The sweet ‘passum’ wines from Phoenicia to Crete

During our extended journey through areas known in past centuries for their sweet wine, we have seen that the technique of making these wines has remained unchanged. The grape juice was concentrated by the natural process of exposure to the sun, just as raisins used to be and still are. The difference between currants and sun-dried grapes intended for winemaking is the extent to which they are dried. If you press a currant between your finger and thumb, it will become a soft paste in your hand; but if you do the same to a grape that has been half-dried in the sun, it will exude a juice whose sweetness depends on the length of time it has been in the sun. This is why people living in areas where the climate permits the production of raisins used to produce sweet wine. They just had to heap up the sun-dried grapes into jars. When the grapes had dried out completely, the raisins remained unspoiled in the jars. They were a food that could be eaten all year round, with a high nutritional value and many calories, due to the large amount of sugar they contained: 620-780 grams of sugar per kilo of grapes, depending on the variety. If the grapes were only half- dried, their juice was released as the other grapes pressed down on them, and it fermented where it collected at the bottom of the jar. The very sweet wine made in this way was stable, unlike the wine from fresh grapes. It did not spoil because the high sugar content, combined with even the small amount of alcohol it formed, created a strong solution which discouraged the growth and action of the bacteria that spoil wine. Hesiod described this age-old method in his «Works and Days.» «Cut all the grapes and bring them home. Put them in the sun for 10 days and nights; shade them for five days and on the sixth day put the gifts of Dionysus, full of delights, into the jars.» Obviously the poet’s brother, the recipient of this advice, would have employed this method with his raisins and his sweet wine this way – the Byblos wine that the poet also used to drink in summer beside the cool springs. In Hesiod’s time, some years the grapes were completely dried and other years they were half-dried. The degree of dryness would depend on the grape variety, temperature, atmospheric humidity while they were drying in the sun, sunshine, breezes which helped evaporate the water, and of course, any early autumn rains. We know all this because Hesiod told us himself. He used to drink Byblos wine, from the Byblos vine, from which grafts had been taken from Phoenician Byblos to Boeotia, the land of King Cadmus who, legend has it, was descended from Phoenicia according to F. Salviat in «In the Memory of D. Lazaridis,» (Thessaloniki, 1990). The Phoenicians apparently made sweet wine from raisins. Centuries later, such wine was being made in the Phoenician colony of Carthage by a method that tried to get round the fact that raisins don’t exude juice no matter how much they are pressed. This method was described by Magon of Carthage, thought to be the founder of agricultural science, in his 28-volume work, «On Agriculture.» Unfortunately, the work itself has not survived, but it was translated into Greek and Latin and had a significant influence on agricultural practice in his time. The Romans called wine made from raisins «passum.» Luckily Columella, a Roman who wrote about agriculture in the first century AD saved some of Magon’s recipes. In «De Re Rustica» Columella describes how first-class passum wine was made: «Gather the grapes of early maturing varieties that are fully ripe, and discard any broken or moldy fruit. Put staves into the ground at four foot intervals and join them with cross pieces. Place reeds on them and spread the grapes out in the sun, covering them at night so they don’t get cold. When they have dried out, separate the grapes from the stems, put them in clay jars and add the best quality must till it covers the fruit. Six days later, when the grapes have absorbed the must and are swollen, put them into a straw basket, trample them and collect the passum.» This time it is not a poet like Hesiod, but an agricultural writer who explains in full detail the secrets of his craft. The information he gives us is valuable. For a start, grapes that were to be sun-dried had to come from early maturing varieties so they could ripen fully and dry in the sun before the autumn rains began. Rotten and spoiled fruit had to be discarded, or the entire bunch of grapes would rot in the sun. The grapes were not spread out on the ground, but on a stand, away from the dampness of the ground and protected from rain. Even at night, they were covered, so they would not absorb moisture from the cold air, which would delay the drying process. And Magon does not stipulate how many days the grapes have to lie in the sun, as Hesiod does. What mattered was that the fruit dried out. It was known by then that this did not always take the same amount of time, but depended on the natural factors mentioned above. As for the purely oenological part of the «recipe,» we see that the grapes went into the jars untrampled, as with Hesiod’s method, but they were completely dried and trimmed of their stems, which would take up a lot of room and make the wine taste bitter. Since the raisins had no juice, the winemakers added must made from fresh grapes, and when the raisins absorbed it and swelled up, they were easy to trample in a straw basket. So the raisins gave off the same amount of must as that they had absorbed, but this time it was enriched with substances – chiefly sugar – from the raisins and became so dense that it did not ferment. This is why Columella advises collecting the passum, and does not mention fermentation, which he does in Magon’s next recipe, which refers to second-rate passum. And this brings us to Crete, because in Roman times Crete was renowned for its passum wines, which were exported to Rome and other cities, according to A. Marangou’s book, «Le Vin at les Amphores de Crete» (EFA, Athens, 1995). This is irrefutable evidence that Crete had a tradition of making sweet wine from grapes which had been dried in the sun. Athens police yesterday arrested two Greek women who allegedly profited by forcing into prostitution at least six Eastern European women in rented flats in the seaside location of Voula. Eleni Michailou, 59, and Evangelia Panourgia, 51, allegedly sold the services of two Moldovians, three Russians and an Albanian woman in exchange for 60 euros a visit – half of which would go to Michailou.