Wine was the favorite drink of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was drunk by all groups of society: rich and poor, men and women, young and old. Ancient wines were stronger than most modern wines and were usually mixed with water to reduce their intoxicating effects. Considered a necessity of Greek and Roman life, wine became one of the most important items of trade in the ancient world. Wine was also important in religious ceremonies in both Greece and Rome. In Greece, Dionysus, the god of wine, was a major deity*. The Romans called him Bacchus.
The warm and sunny climate of the Mediterranean region is especially well suited to the growing of wine grapes. Grapes can be easily ruined by too much rain or by very hot winds at the wrong times during their growth.
* deity god or goddess
Many areas of ancient Greece and Italy had ideal conditions for growing grapes. But the land and climate of some regions produced grapes that made outstanding wines. Among these areas were the islands of Cos, Chios, Lesbos, and Lemnos in the Aegean Sea, and the region of Campania in southern Italy. Good wine grapes also were grown along the Mediterranean coast of Spain and in various parts of Gaul.
By the time of the Bronze Age, wine making was already well established throughout ancient Greece. Over time, the Greeks learned that the quality and character of wine depended on such factors as climate, soil, water, and type of grape, and they developed methods to produce a variety of wines. Many of the methods they used for planting and pruning grapevines have been followed for centuries. Some areas of Greece, particularly the Greek islands, became especially famous for their wines. Grape growing and wine making played a very important role in the economy of those regions.
Until the Romans developed vineyards and good quality wines of their own, they imported enormous quantities of wine from Greece. Even after wine making became established in Italy, certain Greek wines continued to be highly prized among some Romans. As Roman wine making improved, it became a profitable part of Roman agriculture and trade.
Wine making was similar in ancient Greece and Rome. After being cut from vines, grapes were placed in a large vat, or container, and people walked on them with their bare feet, crushing the grapes and producing a wet, pulpy mush. The mush was further crushed by a pressing device. Some of the juice released during this process was drunk as new wine. Most, however, was poured into large storage jars to ferment* for a period ranging from a few days to several months. It was then poured into smaller containers and allowed to age for varying numbers of years.
Aging improved the taste of the wine. The Greeks and the Romans also added various substances to wine to increase the range of tastes. The Greeks added small amounts of seawater to make wine taste smoother. Both they and the Romans added honey to make wine sweeter. Wine also could be mixed with various types of seeds and leaves, such as aniseed, pomegranates, or rose leaves, to create beverages with distinct flavors. Sometimes a substance called myrrh* was added, which was believed to help preserve the wine.
Wine was an important trade item. For centuries, wine was shipped in large ceramic jugs called amphorae. These were replaced by wooden casks around the A.D. 100s. Both the Greeks and Romans sought out new markets for their wines. Roman conquests, in particular, helped expand the wine trade throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Food and Drink; Trade, Greek; Trade, Roman.)
* ferment to undergo gradual chemical change in which yeast and bacteria convert sugars into alcohol
* myrrh thick, brown liquid obtained from the trunks of certain small trees in eastern Africa and Arabia and used to make perfume and incense