Wine Talk: Ancient wine

The importance that wine assumed in Judeo-Christian ritual stems from the prominent position of wine in Ancient Israel.

Ancient wine press, Ein Yael (photo credit: )
Ancient wine press, Ein Yael
(photo credit: )
Winemaking began in the triangle of the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). It was somewhere in eastern Turkey, Georgia and Armenia that wine was first made. The vine then traveled south toward Egypt – which was the first great wine culture – where wine’s importance was first documented. On the way, it passed through Canaan and ancient Israel, which was therefore one of the earliest of all wine-producing countries. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans finished the job, spreading the wine message to the West and bringing the vine to North Africa and Europe.
Wine features very prominently throughout the Bible. Noah was the first recorded vine grower. He planted his vineyard where the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. Nomads did not plant vineyards. It was a sign of civilization when people became farmers instead of hunters.
When the spies returned to Moses after scouting out the Promised Land, they carried a large bunch of grapes on a pole between two people, which they used to illustrate that it was a land flowing with milk and honey. This enduring image is the logo of the Israel Tourist Board and Carmel Winery.
The wine industry blossomed. Wine was the mainstay of the economy and the country’s major export. King David had two wine officials. One managed his vineyards and the other his cellars. Maybe these were Israel’s first viticulturist and sommelier!
People drank copious amounts of wine because it was safer than the water. Wine was also used as a disinfectant for wounds, as a dyeing agent, as an aid for digestion and for religious ritual.
The reminder of this golden period of Israeli wine may be found in the many winepresses that exist in Israel. When you next come across an ancient winepress, read Isaiah’s “Song to a Vineyard,” use a little imagination and it will bring the biblical harvest scene to life.
The winepress, (gat in Hebrew), is the area where the grapes were pressed. This was normally a limestone basin cut into the rock. Usually they were square but sometimes round. There was often a wooden structure surrounding and covering the press to offer shade.
The people knew something about winemaking in those days. The winepress was usually close to the vineyard because there was less wastage and a greater opportunity to maintain control of the winemaking process. The whole family would be involved with the harvest. Grapes would be carried in baskets and laid on the floor of the winepress, and the men usually did the pressing. This was done by treading on the grapes with bare feet. There was enough pressure to extract the juice but not enough to crush the grape pips and release unpleasant bitterness. To avoid slipping, the treaders would hold on to ropes attached to the roof.
The juice, or must (tirosh), would then flow down a gulley or channel from the main pressing area into a deeper hole, known as the yekev (literally “winery”). Twigs or thorns would be placed strategically to act as a rudimentary filter.
In the yekev, the wine would begin to ferment naturally. The natural yeasts on the skins of the grapes would find all the sugar in the grapes irresistible. The deepness of the hole and the stone surrounds would keep temperatures stable. Fermentation of the tirosh would take three to five days, and the result would be wine.
As soon as the production of carbon dioxide (a by-product of fermentation) finished and before the wine could begin to oxidize, the wine would be channeled into an even deeper pit, where Canaanite jars were filled. This was a pottery container with two large handles and a pointed bottom.
They became better known by their Greek name, amphorae. They were closed or sealed with pine resin. This imparted a unique flavor that may still be sampled in the retsina wines produced in Greece. The amphorae were stamped with seals giving the information of the vintage, vineyard, type of wine and color.
The Talmud describes 60 types of wines. Some wines were diluted with water. Others would invariably have flavors added to improve the taste and act as a preservative. Salt, seawater, herbs and spices such as cinnamon were added. Raisins or date honey were used as sweeteners. These flavored wines were forerunners of the punches or vermouths of today. Smoked wine was cooked wine. They were the forerunner of Mevushal wine, though it was done to concentrate the wine into a syrup rather than for kashrut reasons. Even in those days they knew about drying grapes on mats to concentrate the sweetness. This is similar to Vino Santo produced today in Italy or the similarly named Vinsanto produced in Greece.
So next time you come across on old wine press, remember that the success of today’s wine industry truly replicates the times of old. If France and Italy are referred to as the Old World of winemaking and Chile and Australia are the New World, then Israel belongs to the Ancient World, where wine culture was born.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for Israeli and international publications.
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