Sunday Wine Down: The Greeks and the Romans

Sunday Wine Down Part 3

After a few weeks of being on hiatus we are back with Sunday Wine Down. I have created a new schedule for this feature. Instead of posting every week we are going to start doing one every other week. I have come to realize that the research for these post takes a long time and I do not want have to rush these post. So do not worry these post are not going anywhere. Enough with the update lets us get back down to business. So grab a glass of wine and relax. Let us finish our last installment of Ancient wines with the Greeks and Romans.

Nothing like a big bowl of wine! That is my kind of drinking.
Nothing like a big bowl of wine! That is my kind of drinking.

I am going to start off with the Greeks because they were indeed an earlier civilization and a lot of our modern wine culture does in fact derive from them. Viticulture has been in Greece since the neolithic period however, due to the the Greeks expansive city states they were able to spread the growing of vines and the making of wine to their furthest reaches. We can not forget though that it was the Phoenicians and the Egyptians that helped influence ancient Greece. Especially the Phoenicians who encouraged the Greeks to spread grapes and wine throughout their settlements.  The Greek settlers brought vines with them throughout the Mediterranean. They were also very big in cultivating wild native vines and using them as well. Sicily, one of the earliest colonies, was mostly covered in vines and for this reason they called the island Oenotria (the land of vines). They also had settlements in Massalia which is in the south of France, along the shores of the Black Sea and there are also rumors that they were able to spread vines to Spain and Portugal. This fact is argued but it is thought that the Phoenicians most likely beat them to the punch. Whether or not the Phoenicians beat them to Spain first, wine became a big commodity for the Greeks. They, like the Phoenicians before them, turned it into profit and wine became an important part of everyday life. So much so that even Greek currency starting depicting grape clusters.

The far reaches of ancient Greece.
The far reaches of ancient Greece.

Greeks were proud of their vineyard practices and wine making, so much so that they started sharing their way of making wine with other cultures. Amphorae bearing their design and seal showed the different city states that these wines were coming from. Athens became a lucrative trading place for all the Greek wines and even shipped wines into Gaul through Massalia numbering at least 10 million liters of wine each year. Archaeologists found a sunken ship off the coast of southern France that had 10,000 amphorae filled with wine which comes out to be about 300,000 liters worth of wine. The reach of Greek influence carried throughout the Aegean Islands where archaeologists have found millions of pieces of wine amphora.

Greek Amphorae
Greek Amphorae

Wine was soon ingrained into the culture of the ancient Greeks through religious ceremony, celebration, and medicinal use. The way the Greeks looked at the land where the grapes came from was an important process in their ability to produce quality wine using early viticulture techniques. They studied soils and used a technique of cutting off bunches of grapes early on in the growth cycle  to control the yield which is a widely used practice still today.  Wine regions started becoming popular as ancient writers would write about their favorite wines. Two of the more acclaimed grapes for the time were Bibline and Pramnian. Bibline was thought to originate from an area called Thrace near Thessaloniki and was thought to be made like an old Phoenician wine style from Byblos. Pramnian was well known and grew in several regions and was thought to be an age worthy wine.

Dionysus the Greek God of Wine
Dionysus the Greek God of Wine

The God of wine for the Greeks was Dionysus and many festivals were celebrated in his honor. They had a celebration in February by the name of Anthesteria which celebrated the opening of wine jars from the past harvest.  In Athens they would hold wine drinking contests and had procession of people walking down the streets with open wine jars. Plays were also a big part of these celebrations, which were dedicated to the God of wine. They also played a fun game where they would throw lees (dead yeast cells) from their cups at targets that they called out. I like to think of this as early day beer pong.

The Greeks really helped take wine making, the growing of vines, the culture of drinking and trading to a whole new level. They enjoyed wine and enjoyed sharing their findings and knowledge. We could not be where we are today without the Greeks. Yet we are still missing one important piece to the puzzle and that is the Romans. The Greeks helped to keep the wine movement through ancient time rolling but it was the Romans that made wine immortal throughout their ancient empire and into modern day Europe.

The Roman Empire!
The Roman Empire!

As many of us know, the Roman Empire was the most expansive Empire of Classical Antiquity; their reach was vast and because of this wine was able to grow legs and run. Obviously a lot of practices and knowledge about wine came from the Greeks. The Greeks had used parts of the Italian peninsula to grow wine and this culture passed easily into the Roman culture.  Romans considered wine to be a very important thing of everyday life. It was considered a necessity and even a democratic drink, which everyone was encouraged to enjoy. Wine was available to slaves, peasants, women, and aristocrats alike. Rome used its power and influence to spread wine across it’s empire. As the Roman empire grew so did the production of wine. Wine was a way to romanize the local populations (along with art and religion) as everyone could consume it just like the roman citizens and by bringing vines with them they were able to ensure the comforts of Rome even far away from home.  To ensure that enough wine was being produced they would bring vines with them and plant them as they conquered. Their influence had a large effect in today’s modern wine making regions of France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal.

Baccus the the Roman God of wine.
Baccus the the Roman God of wine.

Through ancient Roman writers we are able to learn about the importance of wine in Roman culture. Roman wine even had a Golden age. In the beginning, roman wine was not even considered to be in the same class of the Greeks until the 2nd century.  This is when the Romans began to place an importance on quality; it may have been a drink for everyone but the emperors demanded the best. Pliny the Elder, a famous naturalist and roman writer,  talked a lot about roman first growths or the roman cru vineyards. These vineyards became highly prized and from them came the famous vintage from 121 BC, which was a year of great yield and high quality grapes that led to fantastic wine that was enjoyed even a century after making it. Roman was on the forefront of making wine and it was all due to the fact that wine was important to them and they cared deeply about making and enjoying great wine.

After harvest they would immediately  stomp on the grapes to extract the juice.
After harvest they would immediately stomp on the grapes to extract the juice.

The Romans did help advance the process of wine making but in my opinion the most important thing that the Roman empire did for wine was the spreading of viticulture. I mentioned above the Romans spread wine through the furthest reaches of their empire which expanded the original reach of the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and the Greeks.  Through trade, military campaigns, and settlements the Romans were able to grow their wine production. Roman wine merchants would trade with ally and enemy alike and the ancient Romans were able to bring a taste of wine and the ability grow vines where ever they conquered. The spread of the wine making culture throughout Europe was one of their greatest legacies with the foundation of vineyards in some of the most world renowned regions in modern day.  With the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, one of the lasting ties the burgeoning European nations had to the ancient Romans was the culture of wine making.  Wine took on an incredibly important role in the Christian faith and survived through the Dark Ages through the politics of the time (the Church) just as the Romans had.

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