their homeland, and the Etruscans of northern Italy also liked Greek wine. So, in due course, did the Romans. The Roman empire, therefore – let’s say from 30 BCE to 300 CE – was possibly the period when Greek wine reached its greatest fame. This may seem strange, because the wines of Italy were already very good indeed. Romans, who liked to drink while they were eating, drank Italian wines with their food. But, if they could afford it, they preferred Greek wine for their aperitif.

Sweet Cretan wine was a good choice here, or else a dry wine mixed with the fine Greek honey of Mount Hymettus near Athens. Chian wine was the classic choice, however. When Julius Caesar gave a public banquet, Chian was his after-dinner selection. But Chian wine came in small amphoras and was very expensive. At least one Roman was known to have excused himself for spending so much on it by explaining that his physician had prescribed Chian wine “for his heart.” In place of Chian wine, one could choose the slightly cheaper wines of Mitylene, Methymna (modern Molyvos), and Eresos, the three wine-producing cities of Lesbos. But one had to be sure to select the best wines from these cities, according to the tasting notes of the imperial physician Galen, because seawater went into the making of the others, and seawater was an additive of which many physicians disapproved.

In Roman times, these were the best names in Greek wine. There were others, however: the wines of Asia Minor are discussed in great detail by Galen, who was born there, but nobody else says much about them. The wines of Cos and Rhodes are often mentioned in Roman texts, but they are not usually complimented. Coan wine, in particular, was the typical salty wine. (This odd business of adding seawater had been invented – Pliny tells us – by a slave to avoid punishment for pressing too small a daily quantity of grape juice.) Never mind its origin, salted Coan wine was very popular and fairly cheap in Rome.

Whatever their flavor when classical Athenians were tasting them, Greek wines were heavy and sweet to Romans of the empire since there was only one historical way to stabilize wine for long-distance transport. The Greek wine that the Romans tasted had been “cooked,” with boiled-down must (grape juice) added to it. Therefore, in a very distant way, it resembled the port, sherry, madeira, and mavrodaphne that modern Europeans sometimes like to sip before or after dinner. Tastes change, but some tastes go on for centuries. The wines of medieval “Romania” (Byzantine Greece and Crete, in other words) had the same heavy, sweet qualities, and people in medieval France and England would pay high prices for them.

As the Roman empire shrank to become what we now know as Byzantium, Italian wines were no longer easily available. New names in Greek wine thus came to the fore in Byzantine texts. Alongside Chian and Lesbian wines, there were now Monemvasian (known in medieval England as Malmsey) and Samian wines. The wines of Thrace and Bithynia (northwestern Asia Minor) became popular again, being produced not far from the walls of Constantinople itself. The wine of Varna (in modern Bulgaria) is heard of for the first time. An archbishop of Athens, Michael Choniates, dared to write that he did not like the local Attic wine because of its strong taste of resin. Some visitors to Byzantium from the West found retsina simply “undrinkable”!

In many ways, classical and medieval Greek wines seem to have prefigured the modern vintages that we will explore in the next essay. The geography has changed – historical circumstances have ensured that Lesbos, Chios, and Thasos, to give just three examples, no longer produce wine in commercial quantities – but the grape varieties are still, most of them, unique to Greece. Can we still taste those ancient flavors?

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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