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Wine in ancient times

Based on the available data, the first wine was produced in the Neolithic period in the communities of the ancient Near East and Egypt. People living in the area pioneered the use of fermentation, a food processing technique, which enabled them to be the original producers not only of wine, but of beer, too. Wine was kept in almost indestructible purpose-designed storage vessels made of clay fired to high temperatures, as proven by some undamaged jars excavated in the area. Some of the wall paintings of Egyptian tombs present certain stages of the winemaking process, most likely the way it was carried out in the Nile Delta. Egyptian wines were probably of the sweet or dessert type, but lists of wines inscribed on the Egyptian tomb walls – some sort of wine cards of the period – show that they were of different qualities. Pharaohs, priests and soldiers would drink only the best ones. Some of those wines were Egyptian, whereas others were imported from Ethiopia, Syria and Palestine, brought in Phoenician galleys. Common Egyptians drank very little wine, although there are paintings proving that even then some people had a weakness for it, so extreme drunkenness was not fully unknown. Some of the excavated Egyptian tombs contained a number of wine jars, what is probably related to the ancient Egyptian custom of providing the dead with necessities for the afterlife.

Wine consumption was popularized by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who also incorporated it in their religious ceremonies.

It is quite probable that the Greeks first got wine from Asia and later on, they themselves spread the art of making and drinking it throughout the Mediterranean. Cultivation was pretty much the same as it is today so the Greeks are rightfully considered the leading pioneers of viticulture. In Ancient Greece wine was a commercial commodity a lot more important than in Ancient Egypt and no social class was entirely deprived of it. However, the exact type was always related to the money one could pay. The overall quality of wine depended upon a number of factors, one of them being the origin of grapes it was produced from. The Greeks had their vineyards not only on the mainland and islands of modern Greece, but also in the numerous former colonies, which had different climatic and geographic characteristics. Literary tradition reveals that wine was a must at all feasts held by gods and goddesses on Mt Olympus, but at the same time it was enjoyed by soldiers waging wars as well as by common people at riotous and free flowing celebrations and Dionysian feasts. Athens was quite liberal and allowed women to drink wine, but Sparta was not all that lenient – it sternly forbade its women to have any wine at all. Drinking wine was as much of a sin as committing adultery – in both cases women could (or even would) lose their lives.

Greek wine was highly appreciated in Ancient Rome, where it was a lot more expensive than domestic wine. Moreover, there are proofs that not even at banquets held in rich houses, Greek wine was offered more than once. Thus, it must have been very expensive, but it was probably high quality. Although the geographical origin and the names of the growth gained importance as early as in Ancient Egypt, it was the Romans who made them even more significant. The reason this is so is the fact that the Ancient Rome saw the appearance of adulterated wines and started the infamous tradition of wines faked up in cellars. It was quite common to sweeten wine with honey, so it is quite probable that the Romans appreciated sweet wines, much as the Greeks did. Wine was also believed to have some medicinal qualities, especially if mixed with spices. It was kept in huge terracotta amphorae, such as those we can see at various archeological sites all over the Apennine Peninsula and in former Roman colonies. Just as the Greeks had their god of wine, Dionysus, the Romans had Bacchus, who was celebrated in mid-March by a two-day feast. However, Bacchanalia got so wild and riotous that the Roman Senate banned them in 186 BC.