Wine as food

For many a millennium, wine as food has played the role of a catalyst in Greece, having always constituted a pillar of nutrition. As early as prehistoric times, vine cultivation had become common practice throughout Greece and wine was treated not merely as a beverage but also as food, on a steady, daily basis. It was not perceived as a mere accompaniment to food: it was food unto itself. The perception of wine as food persevered throughout Classical times as well when, wine was a key agricultural product of Greece and, at the same time, staple food, highly valued for its abundance in nourishing and nutritional elements. The sweet “melanas oenos” or near-black wine of antiquity was an excellent, everyday source of calorie intake, available throughout the year.

The Greek terroirs, Greece’s native varieties, and the sun of the Aegean Sea have always bestowed upon Greek wines the tenacity it needed to withstand transportation and time. Thus, under adverse living conditions; during arduous agricultural tasks; on long journeys and voyages, and in times of inevitable war, wine as food proved more than beneficial. A cup of wine served in fortifying and reviving body and morale alike. Later on, during the centuries when the rest of Europe basked in its renaissance but occupied Greece reeled under such oppressive regimes as that of Ottoman rule, the nutritional value of wine was indispensable in overcoming the daily hardships of life. Yet, even in far more recent times, wine continued to provide sustenance: a food staple commonly consumed by inhabitants of Greek rural areas was a piece of bread sopped in wine. This sop had its origins in antiquity and was but a wine variation of the Homeric kykeon, a drink containing water, barley, and herbs.

Nevertheless, it was not only wine as food which helped the Greek people from the ancient to more recent times, it was also wine in its medicinal capacity that came to their assistance. As of ancient times, wine was considered to be therapeutic either when drunk on its own or after herbs had been added to it. Due to its tonic, warming, sterilizing and refreshing properties, wine has always been regarded as having a “medicinal” character. Yet, the principle of moderation had always accompanied its consumption which, in ancient Greece, would nearly always take place only after the wine had been mixed with water. The average Athenian citizen would begin his day by drinking a cup of kekramenos oenos, wine mixed with water. Athenian citizens would also frequently participate in symposia where wine in moderation (inebriation was frowned upon) and philosophical discussions held sway. At other instances, mixing wine with water was a precautionary measure towards sterilizing potable water should its source prove of dubious purity.

Wine in religion

The significance of wine, as hailed by poets and touted by kings is evident in ancient Greece’s cult worship of Dionysus and the Dionysian celebrations. The position of wine in religion was a prominent one. Libations, the ritual pouring of wine, were the manner in which the ancient Greeks honored their gods and an amphora of wine was the last companion of their dead as they embarked on their final journey.

Wine, however, remained the Greek people’s everyday companion in later historic periods as well, such as Hellenistic and Roman times. During Byzantine times, wine was no longer known as oenos. Its name had changed to krasi and as it gradually came under the protection of Christianity, it acquired symbolic significance: Christ was referred to as “ambelos” (vine) and wine symbolized the blood of Christ, drunk by the faithful during the sacrament of the Holy Communion. Thus, the link and affinity between Greeks and wine continued and the position of wine in religion was maintained, even though the Dionysian celebrations became a “forbidden” memory of pageantry -resurfacing during such times and Christian celebrations as those honoring Agios Tryphon, patron saint of vintners in Greece.

Wine at the daily table

Wine at the daily table of Greek families was and is permanently present. Even during the Turkish occupation, when the Moslem rulers of Greece had temporarily forbidden the consumption of wine, it defiantly remained on the Greek table. Together with winegrowing and wine production, wine consumption was the Greeks’ way of standing up to their rulers, at a conscious or subconscious level, and claiming their freedom by that small albeit rebellious act. During those long centuries of oppression a rich tradition in proverbs, poems, and songs surrounding vine and wine emerged to be handed down from generation to generation and was preserved to our days.

In modern times, wine continued to be an element of everyday life in independent Greece. Throughout the country which, in essence, is anchored on agriculture, every village had its own vineyards and every family had its own little vineyard whose products went towards ensuring that every family was self-sufficient in wine, year-round. The wine aside, vineyards also produced such goods as table grapes; tsipouro; vinegar; molasses (boiled must used in sweets and desserts); and grape leaves, used in the making of dolmah, the stuffed grape leaves dish of Greek cuisine. The wine itself occupied a prominent position in cooking. It is thus clear that in Greece, wine at the daily table has been serving a multitude of purposes.

The austere Mediterranean diet, Greece’s regional cuisines, the Cretan diet, and fasting as a religious duty or as a conscious way of life, all have always been accompanied in Greece by a glass of wine. The tradition of the union between wine and Greece is age-old: Today, wine continues to be directly linked to the Greek people and their everyday life. Thus, wine at the daily table is not perceived as a mere accompaniment to Greek cuisine: It is the life of the Greeks itself and it is deeply etched into their hearts and collective memory.