It’s all Greek to me
People who study wine call the field oenology. Others call it fun. We owe the word oenology, or enology, to the ancient Greeks. Wine was so important to the Greeks that one of their twelve classical gods is Dionysus, god of wine.
Much of our knowledge about ancient drinking habits is due to shapely clay containers once used to store wine. The preserved containers, called amphorae, have been unearthed throughout the Mediterranean region, even in the sea itself, helping us to understand the extent of the ancient wine trade. Early amphorae were sealed with natural resins, such as pine pitch to prevent leakage. The resins inevitably changed the wine’s bouquet and the ancients actually developed a taste for pine-flavored wines. To this day a wine, called Retsina, is made by throwing lumps of pine pitch into fermentation tanks to reproduce the flavor. Retsina is a novelty for novice palates and its dare-you-to-drink-it popularity wreaks havoc with the reputation of high quality Greek wines, but if offered Retsina, do try it.
Glass bottles are the primary means of storing wine these days, though many Greeks bring empty plastic bottles to a winery or roadside vendor to fill for the day’s use. These plastic jugs can also be seen at small wineries and farmer’s markets in France and Australia, which brings a new interpretation to BYOB. Containers may have changed over the centuries, but wine is still a primary part of the Greek meal and is always on the table – somewhat like cell phones in Hong Kong.
Boutari is a good quality wine producer with operations throughout Greece, including the picturesque Santorini Island, which is a hot and arid volcanic crater. It is hard to believe vines can thrive in these conditions, but islanders keep the vines trained low to the ground by winding their long tendrils into circles. Their wreath-like shape protects the vines against the wind, provides shade for the ripening grapes and helps retain moisture. Here, Boutari produces a crisp white wine and from the highly regarded and cooler Naoussa region, Boutari produces a very good quality, medium-bodied red wine with blackberry jam flavors (Manful International, 2341-6838).
Traditional Greek wines are markedly oxidized as though the bottle were left open on the kitchen counter a few days before serving. In classical times wines were difficult to protect from oxidation, or premature aging, due to heat and air exposure. The Trojan heroes gained a taste for oxidized wines and until recently many Greek wines were deliberately exposed to oxygen in order to gain the same effect. The trend in Greece is now toward fresh, clean aromatic wines, and thankfully the old style is being phased out. Most Greek wines are crafted to be drunk within a few years, if not immediately, so do not hold these bottles in the cellar.
The Spartans almost always added water to wine, probably thinning the alcohol for safer chariot driving. Diluted wine was so standard that the ancients believed undiluted wine caused insanity. Many of us have experienced this phenomenon in Lan Kwai Fong. But don’t worry—apparently a glass of diluted wine the next day corrects imbalances in ‘bodily humours’.