Wine in the Ancient World (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
The earliest evidence of wine dates to about 5000 B.C.E. in the Middle East, where archaeologists have discovered earthenware jars and other vessels containing grape seeds and stems. Others contain deposits of tartaric acid and calcium tartrate that are almost certainly the residue of grape liquid because grapes are rare among fruit in that they accumulate tartaric acid. Any grape juice not consumed very quickly would have soon fermented into wine in the warm temperatures of the region.
The earliest known wine jar (dated to 5000 B.C.E.) was found in the Zagros Mountains of modern western Iran. Excavations elsewhere in the region located 30-and 60-liter (7.92-and 15.85-gallon) earthenware jars, all with wine deposits, dating from 3500 to 3000 B.C.E. Similar evidence of wine-making at this time has been found at many locations in the Fertile Crescent (the region south of the Caspian and Black Seas and including parts of modern Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and Iran).
Many scholars speculate that the first vintage was an accident, the result of fresh wild grapes being crushed accidentally and fermenting spontaneously. Over time, people began to crush the grapes deliberately and also began to select and cultivate varieties that produced better wine (such as grapes with a high pulp-to-pip ratio).
Many ancient accounts of the origin of wine stress its accidental character. One refers to the Persian king Jamsheed, who was so fond of grapes that he stored them in jars so as to have supplies out of season. When one lot
Wine played a part in the diet and culture of all ancient societies from the Neolithic period onward. For the most part, it was a privileged beverage of the elites, while beer was the drink of the masses. A relief from seventh-century-B.C.E. Nineveh shows King Assurbanipal and his queen resting under a trellis of vines and drinking wine from cups. In Nimrud, a ration of wine was given to all six thousand members of the royal household. The basic male ration was 1.8 liters (3.81 pints) for ten men each day, while skilled laborers got twice that. The queen and her retinue received 54 liters (14.26 gallons) a day, but we do not know how many individuals shared it.
One reason for the special status of wine was its scarcity. Grain grew far more widely and easily than grapes, and beer (really liquid bread) could be made year-round as long as grain was available. But grapes grew only in certain localities and ripened only once a year, so that there was limited scope for wine-making. Moreover, each year's wine had to last a year, until the next vintage was ready for drinking. In regions where grapes did not grow, wine had to be imported, thus adding to its cost.
One of the earliest wine trade routes ran a thousand miles down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the vine-clad mountains of northern Mesopotamia to southern Mesopotamian cities like Ur, Babylon, and Sumer. This trade route lasted for thousands of years, and it appears that many regions began by importing wine and then proceeded to cultivate grapes and make their own wine. There is clear but uneven evidence of viticulture and wine making from 5000 to 3000 B.C.E., but they probably spread in a number of directions from the Fertile Crescent, one track taking them to the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and then south toward Egypt. The Middle Eastern climate around 3000 B.C.E. seems to have been wetter than today, allowing for cultivation is regions where it is no longer possible.
Egypt provides the most coherent image of an ancient wine culture. Hundreds of clay jars of wine (with a total volume of some 4,500 liters (118.78 gallons) were buried with one of the first Egyptian kings, Scorpion I (about 3150 B.C.E.). Analysis of the clay shows that the jars were made in the modern Israel-Palestine region.
Between 3000 and 2500 B.C.E., Egyptians began to grow their own grapes, mainly in the Nile Delta (where the earth was fertile and the heat was moderated by the Mediterranean), but also further south. The vines were owned by royalty and great officials and by priests, and a census taken about 1000 B.C.E. listed 513 vineyards owned by temples alone throughout the country.
Vines were often trained on trellises, irrigated, and fertilized with pigeon droppings. Wall paintings show the wine-making process in great detail. The grapes (almost always depicted as black) were trod by slaves in a vat and the juice was run off into fermenting jars. The must (unfermented juice) is usually colored red or black, which suggests there might have been some period of skin contact. The residual skins and other solids were squeezed in a sack to extract every drop of juice.
Fermentation took place in large clay jars that were sealed, apart from a small hole that allowed the carbon dioxide to escape. Each jar was identified with a clay seal, the forerunner of the label, that might give information on the year, the vineyard and the name of the winemaker.
The aroma, taste and texture of Egyptian wines are lost to us, but in any case the wine was often flavored with herbs and spices before being consumed. But they cannot have been very stable because the grapes were picked and crushed in August, were slowly crushed and pressed and then rapidly fermented, all in the summer heat. Moreover, the clay jars were slightly porous (unless they were coated with resin or oil), which would have led to a degree of oxidation. There was no premium on aging wine here, and there are records of wine going bad after twelve to eighteen months.
Wine cost about five times more than beer, the staple beverage of the Egyptian masses. It was consumed by powerful and wealthy individuals and by priests attached to temples that owned vineyards, who received wine as part of their salary. The elite status of wine is indicated by its prominence in the burial chambers of the kings. Thirty-six jars of wine were buried with the young King Tutankhamen.
Wine played an important role in Egyptian religion, as it did in religions in other parts of the ancient world, and it was poured as a libation or offering to the gods as prayers were said. Ramses III claimed to have presented 59,588 jars of wine to the god Ramon-Re. Some texts present wine as divine in origin: as the perspiration of Re, the sun god, or as the eyes of the god Horus. Wine was also used for medical purposes. Physicians prescribed it to increase the appetite, purge the body of worms, and treat asthma. It could also be applied externally to bring down swelling and to treat wounds.
By the time wine reached Egypt it had come to occupy a privileged place in the diet and culture of the elites. It is possible that viticulture was transferred from Egypt to Crete and from there to the European mainland. The ancient world thus established practices and attitudes that were adopted and adapted by later societies.
See also Ancient Kitchen, The; Greece, Ancient; Mesopotamia, Ancient; Rome and the Roman Empire.
Lesko, Leonard H. King Tut's Wine Cellar. Berkeley, Calif.: B. C. Scribe Publications, 1978.
McGovern, Patrick, S. J. Fleming, and Solomon H. Katz, eds. The Origins and Ancient History of Wine. Luxembourg: Gordon and Breach, 1996.
Phillips, Rod. A Short History of Wine. New York: Harper-Collins, 2001.
Poo, Mu-chou. Wine and Wine-Offering in the Religion of Ancient Egypt. London: Kegan Paul International, 1995.
Unwin, Tim. Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade. London: Routledge, 1991.
Younger, William. Gods, Men and Wine. London: Michael Joseph, 1966.