Ancient Wine: Then and Now

Winemaking can be traced back thousands of years to ancient societies in China and the Middle East, and that has given rise to a lot of romantic ideas and myths about wine. There’s the general idea that wine is a “civilized” beverage, in part because one of its origins was the ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean societies – like Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome – that are often thought of as the basis of Western Civilization. There are even arguments that wine was somehow essential to the development of “civilization,” even though all social classes in many of these societies drank far more beer than wine.

The link between wine and civilization is reinforced by the fact that every Roman who could write seems to have come up with a saying that associated wine with virtue and civility. There’s the well-known “In vino veritas,” which suggests that people speak honestly when they drink wine. Others include “We are brought by the gentle persuasion of wine to a happier mood,” (Socrates) and “Where there is no wine, love perishes, and everything else that is pleasant to man” (Euripides).

Ancient wine must have been amazing stuff to achieve all these good things. Ancient wine writers (many were doctors who stressed the health and medicinal benefits of wine) pointed to particular wines as superior, including the wines of some Greek islands and northern Egypt. And who hasn’t heard of Falernian, the fine Italian wine that’s mentioned in a number of Roman texts?

But the reality is a lot messier. Ancient wine would scarcely be recognizable to us as wine. Yes, it was made from the fermented juice of grapes, but what Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and others drank, was not wine as we know it. For a start, it wasn’t clear and bright, like most modern wine, but heavy in sediment and suspended matter: grape skins, twigs, seeds, insects and other vegetal and animal material caught in the bunches of grapes when they were crushed or attracted to the must.

Then, wine was seldom drunk straight. The Greeks regarded anyone who drank wine straight as Barbarians and, at the very least, they themselves diluted wine with water. At symposia, the drinking gatherings of upper-class Greek men, the wine was diluted until it was between 25 and 40 per cent of the beverage. The aim was to drink all night, and to get tipsy or somewhat intoxicated, but not to get so drunk that you fell asleep or vomited. It didn’t always work.

Throughout the ancient world where there is evidence of wine – in China, the Middle East or the Mediterranean region – wine was drunk as a cocktail. It was mixed variously with beer, fruit and berry wines, herbs, spices, sea-water, and other substances. At a royal banquet in Turkey, about 700 BC, the guests drank a beverage composed of grape wine, barley beer and honey mead, all mixed together.

But for all that ancient wine needs to be demystified and de-romanticized, certain categories and styles emerged over the centuries, and some have echoes in modern wines. Here are a few of them and the stories behind them:


Retsina is commonly associated with Greece, and is simply white (sometimes rosé) wine flavored by adding pine resin during fermentation. Resin contributes pungent, sometimes bitter, aromas and flavors variously described as ‘pine’, ‘turpentine’, and ‘cough syrup’ to the wine. The intensity varies according to the amount of resin used in the winemaking. Modern Greek wine law specifies the minimum and maximum amounts of resin that can be used, so that the aromas and flavors are perceptible but not overwhelming.

Resin was originally used not to flavor wine, but to conserve it. One of the great challenges to ancient winemakers was to make wine that would last at least at least 12 months – that is, until the following vintage. This was not always easy, given the instability of the wine and the high temperatures at some times of the year in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. Making the clay containers and amphoras airtight was a major challenge, and tree resin was often used as a seal. In some cases, resin was added directly to wine; it covered the surface with an oily film that gave some protection from oxygen, much like a gas.

Although archaeologists have found resin residue in wine jars three or four thousand years old, the use of resin was first discussed by the Roman writer, Columella, in the first century B.C.  He set out the various kinds of pine resin that could be used, and recommended using trees from the hills, rather than from the lowlands, as their resin had better aromas. But Columella clearly wasn’t a big fan of the stuff.  He recommended against using resin in the best wines because of the flavor it imparted.

The pungency and strength of the resin clearly added to the flavour of wine and, over time, Greeks began to think of it as the normal flavor.  When clay jars and amphoras fell out of favor for shipping and storing wine, and were replaced by wooden barrels, many consumers must have felt something was missing from their wine. Perhaps there was a reaction against resin-less wine that was similar to the revolt when Coca-Cola tried to change its recipe in the 1985. Just as Coca-Cola gave in and created Coke Classic, Greek winemakers began to add pieces of resin to the wine during fermentation, thus creating retsina (Retsina Classic?). Retsina was now a particular category of wine, rather than the normal, default style.

In the past, wine seems to have been quite heavily resinated, and concentrations of more than five per cent resin might have been common. Today, Greek wine law limits resin to a maximum of one per cent (and a minimum of 0.15 per cent), and also sets out specified levels of acidity and alcohol, all with the purpose of ensuring balance among the components.

For much of the twentieth century, “Greek wine” meant retsina, and it was especially popular from the 1960s, when Greece became a destination for millions of tourists every year,

It isn’t everyone’s favourite wine, but it has an honest lineage back to the earliest days of winemaking. It’s a reminder that wine was generally flavoured in some way. And, of course, there’s no real difference, in principle, between flavouring wine with resin and flavouring it with oak.

DOC Passito di Pantelleria

One of the winemaking techniques practised in the ancient world was drying grapes so as to concentrate their flavor and sugars. In the eighth century BC, Hesiod writes of picking the grapes in bunches, “and bring your harvest home. Expose them to the sun ten days and nights, then shadow them for five, and on the sixth, pour into jars glad Dionysus’s gift.” (Dionysus was the Greek god of wine.) 

Cato recommended drying grapes for two to three days, while on the island of Thasos, they were dried in the sun for five days, and on the sixth were plunged into a mixture of boiled grape juice and salt water. After being pressed and fermented, the wine was then blended with more boiled must. Another method of reaching the same result was the Cretan practise of twisting the stalks of the bunches, so that the grapes were deprived of water and nutrients, but leaving them on the vine in the sun so that their sugar content rose.

These various approaches all had the aim of producing wines that were relatively high in alcohol and intense in flavour, and they were the forerunners of several modern styles of wine from the Mediterranean region.  

Perhaps the best-known is Amarone della Valpolicella, which is made in the Valpolicella region from the corvina, rondinella and molinara varieties. The grapes are picked fully ripe, with preference given to looser bunches that allow more air flow between the grapes. Drying was originally done on straw mats exposed to the sun, but producers have tended to adopt drying chambers, which permit greater control over the process. Drying generally takes about four months, during which the grapes lose about two-thirds of their weight. They are then pressed and the juice fermented dry.  In some cases the fermentation is halted to leave some residual sugar, and the resulting wine is called Recioto.

Another wine made (partially) from dried grapes is Passito di Pantelleria, from the volcanic island of Pantelleria, which lies between Sicily and Tunisia. Passito di Pantelleria is made from the zibibbo variety, the local name for muscat of Alexandria. To make Passito, some of the grapes are picked in mid-August and then dried for 20 to 30 days on wooden grates that are exposed to Pantelleria’s scorching sun and constant, vigorous winds. In September, other grapes are picked and pressed, and while that juice is fermenting, the dried grapes – which are now a quarter of their original size – are added. Fermentation is long – it usually runs to November – and the result is a rich, sweet and sometimes viscous dessert wine that delivers pungent and complex flavours. Needless to say, it is no longer diluted with salt water or anything else. 

AOC Gaillac

Although it was the Greeks who first introduced wine to France – it was one market in their extensive Mediterranean wine trade – it was the Romans who began to foster viticulture there on a commercial scale. In a way, it ran against their own financial interests, because Roman merchants also exported wine to Gaul (as they referred to what became France). The Gauls were beer-drinkers, but Romans often commented on their appetite for wine; it was said that a Gaul would exchange a slave for a barrel of wine – a trade that was assumed to be very unequal and foolish, because a slave’s long-term economic value was much higher than the cost of a barrel of wine.

One of the first French sites to be planted with vines (in the first century A.D., about 2,000 years ago), was near the town of Gaillac, which lies on the river Tarn, just north-east of Toulouse. The location might well have been chosen because, at that point, the Tarn is close to the river Garonne, which facilitated the shipping of wine to the town of Bordeaux.  Wines from Gaillac and nearby areas (such as Cahors) were later shipped through Bordeaux in serious volumes, and made up some of the first exports from Aquitaine to the important English market.

But Gaillac’s status declined in the 12th century, when Bordeaux’s own vineyards expanded. As the region’s own lucrative wine trade (mainly in claret) with England began, Bordeaux’s wine merchants adopted protectionist policies that gave local wines a clear edge: in effect, wines from places like Gaillac could not be shipped from Bordeaux until after the Bordeaux wines had been sold and exported. From that time until quite recently, the wines of Gaillac slipped into relative obscurity and sold mostly in local and regional markets.

More recently, Gaillac wines (the reds earned AOC status in 1970) have gained more prominence and producers are harking back to the region’s status as one of France’s first vineyards, planted by the Romans. Gaillac’s red wines are the most impressive, and although some international varieties, like cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon are permitted, two indigenous varieties – duras and braucol (also known as fer) – give the wines their distinctive weight and edginess. Despite their dilution by international varieties, they are a reminder of the dark wines that Aquitaine first vineyards provided for the English market, before they were replaced by the lighter Bordeaux reds.

DOC Falerno del Massico

One of the great wines of Rome – it is mentioned in many of the most prominent texts and poems – was Falernum, which came from Campania, near the border with Latium. There are many references to the exquisite quality of the wine and especially to the spectacular vintage of 121 BC, which was known as Opimian, after Opimius, who was Consul in that year. Opimian wine was clearly a byword for connoisseurs – a Roman Robert Parker would have given it VC, if not C points out of C. In his Satyricon, Petronius has his banquet host bring out bottles labelled, “Falernian. Consul Opimius. One hundred years old.”

So good was Falernian wine that writers proposed drinking it straight, rather than diluted with water or must, or flavored with herbs and spices. As Martial demanded of someone who had mixed Falernian wine with grape juice, “What satisfaction do you get out of mixing must stored in old Vatican jars with old Falernian?... It’s a crime to murder Falernian... Maybe your guests deserved to perish, but so costly a jar did not deserve to die.”

In the bar of Hedonus, one of the many drinking-places in ill-fated Pompeii, which was buried in the ashes of Mount Vesuvius, Falernum wine sold for four times the price of ordinary wine and twice the price of the “best wine.” This is a significant differential, though not a great one, compared to the range separating ordinary from iconic wines today. (Think of the price of Yellow Tail and the price of Pétrus.)  But at a time where there were no controls on production, shipping and labeling, expensive wine fraudulently described as Falernum must often have passed down gullible Roman throats.

The modern incarnation of Falernian wine is Falerno del Massico, named for Mount Massico, where the Roman wine god Bacchus is said to have appeared in human form to an old farmer, Falernus. The farmer gave Bacchus milk, fruit and honey and, as a reward for his kindness, Bacchus turned his milk into delectable wine.

Falerno del Massico has not garnered the attention of modern critics in the same way as its forerunner did two thousand years ago, but it is a respected wine that gained DOC status in 1989. The white is made from falanghina, while the red is predominantly aglianico (60-80%), piedirosso (20-40%) and barbera or primitivo (20% maximum).

Rod Phillips is a historian and wine writer who lives in Ottawa, Canada. He is a professor of history at Carleton University, where he teaches European history and the history of food, drink and alcohol. His books include A Short History of Wine (2000 and widely translated) and his book on the global history of alcohol will appear in 2012.  Rod has contributed entries on wine and alcohol to many encyclopedias, and he also writes on current wines for wine magazines, including The World of Fine Wine (UK). He writes a weekly wine column for Ottawa’s main daily newspaper, reviews wines, and judges in wine competitions in Canada and overseas.