Εβίβα! An Introduction to Greek Wine

“A warm current flows at once into the hollow of the diaphragm… a burning dispersion spreads along our arteries, such a drink provides a sensation that is almost sacred… No feeling so pure comes from the vintage-numbered cellars of Rome; the pedantry of great connoisseurs of wine wearies me.”

Marguerite Yourcenar on a Samian wine, 1962.

The ancient wines of Greece still exert a mystical hold upon us. Pramnian, Maronean, Khian, Thasian or Koan varieties have faded from our menus but not our memories or vocabularies. Such is their power that their reputations still redound even in the absence of their contents.

Perhaps it is because they evoke an Age when an aura of sacramentality surrounded wine, the sort of sentiments the (seventh-century BC) Egyptians harboured when they refused to drink nor use wine in libations on account of

“Thinking it to be the blood of those who had once battled against the gods, and from whom, when they had fallen and had become commingled with the earth, they believed vines to have sprung. This is the reason why drunkenness drives men out of their senses and crazes them, inasmuch as they are then filled with the blood of their forebears.”

(Plutarch, Moralia).

Not that the Greeks were far behind them in the mysticism stakes. Pausianus recorded that the inhabitants of Methana, for instance, used to gain divine favour (to deploy against a frustrating south-west wind called lips) by splitting a cock and running each half in opposite directions down the vines. In general, however, the Greeks saw Dionysos as a god of peasants, a democratic god. Sure, anybody could be green-fingered but how many nobles had the magic vegetative touch compared to peasants? The odds were against them.

Consumption was another matter. The Greeks believed the (mythical) king Icarius had been given wine by Dionysios on the condition that he not divulge it to anybody else. But drunkenness loosened the king’s tongue. Soon his subjects shared his joys but then got so inebriated that they slew him. The tale thus smuggled in the sly aside that wine was meant for an elite caste who would appreciate (and consume) it properly; a truth ruined by bumptious Greeks who couldn’t help but spread the love (and hate).

As Greeks around the archipelago began to grow their own vines, the “big ticket” wines were not so much the most glamorous or expensive ones but rather those that circulated to the extent they were xakoustos, literally “heard of” outside their regions. The first enophiles – the wino versions of koilodouloi (belly-slaves) – would then “go around all the wine-merchants in the city” usually as shipments came in “tasting and comparing the wines” (Lucian, Hermotimus).

As buyers and sellers chatted, a vocabulary was born. Aside from colour, which Athenaeus divided into four cardinals: lefkos (white), kirros (tawny), erythos (red) and melenas (black), the most important categories were first, wines of origin; second, wines of type. Wines of origin was an early precursor of the modern appellation of origin. Their main stimulus was probably wine fraud whereby wines were traded under the labels of those that fetched higher prices. To combat this, insignias and specially-shaped amphorae were produced.

Wines of type, in turn, had four main categories: facsimile, mixed-origin, processed and sophisticated. First, facsimiles were intended to be legitimate copies of other wines by admitting their similar styles or tastes but different provenances e.g. a “Pramnian from Lesvos.” Second, mixed-origin wines were prepared by merchants who felt mixing wines with complementary characteristics (Heraclean and Erythrean wines mixed well according to the fourth-century BC philosopher Theophrastus) benefited both wallet and gullet. Though this could also be done badly, or at the low-end of the quality scale (the equivalent of our carton or box wine) to produce alloinia (“jumbled wine”). Third, wines of process boasted particular production techniques: saprias, for example, was a wine that emphasised its putridity and omfakitis used under-ripe grapes. Finally, sophisticated wines had substances added that enhanced the flavour or anthosmia (bouquet). Ritinitis was called after the resin added, thalassitis was named for the sea-water added, psithian was probably named after the wormwood (apsinthion) added for its aromatic character, and so on. Perhaps storage could be added as a fifth option as the explanation for resination is usually that it developed from the practice of sealing amphorae with a mixture containing pitch, or mending broken ones with resin.

Flavours and aromatics aside, they all got you drunk. Indeed, a lexicon was born to distinguish between different types of inebriation: ekstasis (rising out of one’s state), enthousiasmos (achieving union with the gods) and mania (yielding one’s self-will to the attractions of other objects). Even Aristotle chimed in to note that while beer drunkards landed belly up, those sozzled on wine flopped face-down. It’s probably worth nothing at this point that wine could probably be imbibed in greater quantities in antiquity than now because rarely surpassed twenty percent alcohol and was almost always watered down. Only the Roman Falernian variety appears to have been more potent since Pliny reported it as “the only wine that takes light when a flame is applied to it” (Natural History).

Between the ancient period and the modern, the main divisions have been created by Ottoman government (the taxation of local beys rarely benefited wine exports), its departure (many Turks uprooted or burned vineyards as they left) and most seriously phylloxera. Large parts of Greece were not hit by the microscopic aphid until the 1960s and 70s (some parts still remain untouched) which has meant it’s had a much later recovery than, say, France.

The Scylla of modern Greek wine is its ancient record, which leads to such inflated, hyperbolic standards that no modern wines could hope to compete. Its Charybdis is the hegemony of Western wine’s categories which deal in such different environments and grape varieties that they are often not very helpful when assessing its Hellenic counterparts.

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