A Good Familiar Creature

Lord Corwin of Darkwater
(Reprinted from Scum #8)

In Vino Veritas

How old is wine? Well, if fossil records from the Champagne region of France are any indication, the first imbiber may well have been our most ancient ancestor, Plesiadapis - the oldest known prosimian. Now, although it may be stretching the imagination to think of some small, furry rodents frolicking around a bunch of naturally fermenting grapes some 60 million years ago, but the picture is basically valid.

Grapes, you see, are somewhat unique in the plant kingdom. Contained within the skin of the noble grape are sugars, acids, tannin and nutrients in sufficient quantity to make a small amount of serviceable wine, lacking only some yeast to accomplish the metamorphosis. Fortunately, wild yeast like to congregate on the surface of the grape, to await a most opportune puncture of the barrier. So, unlike the fermented products of honey or grains, the fermented product of grapes was just waiting to be discovered.

Time passes . . .

It is believed that grapes were first cultivated by man in Asia Minor, sometime between 6000 BC and 4000 BC. The production and consumption of wine spread to Babylon, Sumeria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece. There are several names for wine mentioned in the Bible, including Yayin (wine), Homer (young, unmixed wine), Tyros (strong wine) and Meseg (mixed wine). With the rise of the Roman Empire, vineyards and wine were firmly established throughout Italy. Roman legions brought vineyards with them to the barbarian lands of Germany, France and Spain (although there is no evidence that they carried it to England as well).

The Muscat wines of Samos were praised by Homer. Pliny, in turn, mentioned numerous kinds of ancient grapes. Among these were Argitis (Riesling), Biturica Minor (Gamay) and Helvenacia Minor (Pinot Noir), giving the traditional wines of the Rhine, Beaujolais and Burgundy (respectively) a very ancient pedigree.

The Greeks and Romans were well acquainted with the qualities of aged wine. Indeed, the quality of these ancient wines must have put the best of the Medieval European wines to shame. Amphorae were used to store the wine, limiting the rate of oxidation, and allowing the wine to gradually improve with age. A layer of olive oil on top of the wine offered further protection. Casks were also in use, sealed with wax or pitch, and bungs of cork.

The citizens of Rome were fond of their wine, and the expansion of vineyards in Italy and throughout the rest of the Roman Empire continued at a frantic pace. The wines of Burdigalia (Bordeaux) in particular were highly praised by Roman writers in the first century AD. To stem the rapid expansion of vineyards, Emperor Domitian went so far as to decree in 96 AD that no new vineyards be planted on the Italian peninsula, and that half of the vineyards in the rest of the Empire be uprooted and destroyed! Fortunately, this decree was rescinded by Emperor Probus in 278 AD, before most of the great vineyards of Europe were destroyed.

Time passes . . .

All good things come to an end, and the Roman Empire was no exception. With the fall of Rome came the loss of great wine for centuries. The benefits of amphorae, corks and well tended vineyards all vanished with the Empire. For wine lovers, it was the Dark Ages.

Strong Wyn, Reed as Blood

After the fall of Rome, what little knowledge that remained about vinting was concentrated in the churches and monasteries. Slowly, the art was learned anew. St. Martin of Tours (315-397) is credited with the re-discovery of the proper method of pruning grape vines. Nor were the monasteries only a repository of knowledge, rather they were a major source of wine as well. In 476, St. Remi converted Clovis, the first king of the Franks, to Christianity, and presented him with a cask of wine from Remi's vineyard in Champagne.

In the Jura region of France, the vineyards at Chateau-Chalon were founded in 560. It is also recorded that the Duc de Amalgaine gave a vineyard to the Abbey of Beze in 630 (which later became known as the Chambertin region that produced the wines so favored by Napoleon). The Venerable Bede (672-735) wrote that there were vineyards in a few places in Britain. Alcuin the Yorkshireman (735-804), employed by Charlemagne as an imperial tutor, wrote extensively about the care of wines. Charlemagne (742-814) himself was interested in wines, to the extent that he ordered the slopes of Johannesburg along the Rhine be planted with vineyards. English Kings Alfred (871-901) and Edgar (957-975) both refer to native English vineyards.

New Wine into Old Bottles

In the year 1066, we find William the Conqueror (as depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry) supplying his Norman army with casks of French wine. William was evidently not enamored of English wines. There is also mention of various vineyards in the Domesday book (1086). Meanwhile, Pope Gregory VII (1020-1085) praised the wines of Valpolicella in Italy. And in 1124, Sir Gaspard de Sterimberg, returning from the Albigensian Crusade, brought back with him a grape vine (the Syrrah grape) which he planted at the Hermitage, in the Rhone region of France. There is mention of English vineyards and vintners during the reigns of Henry I (1134) and Stephen (1140), but the wines of the English vineyards never did achieve the depth of character that many of the wines from the continent already enjoyed. The reason for this had nothing to do with English soil or climate, but rather due to a wedding of some import that took place in the year 1152.

When Henry of Anjou married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, he also acquired Gascony (Bordeaux). Two years later, when he became King of England, England acquired Gascony, and with it, all of the vineyards of Bordeaux for the next 300 years. The palates of the English would never be the same.

Now, this is not to say that the English vineyards disappeared overnight. The existence of English vineyards was recorded during the reigns of Henry II & III, Edward I & II and Richard II & III. According to the Pipe Rolls (1155):

it moreover appearethe that tythe hathe bene payed of wyne pressed out of grapes that grewe in the Little Parke theare, to the abbot of Waltham, which was parson bothe of the Old and New Wyndsore, and that accompts have bene made of the charges of planting the vines that grewe in the saide parke, as also of making the wynes, whearof somme partes weare spent in the householde, and somme solde for the kinges profyt ..

During the years 1305-1377, the French Popes lived at Avignon, and they loved their wine. When Pope Urban V was advised to leave France and return to Rome, he supposedly said,

"There is no Beaune wine in Italy, and without Beaune wine how unhappy we would be."

Known to the Romans as Auxerre, it was not until the sixteenth century that Beaune came to be called by it's modern name, Burgundy.

By the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) the trade in French wine had reached amazing proportions. Ships of that time were rated at the number of tonnes (252 gallon casks of wine) they could carry. To this day, we speak of ship "tonnage" when we refer to ocean freight transport. The wine fleet would sail for France in late autumn, returning before Christmas with "new wine". They would sail again after Easter in the spring, and return with "rack wine" of the same vintage. In 1372, the wine fleet consisted of some 200 ships, with average tonnage well over 50 tonnes per ship, for a total cargo of over 3 million gallons of wine that year. The English even had their own name for much of this wine. The French used the term clairet to refer to the light red wine of Bordeaux, before it was blended with heavier, darker red wine from elsewhere in France. It was this that the English came to call Claret. Geoffrey Chaucer (1340- 1400) was well acquainted with the many varieties of wine available in London, including wines of Spain and Bordeaux.

The island of Madeira was discovered by Portugal in 1420. It was heavily planted with vineyards, and thereafter produced a wine that successfully competed with the sweet wines of Candia (Crete), whose trade was controlled by the merchants of Venus Venice.

In 1453, England lost Bordeaux to the French. Prices rose, although not drastically (the French vintners not wanting to lose their best customers). Still, English tastes turned to Rhenish wines (Rhine wine), and to the sweet wines of the Mediterranean, supplied by merchants of Genoa and elsewhere. Later, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue... He carried wine from Rioja, Spain. He also "discovered" America, a discovery that would change the art of vinting for all time.

The Duties of a Pantler or Butler

Look ye have two wine-augers, a greater and a less, some gutters of boxwood that fit them, also a gimlet to pierce with, a tap and a bung, ready to stop the flow when it is time. So when you broach a pipe, good son, do after my teaching: pierce or bore with an auger or gimlet, slanting upward, four fingers' breadth from the lower rim, so as not to cause the lees to rise - I warn you especially...

Take good heed to the wines, red, white, and sweet; look to them every night with a candle, to see that they neither ferment nor leak. Never forget to wash the heads of the pipes with cold water every night; and always carry a gimlet, adze and linen clouts, large and small. If the wine ferment, ye shall know by its singing, so keep at hand a pipe of couleur de rose that has been spent in drinking and add to the fermentation the dregs of this, and it shall be amended...

Book of Nurture (1460)

The Drink of Gods and Angels

In 1522, Cortez had grape vines brought over from Spain to America. It was not because there were no grape vines to be found. Viking explorers called the land they discovered around 1000 "Vineland" for good reason. Vines flourished throughout the country, but they were of a different variety - vitis labrusca, not vitis vinifera -and they had a radically different taste. So it was hardly surprising that settlers might want to import familiar-tasting grape vines. However, as the Spaniards soon discovered, European vines inevitably failed in the New World.

The reason for the failure was a plant louse, phylloxera, that attacked European vine roots. In 1536, some Spaniards in Mexico actually grafted some European vines onto American root stock, but the practice did not propagate to the rest of the settlements. This louse would have a profound impact in Europe later, but for the time, European settlers came to accept the fact that vines from the old country would not grow in the new world, except in California.

The Fyrste Book of the Introduction of Knowledge

Chose your wyne after this sorte: it must be fyne, fayre and clere to the eye; it must be fragraunt and redolent, having a good odour and flavour in the nose; it must be cold and plesaunt in the mouth; and yt must be strong and subtyll of substaunce.

Andrew Boorde (1540)

Meanwhile, back in Europe, William Turner published the first English book on wines, "A new Boke of the natures and properties of all Wines that are commonlye used here in England", in 1568. It was primarily a physician's view on wines, with Turner denouncing red wines, while advocating "whyte Rhennish and whyte French" wines. In 1577, William Harrison identified 56 varieties of small, weak wines (both red and white) that were drunk by the English people, and 30 kinds of sweet wines.

At the consumer level, "small" wines were purchased in hogshead (56 gallon) quantities, while sweet wines were more often bought by the gallon. During a visitation by Queen Elizabeth in 1577, 6 hogsheads of claret were consumed, as well as 1 hogshead of white wine, and 20 gallons of sack.

Sack was the generic term for sherry, which was so called because it originated in the town of Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. The town was named by King Don Juan I in 1380, before which the Moors called it Scherris.

"Give me Sacke, old Sacke, Boys!
To make the muses merry
The life of myrth and the joy of the earth
Is a cup of good old Sherry." (1619)

By this time, bottles were widely used, but as carafes, not bottles in the modern sense. No reliable stopper had yet been re-invented. Consequently, new wine was still better than old. This changed in 1668, when a Benedictine cellarer became the first vinter in a very long time to decide to plug a bottle with a cork. His name, of course, was Dom Perignon, and in addition to giving us the cork, he gave us the Champagne that we know and love today! At about the same time, new bottles had evolved in England, "verre anglais", that could withstand the greater stress.


When you perceive your grapes to be plump and transparent, and the seeds or stones to come forth black and clear, and not clammy, and the stalks begin to wither then gather them, the weather being dry for some time before. Cut them off the branches and not pull them, and in the moon's decrease, preserving them from bruises as much as you can, before you press out your wine.

To every gallon of juice you must take two pounds of the best Malaga raisins picked from the stalks, and shread, put them together in a vat, the head being out, and let there be a tap at the bottom with a taphole, as in a meshtub; stir your liquor and raisins well together in a cask, which must be full, and leave the bunghole open, that it may work and cast out any foulness; after ten, twelve, or fourteen days, draw it off from the lees into a clean and dry cask, which must not be full, but leave a part of the vessel void or empty, stop it up close immediately, and that very well, lest it loose its spirits, which vacancy you may again supply when it has done working with other liquor or wine of the same that has also fermented in any other vessel. After you have thus closed up your bung, you ought to leave open the small venthole or fassethole, only loosely putting in the peg, or fasset, lest otherwise the wild spirits that are in the liquor force a passage; which by the easy stopping of this vent and sometimes opening it may be prevented until you find it hath wasted that wild spirit. The Family Physitian (1696)

By 1750, bottlescrews (corkscrews) had been devised to allow the use of tighter corks in bottles. The day of the mature, vintage wine had finally arrived! Shortly thereafter, in 1756, wine labels started to appear on bottles of Port. Port (wine of Portugal) had been sold in England since the 14th century, but it was not until the mid 17th century that those harsh wines were fortified with brandy and blended to satisfy sweeter English tastes that they became both popular and distinctive. And in 1776, an aromatized wine called Vermouth made it's first appearance in Italy. For about 100 years, wines continued to evolve in taste and character, then calamity. In 1845, attacks by powdery mildew devastated many vineyards in Europe. This was followed by an outbreak of phylloxera in France that proceeded to nearly wipe out every vinifera vineyard in the world. What saved the wine industry from total devastation was the hardy rootstock of the American vitas labrusca. Like the Spaniards in Mexico some 200 years before, vinters discovered that the American rootstock was immune to the pest, and the remaining vinifera vines in Europe and America were grafted onto labrusca roots, and survived!


Handbook of Brewing, #5 of the Compleat Anachronist, Alcoholic Drinks of the Middle Ages, #60 of the Compleat Anachronist, Society for Creative Anachronism, Milpitas, CA, 1983

Harold J. Grossman, Grossman's Guide to Wines, Spirits, and Beers, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940

Hugh Johnson, Wine, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966

Madge Lorwin, Dining with William Shakespeare, New York: Antheum, 1976

Pamela Vandyke Price, The Taste of Wine, New York: Random House, 1975

A. F. Scott, The Plantagenet Age, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976.

Andre' L. Simon, How to Make Wines and Cordials - From Old English Recipe Books, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972

Hilary Spurling, Elinor Fettiplace's Reciept Book, London: The Salamander Press, 1986

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