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The birth and history of liqueur wines: Ignorance, instability, inexperience

In antiquity, Athenians used to open their pithoi, or jars containing new wine, at the Pithogia, the first day of the Anthestirion, a three-day festival in honor of Dionysus during which wine flowed freely and people got drunk and engaged in revelry. In modern times on Santorini, on October 22, the feast day of Aghios (Saint) Averkios, whose icon was in every winery, there was a special ceremony in Christ’s Church in the Emporion municipality, where the saint’s miraculous icon was kept. After the service, attended by a large congregation, people went to their wineries, opened the barrels, tasted the new wines, feasted and celebrated. Wine jars On Samos, winemakers waited until November 3, the feast of the relics of Aghios Georgios (Saint George), to open the jars and taste the new wine. And since many people got drunk on that day, the Samiots dubbed the saint Ai-Giorgis o Methystis (Saint George the intoxicator), a name by which he is also known in other wine-growing areas. Bacchic Dionysus became Aghios Averkios in some places and elsewhere Ai-Giorgis o Methystis – both were patron saints of the new wine. The opening of the vases containing the new wine was dictated by the need to check if the new wine was healthy. If it was not, people did not place all their trust in holy protection, but took action themselves. In his book «Samiaka» (1886), E. Stamatiadis reports that when the receptacles containing the new wine were opened on Samos, two to three liters of alcohol were added to each jar. This is the earliest reference to the practice of adding alcohol so as to preserve sweet Greek wines. But the 98-percent-proof alcohol used nowadays did not exist then. The alcohol used was distilled from the solid part of the grapes that was left over when the fruit was crushed. Muscats There is abundant evidence that sweet wines were highly subject to spoiling in those days. I shall quote three sources referring to Samos wine, not so much to dispel the illusion of the glorious past, but to explain why liqueur wines came into being, and why during antiquity and the Byzantine era only sweet wines could travel without spoiling. The earliest source is a book by Archbishop Joseph Georginenes of Samos, published in English in 1687. Referring to Samos’s capital of Vathy, he writes: «The chief commodity of this town is wine, especially muscats which keep all year round, while the Carlovassi wine turns to vinegar in six months.» The French doctor and botanist Tournefort was on the island in 1702 and has left us his account in his tome, «Voyage d’un botaniste» (Paris, 1982): «Wine from Samos grapes would be good if they knew how to make it and put it in barrels, but the Greeks are dirty and besides, they can’t stop themselves from adding water to it. Nevertheless, on Samos I drank a lot of muscat wine which had been made with care by our merchants in Smyrna.» In fact, all Samos wines were made in the same fashion, but winemakers could only make a good product from wine with a natural chemical composition that did not favor the development of yeast and bacteria. It was those they chose to send to the merchants in Smyrna, because only those wines could withstand transportation abroad. Instability This problem was not unique to Samos. All wine producers in both the East and the West faced the same problem of instability in wine, especially sweet wine in which yeast and bacteria developed easily because of the sugar it contained. But the existence of these microorganisms, which are invisible to the naked eye, was unknown in those days, and so no measures could be taken to combat them. Ignorance and inexperience After the Kuchuk-Kainarji Treaty of 1774, the lucrative Russian market absorbed nearly all the wines of Samos and Santorini, but as this became less profitable around 1830, and prohibitive in the 1850s due to high taxation, merchants on both islands turned to new markets. When the Napoleonic Wars ended, many consignments of muscat wine were sent to America, where it became known as «Greek wine.» But, as Stamatiadis reports: «Either because Samos wine would not keep beyond the Equator unless a considerable amount of alcohol was added to it, which was something they did not know, or because some who were active in the trade wanted to get rich quickly and adulterated this fine product with water,» some wines sent to America were found to have spoiled. «So, through the ignorance of some and the blameworthy greed of others, these shipments were stopped.» The Santorini wines met with no better fate. But let us reinstate the honor of those anonymous merchants. They certainly were responsible for their ignorance, but they are innocent of the charge of adulterating the wine. When the ships reached the Equator and high temperatures, the yeast and bacteria – of which they could not rid the wine, being ignorant of their existence – went into action. This is why it was generally believed that wine could not pass though the Straits of Gibraltar. Adding alcohol The instability of the white wines that were so popular in northern markets, the inability of the western Mediterranean – due to its climate – to make sufficient quantities of wine from sun-dried grapes, and the fact that in the 17th century the wine trade between the Mediterranean coastal winegrowing areas of the West and their customers in northern countries came completely under the control of the Dutch, who had set up numerous small stills in Scheidan and Rotterdam, all led to the use of distilled alcohol to stabilize wine and the birth of liqueur wines that were able to travel without spoiling. Rare wines The addition of distilled alcohol became widespread on Samos much later, after 1950, thanks to French enterprises on the island. Like the Samiots, the Santorinians and Cypriots luckily never stopped producing small quantities of sweet wine from sun-dried grapes. Subsequent columns will deal with these rare wines, which are the genuine descendants of the great tradition of classical and Byzantine winemaking techniques.