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Where Did Wine Come From? The True Origin of Wine
Where did wine come from? It wasn’t France. Nor was it Italy. Vitis vinifera, also known as “the common wine grape,” has an unexpected homeland! Let’s dive into the origin of wine.
Current evidence suggests wine grapes originated in West Asia.
Where is The True Origin of Wine?
Current evidence suggests that wine originated in West Asia including Caucasus Mountains, Zagros Mountains, Euphrates River Valley, and Southeastern Anatolia. This area spans a large area that includes the modern day nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, northern Iran, and eastern Turkey.
Ancient wine production evidence dates between 6,000 BC and 4,000 BC, and includes an ancient winery site in Armenia, grape residue found in clay jars in Georgia, and signs of grape domestication in eastern Turkey. We still haven’t pin-pointed the specific origin of wine, but we think we know who made it!
The Shulaveri-Shomu people (or “Shulaveri-Shomutepe Culture”) are thought to be the earliest people making wine in this area. This was during the Stone Age (neolithic period) when people used obsidian for tools, raised cattle and pigs, and most importantly, grew grapes.
Here are some examples of what we’ve learned about the origin of wine.
Wine in 6,000 BC
Organic compounds found in ancient Georgian pottery link winemaking to an area in the Southern Caucasus. The pottery vessels, called Kvevri (or Qvevri), can still be found in modern winemaking in Georgia today!
The Best Wine Tools
From beginner to professional, the right wine tools make for the best drinking experience.
Wild Vines in Southeastern Anatolia
By studying grape genetics, José Vouillimoz (a grape “ampelologist”), identified a region in Turkey where wild grape vines closely resemble cultivated vines. This research supports a theory that a convergence zone between cultivated and wild vines could be the origin place of winemaking!
A Relic Winery Unearthed in Armenia
The oldest known winery (4,100 BC) exists in group of caves outside the Armenian village of Areni. The village is still known for winemaking and makes red wines with a local grape also called Areni. Areni is thought to be quite old and you can still drink it today!
We have the civilizations of Greece and Phoenicia to thank for the spreading of wine grapes throughout Europe.
Ancient Wine Influencers: The Phoenicians and Greeks
From West Asia, wine grapes followed cultures as they expanded into the Mediterranean. Sea-fairing civilizations including the Phoenicians and Greeks spread wine throughout much of Europe. As grapes came into new areas they slowly mutated to survive new climates.
The mutations created new grape varieties or “cultivars” of the wine grape species. This is why we have several thousands of wine grapes today!
There are 1368 identified wine varieties included in Wine Grapes (2012). The number of varieties per country illustrated here corresponds to the varieties used in modern wine production today. Diversity is higher in areas like Italy and France where wine has been an important facet of agricultural production in modern times.
Diversity is important. In wine, diversity protects against disease and reduces the need for pesticides. Additionally, different grapes thrive in different climates. This gives us the opportunity to grow wine grapes in many places.
Unfortunately, demand for popular grapes reduces the amount of natural diversity in the world. Many ancient regions (with rare varieties) pull out their native grapevines in favor of popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.
Planting familiar grapes is more common that you might think. For example, about 50 grapes make up about 70% of the world’s vineyards. Current vineyard statistics suggest that there are over 700,000 acres (288k hectares) of Cabernet Sauvignon. Whereas, some rare varieties only exist in a single vineyard!
Drink New Wines From Old Grapes
If you love wine, make an effort to try new wines it encourages diversity! To that effort, we’ve created a starter collection of over 100 grape varieties that you might like to try! I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the origin of wine and explore the collection below.
Stone Jars, Ritual Washing, and the Water to Wine Miracle at Cana
Stone vessels were common in Judea for ritual purposes, since according to the Law of Moses stone would not become impure, unlike the often-used pottery of ancient times (Leviticus 6:28, 11:33-36). Additionally, running water or living water was considered pure, and collection of water in a stone cistern could be used for purification purposes (Leviticus 11:36, 15:13). This “living water” could be stored in a large stone water jar, which would function like a cistern holding ritually clean water, then later it could be used for purification. While the use of stone vessels is not apparent from the Hebrew Bible and must be implied, sources in the Mishnah make it clear that this was the understanding during the Roman period. During the 1 st centuries BC and AD, purification rituals and stone vessels associated with this practice were extremely common in Judea and Galilee, since purification washing was a religious custom carried out frequently (John 2:6, 3:25 Mark 7:3-4). These stone vessels were made from a soft limestone, which is found throughout the region and easy to carve. The craftsmanship of the vessels varies widely, by hand or on a lathe, from crude and uneven to perfectly uniform with incised decoration. A few even contain inscriptions, such as a personal name or a chant. The archaeological evidence indicates that there was an industry for producing stone vessels during this period centered at Jerusalem, where the priests, festivals, and Temple necessitated more frequent use than other areas (Magen, “Jerusalem as a Center of the Stone Vessel Industry during the Second Temple Period”). In the houses of the elite, both bathtubs for regular washing and ritual baths for purification rituals have been discovered, demonstrating the distinctive uses. The primary purpose of these washing rituals was to become spiritually clean or holy, rather than physically clean. While the standard belief and practice was that stone vessels made or kept materials ritually pure, there were sects of Judaism that had slightly different ideas about the ritual purity of these vessels (The Temple Scroll The Damascus Document). The Gospel of John records that the six stone water jars contained two or three measures each, suggesting that the six were of slightly varying size (John 2:6). Many of the stone vessels have been discovered all over the regions of Judea and Galilee from the 1 st centuries BC and AD, and the large stone water jars have specifically been discovered in places such as Jerusalem and Cana. Yet, their general absence from Samaria and the predominantly Hellenistic and Roman areas of the region and their chronological distribution from the 1 st century BC to their decrease in 70 AD and near disappearance after 135 AD further demonstrate their association with ritual in Judaism. The stone jars are often referred to as a krater or a kalal, which is an Aramaic word used to denote a large stone jar for ritual washing (Mishnah Parah 3:3 and Eduyot 7:5). These large jars were usually about 26 to 32 inches high and 16 to 20 inches in diameter, agreeing with the size variance stated by John of two to three metretas, which was about 9 gallons or 34 liters (Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains).
Both John and Mark included explanatory notes on Judean purity customs, since many readers from other cultures would be unfamiliar with these specific ritual practices. However, the main point of these sections was not to educate on ritual customs of Judaism, but to record significant events in the life of Jesus. In particular, the Gospel of John references the stone water jars and purification rituals in the context of the Cana wedding, where Jesus performed His first recorded miracle. Later in the Gospel of John, “living water” is mentioned multiple times. Jesus says in reference to eternal life that He gives living water, and those that drink of it will never again thirst (John 4:10-15 cf. John 7:38). Perhaps the stone water jars were used in the miracle as an earlier allusion to drinking the “living water” which Jesus would explain later. Beyond the obvious miracle of turning water into wine that authenticated Jesus as sent from God, there may also be a connection between drinking the wine that Jesus gave them at the wedding and the wine at the Last Supper. The wine, which represented the atonement on the cross through the blood of Jesus, was clearly used to foreshadow the death of Jesus on the cross during the Last Supper, then commemorated by drinking the wine representative of the blood of Jesus during the ritual of the Lord’s Supper in the early Church (Matthew 26:27-29 1 Corinthians 11:25-26). Regardless of the validity of these possible meanings of the water and the wine at the Cana wedding, stone water jars were regularly used in purification rituals during the 1 st century. Additionally, many vessels of this type have been discovered in Judea and Galilee, and drinking wine from jars used for ritual purification would have sent a powerful message of spiritual purification to those in attendance at the wedding.
We Settle Down and Farm for Booze
Flash forward millions of years to a parched plateau in southeastern Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. Archaeologists there are exploring another momentous transition in human prehistory, and a tantalizing possibility: Did alcohol lubricate the Neolithic revolution? Did beer help persuade Stone Age hunter-gatherers to give up their nomadic ways, settle down, and begin to farm?
The ancient site, Göbekli Tepe, consists of circular and rectangular stone enclosures and mysterious T-shaped pillars that, at 11,600 years old, may be the world’s oldest known temples. Since the site was discovered two decades ago, it has upended the traditional idea that religion was a luxury made possible by settlement and farming. Instead the archaeologists excavating Göbekli Tepe think it was the other way around: Hunter-gatherers congregated here for religious ceremonies and were driven to settle down in order to worship more regularly.
Nestled inside the walls of some smaller enclosures are six barrel- or trough-shaped stone vessels. The largest could hold 40 gallons of liquid. The archaeologists suggest that they were used to brew a basic beer from wild grasses.
Analyzing residues from several of those tubs, Zarnkow found evidence of oxalate, a crusty, whitish chemical left behind when water and grain mix. One vessel contained the shoulder bone of a wild ass, just the right size and shape to stir a foaming, fermenting broth of grain and water. The whole hilltop at Göbekli Tepe is filled with hundreds of thousands of animal bones, mostly gazelle and barbecue-ready cuts of aurochs, a prehistoric cousin to the cow.
Add it all together, and you have the makings of an impressive feast, enough to attract hundreds of hunter-gatherers to that prominent hill. One purpose of the alcohol may have been the same one that leads South American shamans today to take hallucinogens: to induce an altered state that puts them in touch with the spirit world. But researchers here think something else was going on too. The organizers of the feast, they say, were using the barbecue and the booze brewed from wild grains as a reward. Once the partygoers arrived, they pitched in to erect the site’s massive pillars, which weigh up to 16 tons.
The outlines of the deal have changed little in the thousands of years since. “If you need someone to help you move, you buy them pizza and a couple of beers,” says German Archaeological Institute researcher Jens Notroff.
The idea that’s gaining support at Göbekli Tepe was first proposed more than half a century ago: Beer, rather than bread, may have been the inspiration for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to domesticate grains. Eventually, simply harvesting wild grasses to brew into beer wouldn’t have been enough. Demand for reliable supplies pushed humans first to plant the wild grasses and then over time to selectively breed them into the high-yielding barley, wheat, and other grains we know today. Some of the earliest evidence of domesticated grain—an ur-wheat called einkorn—comes from a site a few dozen miles away from Göbekli Tepe. The coincidence is suggestive.
But proof is elusive. Zarnkow is quick to admit that oxalate proves that grain was present in the stone tubs at Göbekli Tepe, but not that the grain was fermented. It’s possible, he says, that the tubs were used to make gruel to feed the workers, not beer to get them buzzed.
Patrick McGovern acknowledges the uncertainty but still says the beer-before-bread theory is solid. In 2004 he published evidence of a cocktail made of rice, hawthorn berries, honey, and wild grapes at Jiahu, a site in China just a few thousand years younger than Göbekli Tepe. The people there had only recently made the transition to farming. Yet the combination of ingredients, plus the presence of tartaric acid, a key chemical signature of wine, convinces McGovern that Jiahu farmers were already concocting sophisticated mixed beverages: It’s the earliest evidence for beer, wine, and mead, all in one.
“The domestication of plants is driven forward by the desire to have greater quantities of alcoholic beverages,” McGovern says. “It’s not the only factor driving forward civilization, but it plays a central role.”
The Unexpected Wine Transport Revolution
Transporting wine in bulk like they did in ancient France has been an ongoing ideal for wine merchants throughout the centuries. At one time, metal bins were used to store wine and ship it to nearby warehouses where it could immediately be bottled. The expense, weight and fragility of glass made it costly and inconvenient to ship, but offered better controls over oxidation and spoilage than oak casks.
Interestingly, around the late 2000’s, the revolution in bulk wine transport finally happened. While safety, tank integrity, and plastic aftertaste were issues in the past, the new models of flexible plastic bulk wine transportation tanks have everything required to be the professional sommelier-approved option wine producers have been dreaming of for the past 8000 years.
Australian Market Pioneers Flexible Plastic Wine Tanks
While flexible bulk liquid tanks can be used for a variety of perishable liquid foods and beverages, Australia led the charge in the wine market truly cashing in on this form of wine transportation. Most of Australia’s wine is consumed outside of that country and has to be shipped to markets thousands of miles away because Australia is so far away from the big wine markets in America and Europe. In places like England, the wine is shipped in flexible plastic bulk tanks from Australia and then immediately decanted into ready-to-consume wine bottles. The difference in profits margins between the era of shipping bottles to England versus shipping wine in bulk liquid tanks is staggering. Flexi-tanks are now recognized as the best method for transporting bulk wine internationally.
Why Did Jesus Make So Much Wine?
The miracles of Jesus certainly provoke awe and reverence, but they also prompt questions. One such scene is Jesus’s first public miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2). In this passage, Jesus was at a wedding, and the hosts ran out of wine. After some discussion with his mother, Mary, Jesus astonishes everyone by turning the purification water into wine.
The question I want to consider is, Why did Jesus make so much wine?
John includes details that let us know that Jesus made a lot of wine. In verse 6 we read, “there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.” Jesus, wanting to ensure they were full, instructs the servants to fill up what was lacking in the jars to the brim (v.7).
Then, in verse 8, Jesus instructs them to “draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” The people were amazed. The purification buckets had turned into vintage wine bottles. With the astonishment that attends a surprise party, they celebrate together declaring, This is the good stuff!
How much wine did Jesus make? Six stone jars with 20 to 30 gallons of wine in them total 120 to 180 gallons. Jesus made nearly 1,000 bottles of wine! By all accounts, this is a lot of wine for a wedding of this size.
Furthermore, John tells us this was his first sign in Galilee, and it manifested his glory. This fact prods us along with our question, Why so much wine?
In the Bible wine is a sign of God’s blessing (Ps. 104:15 Prov. 3:10). The widespread abuse of wine does not dilute the biblical testimony that wine in the Bible is primarily positive.
But, there’s more than this.
In many cases, an abundance of wine demonstrates the abundance of God’s blessings. Two passages are particularly helpful here. The first is in Genesis 49 when Jacob is blessing his sons. Jacob comes to Judah and announces that from Judah there will come a very important king (Gen. 49:8-10). Further,
Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk. (Gen. 49:11-12)
These verses are all about abundance. Instead of a drought, there are so many grapes that you can tie your colt up to the best vine. And, one’s clothes could be washed in wine. The blessings are overflowing when this king, the son of Judah comes.
The second passage is in Amos 9. Looking back to the glory days of King David the prophet looks ahead to a time when another son of Judah would come. This anointed would usher in the days of unparalleled, exuberant blessings. His rule will bring about the obedience of the nations and the security of his people.
“In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,” declares the LORD who does this. “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the LORD your God.
Amos paints a picture to communicate the blessings of God. The mountains shall drip of sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with it. This passage describes the overflowing abundance of God’s blessings upon his people. Amos, like others (Joel 3:18), promises this day will come.
There in the hours celebrating the new life together of a man and woman whom history has forgotten, is a more excellent celebration: the new life given by God in the new creation. The flowing new wine shows the abundant blessing of Christ and his bride the church.
Then years later, another son of Judah, a son of David would come. He goes to a wedding and manifests his glory through a sign. His first sign uncorks and announces the day of God’s abundant blessings. The prophet, priest, and king of the new creation has arrived. There in the hours of celebrating the new life together of a man and woman whom history has forgotten, is a more excellent celebration: the new life given by God in the new creation. The flowing new wine shows the abundant blessing of Christ and his bride the church.
There’s more to be said about this passage, but certainly not less than this: Jesus made so much wine to show the long-promised age has arrived and the blessings that accompany his kingdom are overflowing.
Erik Raymond is the senior pastor at Redeemer Fellowship Church in Metro Boston. He and his wife, Christie, have six children. He blogs at Ordinary Pastor. You can follow him on Twitter.
A brief history of wine and of wine in Crete
Fragments of prehistoric vessels from Dikili Tash, in Philippi in Macedonia, northern Greece (left) and charred grape seeds.
Around 6,500 years ago
Most traces of vineyards date back to prehistoric times. According to archaeological evidence, the cultivation of vines started in the region south of the Caucasus, around the Caspian Sea, and was introduced to Mesopotamia and Egypt later. The first vestiges of winemaking were found in Philippi in Macedonia.
From the archaeological site in Festos, Crete
From the archaeological site in Myrtos, Crete
Recent findings, analyzed with the Carbon 14 dating method, during excavations at Dikili Tash –the prehistoric settlement, 1,5km east of Philippi in Macedonia, northern Greece– date back to 4500 BCE. The findings are charred grape seeds and crushed skins of wild and cultivated vines. This constitutes clear proof of the earliest vine cultivation and winemaking, at least in the area that today is Europe.
5,000 years ago
The oldest evidence of the existence of wine during the Bronze Age in Greece was discovered after analyzing findings in jars during excavations in Myrtos, one of the first Minoan settlements ca. 3000 BCE, on the southern coast of Crete. The existence of grape-products with resin additives was confirmed by the examination of organic residue, such as crushed grapes, seeds, skin, and stems taken from fragments of jar walls. Additionally, scientific analysis of a three-legged pot (ca. 1900-1700 BCE) reveals wine with resin, stored in either smoked oak barrels or with added smoked oak pieces in the barrel. The special taste that such an addition gives to the wine resembles the taste of modern-day Scotch whisky. Analysis of cone cups of the same era excavated in Apodoulou, in the valley of Amari in Crete, showed that they contained wine scented with terebinth resin. In the same settlement, phosphoric acid –a compound present in brewery buckets dating from before 3000 BCE in Egypt– as well as 2-octanol were traced in three-legged pots, all of which clearly demonstrate that some sort of fermentation took place.
Harvest, Attic vessel, 6th century BCE
Archaeologist Federico Halbherr (1857-1930) studying the Gortys Inscription, ca. 1900
In Mycenae, analysis of amphora wall fragments, amphorae, and jars, showed that they contained different kinds of wine: plain, with resin or with some other non-fermented ingredient. Analysis of findings in various cooking pots, amphorae, cone cups, and rhytons found in Crete, Mycenae, mainland Greece and Cyprus, dating from 1600 to 1100 BCE, indicate the presence of herbs, resin, laurel, lavender, rue, and sage being included in the wine. Another fermented drink also may have existed, one with other ingredients in it, such as tartaric acid, honey, mead, oil, beeswax (oil and beeswax were used to preserve wine and seal storage jars) or a barley brew. However, the re-use of jars to store wine, mead or barley brew may justify these findings and may constitute proof that such ingredients were used in the fermentation process of making wine. The oldest grape-press was discovered in a Minoan mansion built ca. 1550 BCE in Vathipetro, about 4km south of Archanes and some 20km south of Heraklion. In the backyard of this mansion, the remains of an olive press were also found.
The Greeks considered the cultivation of vines an indispensable part of their lives and wine was part of their daily life.
In the Gortys Inscription, the most complete and oldest written enactment of laws, which was discovered in the valley of Messara in ancient Gortys in 1884, we encounter for the first time a series of rules about vineyard cultivation.The Gortys Code –dating back to 480-460 BCE– constitutes a valuable source of knowledge about the justice principles and the meaning of justice in the powerful Doric Crete between 600 BCE and 300 BCE. According to evidence and some researchers, the first cultivation of grapes took place in Crete, while for others it occured in Thrace, and dates back to ca. 700 or 600 BCE.
2,500 years ago
Regardless of who initiated it, the Greeks considered the cultivation of vines an indispensable part of their lives and wine was part of their daily life. This is underlined by the fact that they worshiped gods like Dionysus and also by the feasts they organised to honour him such as the Dionysia, the Anthesteria and the Lenaia. Additionally, wine is regularly featured in works by Homer, Pindar, Strabo and Athenaeus.
Vineyard work and winemaking are also reported and described in Theophrastus’s “Enquiry on Plants”, in Virgil’s “The Georgics” and in Pliny the Elder.
Greece, Greek colonies and the sphere of Greek influence, ca. 5th century BCE.
Around 67 BCE, half a century before the birth of Christ, grape cultivation and winemaking experienced tremendous growth in Crete. Rome eventually conquered Crete and the wine from Crete conquered Rome. It was the first golden age for the wine of this beautiful island.
The Roman Empire at its peak, ca. 117 CE
We learn from the Romans that there were special laws in many Greek cities, which ensured both the good quality of the wine and the protection of a healthy wine trade.
Also, the production, place and origin of the wine were marked on the amphorae (much like present-day wine labels on bottles).
What is more, wine laws introduced in the 5th century BCE on the island of Thassos, in the North Aegean Sea, as well as on other islands in the Aegean Archipelago, constitute the oldest legal writings for the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) of wine. In fact, wine laws were so strict, that ships carrying foreign wine that approached Thassos illegally had their cargo confiscated.
The cultivation of grapes expanded from Greece to other places in Europe when Greeks established a wave of colonies in Southern Italy and Sicily, known as Magna Grecia, and from there vines made it to the south of France and Spain. The Romans continued to spread the cultivation of vines as their empire grew and thus vines were introduced to most European regions such as Northern France, Germany, Austria and Hungary.
Roman Republic, Res Publica Romana Senatus Populusque Romanus (509 BCE – 27 BCE)
Roman Republic, Imperium Romanum Senatus Populusque Romanus (27 BCE – 476 CE)
The Romans became fascinated by the island of Crete and its wines, and were impressed by its strategic geographical position and unparalleled natural beauty. They began controlling its wine production and around 67 BCE, half a century before the birth of Christ, the wines from Crete conquered Rome. Vineyard cultivation and wine making on the island, which became part of the Roman Empire, developed rapidly. Wines were exported all over the Mediterranean and to Europe, while at the same time the amphora industry enjoyed its own growth and evolution.
This era was considered as a golden age for the wines of Crete. The island’s strategic geographic position, on the most important sea route of the time –connecting Rome with Egypt and Asia Minor–, was indeed unique. Numerous amphorae were discovered in Pompeii with the Latin inscription “CRET EXC” on them, which according to archaeologists means “excellent Cretan wine”.
Constantinople was the largest and richest city in Europe from the 6th to the 12th century.
Byzantine Empire (330-1453)
In 565, Justin II succeeded Emperor Justinian and Christianity completely prevailed over the worship of Dionysus at the same time, Greek wine enjoyed a new peak. Wines from the Peloponnese, Rhodes, Chios and Lesbos were exported to the beautiful city on the Bosphorus. Cassianus Bassus gathered all the information known until then regarding land and vine cultivation in his work “Geoponica”.
The Byzantine Empire in 550 (left) under Emperor Justinian. The double-headed eagle of the Byzantine Empire.
The Malvasia wine, the superior wine from Crete, was the most famous wine during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Four centuries later, an improved version of this work was composed by Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos or “the Purple-born” (i.e. born in the imperial bedchamber) (905-959), who was well educated, a scholar, a writer and the most important representative of Byzantine tradition and culture.
Venice Republic (697-1797)
Traditional wine production declined along with the decline of the Byzantine Empire. However, vine cultivation in Crete continued to thrive, even though the rest of Greece was under Ottoman rule.
A Venetian map of Crete. Under Venetian rule, the whole island, as well as the town of Heraklion, were known as Candia.
The Venetians ruled Crete from 1204 until 1669 and during this period the Malvasia wine from the island became the most famous wine in the known world, gifting Crete with another prosperous wine period and renaissance. The moment the Venetians started trading Malvasia wine, it became the drink everybody wanted to drink. For four and a half centuries, throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it gained unprecedented fame and glory. The end of this prosperous period came when the Turks conquered Crete in 1669 and wine production was severely restricted.
19th century and the New Greek State
When Greece was liberated from Ottoman rule and the new Greek State was declared –even though Crete would continue to be under Turkish rule until 1898–, scientists immediately realized that in order to save Greek viticulture and winemaking, a thorough study and listing of all the indigenous grape varieties was essential. This grape catalogue was of uppermost importance and would go a long way to re-establishing Greek wines’ fame and fortune. This moment in time was crucial for the future evolution of the Greek wine industry, as it marked the first dedicated attempt to record everything about vines, grapes and wine in the country. What is especially noteworthy is the following: harbingers of the first travel journalists, a number of foreign visitors and travellers from all over Europe, but especially from France and England, inadvertently became valuable contributors to this first-ever Greek grape and wine catalogue. When they went back to their countries, their reports included detailed comments about the different grape varieties and the wine they drank while in Greece.
Residents of Crete, engraving of S.R. Phillips, London, 1823
Harbingers of the first travel journalists, a number of foreign visitors and travellers from all over Europe, but especially from France and England, inadvertently became valuable contributors to this first-ever Greek grape and wine records. When they went back to their countries, their reports included comments about the different grape varieties and the wine they drank while in Greece.
Their work constitutes extraordinary historical proof about Greece, Greek vineyard cultivation and Greek wines. The first published work on Greek indigenous grape varieties dates back to 1836 and was written in Greek by Grigorios Palaiologos, a professor of Agriculture and Economy in Nafplio, in the Peloponnese. He published the first winemaking manual, in which he cites major white-grape varieties such as Mavroudi, Savatiano, Fileri, Rhoditis, Muscadine, Siriki, Rozaki, white Gigarton of Ionia and red Gigarton of Corinthia. In 1837, Stamatis Valezis, a student who gained a scholarship to study winemaking in France, became the first ever oenologist in Greece. Three more students went to France in 1855 –Nikolaidis, Mikroulis and Georgiadis– as part of a Greek winemaking development effort. In 1876, G. Orfanidis, a professor at the University of Athens, made an attempt to write a two-volume project “Greek Ampelography”, but did not manage to complete it.
Some 111 different grape varieties were recorded in the region of Attica, and that represented just a fifth of the total number. Orfanidis believed that more than 480 varieties thrived in Greece. The most complete description of these varieties, however, was published by the French traveller J.-M. Guillon in his book “Les cépages orientaux” in 1896, Paris. Amazingly, this book is still in print and can be ordered from Amazon.
At the same time, during the first years of the country’s independence, and more specifically in the middle of the 19th century, the first major wineries were established, owned or partly-owned by Europeans. In fact, the first modern rules and principles of winemaking were also established then. These wineries based their operations on modern winemaking principles and had immediate access to European ports to export their wines. Other important wineries followed later: Cambas in Attica, and smaller wineries in Nemea, Samos, Naoussa and Santorini. Santorini had become the country’s largest exporter, supplying its sweet wines mainly to the Russian market. Greece continued to expand its borders, annexing the islands of the Ionian Sea and Thessaly, to reach almost half its current territory. Towards the end of the 19th century, while phylloxera afflicted and destroyed the French vineyards, most of Greek wine production was exported to France. Even so, it was not enough. To produce more wine, great amounts of raisins, good enough to be made into wine, were also exported and a lot of vineyards planted with wine-grape varieties were planted with the raisin variety. However, within a few years, the demand for raisins stopped, causing the raisin crisis, a calamity of seriously destructive consequences to both the industry and the economy of the entire country. By the end of the 19th century, phylloxera appeared in Greece, turning an already dire situation into a living nightmare. Phylloxera appeared in Thessaloniki in 1898 and spread to the Macedonian vineyards of Northern Greece –its biggest victim, along with the vineyards in Epirus– and elsewhere on the mainland.
Phylloxera (left), the Catastrophe of Smyrna in 1922 (middle), Mass emigration from Greece to the United States
A Greek stamp from 1961(left), still from the film Zorba the Greek by Kakogiannis, 1964 (middle) and Greece, which thanks to retsina, became the “in” summer destination.
The first decades of the 20th century are even more dramatic for the Greek wine industry, due to more mishaps and calamities: the spread of phylloxera and its wiping out of some historical vineyards and varieties, lost export markets, emigration, and the inability of the State to effectively organize wine production. To crown it all, millions of Greeks are forced to leave their homes from Asia Minor and Pontus, while constant destructive wars eradicate what had managed to escape phylloxera.
Despite these unprecedented conditions, in 1910, professor of viticulture Vassos D. Cribas and his associates, started the first successful attempt at recording and classifying the wine-bearing grape varieties, in their work “Contribution to Greek Viticulture”.
They managed to complete this oeuvre in 1928, initially including 190 varieties against a very difficult backdrop of political and military turmoil, and eventual independence for most of the Greek territory. Their work was later enriched with new varieties, some 350 of them. And while the science of agriculture was being developed, the first Ampelography Collection was incorporated in the School of Agriculture of Athens in 1930, and the Greek Wine Institute was founded in 1937. In fact, during those years, more than fifty percent of the potential of the entire vineyard land in Greece was thriving and expanding in Crete. The reason behind this was the absence of phylloxera on the island. The two-volume work “Greek Ampelography” was completed and published by the Occupied Ministry of Agriculture, in 1943, despite the on-going German occupation
and all the terrible hardships it brought to the Greek civilian population.
After the end of World War II (1939-45) and the Greek Civil War (1946-1949), two decades of planning and reconstruction of both Greek agriculture and grape cultivation followed.
The first categorization of Greek wines took place in 1971, when laws concerning the designation of origin were enacted, based on French legislation models.
Map of the European Union today
The end result of this reconstruction established the first categorization of Greek wines in 1971, when laws concerning the designation of origin were enacted, according to French legislation models. This was the time when some exceptionally important research was carried out by the Greek Wine Institute with its gifted principal, Stavroula Kourakou-Dragona, in charge. The diverse project by Kourakou-Dragona and her associates highlighted the timeless and abundant wealth of the Greek vineyard and of contemporary Greek wines, entitling many historical vineyards and wineries to protection, legal recognition and with the right to list such information on their wine labels. Several years later, as Greece became a full member of the European Union, Vins de Pays were recognized.
Greek wines are today categorized as follows:
PDO Wines: wines of Protected Designation of Origin
Greek wines with Designation of Origin (VQPRD, which are AOSQ wines), and AOC wine (Greek PDO wines are part of this category).
PGI Wines: wines of Protected Geographical Indication
All Regional Wines and any wines of Traditional Designation which have Designated Geographical Indication at the same time, such as Verdea and 15 retsinas (PDO wines) are part of this category.
Varietal Wines: wines in this new category include Table Wines, which conform to the rules and fulfill all necessary prerequisites as stipulated in Article 63, Council Regulation 607/2009. Wines in this category can indicate the vintage year and variety composition, but not their geographical indication, on their labels.
Table Wines: “ordinary” Table Wines are all wines which are neither PDO, PGI or Varietal Wines. Table Wines cannot list the vintage year and grape variety composition on their labels.
Vineyards dedicated to grape must and wine production cover some 69,907 hectares according to 2007/2008 figures, while production ranges from 3 to 4 million hl.
Crete, where the Alexakis winery is situated, produces around 20% of the total amount of must and wine of Greece and constitutes one of the most important vine growing and winemaking regions of the country. Some 8,123 hectares are cultivated here and more than 900,000hl are produced annually. Crete is the largest of all the Greek islands and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean. Vineyards on the island are situated in valleys and on mountains that reach altitudes of 800m. Virtually all vineyards are in the northern part of the island. Land and climate conditions –high day-temperatures and extremely dry atmosphere, mainly in the summer– are not favorable to grape growing. However, vine growers have carefully selected where to plant vines, both in valleys and on hillsides, where they can be exposed to cool northerly breezes from the Aegean Sea, which form unique microclimate conditions, ideal for yielding top-quality fruit.
The four seasons in Crete
Farmers planted their vineyards behind Mount Psiloritis (elevation 2,456m or 8,058 ft) to protect them from the warm wind currents coming in from Northern Africa. Most vineyards are in the north-central (around Heraklion) and the eastern part of the island.
Nowadays, the following wine-producing grape varieties are planted in vineyards in the Heraklion region:
Greek white-grape varieties: Athiri, Assyrtiko, Vilana, Vidiano, Dafni, Thrapsathiri, Moshato and Plyto.
International white-grape varieties: Chardonnay, Malvazia Aromatica, Sauvignon Blanc and Sylvaner.
Greek red-grape varieties: Aghiorghitiko, Kotsifali, Aidani, Liatiko, Limnio, Mandilari, Mavrodaphne, Romeiko and Fokiano.
International red-grape varieties: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Grenache Rouge, Merlot, Mourvedre and Syrah.
Of the white varieties, Athiri is considered an old variety of the central and southern Aegean. It gives wines of fruity aromas, medium alcoholic volume and acidity, and with a pleasant, soft and full taste. Vilana gives wines of medium to high alcohol volume with average aroma characteristics. Dafni, considered resilient in dry and warm conditions, matures towards end of September and gives wines of medium alcoholic volume and acidity, which are characterized by a special bouquet reminiscent of the aromatic evergreen laurel (dafni in Greek) shrub.
Clay jug (found in Vassiliki, East Crete) ca. 2300-2200 BCE and 20th century glass jug (left)Clay rhyton (found in Messara valley, South Crete) ca. 2000-1700 BCE and a 1790 wine glassAttic vessel ca. 450-480 BCE and a modern-day glass and carafe with red wine.
Of the red varieties, Kotsifali gives wines of high alcoholic volume, intense aromas, high acidity, but due to its color inconsistency, it is usually blended with Mandilari, a variety characterized by an intense red colour and high aromatic potential. Also, Liatiko, an old local variety, gives high-quality, very aromatic wines and is great for producing sweet wines. Both the white and red international varieties mentioned above are cultivated in the same areas and are characterized by distinct terroir.
Twenty-first-century Crete continues a remarkable 5,000-year tradition of vineyard cultivation and of the art of making and enjoying wine.
As we complete this brief history, we would like to point out the following: Twenty-first-century Crete continues a remarkable 5,000-year tradition of vineyard cultivation and of the art of making and enjoying wine. Modern winemaking methods, technology, know-how and breaking-news innovation work hand-in-hand and contribute substantially to the quality of the end product. The uniqueness of the indigenous varieties blends to perfection with the experience, the intuition and the scientific knowledge of the people who create the contemporary wines of Crete. These are wines that win awards and praise around the world and serve as Greece’s silent ambassadors. And the people behind them are proud winegrowers, agriculturalists, winemakers, oenologists and all those who are involved in the production of wine directly and/or indirectly. Their guiding light is their very own inherent passion, their ally the ecosystem of this illustrious island their splendid wines redefine Crete as a unique place on the world wine map, enrich the magnificent Minoan legacy and give enjoyment to all those who taste them.
Evidence of oldest wine in human history discoveredOn the left, a reconstructed example of the type of jar found at the sites. The extremely small base suggests the jar must have been supported in some way, possibly by partial burial, in order to remain upright when full. Right, three of the shards examined by the team and which led to the discovery of trace evidence of wine.
In a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of historians and scientists laid out the biomolecular archaeological and archaeobotanical evidence for the earliest wine yet discovered.
The lead author on the report was Dr Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania who has been the discoverer of numerous ancient wines and alcoholic concoctions, including the funerary wine of ‘King Midas’ (actually of his father King Gordius) and the, until today, oldest evidence of wine yet discovered 7,000 year-old traces found in pottery from the Zagros Mountains of northern Iran.
The team analysed trace evidence preserved in clay jars recently unearthed in Neolithic villages in southern Georgia, not far from the modern capital Tblisi, at digs between 2012 and 2016.
Belonging to the ancient culture known as Shulaveri-Shomutepe, which existed from approximately 6,000 BC to 5,000 BC* and covered the modern countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the jars would have been as big as 300 litres when first made and may have been (although this is just a theory) partially buried as Georgians still bury their qvevri today**.
Carbon dating of the pottery indicated the oldest one was from about 5,980 BC, possibly a little older.
The team analysed several shards found during excavations and found eight of them bore tell-tale signs of having once been in contact with wine largely due to the presence of tartaric acid (which occurs naturally in high quantities only in grapes) as well as malic, succinc and citric acids which showed evidence of the grapes having been fermented rather than just kept as grape juice.
The team also found evidence of grape pollen, starch and even the remains of ancient fruit flies that had once hovered around the liquid, however no pigments were found that would indicate whether the wine was red or white.
As mentioned above, this new discovery pushes back the evidence for winemaking by as much as 1,000 years as it is older than the trace elements discovered by McGovern in pottery dating to 5,400-5,000 BC at a Neolithic site in Iran called Hajji Firuz Tepe.
On the other hand, as the report’s authors pointed out, the Iranian wine had also contained elements of tree resin while the Georgian wine did not. As pine sap and other resins were once added to help preserve the wine, perhaps this is an innovation that came about in the intervening years.
For Georgians, who treat wine as one of their country and their culture’s most vital elements, it is a sign that their claim to Georgia being the “cradle of wine” has some validity.
Although Georgians have always claimed the crown, until now no concrete evidence of wine had ever been found in the country. The oldest wine trace was in Iran as mentioned and the oldest wine press (as well as the oldest human shoe), dating back some 6,000 years, were discovered in Armenia in 2011.
Neolithic pottery depicting clusters of grapes (see above) and the oldest grape pips ever discovered had always suggested that winemaking was happening in Georgia much further back than previously thought but now there is the evidence that proves it.
As the report concludes, however, there may be much, much more to find throughout the ‘fertile crescent’: “This ‘working hypothesis’, while buttressed by new archaeological, chemical archaeobotanical, and climatic/environmental data, is only a beginning. We may now have evidence that at least two SSC sites in Georgia, Shulaveris Gora and Gadachrili Gora, were making grape wine as much as a half millennium earlier than Hajji Firuz Tepe in Iran. However, many other regions of the Near East, especially the broad arc of mountainous terrain bordering the Fertile Crescent on its north, remain to be investigated and studied scientifically.”
Still, so far the oldest evidence of any alcoholic drink is from China, where a fermented beverage of rice, honey and fruit dated to 7,000 BC (so 9,000 years old) still holds the record for man’s first foray into booze.
For the full report click here.
*At a time when mankind was undergoing the “Neolithic Revolution” which included domestication of various fruits, cereals and legumes.
**These pots were not qvevri however. The oldest examples of qvevri do not appear until the Iron Age some 5,000 years after the Shulaveri-Shomutepe Culture and, so far, there is no evidence for the partial burial of large jars during the Neolithic or Copper and Bronze Ages while there is in Armenia and Iran.
The Wine of Israel and Wine in Biblical Times
Israel is a nation possessing a rich past. The turning pages of history find it at the center of the Bible, while present day finds it at the center of conflict. A country known for many things, wine is not necessarily one of them. Going into a liquor store and requesting the finest bottle of Israeli wine isn’t something many people do.
The reason for this is because wine, until recently, wasn’t something Israel brought to the table, proudly placing a bottle between the rolls and potatoes. Instead, Israeli wine was filled with a reputation for being a type of drink someone should put a cork in. This, however, wasn’t for lack of trying.
Wine production on Israeli lands began thousands of years ago, perhaps even prior to the Biblical era. However, the wines that were made during this time often tasted so bad that bottles shipped to Egypt were garnished with anything that would add flavor. Stopping just short of adding RediWhip, people tossed in everything from honey to berries, from pepper to salt. The bottles sent to Rome, though not lacking flavor, were so thick and so sweet that anyone who didn’t have a sweet tooth, or a spoon, wasn’t able to consume them.
The wine was of such poor quality that when Arab tribes took over Israel in the Moslem Conquest of 636, putting a stop to local wine production for 1,200 years, disappointment didn’t exactly ferment.
In the late 1800’s, wine production began again in Israel. Determined to let Israeli grapes have their day in the sun, a Jewish activist and philanthropist name Baron Edmond de Rothschild began helping Jews flee oppressors, eventually helping them adapt to their Palestine settlements. He then began to help them plant vineyards. Because of this, he is known as a founder of Israel’s wine industry.
But, the kindness and intentions of even the most good-hearted of men wasn’t enough to save Israeli wine from its past reputation. Because the lands of Israel and the climate were not ideal for vine growing, the wine produced was often of poor quality. Too coarse and too sweet to be consumed, Israeli wine was looked on unfavorably until just a few decades ago.
With the adoption of modern equipment, the import of good vine stock, the encouragement given to viticulturists, and the planting of vineyards in mountain ranges, near lakes, and in flat areas, Israel wine has recently become much more appreciated, for its taste and its variety. Replacing the sweet red wines with lighter, dryer red wines and producing more champagne, the wines of Israel have finally begun to climb up the vine in terms of greatness.
The wines presently produced in Israel are done so in one of five regions: Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Negev, and Judean Hills. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc are viewed as particularly good, although Israel also produces several Merlots and other common varieties.
While not all the wine produced in Israel is Kosher, a good portion of it is. This has led many wine drinkers to have the wrong impression about Israeli wine, an impression that is based on a misconception of what the word “Kosher” truly means.
Some people possess the assumption that when food and drinks are Kosher the taste of the product drastically changes, similar to the way making a hamburger “vegetarian” forever alters its flavor. However, when something is Kosher it simply means that it was made in a way that adheres to the dietary laws of Judaism.
There are two types of Kosher wine: Mevushal and non-Mevushal. For wine to be non-Mevushal, which is the basic form of Kosher, the preparation of it must follow a regime of specific rules. To begin, the equipment used to make wine must be Kosher, and only used for the production of Kosher products. As the wine goes from grape to bottle, it may only be handled, or opened, by Sabbath-observant Jews. During the wine’s processing, only other Kosher products may be used: artificial preservatives and colors, and animal products may not be added.
Wines that are Mevushal are subject to an additional step on the Kosher agenda. Going through flash pasteurization, the wine becomes heated, making it unfit for idolatrous worship. This, in turn, removes some of the restrictions, keeping the wine Kosher no matter who handles it.
Jesus and Wine
The history of Israeli wine is unique in that it also involves the history of Christ. Whether or not Jesus advocated drinking wine, and whether or not the wine he drank was alcoholic, has become a cornerstone in many historical and religious debates. While some people insist that Jesus drank wine, others insist that he didn’t, and, of course, a few Bill Clinton fans insist that he drank, but didn’t inhale.
There are hardly any people arguing on the premise that Jesus consumed large amounts of wine. Instead, people argue whether or not the Bible condemns all use of alcohol or whether it condones its use in moderation. Depending on which side a person prefers to linger, innumerous references from the Bible can go in both directions. Some people assert that the “wine” referenced in the Bible was nothing more than nonalcoholic grape juice. But, those who take an opposing stance state that there are too many Biblical references warning against excessive use of “wine.” If it was just grape juice, or a wine with virtually no alcohol content, there would be no need for precautions.
Though there are several examples of passages in the Bible that involve Jesus drinking wine, with the most famous one likely being The Last Supper, the Bible also includes innumerable references to wine in general, wine drinking that does not necessarily involve Christ.
There are approximately 256 references to wine written in the contents of the Good Book. From these references, readers learn that wine was made from grapes, figs, dates and pomegranates. It was often consumed as part of the every day diet, during times of celebrations, during weddings, as gifts and offerings, and as a symbol of blessing. In some passages, it was even used for medicinal purposes.
Wine Strength During this Era
Another question that often arises in regards to wine in the Bible and Christ’s consumption is its alcoholic strength. If the wine was in fact wine and not grape juice, then it obviously had some sort of alcohol content. However, the wine of the Biblical era was much weaker than the wine we know today. While one reason for this was the addition of water, another reason was naturally fermented wine (wine that does not have additives) was the only wine available during this time. Because sugar and yeast were not yet added to wine, its alcohol content remained lower than modern day spirits.
Whether or not Jesus drank wine, and whether or not it was condoned or condemned, is based on a great deal of speculation. Like many items of debate, people often use passages in the Bible to move an argument in their direction, even when their chosen reference is laden with ambiguity. Some people may swear that he drank, while others may insist that he didn’t. However, in truth, we will probably never know and, along these lines, we really shouldn’t need to: when it comes down to it, a person’s faith is based on much bigger things than their opinion of alcohol.
The pottery jars were discovered in two Neolithic villages, called Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, about 50km (30 miles) south of Tbilisi, researchers said.
Telltale chemical signs of wine were discovered in eight jars, the oldest one dating from about 5,980 BC.
Large jars called qvevri, similar to the ancient ones, are still used for wine-making in Georgia, said David Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgian National Museum who helped lead the research.
Mr Batiuk said the wine was probably made in a similar way to the qvevri method today "where the grapes are crushed and the fruit, stems and seeds are all fermented together".
Previously, the earliest evidence of grape wine-making had been found in the Zagros Mountains of Iran and dated to 5,400-5,000 BC.
The world's earliest non-grape based wine is believe to be a fermented alcoholic beverage of rice, honey and fruit found in China and dating to about 7,000 BC.