The excursions into the hazy underworld of online information have finally begun to paint a picture for me of the history of wine cultivation, trade and consumption. I had quite a few ideas to begin with and also went back to the wine history sections of books like the World Atlas of Wine to clarify and summarize in a more orderly fashion than the Internet provides. But all of this taken together has focused my attention on the overarching and pervading question of economics. In discussing or researching wine history I just can't get away from "the money". I think if we "follow the money" we can get at most of the Old World/New World questions I posted here.
First, wine has always been traded. It seems that viticulture can be traced to the beginnings of agriculture and therefore civilization itself. It's easy to project that humans had discovered the effects of fermented fruit/grain even before settling down to grow stuff and it was simply a matter of learning to control this science, or at least help it along. When we began to navigate the ancient world by boat trade naturally grew in size and scope. It was probably the Phoenicians who were the first big time wine merchants and there is much speculation (and some science) pointing to the coasts of Lebanon and Eastern Turkey as being the birth place of vitis vinefera. The Greeks followed some centuries later and thanks to the dominance of Western Culture are usually given the most credit for spreading the wine and vine. The Romans are famous for many forms of conquer and the exportation of viticulture is but one of them. However, it seems clear that thanks to the Phoenicians and some industrious indigenous populations (the Etruscans stand out here) that many modern wine producing areas--Jerez, Sicily, Provence, Tuscany, Abruzzo etc.--were already making wine a thousand years before Julias Ceaser was assassinated. But what was it like? Who was drinking it and how was it consumed? Again we just follow the money.
Although those famous aqueducts were sprouting up around the time of Christ it's fairly certain that most of the world's people had precious little access to fresh drinking water. So the small communities of farmers and the poor villages that began to spread around Europe and the Middle East from antiquity onward needed a cheap water substitute and wine was the obvious answer. This wine was probably very light and much lower in alcohol than modern table wine since it would be costly and time consuming to let the grapes get super ripe (and may not have happened anyway depending on the climate of the time) and things like oak aging and chaptalization were centuries if not millennia away. But this was not what the wine bar/orgy crowd was drinking at Pompeii, and certainly not the preferred drink of the Emperors and their hoards. They took lessons from the Greek Rulers and Scholars who drank wine that was flavored with honey and herbs and spices and maybe even seawater. This may have been something like a lighter version of Chinato or even sweet vermouth w/out the fortification. And the biggest prize was raisin wine; no doubt the Caesars would have been huge fans of Quintarelli's Recioto (who isn't?). But just as Quintarelli's wines are not priced for the masses neither were the wines of the palaces and the senate.
This trend seems to have continued with few interruptions into the Early Middle Ages. In the next post I will discuss the rise of the monks and their magical ways that helped birth things like Clos de Vougeot, but even then the vast majority of Europe was drinking local wine like it was water and the wine trade was busy making (spoofulating?) wine that was to be enjoyed by the upper classes in the Medieval Courts around Europe. So now we have the background of wine that was made in a specific way at a higher cost for trade and export (for money) versus wine that was made as cheaply as possible to drink instead of water with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Of course this is all still within the geographical landscape of the "Old World", but I think you can see that I'm headed towards a cultural and economic redefinition of that debate. More to come.
(I'll post links to all the resources I've used at the end of my full discussion).
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Sack was a word used for Sherry in the Middle and Late Middle Ages. Slack is because I haven't posted in a few days. My Mother is in town so I've been a bit preoccupied. But I'm still on the trail of ancient wine trades and practices. Wolfgang over at Spume was the first to mention the Phoenicians and I welcome the reminder because I encounter them again and again. They are widely believed to be the originators of our alphabet and were certainly fierce and cog nascent traders who, apparently, were very fond of the vine. Sherry is the conduit I'm using now because it's cool, don't you know. If you don't just check out some wine blogs. A couple weeks ago Eric Asimov of the New York Times posted this blog accompanied by a full article and since then the other blogs are all-a-buzz about it. Some examples are here and here. I don't mean to suggest that they get their inspiration from him (in fact I think the opposite is true) but it's funny how cyclical and connected all this stuff is. My thoughts on Jerez and its place in wine history and culture will follow soon. Until then chill yourself down w/ some cold Fino, a glass bowl of almonds and a parrot who won't shut the hell up.