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by Markus Stolz

Greek
wine history #2

byMarkus Stolz
August 16, 2011, 0 Comments

In 146 BC, Greece became part of the Roman Empire and, by the 1st century AD, there was a complete power shift from Athens to Rome, especially as far as trade was concerned. Greek wines continued to be highly esteemed and successfully exported, but sales entered a period of slow, but definite, decline. Greek wine producers were geared towards exporting, but opportunities in established markets or the possibilities of opening new markets waned. By the 2nd century, it was evident that the success of Greek wine was fading. As a result, the average quality was rapidly decreasing, making sales more difficult, leading Greek wine into a downward spiral.

The emergence of Christianity as the new dominant religion reached its pinnacle in 330 AD, when Constantinople was founded, a point signalling the transformation of the eastern Roman Empire into Byzantium. Since Christianity was used as the main binding axis, Hellenic symbols came under attack and the pagan dimension of Greek wine was lost forever, with Dionysus, the god of wine, being the main, but not the sole, casualty. Another important competitor arose in the form of the Venetian wine exporters, fully capitalising on the product in a favourable, for them, taxation regime.

Although some regions, like the Aegean Islands, continued to export wine to some degree, vineyards were managed by private individuals and, increasingly, monks for their own consumption.

A triumph of Greek wine in the Byzantine era, and even beyond, was Monemvassios Oenos. The name was not derived from the grape Monemvassia, but from the port town of the same name in the south-eastern Peloponnese. The wine was of extremely high quality and immediately became sought after in key markets, like France, Germany and England. Monemvassia, however, turned out to be a victim of its own success. Demand was enormous, the port was small and the large-capacity cargo ships could not approach it. Wine producers from Santorini, Crete and even Cyprus were quick to identify the opportunity and started selling “Monemvassios” wine as well. In this way, the name developed into a generic term.

Although some exports of Monemvassios Oenos continued until well into the 18th century, viticulture entered an extremely introverted phase, as Greece became a part of the Ottoman Empire. From the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Greek Revolution in 1821 and the foundation of the first Independent State of Greece in 1830, vineyards, surprisingly, survived almost intact. The next few decades were times of immense poverty but, in the 1870s, the first producers started looking into trading high quality wine.

The end of the 19th century found France in short supply of wine and with countless hectares of phylloxera-infested vineyards. Thirsty French consumers turned to Greece to buy either wine or raisins, which was then turned into raisin wine. For a couple of decades, Greece entered a planting frenzy, reaching an all time high of 200,000 hectares in 1916. Unfortunately, the French had sorted out their phylloxera problems by that time, switching back to their local wines. The blow of surplus wine was so intense, that despite a rapid decrease of acreage thereafter, the Greek government was forced to create co-operatives, securing a buyer for almost every vine grower.

The first half of the 20th century was challenging, to say the least, for the Greek nation. Heavily involved in both World Wars and in the conflicts of the Balkan Wars, numerous young vine growers spent most of their time on the battlefield rather than in the vineyard. Poverty prevailed. Wine was always present on the family table, but more as a “staple food”, along with olive oil, bread and cheese, rather than as an aspiring beverage. However, just after WWII, the only way for Greek wine was up.

The first part can be found here.

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