Terroir & Vintages in Greek, Roman Wine Hot

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Greek Wine Mug, Art Institute of Chicago

Greek Wine Mug, Art Institute of Chicago
Photo © swanksalot

Although it is possible to grow grapes for wine throughout the Mediterranean region, it took several centuries for vines to be introduced in most areas. We can, in fact, trace the introduction of grapes first by the Phoenicians, then by the Greeks and finally by the Romans as each civilization engaged in trade, established trade routes, and created colonies. Greek wine jars can be found on the Italian peninsula as early as the 8th century BCE; grape vines planted by Romans in Gaul and Spain were used for wine exported back to Rome by the 2nd century CE.

The spread of grape vines for making wine also meant the spread of wine culture — as well as the development of wine culture. Vines transported from one region to another often didn't make wines that tasted exactly the same as they did in their original homes. At the same time, the culture surrounding wine making and wine drinking also wasn't always the same abroad as it was at home. Just as we can trace the growth of wine making and the wine trade around the Mediterranean, we can also trace developments in how different cultures treated wine.

The ancient Romans are a great example to look at because while they borrowed an awful lot from ancient Greece, they didn't borrow everything. Sometimes it's the things they did slightly differently which are most revealing about both civilizations. Their cultural practices surrounding wine, for example, differ in a number of important ways which continue to have relevance today.

There appear to have been clear differences between Greek and Roman wines. The former produced vintages that were praised and much enjoyed. ...Ancient Greek wines are not normally identified by year, nor narrowly by place. Rather, they are said to be Thasian or Chian or Lesbian. ...The enjoyment of such wines in Athens is attested both in poetry and in the archaeological record, where buildings apparently for the sale of wine have remains of amphorae from overseas. ...From a very early date a certain proportion of consumption moved from undifferentiated ‘wine’ to wines identified by their place of origin; even in Homer guests may be offered ‘Pramnian’ wine.

Greek wines also appealed to the Roman palate. Cato, of all people, has recipes for making Greek-style wines in his treatise on agriculture. The Romans meanwhile set about the creation of a very different wine trade. In addition to cheap local wines – the Sabine wine enjoyed by Horace on his farm is a famous example – vintage wines were produced, especially on the fertile hillsides of Latium and Campania, between Rome and Naples. Here small areas came to have brand names similar to ‘appellation controllée’, and vintages such as Falernian, Fundian, and Caecuban were marketed at great price.

Source: Food in the Ancient World, by John M. Wilkins and Shaun Hill

It's really not a surprise that the earliest wines were not created with "vintages" or even regions in mind. Although wines were not "just another beverage," they were also a beverage and who thinks about the "vintage" of fruit juice or the region where milk came from? It remains quite interesting, though, that importance or where a wine came from might have first developed among the Greeks and that the importance of when a wine was created then developed with the Romans.

I wonder who was the first to start focusing on the different flavors and aromas of wine from different areas. Did Greek wine sellers extoll particular virtues of wine from one place and different virtues of wine from a different place? Were the differences primarily matters of sweetness and strength, or did the Greeks recognize more subtle differences — was Thasian wine more floral and Lesbian wine more fruity, for example?

When did the Romans start to differentiate among different wine vintages? Was it the result of a deliberate experiment to see what happened when wine was aged, or was it an accident — did a jar of wine get lost in the basement and then, after being rediscovered, did the owner find that it actually improved? Just how well did Roman wine really age and for how long? Was some of the interest in "vintages" more a matter of creating a market for luxury items?

By the first century CE the Elder Pliny is expressing his astonishment that Virgil had listed only fifteen different kinds of grape, and insisting that what distinguishes different wines is not the grape but the country and the soil (NH 14.7, 70). In many regions one wine might be produced for local mass consumption and another for special occasions and export (the Roman ideal became a wine that would somehow combine quality and quantity: Tchernia 1986: 211–14).

The arguments that Pliny records about the claims to superiority of different varieties suggest that such products were not considered interchangeable; a wine-producing region might still import wines from other areas. This was a specialised sector of the wine trade and limited in volume if not necessarily in profitability; but it is part of a wider pattern in which environmental differences and specialised local products go hand in hand with the development of discriminating taste and a preference for the exotic. ...

Source: Trade in Classical Antiquity, by Neville Morley

It seems to me that what we're looking at here is, at least in some ways, an example of early globalization: a region might be able to produce all it needs of a certain product, but that doesn't mean there isn't still trade in that product with another region. People in Spain wanted Roman wine, people in Rome wanted Greek wine, and people in Greece wanted Spanish wine; thus while they may not have needed to trade in order to meet the total demand for wine, they traded because the demand for wine wasn't undifferentiated.

People didn't just want "wine" in some general sense, but wine in some particular sense. This indicates both increasing sophistication in wine making practices as well as increasing sophistication in people's palates Rather than be satisfied with something produced locally, they wanted something different produced far away — and they were willing to pay for it. This was international trade — trade that moved money, people, ideas, religion, politics, philosophy, and more over long distances. Just how much trade in ideas, philosophy, and religion might be traced back to trade in product like wine — or perhaps even wine specifically?


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