Wine throughout history: What were ancient wines really like?
In the second part of a new series exploring wine through the ages, we look at what passed for wine in ancient civilisations, and how it was consumed
Most historians would agree that the foundations for the modern wine industry were laid in ancient times, but it’s important to note that the wines of old were markedly different from the kinds we enjoy today – in fact, they bore almost no resemblance at all.
In ancient Rome and Greece, people didn’t have a great deal of choice when it came to quenching their thirst, with only a few kinds of fruit juice, warm goat’s milk or stagnant water on the menu. If they had the opportunity to sweeten the otherwise foul-tasting water, they would, and so wine was used to purify and add flavour.
In fact, wine had to be cut with water. In such a warm climate grape juice would ferment all by itself unless it was drunk straight after harvest, and without any decent preservation techniques it would quickly turn into a thick, dark, syrupy gloop. Adding water was the only way to make it palatable.
Still, despite their relative ignorance when it came to preservation, these civilisations were very well aware of the dangers of over-indulgence. Babylonian King Hammurabi issued laws that restricted the consumption and sale of alcohol, while China’s Emperor Chung K’iang would execute drunks to show government disapproval.
And thus these communities faced a dilemma: wine provided a safer and more sanitary drinking option than bog water or curdling milk, but excess consumption was also not without its dangers. As such, it seems that the ancients dealt with the issue by mixing wine and water to prevent intoxication. Homer’s Odyssey mentions a ratio of 20 parts water to one part wine, Pliny states a ratio of eight parts water to one part wine was the norm, and Athenaeus writes in a play that three parts water to one part wine was customary. Regardless of the chemistry, drinking undiluted wine was considered scandalous, and some Rabbis in Jewish society would refuse to bless wine that hadn’t been mixed with water.
Traditions soon changed, though, and in later years the Romans in particular were less restrained with their drinking practices. Excessive wine consumption actually became such a problem that Emperor Domitius Ulpinus believed wine would destroy the empire, and so he ordered half of the vineyards in the empire be destroyed and raised the price of wine to inaccessible levels.
So how did these wines taste? They wouldn’t have curried any favour with Robert Parker, that’s for sure. Bitter, salty and inhumanely vinegary, one passage in the Bible said it “bites like a snake and poisons like a viper” – and bear in mind this is referring to already diluted wine.
Still, there was some variety in the wines on offer. At a very basic level was Lora (Vinum Operarium), which was usually served to slaves and lower classes. This was made from grape skin husks, seeds and any other product left over from the pressing process, which is still used today to distil the liquor Grappa. Then there was Vinum Dulce, which did a good job of being an average ‘table wine’ equivalent: sweet, wholesome and made from grapes pressed in the heat of the day.
At the other end of the spectrum were a whole host of more specific and less stomach-churning offerings. Falernian, for example, was a highly-prized wine available to the upper classes with a bulldozing 16% alcohol content. Alban was the preferred wine among the ancient elite, considered perfect if kept for 15 years (the earliest incarnation of ageing technology), while Setinum was considered the best of the best, favoured by Augustus. Alas, miscultivation and development on its natural habitat meant the grape nearly became extinct, and it fell from favour.
Somewhat ironically, it was the Christian church that was responsible for the improvement in taste. Around the sixth century priests, monks and nuns cultivated vineyards to make wine an everyday drink in places where it hadn’t existed before, and increased production meant wine knowledge grew. It would be some time before the world saw 100-point perfection, though!