The Pointe-à-Callière Museum in Montreal has a fascinating exhibit this summer that traces the history of wine from the Middle East (Persia and Armenia) to Gaul with stops along the way in Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
My main impression of the exhibit was that not much has changed in 7000+ years (wine was first made in Persia in 5400 BC). We still love wine, we value it highly, we ship it all over the known world, it is still made in largely the same way, we still use flavour additives to make it taste better, and stabilizers to protect it while shipping and to prevent oxidation, and we stll have standardized containers and labels to determine the provenance of the wine.
In ancient times, those containers were terracotta amphorae jars – the word comes from the Greek word amphoros meaning “two handles”. The jars had particular shapes that allowed for easy carrying (two handles on the side) and pouring (the point on the bottom of the jug assisted in tipping it to pour the wine). These jars were ubiquitous around the ancient world and the provenance of a wine could be determined by the shape of the jar. It is still the same way now with the ever familiar distinctive shapes of the Bordeaux or Burgundy bottles or the Alsatian flute as examples. There were also inscriptions on the jars (sometimes) like the labels we have now.
Ancient wine often had flavor enhancers added to it, including: Salt, pepper, cardamon, cloves, fennel, fenugreek, orris root, coriander, sesame, marjoram, thyme, honey, or pitch. Now we add sugar, oak chips, chemical flavourizers, ammonia, antifreeze, [just kidding – but not really], etc.\r\n\r\nWine also had stabilizers added to it, including plaster, flour or calcium carbonate. Nowadays we use sulphites to stabilize the wine and to prevent it from oxidizing.
So, everytime you find yourself marvelling at how much human civilization has progressed – sit back and consider that the 7000 year history of wine may be the best evidence of the lesson – “The more things change – the more they stay the same.”
Here are some other interesting facts that you don’t really want to know:
Galen, a 2nd century Greek physician, drew up the first set of criteria for describing wine, including: colour (form white to red), flavor (from sweet to astringent), consistency (from thin to thick), aroma (pleasant, harsh, or disagreeable), and strength (from water to vinous – strong).
In Egypt, women could drink wine and Egypt had the only vineyard in ancient times that was owned by a woman. In contrast, in Rome, wine was reserved for men only, and if a woman met a male family member on the street – she had to kiss him on the mouth to prove that she had not been drinking.
In Greece and Rome all wine was watered down with two parts of water to one part of wine. Only the barbarians in Gaul drank their wine un-watered.I guess that confirms that I am a barbarian.