Article by courtesy of the Greek Wine Federation.
The importance of viticulture in ancient Greek society is evident in a quote from the Greek historian Thucydides:
“The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.”
For us Greeks, wine is closely connected to our culture and religion. Nevertheless, not all periods of Greek History have been favourable to wine, which has gone through many adventures until it has earned its present position.
In the next lines, we will attempt a brief historic retrospection concerning the diachronic tradition of wine making and its evolution until its present form.
In the years of ancient Greeks
In Greece, favourable soil and climate conditions have allowed the wide spread of viticulture, since the early historic years. The beginning of Greek viticulture dates back to the early Neolithic Age, although its greatest development takes place between the 13th and 11th century B.C.
The relationship between ancient Greeks and wine is known and hackneyed. Homer in his ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’, Plato and Xenophon in their ‘Symposium’ and Athinaios in ‘Dipnosophistes’ often refer to the famous wines of antiquity. The sweet, supple wines from Thira and Crete, the finest ones from Cyprus and Rhodes, the aromatic ones from Lesvos, the most gracious, when aged, wine from Corfu, the ‘hypnotic’ one from Thassos, the famous ‘Ariousios’ from Chios and many other coveted wines are mentioned in ancient texts. Ancient Greeks exported wine and olive oil and imported cereals and gold from Egypt and the areas of the Black Sea, copper from Syria and Cyprus and ivory from Africa.
The exported wines were famous at that time, most famous being the wines of the Aegean Islands. More specifically, the wines coming from Thassos, in order that they avoid imitations and manipulations, should be sold in amphorae, which guaranteed their resistance. In the first wine laws of the 5th century B.C. -the most ancient legislation for the protection of Appellation of Origin wines- we can discern the first attempts to create regulations about wines. The resemblance between the legislation of ancient Greece about quality wines coming from specific areas and that of E.U. is amazing.
Ancient Greeks loved wine and served its god Dionysus -a smart, vivid and erotic god- passionately. According to the legend, god Dionysus was kidnapped by Etruscan pirates on his way to Italy. However, he revealed his divine nature by planting a vine, which scrambled around the mast, and turning the pirates into dolphins. Ariadne -daughter of Minoa, king of Crete and wife of Dionysus- gave the god two sons, Staphilos and Oinopion, as well as a daughter, Evanthi. The rich illustration on Attican vessels testifies the popularity of the cult of Dionysus. Drama, the noblest artistic expression of the time derived from the Dionnysian dithyramb.
If we study the bacchanal poetry, we will distinguish the specific custom of ‘potos’, which is the consumption of wine. An ordinary ancient citizen would dip his daily morning bread into wine and that would be the only moment of the day, when he would drink it ‘akrato’, that is, without diluting it with water. In the symposia, social institutions with specific rituals, the ‘potos’ following a light dinner, consisted of drinking diluted wine. In this way, the participants could go on with their inspired conversations, which are immortalized by poets, without getting drunk.
The Byzantine years
In the Hellenistic years and in the early Byzantine Era, there was a change in the relationship between man and Dionysus. This god, the so called ‘evampelos’ (rich in vineyards and wine), the generous, the ‘lysimerimnos’ (enemy of any problems and concerns), the ‘hyperopefs’ (the canning and persuasive), the ‘filomidefs’ (causing smile and laughter), was defeated, in the years of Justinian, by the Christian God, called ‘The Real Vine’. Besides, the vine and the wine are two of the most sacred symbols that Christianity borrowed from ancient religions. The Old and the New Testament are crawling with relative references.
In Byzantium, the wine unites the biblical with the Greek tradition. Dionysus has lent most of his symbols to Christ as well as to the Emperor, since they are both depicted as vineyards. As for the Apostles and the true believers, they are depicted as vines and grapes.
As a matter of fact, the Byzantine society presented two aspects; the first one was that of the Byzantine nobility, who enjoyed narrating heroic deeds in symposia, drinking sweet wine from golden goblets, just like the Homeric heroes. Constantinople, where all the Empire’s wines were gathered, was called Winburg by the Anglo-Saxons, which means ‘city of wine’. The second aspect was that of the people, who kept on drinking wine in taverns and wine shops.
Middle Age and the Turkish Occupation
The spread of Christianity in medieval Europe was proved to be vital for the preservation of viticulture and wine making. Wine plays an important role in the Holy Communion. It is a gift from God, which ‘delights the heart of man’. These are also the dominant opinions of the monastic society, who undertakes the care and development of vineyards. Monasteries dispose extensive vineyards and their Regulations include repeated references to the production, storage and use of wine.
During the 13th century, Saint Triphon was established as the protector of wine and he is still considered as the Saint of vines, honoured every year, on the 1st of February, during a period when vines are pruned, especially in Thrace and Macedonia.
While the monasteries make vineyards and wine, the followers of Mohamed destroy them, wherever they find them. The destruction of vineyards in Middle East and Greece was total.
The Modern Era
In the modern era, after the liberation of Greece from the Turks and the establishment of a new independent state and until the breakout of the Second World War, the Greek vineyard was not developed according to a plan. It started in a small scale and kept on growing. When Greece obtained its present borders, the vineyards of the country were made up of small pieces of land, whose development had taken place under different conditions.
Things got even worse after the Second World War. Among the other existing problems, vineyards were attacked by phylloxera, an insect that destroys vines. As a result, the Greek vines were degraded, many varieties were abandoned, and the highland quality vineyards were lost. In the international market, Greek wine was considered ‘Mediterranean’, in other words, with high alcohol content, no acidity and aroma. Except for the sweet Muscat from Samos, no other Greek wine with a geographical indication of origin could be found in the market.
The rebirth of the Greek wine
The History of Greek viticulture and the development of ‘bottled’ wine in Greece start in the sixties. It is the time when the first serious investments on buildings and equipment take place. As a result, there is a spectacular improvement of Greek wines in relation to technology. Simultaneously, a partial reestablishment of the vineyards with the planting of select grape varieties takes place, based on evaluations made by the Greek Institute of Wine. In addition, in the seventies, the areas suitable for the production of wines with an Appellation of Origin are being specified by legislation.
Of course, the human factor played an important role in the wine development and more specifically, the Greek enologists who transferred their scientific knowledge into the production and the wine producers themselves, who proved to be sensitive to the new developments. The fact that the recovery took place in such a few years shows all the dynamic of the viti-viniculture sector as part of the agricultural economy