Wine in the Ancient Mediterranean

Wine in the Ancient Mediterranean

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Wine was the most popular manufactured drink in the ancient Mediterranean. With a rich mythology, everyday consumption, and important role in rituals wine would spread via the colonization process to regions all around the Mediterranean coastal areas and beyond. The Greeks institutionalised wine-drinking in their famous symposia drinking parties, and the Romans turned viticulture into a hugely successful business, so much so, that many of the ancient wine-producing territories still enjoy some of the highest reputations in the modern wine industry.

The Spread of WineMaking

The grape vine, which grows naturally in most geographical areas between 30° and 50° north with annual isotherms of 10-20 °C, was probably first cultivated (as vitis vinifera sativa) in the Caucasus region prior to the Neolithic period. From there the practice of pressing grapes into wine spread to the Near East and Mediterranean. Cultivated in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Mycenaean Greece, by the Classical period wine was an important feature of ritual and everyday life. As trade routes were established in the Mediterranean the consumption of wine and cultivation of vines spread from the Black Sea to the North African coast and along to the Iberian peninsula. Winemaking thus became one of the most visible manifestations of cultural colonization in the ancient world. Indeed, viticulture became so successful in Gaul and Spain that, from the 1st century CE, they replaced Italy as the Mediterranean's major producers of wine. In Late Antiquity, vine-growing spread further to include suitable northern European regions such as Moselle in Germany.

Wine in Mythology

According to Greek mythology, wine was invented by Dionysos (to the Romans Bacchus). The god generously gave Ikarios, a noble citizen of Ikaria in Attica, the vine tree. From this, Ikarios made wine, which he shared with a group of passing shepherds. However, unaware of the stupefying effects of wine, the shepherds thought they had been poisoned and so swiftly took revenge and killed the unfortunate Ikarios. Notwithstanding such an inauspicious start to the wine industry, this gift from the gods would become the most popular drink in antiquity.

Growing Vines

The Greeks, in particular, became passionate wine-drinkers, and so demand was always high. They knew that the three essentials of good soil, climate, and type of vine could combine to create differing varieties of grape and taste. While we know of many cultural practices and the mythology involving wine in the Greek world, it was the Romans who have left us the best descriptions of the process of making it.

The Greeks diluted their wine with water, although the Macedonians scandalously drank theirs neat.

Training vines to grow at the optimum height from the ground (which depends on local temperatures and wind), along a trellis if necessary, the optimum distance from each other, and regular pruning to strengthen the vine were all practices well-known to the Greeks. Vines could be left free-standing, supported with timber props, or even trained to grow up trees (especially the olive). This last method was prevalent in Roman vineyards with the best reputation for quality. Like most branches of agriculture, viticulture was a serious investment and profit margins could be slim indeed if wine was not produced on a large enough scale. As the Roman historian Varro put it, "there are those who claim that the cost of keeping up a vineyard swallows up the profit" (Bagnall, 7021).

Making Wine

The ancients knew full well the value of fine wines and distinguished their production between new young wines for the masses or armies in the field and more mature wines for the connoisseur. Certain places quickly gained prestige as good winemakers, notably the Greek islands of Chios, Kos, Lesbos, Rhodes, and Thasos.

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In Italy, specific vineyards such as Caecuban and Falernian enjoyed a high reputation and were endorsed by such authors as Pliny the Elder, who wrote extensively on the subject. The Alban Hills near Rome, the region of Campania, and Northeast Italy were particularly noted for their quality wines. The industry became highly lucrative and regulations were imposed, as indicated in surviving inscriptions, concerning the sale of wine, its export, and guaranteed quality. Aside from large-scale producers, most estates would have had their own vineyards for private consumption. At Pompeii, for example, two-thirds of villas had vineyards.

Grapes were harvested and then pressed underfoot in large pottery vessels, baskets, stone vats, or on a simple tiled floor which sloped to a collecting channel. The process became more sophisticated with the invention of beam and weight presses which increased the crushing efficiency and which later evolved into even better screw presses from the 1st century CE.

Many vineyards from the Greek islands added sea water to the pressed must to make the wine smoother and increase acidity. Wines were both white and red, the latter gaining its colour from leaving the mash (marc and must) longer before fully pressing out the juice. A redder colour was also achieved by ageing the wine over a few years and even exposing the wine to heat by storing it in lofts built above hearths.

Wine was fermented in large storage terracotta jars, typically set partially into the ground in open-roofed buildings which had walls with apertures to allow a cool movement of air. When ready, wine was then drained off and stored in clay amphorae for transportation, usually sealed with a clay stopper or resin. Those amphorae destined for export were usually stamped to indicate their origin. Wine was sold in markets and, in the Roman world, dedicated wine shops. The Romans most valued sweet white wines (which would have been much cloudier than today's wines due to the more primitive production process). The Carthaginians had a similar taste, producing a famous sweet white wine made from sun-dried grapes. Wine was considered best as a pure drink without additives, but sometimes more unscrupulous producers and sellers did add substances (anything from spices to honey) in order to disguise the taste of poor wine or wine which had passed its best.

Drinking Wine

Wine was a common, relatively cheap, and everyday drink in both the Classical Greek and Roman cultures. It was drunk on its own and with meals. The Greeks diluted their wine with water (1 part wine to 3 parts water), although the Macedonians scandalously drank theirs neat. This dilution helped prevent excessive alcoholism, which was (at least by the elite) considered a trait of 'barbarian' foreign cultures and which was widely parodied in Greek comedy plays. Drunkenness also crops up in many Greek myths as an explanation for terrible and uncivilised behaviour such as the fight caused by the inebriated centaurs at the wedding of Perithous.

Ancient authors warned of the dangers of drunkenness to both mind and body. Aristotle even wrote a treatise On Drunkenness (now lost) and Pliny the Elder famously noted that wine can reveal the truth (in vino veritas) but that such truths are usually better left unsaid. Such learned recommendations, though, doubtless went unheeded by common folk and did not stop such famous names as Alcibiades, Alexander the Great, and Mark Antony gaining a reputation as fierce wine drinkers.

Wine was drunk on social occasions such as the Greek symposium, or drinking party, where elite male citizens would discuss politics and philosophy and be entertained by musicians and courtesans (hetairai). Special drinking vessels developed such as the shallow stemmed kylix which could easily be lifted from the floor by a drinker reclining on a couch. Large pottery vessels known as kraters were made so that wine could be easily mixed with water. The Roman equivalent to the symposium was the convivium where respectable women were added to the guest list and food had a greater emphasis.

Besides being a tasty drink and social lubricant wine had other functions such as in the pouring of libations to the gods in religious ceremonies. Wine, often healthier than unreliable sources of water, was also sometimes prescribed as a medicine by ancient doctors. This remedy was to be taken in moderation, though, as the ancients early identified the dangers of excessive drinking including insomnia, memory loss, a distended stomach, character changes, and early death. Wine was a gift from the gods but not to be over-indulged in or one would end up meeting them earlier than one hoped.

Phoenicians and wine

The culture of the ancient Phoenicians was one of the first to have had a significant effect on the history of wine. [1] Phoenicia was a civilization centered in current day Lebanon. Between 1550 BC and 300 BC, the Phoenicians developed a maritime trading culture that expanded their influence from the Levant to North Africa, the Greek Isles, Sicily, and the Iberian Peninsula. Through contact and trade, they spread not only their alphabet but also their knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, including the propagation of several ancestral varieties of the Vitis vinifera species of wine grapes. [2]

They either introduced or encouraged the dissemination of wine knowledge to several regions that today continue to produce wine suitable for international consumption. These include modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal. [1]

The Phoenicians and their Punic descendants of Carthage had a direct influence on the growing winemaking cultures of the ancient Greeks and Romans that would later spread viticulture across Europe. [1] The agricultural treatises of the Carthaginian writer Mago were among the most important early texts in the history of wine to record ancient knowledge of winemaking and viticulture. While no original copies of Mago's or other Phoenician wine writers' works have survived, there is evidence from quotations of Greek and Roman writers such as Columella that the Phoenicians were skilled winemakers and viticulturists.

They were capable of planning vineyards according to favorable climate and topography, such as which side of a slope was most ideal for grape growing, and producing a wide variety of different wine styles ranging from straw wines made from dried grapes to an early example of the modern Greek wine retsina, made with pine resin as an ingredient. The Phoenicians also spread the use of amphorae (often known as the "Canaanite jar") for the transport and storage of wine. [2] [3]

Ancient Israel, Middle East & Eastern Mediterranean A Wine History

Somewhere on the map of the Eastern Mediterranean the art of winemaking was perfected and wine culture was established for later generations. It is a sobering thought that this area was the France or Italy of ancient times in what was a golden age of wine.

The Middle East & Eastern Mediterranean was the cradle of the wine industry, and Canaan must have been one of the earliest countries to enjoy wine, over 2,000 years before the vine reached Europe. The oldest grape pips found in the regions of modern Turkey, Syria and Lebanon date back to the Stone Age period (c. 8000 B.C.E.).

The art of winemaking is thought to have begun in the area between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Indeed, the oldest pips of ‘cultivated’ vines, dating to c. 6000 B.C.E., were found in Georgia. The biblical Noah was the first recorded viticulturist who, after the flood, “became a husbandman and planted a vineyard.” Here scientific evidence supports the Bible. Noah’s ark came to rest in eastern Turkey c. 3000 B.C.E.

The vine traveled south, through Phoenicia and Canaan to Egypt, the world’s first great wine culture. It is known that the Egyptians particularly prized the wine of Canaan.
At this time the Jewish devotion to wine was clearly shown in their developing literature and law.

In about 1800 B.C.E. there was a communication which reported that Palestine was “blessed with figs and with vineyards producing wine in greater quantity than water.” Micha’s vision of peace on earth and harmony among men was illustrated with, “and every man will sit under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make him afraid.”

In the Book of Numbers the story is told of how two men Moses sent to spy out the Land of Canaan came back with a great cluster of grapes which they carried between them. Grapes were chosen as a symbol of how the land flowed with milk and honey. (Today both Carmel Winery and the Israel Government Tourist Office use this symbol as their logo.)
In recent years excavations have uncovered ancient presses and storage vessels that indicate a well developed and successful wine industry existed in the area. Grapes, grape clusters and vines were frequent motifs on coins and jars found from ancient times. Coins have been found commemorating the victories of the Hasmoneans and Bar Kochba with grapes featured as a symbol of the fertility of the country. Many wine presses and storage cisterns have been found from Mount Hermon to the Negev. Inscriptions and seals of wine jars illustrate that wine was a commercial commodity being shipped in goatskin or jugs from ports such as Dor, Ashkelon and Joppa (Jaffa). The vineyards of Galilee and Judea were mentioned then wines with names like Sharon, Carmel and from places like Gaza, Ashkelon and Lod were famous. Even King David’s wine stores were so substantial that his court included a special official to be in charge of them! It is a measure of the importance of wine that anyone planting a new vineyard was exempt from military service, even in national emergency. The grape, one of the seven species of fruit for which the Holy Land was renowned, was regarded as a blessing in ancient Palestine. The wine produced was not just for drinking ( it was safer than the water ) but also important for medical purposes, for cleaning out homes and dyeing cloth.

Winemaking in Palestine was at its peak during the period of the Second Temple. It was a major export and the economic mainstay of the era. However, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, Jews were dispersed and the once proud industry forsaken.

The Arab conquest from 600 C.E. and Mohammed’s prohibition of alcohol caused many remaining vineyards to be uprooted,

The Crusaders briefly revived the cultivation of grapes in the Holy Land and grapes were planted in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. The revival was short lived, but the Crusaders did return to Europe with many noble grape varieties which had their origins in the Middle East. (Varieties such as Chardonnay, Muscat and Shiraz are said to come from the region.)

In the Levant, the Ottomans continued to discourage wine because of Mohammed’s prohibition of alcohol, but distilled spirits, invented by the Arabs in the 9th century, were ignored. Therefore, as arak became more popular, the remaining vineyards were placed under greater threat than ever before.

On the founding of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East wine industry was finally obliterated because of the decline in wealth of the whole region and the wars and epidemics which greatly reduced and weakened the populations. Communities who had maintained the wine industry finally departed. Prices of wine rose, consumption fell. Hashish & coffee replaced wine as an affordable intoxicant.

Wine and Feasting in the Ancient Mediterranean with Professors d'Alfonso and Kotsonas

On Monday, March 22nd, Lorenzo d'Alfonso , Professor of Western Asian Archaeology and History and Antonis Kotsonas , Associate Professor of Mediterranean History and Archaeology, gave a virtual presentation in collaboration with NYU Alumni Association. We are pleased to share the recording with our community.

Cultural practices centered on wine consumption, especially feasting, are characteristic of the Mediterranean for much of antiquity. In this presentation, Professors d'Alfonso and Kotsonas will discuss the remarkable spread of such practices, as well as the development of fascinating localized traditions.

Please check for event updates.

ISAW is committed to providing a positive and educational experience for all guests and participants who attend our public programming. We ask that all attendees follow the guidelines listed in our community standards policy.

Wine Becomes a Drink for Any Time or Occasion

The Romans drank wine as a staple part of their diet, preferred over anything else. In fact, the quality of drinking water was such that, wine was a typical drink at any time in the day. However, unlike today, ancient wine was almost always consumed mixed in with large percentages of water. The ancient wines were stronger, both in alcohol content and perhaps in flavor, making the watering down of their drinks necessary. In so doing, not only was the longevity of a serving secured, but the alcoholic effects also slowed. They enjoyed wines of many varieties and flavors, and mixed the original grape product with an exhaustive list of flavor changing properties.


Galloway, John H. 1977. "The Mediterranean sugar industry." Geographical Review. [Online] Available at:
Kambas, Michele. 2005. Cypriots thought to be first Mediterranean winemakers . Reuters. [Online] Available at:
Ktisti, Sarah. 2009. Ancient Cypriot wine enters vintage major league . Reuters Life!. [Online] Available at:
Oldest Manufactured Wine . Guinness World Records. [Online] Available at:
Stanislawski, Dan. 1975. " Dionysus westward: Early religion and the economic geography of wine." Geographical Review. American Geographical Society.


Caleb Strom has a bachelor's degree in earth science and a minor in anthropological archaeology. He has participated in an archaeological field school and archaeological excavations in Greece and San Diego. He is especially interested in classical Greek history and. Read More

2,600-year-old wine 'factory' unearthed in Lebanon

The oldest press found in the country was used by ancient Phoenicians to manufacture vintages once adored around the Mediterranean.

Archaeologists have unearthed new evidence of the extensive overseas trade in wine by the ancient Phoenicians, with the discovery of the oldest wine press in Lebanon.

The find sheds new light on winemaking by the Phoenicians, the seafaring merchants who introduced a culture of drinking wine throughout the ancient Mediterranean, and whose influence lives on in the beverage’s worldwide popularity.

Excavations at Tell el-Burak, about five miles south of the Lebanese coastal city of Sidon, have revealed the well-preserved remains of a wine press used from at least the seventh century B.C. It is the earliest wine press ever found in the Phoenician homelands, which roughly corresponded to modern Lebanon. The discovery is featured in a study published Monday in the journal Antiquity.

Large numbers of seeds show grapes were brought there from nearby vineyards and crushed by treading feet in a large basin of durable plaster that could hold about 1,200 gallons of raw juice.

The resulting “must” was collected in a large vat and stored in distinctive pottery jars known as amphorae for fermenting, aging, and transport. (Here's how climate change is changing the flavor of French wine.)

The wine press was excavated along with four mudbrick houses at Tell el-Burak, part of a Phoenician settlement inhabited between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C. that was probably devoted to making wine for trading overseas, the researchers write.

“Wine was an important Phoenician trading item,” says Hélène Sader, an archaeologist at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and co-director of the Tell el-Burak Archaeological Project. Phoenician wine from the Sidon region was particularly famous and mentioned in texts from ancient Egypt, she adds.

But little evidence of Phoenician winemaking had been found in Lebanon itself, possibly due to the haphazard nature of archaeological excavations.

“The coast of Lebanon was never thoroughly surveyed, and very few sites with Iron Age [Phoenician] remains have been properly excavated,” Sader says.

Some similar winemaking sites, however, have been found on the northern coast of what is now Israel, which belonged at that time to the Phoenician kingdoms of Tyre and Sidon.

The Phoenicians didn’t invent wine—evidence of it from about 8,000 years ago has been found in the country of Georgia—but they spread winemaking throughout the ancient Mediterranean, along with olive oil and innovations such as the alphabet and glass.

The ancient seafarers introduced vineyards and wineries to their colony cities in North Africa, Sicily, France, and Spain. And they made it popular through trade with ancient Greece and Italy, where wine from wild grapes was known at the time but not so highly developed, says University of Toronto archaeologist Stephen Batiuk, who was not involved in the research. (Discover how alcohol has fueled the development of arts, language, and religion.)

“The Phoenicians perhaps introduced a drinking culture, [new styles of] drinking vessels, and a different way of relating to wine,” he says.

The Phoenicians’ love of wine extended to their religion, and its ceremonial use was reflected in other Near East religions as well.

University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Patrick McGovern, an expert in ancient winemaking who was not involved in the latest study, explained that the Phoenicians were descended from the Canaanites, a Bronze Age people who were also predecessors of the Israelites.

“Wine was the Phoenicians’ principal beverage for sacrifice,” he says. “But that was occurring already with the Canaanites, and it was passed along into Judaism and Christianity.”

McGovern speculates that Tell el-Burak may even have supplied some of the hundreds of amphorae on two Phoenician shipwrecks off Ashkelon in Israel, which date from around the same time.

“We did an analysis on several of the amphorae, and it was wine,” he said. “Maybe these vessels were coming from there.”

The Tell el-Burak project is a joint effort by an AUB team and archaeologists in Germany who have studied the site since 2001, although there’s been no work at Tell el-Burak for the past two years due to Lebanon’s economic difficulties, says Sader.

Wine in the Ancient Mediterranean - History

Ancient Wines - The so-called "European grape", Vitis vinifera , originated not in Europe but in the Black Sea region, and spread from there south to the Middle East so that by 6,000 BC grape vines were being cultivated in Mesopotamia. The vinifera grape then spread east to Phoenicia and Egypt, and by 2,000 BC Phoenician sailors were ferrying grapevines across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece and beyond.

A lthough many early civilizations make reference to wine, the ancient Greeks were the first to take their grape growing and winemaking seriously. The importance of wine to Greek culture is evident in that they had a god of the vine named Dionysus (later Bacchus) who oversaw the cultivation of vineyards and the merriment of drinking. Greek wines were traded in distant ports, and, more important, Greek colonists transplanted grapevines to the far corners of the ancient world.

A ncient Greek wines were thick, dark, and syrupy, and needed to be cut with water (at times even seawater) to be drunk. In fact, drinking undiluted wine was scandalous. The grapes were harvested in the early Fall, and the Greeks placed seeds, stems and all into tubs where the grapes were stomped on with bare feet to squeeze out the juice. The unfiltered grape juice was then allowed to ferment in open vats. Because these wines were stored in goatskins, or clay amphorae stoppered only by greasy rags, there was exposure to air the entire time and spoilage was a continual problem. Thus, Greek wines needed to be drunk young, and the addition of herbs or honey was probably an attempt to hide the taste of spoiled wine. White barley or grated goats-milk cheese was often added as well and indicates that the wines were low quality. But the ancient Greeks knew no different, and they enjoyed their wine nonetheless.

G reek colonists carried their love of the vine across the Mediterranean Sea, and around 1500 BC they introduced vineyards to the Italian and Iberian Peninsulas. One of their grapes was the Muscat, which is considered the ancient ancestor of most modern European wine grapes, particularly those French grapes that we hold in such high esteem today. Another ancient Greek grape was the Malvasia, which originated in Iberia (Spain) and eventually migrated northward into Gaul (France).

T he Romans succeeded the Greeks and carried on the Greek tradition of grape growing and winemaking. They introduced vineyard innovations such as the pruning knife, and winemaking innovations such as the addition of gypsum to base wine to control excess acidity. They also refined the fermentation process, filtered out the sediment, and stored their wines in copper kettles and glass bottles to minimize exposure of the wine to air and facilitate aging. That the Romans appreciated aged wines is evident in Latin writings that praise the merits of hundred-year old Valerian and Opimian wines.

T he ancient Greeks were well aware that wines from different islands in the Aegean Sea had different characteristics. The Romans further realized that climate, soil, and the style of pruning all affect the flavor of a grape and ultimately affect the taste of wine. The Romans went so far as to classify their wines by regions, and there were even wine snobs in ancient Rome to advise the Emperors of which wines to best compliment which foods.

Medieval Wines - Roman civilization began a slow decline after 400 AD that ultimately led Europe into the Dark Ages, and with this decline much of the art of grape growing and winemaking was lost. Only in the Church, where wine was needed to celebrate the sacrament, was an effort made to maintain vineyards. Some monasteries, in particular the great Benedictine and Cistercian abbeys in Burgundy, France and along the Rhine River of Germany, began producing surplus wine for their own enjoyment and that of the nobility. As Europe regained its appreciation for the fruit of the vine, winemaking began a slow resurgence.

T he Doomsday Book of William the Conqueror records that at the end of the 11th century there were 28 producing vineyards in Norman England. These vineyards prospered over the next 300 years, and England developed into an important center of European winemaking. Yet English vineyards, like those in most of Europe, were mainly associated with the church. About this time the farmers of Bordeaux, an English holding in France, developed a thriving wine industry of their own to wet the palates of their English overlords. Imports into England of Bordeaux wine, which the English called "claret", increased as a worldwide cooling trend slowly reduced the yields of English vineyards. This cooling trend, which culminated in the "little ice age" of the mid-1500's, together with the seizing of English monasteries during the religious reform of King Henry VIII, made the English wine industry unprofitable and hastened the emergence of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhine Valley to become the great centers of grape growing and winemaking that they are today.

Book Description

This volume presents contemporary evidence scientific, archaeological, botanical, textual, and historical for major revisions in our understanding of winemaking in antiquity. Among the subjects covered are the domestication of the Vinifera grape, the wine trade, the iconography of ancient wine, and the analytical and archaeological challenges posed by ancient wines. The essayists argue that wine existed as long ago as 3500 BC, almost half a millennium earlier than experts believed.
Discover named these findings among the most important in 1991. Featuring the work of 23 internationally known scholars and writers, the book offers the first wide ranging treatment of wine in the early history of western Asia and the Mediterranean. Comprehensive and accessible while providing full documentation, it is sure to serve as a catalyst for future research.

The death of Pliny the Elder

At 56, Pliny sailed into the Bay of Naples as Vesuvius erupted, according to letters by Pliny the Younger. It’s believed that he ordered his “warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help” while he attempted to rescue his friend, Rectina.

“What he had begun in a spirit of inquiry, he completed as a hero,” wrote Pliny the Younger. He likely succumbed to his documented respiratory problems amidst suffocating smoke.

Around 2,000 people died in Pompeii, and possibly up to 16,000 in the surrounding area. Coincidentally, the loss of Rome’s great wine writer coincided with the fall of its most important wine hub. Pompeii’s best vineyards were decimated, while warehouses that held the A.D. 78 vintage burned.

This combination triggered high prices and a wine shortage. Grain fields were replaced with vineyards, a move which would eventually create food scarcity. Or to Pliny’s point, “the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”