Ancient Greece: Wine ageing

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

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Given the vagaries of vinification, much Greek wine will not have lasted long, succumbing either to oxidation, which medical and scientific writers noticed and discussed as a form of decomposition, or to spoilage due to inadequate storage, the risk of which was noted by Aristotle. It is not surprising that the people of Thásos traded in vinegar as well as wine, and that sour wine was a regular cheap drink, especially since the risk of oxidation must have increased as a large jar was emptied.

Nevertheless, some wines clearly aged, since old wine was highly regarded by the Greeks: ‘praise old wine, but the flowers of new songs,’ said the poet Pindar, and comic poets noted that women preferred old wine but young men. The old wine praised by Hermippus (above) was described as sapros: literally, ‘rotten’ or ‘decomposed’, but obviously referring in the case of wine to the production of secondary flavours through ageing; older wine was also described as having ‘lost its bite’. We never find discussion of particular vintages (unlike Roman wines and specific vintages such as opimian wine mentioned by Roman writers), and there is little reliable evidence as to how long good wine might keep: Theocritus speaks of drinking four-year-old wine, perhaps from Kós, in the early 3rd century bc, and in the same era Peparethian wine was regarded as a slow developer in requiring six years to reach maturity, while the elder pliny (in the 1st century ad) considered all foreign wines middle-aged at seven years old; comparisons with the wines of Ancient rome, which evidently matured more slowly, might allow one to guess that few Greek wines lasted more than ten years, a good age for a wine in the heroic age (Odyssey 3. 390–2), but not a very long time by modern standards, especially when we remember that the containers were very much larger than modern ones, so that the rate of development should have been proportionately reduced.