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© 2016 Wolfgang Bitterolf
...a blog about the lighter side of wine...



January 25, 2016

The History of the Taste of Wine

After posting the story of the Standard of Ur I started to wonder what wine tasted like a few thousand years ago - so I did some digging.

From the beginnings of time to about the later Middle Ages wine tasted awful. Paul Lukacs, the author of the book Inventing Wine traces the evolution of the taste of wine throughout history, and he gives us an idea about what wines must have tasted like back then: ''Ancient vintners adulterated their wines with honey and salt, pepper and spice, all sorts of herbs and oils - anything to make the potion taste of something other than acrid juice''.

In the Bible Proverbs 23:32 notes that wine ''bites like a snake and poisons like a viper.''

Most of the problems of the wines consumed by the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and others in the antiquity had to do with their inability to prevent oxidation; wine was stored in either clay amphorae or pig skin bags, both impregnated with pine resins. As a result many of these wines were highly oxidized and quite viscous - not to mention with a nasty taste of resin. This is why the aforementioned ingredients and some others were added - even lead.

If it tasted so terrible, why did people drink it?

In the antiquity the intoxicating effect of wine was seen as a gift from the gods, a divine intervention to make you feel good; alcohol had not been identified as the cause of that effect.

During medieval times, it was safer to drink wine than water. Water was contaminated by bacteria from garbage and feces thrown out onto the streets from where it was washed away by rain into the streams and water wells. Wine, on the other hand, contained alcohol which reduced the risk of bacterial contamination.

Wine started to evolve into something more palatable in the sixth century. The monks and nuns who cultivated, made and sold wine in those days started to get competition from new beverages, mainly beer, coffee, tea and brandy (distilled drinks were invented around that time). The only way to maintain their business was to improve the taste of their wines.

It was a very gradual process, and surely the two main breakthroughs were the advent of the barrel (starting in the 4th century), and later the thick glass bottle (17th century), both of which allowed longer storage of wine with little or no oxidation. Over the last 1300 years wine became a craft with vintners gaining more and more understanding of the production process and the prevention of oxidation. The taste of wine gradually improved to the point where it was a pleasure to drink it.

Aren't we lucky that we live now, and not during the times of Cleopatra and Augustus? Today most wines are a treat to the palate and make you feel good - a gift from the gods after all!

• Image: openclipart.com modified by winedabbler.

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Date: January 27, 2016
By: Roe, Pittsburgh, PA
Your Comment:
Amen!! Thx Wolfgang for the info. :))