by Markus Stolz

wine history #1

byMarkus Stolz
July 11, 2011, 1 Comment

A number of wine professionals mistakenly believe that Greece was the first wine-producing country in history, but the general area of Mesopotamia was cultivated with vines for this very reason far before that. Greece faced the “vine invasion” around the 10th century BC, which possibly came from the South, via Egypt, then Crete and then moving to the rest of the mainland. Vine growing and wine production, however, was an integral part of the Greek agriculture and community by the 7th century BC.

Many researchers believe that the word hora, which can be translated as place or land, was more or less used by the ancient Greek wine writers (yes, there were quite a few of them) very much in the way the term terroir is used today. Legislation included some very strict appellations, the first encountered in the history of wine, governing elements like wine style, permitted shapes of amphorae, seals of authenticity, prices, and the like. Fraud was dealt with in a severe manner, suggesting a very discerning clientele.

The instances suitable for drinking wine, most notably the symposia, were seen as the most significant think tanks of the era – the occasions when the cradles of classical (and modern) civilisation were established. Although a state of mild intoxication was considered conducive to creative thinking, drunkenness was intolerable and characteristic of barbarians. This is the main reason why Greeks never consumed pure wine, but always diluted it with water, calling it kekrimenos oenos, from which the term krasi, the modern Greek word for wine, is derived.

A most telling point is the role of the oenohoos, the “one that pours the wine” or the ancient Greek sommelier. The oenohoos had much more complex job description than his modern counterparts. He was responsible for providing the foods for symposia, selecting the wines to be served and making sure that enough of them would be available, as running out of wine was totally unacceptable. He would also choose the shape of the clay pots, the kylix, for drinking the wine, since the way taste was altered by the type of kylix was very well understood. It seems that the notion of “purpose governing shape”, promoted by many modern glass manufacturers, is not all that modern after all.

This was the time when Greece exported goods, know-how, culture and, of course, vines and wines to the whole of the Mediterranean basin. Greece had an immense impact on the way grape-growing and wine-making developed during the last five centuries B.C. and, arguably, ever after. It is also taken for granted that a large number of the varieties cultivated today in Italy, France and Spain, do have a certain degree of “Greekness” to them. Nevertheless, DNA analysis and comparison between Greek and non-Greek varieties have proved inconclusive, even when the names were suspiciously similar. Losing the bloodline is to be expected for vine populations separated 25 centuries ago.

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  1. PaulDJuly 13, 2011, 2:57 pm

    The oenohoos certainly had his work cut out!