Wine Talk

Snooth User: dmcker

Greek Winemaking

Posted by dmcker, Sep 12, 2017.

Or in this case, ancient Greek wine. Interesting to consider the origins of the wine culture we currently enjoy. Not that it's exactly a straight line from back then to our here and now, but theirs are some of the earliest recountings available to us of winemaking and enjoyment.

Was re-reading Hesiod's 'Works and Days' and found myself paying greater attention to his time-of-year comments that used grape growing and winemaking examples. Hesiod was a rough contemporary of Homer's (8th century BCE). The two of them are the greatest old Greek poets, and can be said to have a greater influence on ancient Greek culture (and what we know about it) than anyone else.


God giving wine to human hero:



Back then calendars weren't as solid a concept or reality, to put it mildly, as they are for us now. So Hesiod's references are interesting

"But when house-on-back the snail crawls from the ground up

the plants..... it's no longer

time for vine digging

time rather to put an edge to your sickles

and rout out your helpers"


"Avoid the 13th of the waxing month

for the commencing of sowing,

But it is a good day for planting plants"


And so on and so forth. Seems like the biodynamic crew might be taking notes...


Perhaps more interesting than the cultivation is the winemaking:

"Then when Orion and Seirios are come to the middle of the sky

and the rosy-fingered Dawn confronts Arcturus

then, Perses, cut off all your grapes, and bring them home with you

Show your grapes to the sun for 10 days and for ten nights,

cover them with shade for five, and on the 6th day

press out the gifts of bountiful Dionysos into jars"


This looks like a bit more hardcore version of the vin de paille techniques still used in Jura and elsewhere. I do like the modern Jura versions.

Dionysos making wine with satyrs and maenads:


Excited old guys making their own wine:



Those ancient Greek jars were amphorae, and after storage in them, when it came time to drink, the very, very dense wine was transferred to kraters, and mixed water-to-wine 3:1 or 5:3. Anyone who drank the stuff straight was expected to go bonkers before too long.

Amphora closures were problematic and oxidation was a serious issue so when the seal on an amphora worked perfectly and the wine could mature without it then that was a special opportunity for joy and appreciation. Resin came in as an adhesive to attempt to keep the closure sealed. Different resins were appreciated for what nose and flavors they might add to a particular wine.

Commercial amphorae from the wreckage of Athens after Rome sacked it:

A nicer one for wealthy home use:


A Mycenean krater from the time of the war with Troy (approx 1200 BCE):


Speaking of Troy, here's some nice detail from a 'jar' (not sure which type), depicting the sack of Troy by the Greeks. Conducive to a proper drinking mood, I'm sure:



Mixing the water and wine preparatory to serving (krater lower left):


Kylix drinking cups (Dionysos in his ship, then satyr & nymph theme):




Reply by rckr1951, Sep 12, 2017.

Interesting post, thanks for this.  


Reply by GregT, Sep 13, 2017.

I wonder if they had differently shaped glasses for the different kinds of grapes . . .

Reply by dmcker, Sep 13, 2017.

That would have to be transparent, colorless crystal, right? The kind that breaks if you look at it wrong so you have to keep buying replacements, especially after parties.  :-(

Interestingly, to the extent we know they didn't praise or collect wine from individual winemakers, but rather regions. So I wonder if there was the preferred Naxos or Cretan kylix shapes (Santorini isn't usually mentioned in the wine context back then)?  ;-)

I do think the black and orange color scheme of the pottery the wealthy folk used would work well with deep (or lighter, depending on how diluted) purple wines, especially in candle, fire or oil-lamp light...

Reply by dmcker, Sep 17, 2017.

Here's an interesting article on how the ancient Greeks influenced the Scythians, one of those dreaded 'horse-people' hordes who entered European consciousness from the steppes abutting onto the Black Sea area, to take up wine drinking. Guess just fermented mare's (or yak or goat or sheep) milk was no longer enough after contact with civilization, though they were enlightened enough to have already incorporated ganja sweat lodges, where they were often witnessed laughing their heads off, into their culture. Some speculation that their welded-to-their-horses lifestyle was the origin of the centaur myths. Of course the Scythians drank their wine undiluted....


Edit: Just noticed that the Drinks Business link is now (late September) irregularly showing sometimes the article, but more frequently only the images withoutt the original article. Not sure why this happens--is a good, informative and not-too-long article worth the read. If you do a search on their site you can find the article, in the event you're only served up the images at first.

Reply by dmcker, Sep 27, 2017.

To make clearer the Scythians' location and outlying proximity to the often-overpoweringly-'superior' Greek culture to the west, here's a map from the article:

Most historians have focused on how Greek influence determined the shape of cultures (including wine) to the west, from the Etruscans and Romans on throughout the lands abutting the Mediterranean and then on to the rest of Europe. Interesting to see how the influence was also spreading to the east, long before Alexander came on the scene....

Reply by Really Big Al, Oct 16, 2017.

Sounds like we do need a trip to Greece after all.  Maybe in 2019?  

I previously wondered why their wine storage vessels (amphoras) are shaped the way they are.  They look unstable and likely to break from rolling around in the hold of a ship.  However, their shape makes more sense when you read this Wiki post:

"An amphora (Greek: Αμφορέας, English plural: amphorae or amphoras) is a type of container of a characteristic shape and size, descending from at least as early as the Neolithic Period. Amphorae were used in vast numbers for the transport and storage of various products, both liquid and dry, but mostly for wine. They are most often ceramic, but examples in metals and other materials have been found. Versions of the amphorae were one of many shapes used in Ancient Greek vase painting.

The amphora complements the large storage container, the pithos, which makes available capacities between one-half and two and one-half tons. In contrast, the amphora holds under a half-ton, typically less than 50 kilograms (100 lbs). The bodies of the two types have similar shapes. Where the pithos may have multiple small loops or lugs for fastening a rope harness, the amphora has two expansive handles joining the shoulder of the body and a long neck. The necks of pithoi are wide for scooping or bucket access. The necks of amphorae are narrow for pouring by a person holding it by the bottom and a handle. Some variants exist. The handles might not be present. The size may require two or three handlers to lift. For the most part, however, an amphora was tableware, or sat close to the table, was intended to be seen, and was finely decorated as such by master painters.

Stoppers of perishable materials, which have rarely survived, were used to seal the contents. Two principal types of amphorae existed: the neck amphora, in which the neck and body meet at a sharp angle; and the one-piece amphora, in which the neck and body form a continuous curve. Neck amphorae were commonly used in the early history of ancient Greece, but were gradually replaced by the one-piece type from around the 7th century BC onward.

Most were produced with a pointed base to allow upright storage by embedding in soft ground, such as sand. The base facilitated transport by ship, where the amphorae were packed upright or on their sides in as many as five staggered layers.[1] If upright, the bases probably were held by some sort of rack, and ropes passed through their handles to prevent shifting or toppling during rough seas. Heather and reeds might be used as packing around the vases. Racks could be used in kitchens and shops. The base also concentrated deposits from liquids with suspended solid particles, such as olive oil and wines.

Amphorae are of great use to maritime archaeologists, as they often indicate the age of a shipwreck and the geographic origin of the cargo. They are occasionally so well preserved that the original content is still present, providing information on foodstuffs and mercantile systems. Amphorae were too cheap and plentiful to return to their origin-point and so, when empty, they were broken up at their destination. At a breakage site in Rome, Testaccio, close to the Tiber, the fragments, later wetted with Calcium hydroxide (Calce viva), remained to create a hill now named Monte Testaccio, 45 m (148 ft) high and more than 1 kilometre in circumference."

Reply by dmcker, Oct 17, 2017.

The pointed bottoms is what I assume you were wondering about. The storage embedded in sandy earth isn't something that seems enough of an advantage to be a determiner on its own. Catching the sediment is definitely an advantage. It's possible the ceramic container was structurally more sound in that shape than with a flat bottom, too. Am curious how they had to be racked in ship holds during storage, however.

Interestingly, Jomon Era pottery in Japan (looong before the Greeks) and similar-era examples in China also show elongated bodies without a stable, flat bottom, even if not quite as pointy as the Greek versions. The pots in Japan were embedded in the ashes of a fire during the cooking process, thus that shape. No need for heavy, technical, structurally sound, cumbersome grills or hanging racks with that type of pot.

Back to Categories

Popular Topics

Top Contributors This Month

259386 Snooth User: zufrieden
41 posts
1413489 Snooth User: dvogler
26 posts
89564 Snooth User: GregT
7 posts


View All

Snooth Media Network