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The Sweet Taste of Ancient Winemaking

The ancient world may have struggled with written language, antibacterial medications, and a workable system of democratic governance, but they certainly solved the riddle of making delicious wine. Many, if not most, modern wine-making practices — trellising, pruning, manipulation of grape-skin contact with the fermenting juice, fermentation locks, and so on — all have been used in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean Basin for thousands of years. Problems did exist, to be sure. For example, our winemaking ancestors didn’t work out airtight stoppers for their amphorae. Consequently, they mostly drank their wine young, before oxygenation and harmful bacteria could take over. Eventually, adventurous winemakers discovered that wines with both residual sugar and high alcohol were more stable for travel and aged better. And the additional time in amphorae allowed the sweet wines to mellow and develop nuance. Of course, sweetness offered another attraction as well — at that time, honey was just about the only other way to satisfy a sweet tooth, and it was extremely expensive.

Crete is credited with devising the technique of twisting the stems of ripe grape bunches on the vine to cut off the flow of sap; in effect, concentrating the sugar and, with the help of the sun, turning the grapes into raisins. The Toplou Estate cooperative (part of which is a monastery) still produces a delicious, sweet red wine using sun-dried grapes, although instead of leaving the grapes to dry on the vine, they simply lay out the bunches on mats in the sun. This technique is also used on Santorini to produce a wine named Vinsanto. While Vinsanto is not excessively high in alcohol, the wine is aromatic and intensely sweet with good acidity, finished with flavors of lemon and honeysuckle.

Another option for wine drinkers seeking a history lesson comes from Cyprus. As long ago as 800 B.C.E., the Greek poet Hesiod wrote about a sweet, dark, alluring Cypriot wine produced from sun-dried grapes. Now called Commandaria, this was the island’s first wine to earn legal protection from competitors who sought to capitalize on its historical name and cachet.