Greek Wine History 101

Wine consumption not only served daily dietary needs but also was a high cultural criterion, according to which Greeks were distinguished from barbarians. Viticulture and vinification were systematically studied and recorded in order to be disseminated to the rest of the then-known world via the colonies and a particularly developed trade network, one of whose basic commodities was wine. over time, however, the course and development of Greece’s wine sector has been neither stable nor uniform. Through centuries-long development, the new high-quality Greek wine has its own identity and rightfully claims its own place on the global wine scene.

Antiquity/classical era

as to the exact time, viniculture started in Greece. recent discoveries point to the area of what is now Georgia and Armenia as the most likely places where wine was made for the first time, as well as to the peoples of Mesopotamia, who were familiar with wine as early as 6000 Bc and consumed it along with beer, at least as far as the higher social classes were concerned. importation from these places to Egypt and Greece was easy, without, however, excluding the possibility of viniculture, at least that of wild vineyards, developing independently in some regions. As is evident from important excavations in various locations in Greece, such as a settlement of the Mid-neolithic and early copper Ages near the ancient town of Philippi, the findings of crushed grapes have been dated to 6500 years ago and are the earliest indication of viticulture in Europe. in other places, such as Kompoloi on Mt. Olympus, Orchomenos in Boeotia, Poliochni on the island of Lemnos, and Crete, there were findings of preserved grape pips in plinths, wine press installations, as well as tools for processing, must, thus placing the production and consumption of wine for these areas in the third millennium B.c. Prehistoric settlements, such as that of Minoan Crete and, later, ancient Thera (modern-day Santorini), were in all likelihood the first ones engaging in the production and commercial availability of wine. This is confirmed by numerous discoveries such as the wine press in Vathypetro, Archanes in Heraklion, Crete and the frescoes adorning the houses of the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri on Thera. The Mycenaean civilization (17th-11th-century B.c.) also played an important role in the evolution and dissemination of wine activity to the rest of Greece. An impressive oenological find was at the archaeological site in Pylos, where an entire cellar with 35 clay pots for storing wine was unearthed. There were also inscriptions with words like ‘wine’, ‘vineyard’ and ‘wine-seller’, proving the importance of wine for Mycenaean society. Part of the production was intended for the markets of other regions, like Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, Sicily and southern Italy, while amphorae from Syria and Palestine point to importation also taking place.

Many ancient writers, such as Homer and Hesiod, mention known ancient wines by name and also vividly describe the delights offered by drinking wine. others, such as Athenaeus in his work The Deipnosophistae (The Banquet of the Learned Philosophers at Dinner) and later Theophrastus in his work On the Causes of Plants, give detailed information on viticulture from planting to harvesting. from their writings, we can glean valuable information on the way that wine was produced in Greece, as well as on the ways to enjoy it. The addition, for instance, of seasonings to wine was common practice in order to make a particular kind of wine, characteristic of each wine-producing region. The most common type of addition was honey or even dough. Mixing wine with sea water was also widespread and was called thalassitis from Thalassa, the Greek word for ‘sea’. The classification of wines was based not only on color, but also on their organoleptic characteristics, for the assessment of which there was a specific procedure called ‘wine-tasting’, which the ‘wine taster’ carried out. Another special category of wine was ‘medicinal wine’, which was flavored and enriched with aromatic and medicinal substances and intended for purely therapeutic use. in his works, Hippocrates, considered the father of medicine, made suggestions concerning the quantity and way to consume wine so that one could take advantage of its beneficial properties.

The heavy commercial network established in the Mediterranean by Greek cities led to the development of viticulture since many of these cities based their economic prosperity on wine trade. This is obvious in coin representations with themes such as the grapevine or the amphora. Another indication of the importance of viticulture in Greece was that the grafts of grape varieties available in Greece were transported to Greek colonies of the Mediterranean and the Black sea.

The wine was the centerpiece of the Greeks’ religious life as was expressed through worship rites dedicated to the god of wine Dionysus. some of these were the rural Dionysia (Dionysia ta kat’ agrous), the city Dionysia or otherwise named Great Dionysia (Dionysia ta en Astei), the Lenaia festival and the Anthesteria. The most glorious festival, the Great Dionysia, included not only impressive processions but also performances of tragedies and comedies. every important event or celebration in classical Athens was always a good opportunity, especially for the men of the aristocracy, for social gatherings known as symposiums. These were either public or private events during which the participants passed the time drinking wine mixed with water, usually at a ratio of 1:3, while feasting and having lengthy philosophical discussions and reciting poetry.


and the close of the Hellenistic Age, an end was put to the domination of Greek wine in the then-known world. However, the contribution of the Greek civilization to shaping the culture of the new empire was definitive. in the Greek colonies of southern Italy, viticulture and winemaking were so developed that they influenced the developments in the wine sector throughout the Italian peninsula, although that knowledge pre-existed due to the Etruscans living further north. At the same time, the prevalence of the Greek cities started to dissipate and trade —even wine trade— was transferred to new decision-making centers in Italy and southern France. However, Greek wines continued to hold an eminent place among the rest of the empire’s excellent wines. Virgil indicatively mentions that

the Greek varieties were innumerable.

Byzantine Empire

capital from Rome to Constantinople changed the geopolitical map. The political center of the state was moved to the Hellenised and later Christian east. During the Byzantine era, wine production was in the hands of private citizens and monks. The wine continued to be a staple, hold- ing an important place in the daily life of the people. The participation of Byzantine emperors in the rites for harvest and the contribution of the Patriarch are indicative. The vineyard, the grape, and the harvest were used as symbols of Christian faith. The most renowned wines were still those produced on Aegean islands, Thrace and Mt. Athos. in the 7th century A.D., the first drinking houses and taverns, namely, small eateries serving wine, made their appearance. At the same time, large quantities of cheap, frequently adulterated, wine made their way onto the market, aiming to attract customers from the financially weaker classes. Wine was served undiluted and the word ‘krasi’ became more frequently used (instead of ‘oenos’). Venetians and Genoans financially benefitted from their prominence in the trade of wine and foodstuffs. not long after, they managed to bring the wines of Monemvassia, Crete, and Cyprus under their control. The most renowned wine of the era was considered to be Monemvassian Wine, also known as Malmsey or Malvasian wine by the Franks.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the dominance of the ottomans, the Greeks did not cease their occupation with viticulture, as wine production was a very good opportunity for the conquerors to impose taxation on each stage of pro- duction. However, the demand of the local authorities for increasingly higher taxes gradually led to the financial impoverishment of the producers, who, having no other choice, abandoned their vineyards. The worst disaster, however, took place after the 1821 Greek War of independence when in retaliation the Turks burned everything in their retreat.

Places that were not under the Turkish yoke, such as the ionian islands (the Hepta- nese), were able to maintain close commercial relations with the Western Mediter- ranean and european markets in general.

New Age History

of the new Greek state after its liberation from the Turks was particularly difficult and laborious. Poverty and the fluid political state in this transitional period did not promote viticulture since priority was given to other key domains of public life. However, the cultivation of currants, the main exported Greek commodity for decades, saw considerable growth. Large quantities of cor- inthian currants and Greek wine were channelled mainly to the french wine market, which had been devastated by phylloxera. When wine production in france, however, managed to recover, large quantities of currants remained undisposed. At the same time, cheaper currants from Australia and california inundated the european market since they had the comparative advantage of being lower-priced than the Greek ones. These difficult circumstances were further exacerbated in 1898 by the onset of the vine pest phylloxera, starting in Macedonia, which destroyed vineyards and led to many of them being abandoned. The problem was managed in the same way as in similar cases abroad, by importing phylloxera-resistant American vine rootstocks. in the early 20th century, the planting of vineyards started anew with the sultana variety

for the production of currants mainly in Corinth and Crete.

in the mid-19th century, the first wine-producing companies were founded, such as Achaia clauss by the Bavarian Gustav clauss in Patras and another by the British consul Ernest Augustus Toole in Cephalonia. The example was followed by other companies, raising their number to ten, playing a definitive role in the reconstruction of Greek wine production, albeit with mixed results.

The 20th century could be characterized as one of the richest centuries in Greek his- tory, in terms of both events and developments, and, by extension, in modern Greek wine production. The first half of the century was marked by global political developments, which left a destroyed and impoverished country in their wake. Greek wine was, in most cases, of poor quality and oxidized, with retsina being the most popular. Despite the adverse circumstances, the acreage of vineyards increased spectacularly during World War ii. A large part of the production remained unsold, however, due to the dearth of markets to absorb it and grapevine growers openly faced the possibility of financial disaster. The solution to this problem was provided by the founding of agricultural cooperatives throughout Greece, while large winemaking companies (such as Kourtaki, Tsantali, Boutari, cambas and Achaia clauss) invested in new technologies and produced the first brand-name bottled Greek wines. With a population surge towards the major urban centers, the Greek quality of life started to improve and a new class of consumers emerged.