Drinking Wine Like the Ancients

I spoke recently about dry wine and sweet wine, and how it’s all very complicated and when I try to explain it people look at me with that delicious combination of confusion and pity as if I’m making an argument for geocentrism[1] and then my head starts to hurt and it all makes me yearn for a simpler time. In ancient times, men were men, women were women, and children were sold into slavery. Romans may have been insanely pimped out murder-machines who plowed Western Europe to make room for the graves of civilizations they slaughtered, but to be fair, they knew how to drink, and without them we would all be drinking beer. The Greeks might have been iron-plated tank-fairies who would stick a spear through your neck then compose a verse about the resulting spatter of blood, but they did build most of their philosophy and culture around drinking games.[2]

Also in ancient times, there was no confusion over sweet and dry, red and white, old world and new world. It was all perfectly clear. Sweet white wine was the best, dry red wines were disgusting and required all manner of spices and crap to hide the bitterness, and all of it was watered down. Since this is so profoundly different from how we drink wine today, I have endeavored to follow a few of the classic preparations of the classical age.

Water

The Recipe: 1 part wine to 3 parts water

It was generally believed that drinking pure wine was bad. The Spartan King Cleomenes I was supposed to have gone insane after drinking pure wine,[3] and many right-thinking people believed it was actually deadly.[4] For this test I found a Portuguese fortified wine, a Moscatel de Setubal. It’s not a perfect example because fortification was unknown to the winemakers of antiquity, but the color, alcohol levels, sweetness, and slightly oxidized character of the wine is as close a match as I could find for Falernian, generally thought to be the best wine of the Roman Empire.

The Tasting:

Watering this wine down made it soft, light, and fresh, when it had been a touch pungent in its pure form. Nutty flavors, the hints of oxidation disappeared in favor of honey notes. Tasty but essentially pointless.

Spices

The Recipe: 1 part wine to 3 parts water, juniper seed, cinnamon,

Antique drinkers did not stop with honey. They would often pollute accent their drinks with a cupboard-full of whatever they had to cover over the flavors of what we would call flawed wines. My trusty Dao red will suffer this experiment, since, again, it was that bitterness of tannin they sought to cover up.[5]

Tasting:

The spices dominate on the nose. Badly made wines with a strong sheep’s butt aroma would benefit from this treatment. The spice did almost nothing for the palate, which was still bitter and slightly sour. I put in a dollop of honey and that smoothed it right out.

Seawater

The recipe: 1 part wine to 3 parts saltwater

A particular specialty of Greek coastal areas. This recipe reminds me of the day I invented the Paint Drink, a mixture of orange juice, water, and a dollop of salt, which tastes exactly like paint. Don’t try it. It’s disgusting. I’m going to try it again, changing out the OJ with a nice little late harvest Bordeaux white from the Loupiac AOC, since the sweet floral bloom, ripe mango, and over-ripe orange notes are close to what ancient winemakers considered ideal. This would have been a wine for wealthy citizens at a symposium.

Tasting:

This wine has a pretty interesting aroma, actually. The floral and honey notes are nicely balanced by the salty tone, not entirely unlike a Muscadet or a Picpoul de Pinet. Alas, it’s almost undrinkable. The flavor was not entirely unlike falling off a sailboat. I nearly gagged. It did not taste like paint. It tasted like salt. When I tried only putting in a little saltwater and using plain water for the rest, I managed to make something less horrible, but it still speaks ill of the Greeks that people thought of this as a specialty.

Dough

The Recipe: basic biscuit dough with honey in the white wine, diluted 1-3

This treatment was reserved for state occasions. Why? You’d have to ask them.

 Tasting:

It looked weird. It tasted a lot like honey, and then there were bits of dough in it. Maybe I need to work on my recipe, but if the idea is to make a cloudy wine that tastes like bread, they sorta lost me.

6. Grape Skins

The Recipe: one part wine to ten parts water, soaked in crushed grape skins

This preparation would have been what slaves drank. As if life didn’t suck enough.

Tasting

This wine was, as advertised, almost tasteless, and what flavor did exist was plain bitterness. Keep in mind that I just mashed up some seedless grapes, boiled off the must and poured the grape skins into this mixture. The slaves drank wine that had marinated in dried grape skins full of the bitterest seeds that exist for months. Also, they could be killed for almost reason. It was no fun to be a slave in those days.

I think, upon reflection, that I am glad we are descended from barbarians. I am going to drink some bourbon to wash that crap out of my mouth, and I’m going to drink it neat, thank you very much.


[1] “The flavor and the fact of sugar are different things… see?”

[2] Next time you’re at the University attending a Symposium, take a moment to remember that in ancient Greece, Symposiums were essentially drinking parties, where tradition demanded that once everyone had reached the stumbling drunk phase, they set out upon the streets, sing, dance, fight, and hurl insults at their neighbors. No wonder the Persians gave up.

[3] Probably after hearing a particularly inspiring part of the Iliad, where god-like Acheans throw giant rocks at Hektor after drinking pure wine.

[4] Which is actually true, if you drink a giant bowl full.

[5] I don’t mean to suggest that this wine is flawed. It was kind of excellent with deep cherry, licorice, and tar notes, but the stiff tannins would have been considered a flaw by Plato, Aristophanes, and Lucius Galba.

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