Viticulture in Greece during this era (4.500-1.050 BC) is evident by the vestiges of wild grapevines (Vitis Vinifera subsp. Sylvestris) found in Macedonia, Thessaly, Euboea, Thrace and the Peloponnese. Scientists suggest some of these specimens predate Neolithic Era and place the cultivation of domesticated grapes in the 4th millennium BC.
Archaeological excavations have repeatedly unearthed grape pips, grape pomace and vinification residues. Viticulture likely reached Greece through Mesopotamia and Egypt by way of the Phoenicians and this explains the widespread culture of grapes in the Cyclades and Crete. According to other references however winemaking in Greece originated in Thrace.
In the Early Geometric Period the ancient Greek tribes by colonizing coastal Asia Minor forged a new epoch for wine. Viticulture reached Ionia, became a staple of royal courts and a primary export item. Homer writes about large quantities of wine transported between Lemnos, Thrace and Troy where Greece fought war.
Scholars encounter Pramnian wine from Ikaria and Ismarian (or Maroneian) wine from Thrace first at that period. In other historical records Hesiod makes mention of viticulture and of production of wine as well. In mid-8th century BC the quest for new colonies drove the Greeks to the Black Sea where they carried the grapevine.
By 7th century BC there is hardly any region in the ancient Greek world where viticulture is not spread. The worship of Dionysus, son of Zeus, has also grown and with it the consumption of wine.
Vinification process improves and wines are flavored with herbs, honey and resin both as preservation and enhancement technique. Attica, Thasos, Rhodes and Naxos pioneer in winemaking at the time while other professions related to wine develop along.
Potters build special amphorae for safe wine transport, which replace leather skins, while variously decorated vessels, known as kraters -or craters- are crafted for serving wine. Wine is a staple of domestic life in ancient Greece; grapes adorn the coins of that period and Greek civilization spans over many regions and flows like wine.
This period includes the Golden Age of Pericles, a milestone for viticulture and winemaking in ancient Greece. Famous wine is made; traders roam the seas, their ships full of wine, and return home with ample supply of grape decorated coinage.
Whilst new grape-growing means and winemaking techniques are being developed in the ancient Greek city-states we also have the first full-fledged attempts to regulate viticulture by protecting appellation status, specified wine regions and wine production.
Wines known for their flavor and aroma are the Chian wine, otherwise called Ariousian, the Lesbian (Protropon), the Peparethian(from Skopelos), the Samian, the Thasian and the Mendaean from Chalkidike (modern Halkidiki) which was the most popular white wine. The constant clashes between Athens and Sparta bring the Macedonians to the forefront along with their wines which are praised by Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the Great.
The Hellenistic Era
During the reign of Alexander the Great and his campaign, wine reaches through his army Anatolia, while in southern Greece viticulture propagates so as to cover both the domestic needs and that of the army too.
The main supply source is the islands of the southern Aegean, Rhodes, Kos, Cyprus and some parts of Asia Minor. The death of Alexander the Great signals the partition of his kingdom as well as the end of a great era for the Greek wines.
The Roman conquest of Greece meant that knowledge concerning winemaking and viticulture was carried to the Empire where the Etruscans used the high trellis system as opposed to the low trellises used from there on. Despite the similarities in grape-growing, Roman aristocracy still preferred Greek wine. Horace refers to Homer as “Homerus Vinosus”, Virgil quotes the abundance of Greek grape varieties and Pliny gives the most detailed account of Greek wines of the time.
Deipnosophists author the first account about ancient Greek wine and food while later on Dioscorides and Galen, both great physicians of their time, prescribe wine proving its therapeutic virtues.
Cretan wine trade is once again revived between 1st and 3rd century AD, Cretan wines are exported all over Europe and Egypt as is inferred by the Cretan wine amphorae found in Pompeii, Lyon and in excavating sites in Switzerland.
Viticultural traditions are maintained during the Byzantine Empire despite the expansion of Christianity and the subsequent decline of classical symposiums and pagan festivities with ample consumption of wine. A plethora of winemaking techniques thrived, the grapevine finds its way into byzantine art and into monastic life, especially in Mount Athos where –up until the present- great wines are crafted.
Repeated catastrophic enemy and pirate attacks will blight Greek viticulture; the Aegean Islands and Crete however remain highly viable in exports and their wines, more often than not, find their way into the imperial courts.
The Venetians from the 12th to the 17th century controlled the wine routes in the Aegean, the Ionian Sea, Crete and the Peloponnese. Their merchants loaded their ships with huge quantities of wines which catered to the upper-classes of the Dodges and higher officials. Malvasia wine of Monemvasia is the most popular wine at the time. The ensuing domination of the Aegean Sea and mainland Greece by the Ottoman Turks brings the golden age of Greek wine exports to an end.
The occupation of Greece by the Turks ushers in the darkest page in the history of Greek wine. Islam strictly forbids the consumption of alcohol prompting sultans and Turkish rulers to minimize production, prohibiting it even in many regions, eventually leading to the extinction in some cases of centuries-old vineyards.
The Church is foremost in saving grape varieties as well as vinification techniques during these dark ages for the wine and especially so monasteries which are great land owners and are exempt from customs duties. The monasteries in Mount Athos and the Meteora are at the top of the list. The only regions managing to maintain their winemaking process were Siatista, Naoussa, Tyrnavos, Rapsani, Nemea, the islands of the Aegean and the Ionian Seas and Crete.
Flame-ravaged vineyards is the outcome of the war fought over independence against Ottoman rule in 1821 as the Turks wreak havoc when withdrawing and winemakers have taken up arms leaving the land to its fate.
As independence is restored so is the effort for wine-growing and winemaking. Santorini gains prominence and by mid-19th century the integrated wineries of Gustav Clauss in the Achaean capital of Patras, Peloponnese, and Ernest Toole in Cephalonia quickly gain access to European ports and markets by way of their European owners. As winemaking gains pace, the Kambas winery is founded in Attica followed by other wineries in Nemea, Samos, Naoussa and Santorini which had a flourishing wine export market in Russia.
Unforeseen circumstances in late 19th century give Greek wines a boost as phylloxera blights the French vineyards and the greater part of Greek wine production traveled to France before the same louse wiped out the Greek vineyards eventually several years after. The first half of the 20th century sees age-old vineyards and native varieties devastated; Greek wines are consequently off many markets while the destruction of Smyrna in Asia Minor and the economic crisis leading Greeks to migration deal a final blow to viticulture.