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‘Self-mixing’ wine with a taste halfway between sweetness and bitterness

On Santorini there used to be three types of wine. One was dry, 14-16 percent alcohol, and was rough and tart to the taste. Known as «austere» in antiquity, such wines are now described as brusco. But these wines were often sweetish as well – according to travel writers G.A. Olivier and Abbe Peques of the 18th and 19th centuries. The grapes used were often overly ripe, the must was quite thick and did not always completely ferment, so some sugar that had not been turned into alcohol remained in the wine. Such wines also existed in antiquity: «Avatis, the Kilikios wine, is both ‘austere’ and sweet,» writes Galen in his work on the chemistry of foods. The other two types of wine were sweet: Vinsanto and mezzo. In his «Bucolics,» Longus describes the vintage: «The harvest was at its height, and everyone was working in the field; one was fixing the press, someone else was cleaning jars… someone else was looking for a stone to crush the wine grapes… He brought grapes to the panniers, put them in the press and and trampled them… A villager was searching for a piece of rope to pull a stone to press the broken grapes, because the first stone had broken into pieces.» So one person gathered grapes and trampled them in the press, while another person needed a stone to press the grapes. He had to have one that was so large and heavy that he could not lift it, but needed a rope to pull it. And the grapes needed so much pressing to yield their small amount of juice that the first stone he used broke. This extract confirms that some of the grapes were fresh and easy to trample, while others were so dried out by the sun that they needed hammering. The mixing If a winemaker found this wine too sweet and added an equal amount of water to it, the wine would continue to taste sweet, but would contain half the amount of alcohol. Adding water, however, would disturb the balance of sugar and alcohol that had ensured stability by preventing yeast and bacteria from developing. Watered wine was very vulnerable, as the ancients knew from experience. In antiquity, wines destined for trade were very sweet so that they could be stored and could age and travel by sea. Wine was mixed with water at the time of consumption. Consequently, ships carried a relatively small volume of concentrated wine which increased at symposia when it was drunk, according to the amount of water the host of the symposium thought should be added. But not all wines were made from sun-dried grapes. When wines were not to be aged or sent on long voyages, either the grapes were not spread out in the sun – producing «austere» wines – or the drying lasted less time – and the wines had a different level of sweetness and resistance to spoiling, as was the case with the sweet village wines of Santorini described in an earlier article. Self-mixing wine One of the most renowned wines of antiquity was the Chios wine called Ariousios, of which three types were produced: One was austere, another sweetish and the third – somewhat between the other two – was called self-mixed, according to Athenaeus. The last was a wine which somehow mixed itself. In Georgios Venetsanos’s new book, now in press, he talks about mezzo wine: «The word mezzo means half, or midway in Italian. Mezzo wine is one which has half the sweetness of Vinsanto. «To make it, we leave the grapes in the sun for less time, until their sugar content is 20-21 on the Baume scale. This produces wines with about 150 grams of sugar and an alcohol level of 11 to 15.» Mezzo is far less sweet than Vinsanto, because when the must from sun-dried grapes is not very dense, the yeast can ferment more sugar and form more alcohol. In the past, when this was not understood, people could only judge by taste. They thought the wine was less sweet because it contained more water since the grapes had not dried out very much. And since kekramenoi wines – those that had been mixed with water – were less sweet, the ancients referred to wines made from grapes that had not been dried much in the sun as self-mixed, meaning they had mixed themselves with water. The mezzo of Santorini is a genuine descendant of self-mixed wines. Now we can measure the sugar and alcohol content of wines, and we know that self-mixed and kekramenoi wines may have had comparable levels of sweetness (around 150-200 grams sugar), but the former had an alcohol level of 1-5 while the level of the latter was only 3-4. This is why one was relatively stable but the other spoiled easily. Self-mixed wine was thought to have mixed itself with water because it was halfway between «austere» and sweet wine in terms of sweetness and bitterness. What a revealing name! The key to ancient Greek wine mixing lies in this adjective, self-mixed, which shows that the quantity of water mixed with wine at symposia did not depend on how much alcohol the wine contained – besides, alcohol was a chemical substance which was unknown to the ancients – but on its taste. The sweeter and denser it was, the more water it took. That is why Galen says there were some wines that could only be mixed with a little water. µlast