Ancient Greeks and Their Taste for Salty Wine

The National Herald

Greek terracotta calyx-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water), ca. 490 BC, attributed to the Kleophrades Painter, Rogers Fund, 1908, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Public domain

NEW YORK – Ancient Greece and its wine culture were featured in Ancient Origins (AO) on June 26. The taste for salty wine was also explored in the article.

“Not only was wine an important trade commodity that found lucrative opportunities around the world, but it also held a place in both religious and medical arenas,” AO reported, adding that “there was a festival known as the ‘feast of the wine’ and a cult of Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, fertility, and festivity, active in the earliest years of ancient Greece. Euripides, an ancient playwright, even wrote a play signifying the importance of Dionysus and his cult to Greek Culture.”

Hippocrates of Kos, the father of medicine was also mentioned in the article as he “considered wine an integral part of a healthy diet,” AO reported, noting that he also “used wine as a disinfectant on wounds and experimented with different wines to see which one would work best as a good base to mix [into] other drugs and medicines.” Hippocrates prescribed wine “to cure ailments such as diarrhea and pain during childbirth,” AO reported, adding that the ancient Greeks “also recognized that wine also had negative health effects especially when wine was consumed in excess.”

“Many contemporaries noted the ideal amount of wine to drink,” AO reported, noting that “it was suggested that three bowls or Kylix, the Greek drinking vessel, was the right amount to consume. This is still used today as a standard bottle of wine that has 3 glasses in it.”

Homer’s Odyssey also mentions wine “over ten times,” mostly for feasts and religious ceremonies, AO reported, adding that “men were expected to drink wine in moderation, and only when mixed and consumed with food.”

Dionysus is credited with inventing wine pressing, according to AO, which noted that “4th century BC writer Theophrastus, a successor to Aristotle, wrote of the study of vineyard soils and hoped to match them to specific grapevines,” and “left a detailed manuscript on yield rotation and harvesting of plant cuttings to ensure easier cultivation.”

“When the grapes were ready for crushing, wicker baskets were stored inside wooden or earthenware vats with a rope or plank placed above,” AO reported, adding that “the grapes were then crushed” by workers using their feet and “occasionally festively accompanied by music.”

The crushed grapes were then placed in “pithoi” large containers for fermentation, “similar to modern-day casks or drums,” AO reported, noting wine production innovations the Greeks introduced, including straw wine production in which the grapes dry out to become raisins before they are pressed, “creating a more acidic wine for blending.”

The Greeks also added various flavorings, including “resin, herbs, spices, brines, and oils,” AO reported, adding that “mulled wine and vermouth are some of the legacies of this practice.” Retsina is also still popular today and made with resin added.

“Drinking wine that was not mixed with water in Greek culture was considered barbaric,” AO reported, noting that “wine that had not been mixed should only be used as medicine or as a tonic when traveling.”

According to contemporary writings, wine was mixed with “50 parts must, freshly crushed grape juice containing skins and stems, with 1 part seawater,” AO reported, adding that “this was taught by Dionysus after he was threatened by the King of Thrace and hid in the sea.”

The saltwater mixed wine “was known as ‘wine that smells like flowers’ because of the smell that it produces when the must is mixed with seawater,” AO reported, noting that “particularly prominent on the island of Kos” wine mixed with seawater also helped preserve the wine for long voyages and “it was this wine that spread throughout the world.”

Also mentioned by Cato in his book on agriculture, “it is still used, albeit in a small amount, today to produce wines, AO reported, adding that “Thalassitis wine is still being produced and is made by submerging the grapes in seawater before they are crushed.”