The History of Wine in Greece and Attica
Author: Eleni Kefalopoulou - Wine Journalist
The history of wine in Greece is indelibly linked to the history of Greek civilization. As well as being a staple of the Greek diet, along with bread and olive oil, wine is inseparably intertwined with all aspects of Greek life – social, economic, spiritual, religious and artistic.
Vines have been cultivated, and wine has been produced, continuously in Greece for longer than in any other area of the world. The vine may have originated elsewhere, but it was in Greece that it was cultivated, germinated and worshipped, and it was here that it became an integral part of people’s lives for almost four thousand years.
The three thousand five hundred year old winepress in Vathipatro in Crete, and all the remains in the Minoan palaces, show us that wine had an important place in the Minoan Civilisation and that the Minoans were skilled winemakers. Excavations in Santorini and Mycenae, the wine cellar in Pylos, the winepresses scattered round Macedonia and the thousands of amphorae are all witnesses to the important role played by wine in ancient Greece.
Finds from ancient sites are consistent with the oral and written tradition which was passed down from generation to generation. The heroes of Homer’s stories drank wine from kraters (large vases used to mix wine and water), Hesiod tells us the correct ratio of wine to water - one part wine to three parts water, Alcaeus and Anacreon praise wine in their lyric poems, Plato and Xenophon discuss wine in their Symposiums, and Athenaeus refers to the wines of antiquity by name.
It was only natural that the country which worshipped Dionysus would elevate wine, Dionysus’s gift to mankind, into an art. The way the farmer cared for his vines, the production of wine and the way it was drunk, were all art forms, as were the condemnation of drunkenness, the giving of wine as a religious offering and the Bacchanalian poetry which written about wine and wine-drinking.
The Ancient Greeks were a seafaring people and through their voyages wine become known throughout the ancient world. It was the “trademark” of the ancient Greek civilisation.
The traditions associated with Dionysus continued unabated into Hellenistic and Roman times. In any case, as well as being used in worship and drunk for pleasure, wine was also used as medicine and as an antiseptic and, most importantly, a purifying agent for water.
In Byzantium Dionysus was replaced by the new God, who, however, inherited all the Dionysian symbols. Christ became the vine, and wine formed a link between Greek tradition and the Bible. Wine occupied an important place in the Eucharist and the Byzantine rulers mimicked Homer’s heroes with their feasts. Harvest time was one of the biggest celebrations, the people went to tavernas and restaurants and the best wines of the Empire were drunk in Constantinople. This drink of the Gods’ was ever-present in the people's lives.
The Ottomans recognised the economic benefits of wine and the important role it played in the lives of their conquered subjects and only allowed the 'infidels' to grow vines and trade wines. During periods of severe taxation, and during the revolution, the tradition of wine-making was mainly kept alive by the monasteries.
From Greek independence to the Second World War Greek, vineyards expanded without any particular planning. Phylloxera (a pest which infested the vines), the Asia Minor disaster and the subsequent migration dealt a big blow to the industry. Indigenous varieties and mountain vineyards were abandoned and bulk wine of dubious quality dominated the market.
In around 1960 the first investments and efforts to re-establish vineyards were made. New wine producers and experts saw that there was a future in the production of good quality wine. A significant number of small producers also followed this route in the 1980s. Investment in technology, skills and knowledge of winegrowing, and perseverance, brought about a renaissance in Greek winemaking. But the biggest step was taken after 1990, with a return to the cultivation of many indigenous grape varieties, some of which were in danger of extinction. Greek wines made their mark in international competitions, receiving distinctions and awards.
Dionysius’s gift was once again returned to the place it had always held in Greek life.