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Greek Wine

Να είχα νερό απ’τον τόπο μου 
και μήλα απ’τη μηλιά μου,
σταφύλι ροδοστάφυλο
απ’την κληματαριά μου
Δημοτικό τραγούδι
If only I could drink water from my hometown,
eat apple from my apple tree
and taste the fragrant grape
of my vine arch…
Traditional Greek folk song

Wine is part of the greek agricultural products, an element of our cultural heritage. It has recognized to it divine presence, and the wine co-travels with the people of Greece more than 4000 years. Socrates summed up the role of wine in a civilized society thus: “Wine moistens and tempers the spirits, and lulls the cares of the mind to rest...It revives our joys, and is oil to the dying flame of life. If we drink temperately, and small droughts at a time, the wine distills into our lungs like a sweet morning dew... It is then the wine commits no rape upon our reason, but pleasantly invites us to agreeable mirth!” Plato believed that “wine fills the heart with courage”, and Euripides that “where there is no wine there is no love”.

Evidence of the earliest european wine production has been discovered at archaeological sites in Greek Macedonia, dated 6,500 years ago. These same sites also contain remnants of the world's earliest evidence of crushed grapes. Furthermore, traces of wild wine dating from the second and first millennium B.C. have also been found in China (Jiahu - Henan province). It is rumored that the first wine glass was molded from the breast of Helen of Troy. Because the Greeks believed that there was something sensual in the essence of wine, they wanted the glass that held it molded from the breast of their culture's most beautiful woman. Aeschylus named the vine-tree “wild mother” and Euripides in his work “Bacches” gave his greater pleading in favor of wine. “Semeli’s descendant, Dionysus, discovered the vine tree spring water and was given to the people’s society ; wine is the medicine of life misfortune, it’s a real God, offered like libation to the Gods, in order to preserve the people’s goods.” (Euripides’ last performance from the Macedonian Royal Court).

Writing in a new study, the Cambridge University Professor Paul Cartledge suggests that the French, not to mention the rest of the world, might never have become the passionate wine lovers they are without the assistance of a band of pioneering Greek explorers who settled in southern France, Massilia, around 600 BC. Today, a french brand wine in Massilia is still named after the ancient greek brand name. The greek wine, certainly known to both Minoan and Mycenaean cultures, was exported throughout the Mediterranean basin, as amphorae with greek styling and art have been found throughout the area. The Greeks introduced the “vitis vinifered vine” and made wine to the greek Mediterranean colonies.

"... Nymph Methy is pouring the wine to the Satyrs
from an amphora wreathed with young vine branch...”
“The Dionysus' company”, Konstantinos Kavafis / 1907

Cultural review "ε π ι Κ ο Ι ν ω Ν ί Α"

The wine of our memories

«Εάν αποσυνδέσεις την Ελλάδα, στο τέλος θα σου απομείνουν μια ελιά,
ένα αμπέλι, κι ένα καράβι».
Οδυσσέας Ελύτης
“If you try to break down Greece into its elements,
in the end you will be left with an olive tree, a vine and a ship”
Odysseus Elytis

Wine has always played an important role in the culture and in the social life of Greece, while being at the same time an important element of its peoples’ healthy diet.
Though the arrival of winemaking in ancient Greece is undocumented, it is widely believed that it was brought to the island of Crete by Phoenician traders.

The earliest evidence of winemaking in Greece is a wine press at Vathypetro, a site in central Crete, probably on the Minoan route from Knossos to the Messara plain in the south of the island. Vathypetro complex, which forms part of a small settlement, was constructed around 1580 BC, and badly damaged around 1550 BC, perhaps by an earthquake. The south sector of the building includes a wine press, which can still be seen. The wine press was part of a finely paved area, that was used for storage and for the production of wine and textiles. The sophistication of the site gives evidence that Minoan production of wine had already been underway for some time, while the structure of the complex suggests some connection between religious ritual and agriculture.

The religious aspect of vine culture can be traced in a rather late arrival in Greek world and Greek mythology: god Dionysus. Also commonly known by his Roman name Bacchus, Dionysus appears to be a god who has two distinct origins. On the one hand, he was the god of wine, agriculture, and fertility of nature, who is also the patron god of the Greek stage. On the other hand, he also represents the outstanding features of mystery religions, such as those practiced at Eleusis: ecstasy, personal delivery from the daily world through physical or spiritual intoxication, and initiation into secret rites. According to one myth, Dionysus is the son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman, Semele, daughter of Cadmus of Thebes. Semele is killed by Zeus' lightning bolts while Dionysus is still in her womb. Dionysus is rescued and undergoes a second birth from Zeus after developing in his thigh. Zeus then gives the infant to some nymphs to be raised.

In another version, one with more explicit religious overtones, Dionysus, also referred to as Zagreus in this account, is the son of Zeus and Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. Hera gets the Titans to lure the infant with toys, and then they rip him to shreds eating everything but Zagreus' heart, which is saved by either Athena, Rhea, or Demeter. Zeus remakes his son from the heart and implants him in Semele who bears a new Dionysus Zagreus. Hence, as in the earlier account, Dionysus is called "twice born." The latter account formed a part of the Orphic religion's religious mythology.

Dionysus is usually shown in the company of others who are enjoying the fruit of the vine. Silenus or multiple Sileni and Nymphs engaged in drinking, flute-playing, dancing, or amorous pursuits are the most common companions.

Depictions of Dionysus may also include Maenads, the human women made mad by the wine god. Sometimes the part-animal companions of Dionysus are called Satyrs, whether meaning the same thing as Sileni or something else.

The first reference to Dionysus is widely believed to be part of a Linear B inscription found during excavations in the Mycenean site of Pylos, in which appears a deity name approximating “Dionysus”. Whether this deity was associated with wine cannot be proven, but there is little doubt that wine, which already had become an integral element of Greek culture, had developed a religious status by the end of Mycenean period, around 1200 BC.

Throughout the Greek antiquity, the Greek trade in wine was extensive. An early system of appellation designation was implemented to assure the origins of esteemed products. Wine traveled wherever ships sailed.

While representing a major part of trade activities, wine also constitutes an element of every day life social and religious rituals, and a fundamental ingredient of ancient Greek thought.

In Homer’s Iliad, in the scene in which the grieving Achilles looks out to sea just after the funeral of his beloved friend Patroclus, Homer makes use of a bold descriptive phrase, that reveals the passion and the pain of the moment, creating the obscure sense of an almost opposite to nature but connected to the hero’s feelings picture: "Wine Dark Sea".

Another very interesting aspect of ancient Greek literary creation, lyric poetry, has its cradle in symposium, a key social institution for men to debate or simply party with each other. The Greek symposium was a male aristocratic activity, a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere Wine serves as a part of this collective euphoria, when after-dinner singing was signaled with the circulation of a myrtle branch, and led to short and simple songs.

“When I drink wine the thoughts that are troubling me
and all my heavy torments by the wind are taken.
When I drink wine Bacchus starts fooling around
in floral winds he wraps me with dizziness.
In my hair I weave wreaths full of flowers
and I praise my jauntiness.
When I drink wine I drown in scents
and love songs open my arms.
Therefore I drink wine this is my benefit
as I will go this I will take, leave all the rest.
In my hair I weave wreaths full of flowers
and I praise my jauntiness.
When I drink wine I send my torments to sleep
what do I want life for if I fill it with sorrow.
As wine is taking me I sing cheerfully
and I feel like having all Croesus’ riches.
Treat me Dionysus sweet wine
to celebrate life."

There is no better way to think of wine than this anacreontic song. In its verses wine is depicted as the absolute joy of life, that takes away troublesome thoughts and sorrow, celebrates the happiness of love, gives the impression that someone is immortal.

But, there is another option, that should be noticed: While the lyric poet Alcaeus warns that “one that hath wine as a chain about his wits such a one lives no life at all”, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus underlines that “bronze is the mirror of the form, wine of the heart”. In this idea, wine becomes something much more important than just the joy of life, depicted in the previous anacreonitc verses. Wine has the power to reveal something that cannot be seen, the truth of our feelings, in the same way that a mirror shows the already visible, but yet unknown and misleading: the form.

Perhaps, it is this idea that prompts Plato to advise “Shall we not pass a law that, in the first place, no children under eighteen may touch wine at all, teaching that it is wrong to pour fire upon fire either in body or in soul ... and thus guarding against the excitable disposition of the young? And next, we shall rule that the young man under thirty may take wine in moderation, but that he must entirely abstain from intoxication and heavy drinking. But when a man has reached the age of forty, he may join in the convivial gatherings and invoke Dionysus, above all other gods, inviting his presence at the rite (which is also the recreation) of the elders, which he bestowed on mankind as a medicine potent against the crabbedness of Old Age, that thereby we men may renew our youth, and that, through forgetfulness of care, the temper of our souls may lose its hardness and become softer and more ductile”.

The whole range of characteristics attributed to wine unfolds in this gradual approach, showing that the maturity of age becomes the necessary precondition so as to enjoy the old wine, and actively participate in all these activities that renew the soul and express the feeling of sharing the rituals of the community.

It is interesting to realize that we can trace similar aspects of wine consumption in ancient China, although wine lacked the kind of mythological associations that we find in ancient Greece. In the Book of Odes a poem describes the party after a hunting game, while wine occupied a special position in religious ceremonies, and wine drinking generally symbolizes social solidarity and amity among the participants.

“No poem was ever written by a drinker of water” Horace

Ancient Rome played an important role in the history of wine. The earliest influences of viticulture on the Italian peninsula can be traced to Ancient Greeks. The rise of the Roman Empire saw an increase in technology and awareness of winemaking which spread to all parts of the empire. The change from pottery to wooden barrels can be considered as the most significant innovation introduced by the Romans.

In the Roman period, wine became available to all, from the lowly slave to the simple peasant to the aristocrat. The Romans' belief that wine was a daily necessity of life promoted its widespread availability among all classes. This led to the desire to spread viticulture and wine production to every part of the Roman empire, to ensure steady supplies.

Meanwhile, Greece had lost hegemony over wine, and it is not until the end of the first millennium that a healthy trade in wine, centered in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantine state, had come to flourish.

In the Byzantine Empire, wine and vine become the sacred symbols that Christian religion inherited from the ancient religions. In the Holy Mystery of Communion wine symbolizes the blood of Christ, while vine is one of the most ancient symbolic depictions, whose meaning relates to Christ and to his disciples, and is presented in masterpieces of traditional folk art, temples carved in wood or in marble, icons, valuable utensiles of the Orthodox church, that express a deep feeling of devotion along with the incomparable aesthetic sensitivity of the artist, and the intellectual value of his creation.

By the late Middle Ages, however, viticulture fell gradually victim to increasingly feudal land management, resulting to a gradual degradation in wine quality. Monasteries, the biggest landowners in the Byzantine empire, increasingly became the keepers of local wine traditions, acquiring vineyards and outfitting cellars in order to sustain production. The decline of the Byzantine empire caused a significant decline in the production and commerce activities related to viticulture and wine. In the same period, the almost continuous state of warfare with the Arabs in the eastern Asia Minor gives birth to the heroic epic poetry and to the Byzantine romance of Digenis Acritas. The epic poetry seems to reinvent its link to the ancient tradition of the homeric epic poetry, as the verses of these songs vigorously narrate glorious deeds along with a wide spectrum of every-day scenes, in which wine becomes one of the links to the past: it is the hero’s companion in the symposium, it is the expression of utmost care and love on behalf of the mother or the wife, when the hero returns from the battle, it is the very essence of the idea of immortality, since wine can seduce even the Death.

By the 13th century, period of Venetian territorial expansion especially in the western part of Greece, the Venetian influence can be traced in the promotion of export production. Malvasia, a highly-prized sweet wine, initially produced on Crete, and then in Peloponnese and on certain Aegean islands, becomes the most significant export product of the period. It is worth noting that traditional folk poetry uses the colour of sapphire so as to describe the special unique nuance of Malvasia, thus reminding us of the Homeric “wine dark sea”.

After the conquest of Greece by the Ottomans the conditions for the wine production were difficult, and wine fell increasingly victim to the pressing economic and political problems, that the Greek population was facing.

The first stages of Greek independence in 19th century were combined with major political, economic and social changes, that greatly influenced wine production. Despite its problematic nature, this period marked the beginning of important wine ventures, that survive and flourish today.

Moreover, Greek society and Greek poetry find in wine a valuable companion for the description of every social activity and every feeling, while wine and vine gradually become typical symbols of Greek nature and of social life in all its aspects.

World War II resulted to the devastation of Greek wine industry for almost a decade. It is in the following decades that wine industry emerges in many areas, engages in the production of world – class wines, and Greek wine makes its presence felt all over the world.

And the story of wine, sweet and sour – like the life – dark and light coloured – like the sea – goes on…

by E. Moutsaki