Serious Eats: Drinks

What Did Wine Taste Like Thousands of Years Ago?

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Wine conservation from The Medieval Cookbook [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Nasty, with underlying notes of totally gross. A typical wine from ancient times would have had a nose redolent of tree sap, giving way to a salty palate, and yielded a finish that could only charitably be compared to floor tile in a public restroom. Unfortunately, outlets like Wine Spectator and Serious Eats didn't yet exist to do proper wine reviews, so we'll have to rely on the Bible instead. Proverbs said of one particular vintage that it "bites like a snake and poisons like a viper."

Many historians erroneously present wine's history as a continuum, suggesting that our modern wine culture is a simple extension from the wines of Homer's Greece or the pharaohs' Egypt, according to Paul Lukacs, whose new book, Inventing Wine was nominated for a James Beard award earlier this year. Lukacs, an English professor at Maryland's Loyola University, traces wine's development—both from culinary and social perspectives—over the millennia, and is careful to note the stark differences between the wines drunk by Jesus, Plato, and Robert Parker, Jr.

Preservation efforts are the most noticeable culinary difference between ancient and modern wine. Modern bottles help protect wine today, but exposure to oxygen quickly spoiled ancient wines. Vintners tried to preserve them with resin, which made the wines sticky and thick. Other additives included lead, lye-ash, marble dust, salt, pepper, and random assortments of herbs that were used to make wine remotely palatable.

Some ancient winemakers even encouraged the oxidization that most modern vintners avoid, aging wines in the open air where they were easily infected by bacteria. The use of raisins instead of fresh grapes gave a concentrated sweetness to some wines, which were sometimes boiled before fermentation, resulting in gooey concoctions more closely resembling something you'd find in a gutter in New Orleans three weeks after Mardi Gras than something from the Chateau Mouton Rothschild. When ready for drinking, ancient wines were cut with honey, dried fruit, and even salt water. In ancient Greece, Pliny recommended that the seawater used to cut wine should come far away from shore.

So why did they drink it? Ancient drinkers weren't interested in discussing the finer nuances of vintage and terroir; they instead valued wine's function and social role. Those functions varied across time and place, but were often linked to helping drinkers avoid unsafe drinking water. Chocked full of additives, ancient wine provided valuable nutrients and was used to sanitize water well past the Middle Ages. In places and times marked by disease, with rainwater fanning into greasy plumes across city streets before depositing a muck of human waste and manure into wells, wine made with pine sap and marble dust didn't seem so bad.

Religious rituals and the inherent spiritual nature of wine also accounted for its consumption, and was sometimes used to justify its horrible taste. The ancients didn't fully understand the process of fermentation—where yeast converts sugars into alcohol—and considered wine and its intoxicating effect a gift from the divine. Wine also came from the vine, which withered in winter but came back to life in spring, symbolizing the cycle of resurrection that provides a common theme in most religions. Intoxication ceremonies are also part of many religious customs, and getting a buzz was a way to commune with the gods. From this perspective, who cared how it tasted? In fact, some even argued that wine should taste bad. By the Middle Ages, physicians and healers loudly trumpeted wine's health benefits, but also considered disease and sickness to be the work of demons. They deliberately doctored wine to taste dreadful, under the logic that it would drive away evil spirits.

So why did the taste of wine improve? According to Lukacs, the change began when wine became secularized around the sixth century. Ironically, the Christian church helped drive this development. Priests, monks, and nuns cultivated vineyards to make wine an everyday drink in places where it hadn't existed before. This all meant that more people became involved with the production of wine, and knowledge of the drink grew.

But that still didn't mean that wine tasted much better, and many of the old preservation methods remained. Regardless, increasing knowledge of the drink allowed vintners to improve their product in order to better compete with the rising array of alternatives—beer, brandy, whiskey, tea, and coffee—that a burgeoning age of exploration and discovery offered. Wine increasingly needed to compete on the merit of taste, and with this development, vintners and drinkers began thinking of wine as less of an interchangeable bulk commodity and more of a sensory pleasure, defined by its production values, regional affiliations, and aesthetic pleasures.

This is where Inventing Wine really shines, as Lukacs details how early versions of contemporary wines emerged to give consumers greater choices. Standards of appreciation also developed as tastemakers—from the medieval Cistercian monks of Burgundy to the nineteenth-century writer Cyrus Redding to today's Robert Parker, Jr.—helped define quality and give winemaking a new status as art, with all the trappings of prestige, marketing, and status seeking that brings.

Alongside the contributions of writers and aesthetes, Lukacs also explains how scientists such as Louis Pasteur helped give vintners more control, making wine more of a meticulous craft and less a happenstance gift from the divine. By explaining the changes in both the appreciation of wine and its production, Lukacs brings us to where we are today, where everyday drinkers have a sophisticated understanding of wine that is unparalleled by their ancestors, and producers have the means to bring better, higher-quality wines to nearly every corner of the globe.

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