A Very Ancient Craft
A Very Ancient Craft
To those of us who like to know every single thing there is to know about a subject there is unfortunately no detailed recording of the origins of making wine. Archaeologists have discovered bas-reliefs depicting the making of wine during the ancient Egyptian civilisation. There are also records in the Old Testament, which tell us about the making of wine at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. Other archaeological findings, including piles of grape pips, give us reason to believe that wine has been made for something like 10,000 years. It is thought that mead, a fermented solution of honey, is even older and may have been made for some 12,000 years. We know, too, that cider is a very old drink. Indeed, there are reasons to believe that these fermented drinks were well known to the Persian civilisation, which, of course, preceded the Egyptian.
The word 'wine', as we know it today, comes not from the Latin 'vinum', or, as might be more popularly thought, the French word 'vin', but rather from the Greek 'oitlas', which in turn came from the ancient Arabic.
There are, as you well know, many references in the Old Testament to wine and to other forms of fermented drink. Our word cider, for example, is thought to come from the word 'seider', which in turn came from the word 'sekera', mentioned in the Bible as a strong fermented drink. In general it is quite clear that wine was well known to the Greek and Egyptian civilisations and we know for certain that the Pharaohs drank wine with their meals, although their workers mostly drank beer made from grain. In Palestine today one can still see the stone vats carved out of the hillside, one above another, in which the wine was first crushed and then racked off through runnels to the vat below.
The Romans brought order and development to winemaking. Wine drinking became such an integral part of social life that a god was nominated to honour drinking and was given the name Bacchus; libations were poured in his honour and toasts were frequently drunk to him. The Roman orgies were always encouraged and assisted by drinking wine, very deeply, although in civilised society it was always mixed with water in the proportion of three parts water to one part wine. Only rakes and the common people drank their wine neat. Most of the wine was certainly drunk very young and much of it was no doubt still cloudy; it may have been such a wine that inspired Homer to refer to the 'wine-dark sea'.
It was very common to mix spices, herbs, the juices of other fruits and honey with the wine to improve the favour. Similarly mead was often mixed with spices, herbs and other fruits, as well as wine, to make different kinds of mead. Wine was one of the three major items of trade in the Middle East and Mediterranean, the other two, of Course, being grain and olive oil.
By the time, then, that our Lord was on earth, wine was the common drink of the vast majority of the people, both for daily, social and ceremonial occasion. Clearly wine was to drink as bread was to food, a staple item of everyday life, and it was because of its common availability that it was chosen with bread to become the Sacrament. For centuries beforehand wine had been part of the Jewish ceremonial of the Sabbath, and our Lord, as a Jew, was but continuing the tradition or custom. It is quite probable that in His younger life He had helped in the making of wine, and had certainly bought and served it in the family at Nazareth. It is quite clear from the story of the marriage feast at Cana that our Lord was no stranger to wine. The only regret is that He has not left to us the ability to work the miracle with water that He did on that occasion. We must be grateful to Him, however, that with some fruit juice, sugar and yeast suitably mixed with water we are nowadays able to produce wines of very high quality, and in this sense we too can turn water into wine.
In England. civilisation had not yet developed sufficiently for wine to be common. Athanaeus, a famous Egyptian collector of gossip and anecdotes, was also a commentator on social customs. Writing about the year A.D. 200 he said of the Celts, that is the people living in the southern half of England as we know it today: 'The rich drink wine from Italy or from around Marseilles. The poorer classes drink beer made from wheat and prepared with honey.' Athanaeus also tells us of wines made in other areas, as, for example, 'wines from Heraea' (a town in Greece) 'drives men out of their senses and makes women incline to pregnancy'. Of another, a wine from Cerauni (a town in Albania), he writes: 'The wine causes sterility in women.' Another wine mentioned came from Myndus, a port on the east coast of the Aegean Sea; it was prepared with sea-water (2%) and was an excellent aperient, also aiding the digestion of food!
After this thousand years or so of Light, there follows the many centuries known as the Dark Ages and from this period of history we have little news about wine. There is reason to believe that in England the making of cider was greatly improved and that some doubtful wines were imported commercially. Mead, cider and ale were the main drinks of the Angle-Saxons and it is from this period that we derive the word 'honeymoon' and 'yard of ale'. During the life of the moon which followed a wedding the festivities were continued with the drinking of mead. The yard of ale comes from the very long horns of the cattle which the Saxons used as drinking vessels; the horns could hold something like a quart of ale. Young warriors vied with one another to be able to empty a horn in one go, no mean task. When Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine she brought with her as a dowry the lands around Bordeaux, which were then, as now, the chief wine-producing area of France. As a result, much wine from this region imported into England and it is thought that because the wine was clear and transparent the English called the wine claret, a corruption of the French word 'clairet', meaning clear. Some wine was imported from Spain and some from Portugal too, and at that time the Portuguese wine was often the more favoured.
Although sugar was known at least 500 years before the birth of Christ, it was not imported into this country until the year 1264, when King Henry ill ordered some for the royal household. The equivalent cost today would perhaps be in the region af;Ell a pound. Nearly 200 years later the first sugar refinery was started in this country, but the prier: of sugar was still very high and another 200 years had to pass before the price became low enough for the majority of the people to be able to afford it. Honey continued to be the main
sweetening agent for general purposes.
Considerable quantities of wine were by now (1550) being imported and drunk, and as may be expected were causing ailments to those who drank them in excess. And yet wine was extensively used, both as a medicine in itself and as a vehicle in which herbs were steeped or other drugs were added to alleviate disorder. The very first book written about wine in this country was by a physician to Queen Elizabeth I whose name was DR. WILLIAM TURNER. His book, entitled A New Book of Wines, published in 1568, was the first ever to be printed and sold in Great Britain on the subject of wine. A few copies of this book are still extant and an almost perfect copy is in the Wine and Food Society's Library, founded by M. Andre Simon, M, Simon was kind enough to lend me this irreplaceable book to study, although it is currently worth some £250. In 1941 a facsimile edition was published in New York and, since the book was originally written by at least a namesake and possibly even a forbear, I would very much like to possess a copy. If any reader should know of such a copy I would be grateful if he would get in touch with me via my publisher. It is an intriguing thought that 400 years after William Turner wrote the first book in English on wine there is still a Turner writing books on wine. In this first book on wine Dr. Turner advocated the drinking of Rhenish wines, because they were of a much lighter character than that of the French wines, which were heavier and contained not only more alcohol but also a good deal of tannin. It was thought that the heavy red wines caused stone in the bladder, as common an ailment of that period as thrombosis is of ours.
Perhaps because even in those days they had good years and bad years for making wine, attempts were made to keep wine for several years and sometimes rosin was added to prevent souring. Yet the Lords of the Privy Council, meeting in the Star Chamber, used to regard wine one year old as the best and wine older than that was less good and therefore cheaper. Their records clearly show both the price paid for wine of different vintages, and the most popular wines of the period. These were (1) sack, a sweet wine from southern Spain which has since become sherry, (2) malmsey and muscadel (sometimes called muscadine), which were also sweet wines from Italy and Greece and their islands, (3) claret (both red and white) from France, used for table purposes, (4) Rhenish wines from Germany, also used for table wine. At that time (1567) sack cost about 3d. a bottle, claret 2d. a bottle and sugar cost Is. a pound ! By 1590 sack was costing 69d. a bottle, old Rhenish cost the same and new Rhenish cost 8d. a bottle, while claret was only 4d. Muscadel also cost 8d. a bottle.
No wine was made at home as at present understood, but each family made their own ale and mead and often their cider. Landowners and employers of labour often employed an additional person to make their mead and ale and, if possible, their cider too. This was frequently given to all their workers as well as being provided for the whole household. Wine was usually reserved for the evening meal in the 'big house', at other times of the day ale and mead or cider would be drunk. The monasteries also fermented their drinks and, where grapes were available, made wine. Because of the carefully regulated and industrious lives lived by the monks, and also because the wine they made was used for the Sacrament, the monks did seem to make wines considerably superior to those generally available. Many improvements in viticulture and in the methods of winemaking, storing and serving are directly attributable to monks. Some famous liqueurs still bear their name, of course, such as chartreuse and Benedictine, and we shall never forget that it was a Dulll Ferignon who first devised the method for making the wine from Champagne into the joyously sparkling wine that is so much enjoyed on all great festive occasions.
One hundred years after Dr. Turner produced his book on wine SIR KENELM DIGBY published in 1669 an excellent treatise on the making of mead and cider. He collected together very many recipes from different great houses of the day and he had obviously drunk sufficient of a wide variety of meads to have formed the opinion that for making mead 'Hampshire honey was greatly esteemed but that Norfolk honey was the best'. He recommended one measure of honey to three of water and boiled it steadily until one measure was boiled away. He checked the gravity by floating an egg in the liquid and 'only the measure of a great must show'. For flavouring he used violet leaves, strawberry leaves, sorrel, rosemary, balm, hart's-tongue, liverwort, thyme and red sage. These he boiled in the must for an hour. Subsequently, cloves, nutmeg and ginger were added and the whole fermented with yeast of beer or leaven of bread'. Sometimes 'Blue Raisins of the Sun' were added as well. Countless variations made by different lords, ladies and their servants were given and one can imagine from Sir Kenelm Digby's book that making mead was a major pastime of the gentry.
His recipe for making cider was by comparison simple. He boiled a bushel of Pippin apples in twelve gallons of water and when the liquid was cool added a pint of ale yeast. After two days' fermentation the cider was racked and bottled, then kept for only two weeks before serving.
Many other books were published on the subject, some with what we might think were rather quaint suggestions. For example in 1675 WALTER CHARLETON, describing the 'Mystique of Vintners', says: 'The best time to rack wine is the decrease of the moon and when the wine is free from fretting, the wind being at North East or North West and not at South, the sky serene, free from thunder and lightning.'
Charleton was a great advocate of racking to clear cloudy wines and of feeding 'fretting' (i.e. fermenting) wines with raw beef. Beaten whites of egg, milk and isinglass were recommended for fining.
In the following year, 167G, a superb book was published by a gentleman called WORLIDGE. The book had the wonderful name of Vinetum Britannicum and was a scholarly and detailed 'treatise on cider and other wines extracted from fruits growing in this kingdom'. Worlidge was highly educated. well travelled and an able author. The following is just one extract as an example of his knowledge and erudition.
'The cider made in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire being in great quantities carried to London and several other places of this kingdom and sold at a very high rate, is valued above the wines of France, partly from its own excellency and partly from the deterioration of the French Wines which suffer in their exportation and from the sophistication and adulterations they receive from those that
trade in them.'
Many other books of the period gave recipes for these adulterations and it was common to blend imported wine with home-made wine and then to sell the whole as imported. Whilst you may question the honesty of the wine merchants, experience shows that this is an excellent recipe for the amateur winemaker today. One gallon of wine made from grape juice concentrate and blended with three gallons of almost any fruit wine makes four gallons of excellent wine sometimes superior to the imported! Try it one day and prove the recipe for yourself.
In the latter half of the seventeenth century there were also many books written on the subject of drunkenness. In 1676 Worlidge wrote that it was now 'regnant in Britain, though rife abroad'.
As a result of his vast experience, for he had travelled the world aI;ld imbibed fermented drinks in many rounrries, Mr. Worlidge was of the opinion that 'wine made from the grape is the richest drink this world affords', but wrote that 'for our climate cider, perry, cherry, gooseberry wine, etc., is better'.
Worlidge advanced an interesting theory that the name 'vineyard', still known today in Gloucestershire and Norfolk, was in fact applied to cider orchards and not the vine yards as the word is now understood. His argument was that originally all fermented liquors were called by the same name and that no differentiation in nomenclature would have been made between fermented apple juice and fermented grape juice. On the other hand, there is also good reason to believe that some at least of the monasteries grew grapes and made wine from them.
Worlidge's description of cider making is superb and would be accepted today as still first class. He depicted presses that may well still be in use. He recommended scalding all containers in case 'they ferment the wine too violently and make it acid'. He used quicklime to aid fermentation just as they do in Terez. Germs were called 'wild spirits' and he knew that they entered cracks in casks and existed in unscalded vessels. Brimstone was used for cleaning and corks preferred to glass stoppers to enable 'spirits to perspire'. He urged that fermented liquors be stored in sand while maturing to enable an even temperature to be maintained. He even siphoned his wines and ciders when racking. He knew about yeast, but disliked both ale and bread yeast as being too exciting for his wine. He relied on natural yeast. Three hundred years ago, then, excellent information was available, but, because so few people could read, the knowledge was rarely used and we find references in every book on the subject complaining that most wines made at home were far too sweet and lacking in alcohol.
Although the fermentation lock was not known in its present form, Y. WORTH in 1691 recommended the use of a pebble stone on the hung hole during fermentation so that the wine would not go sour.
Worth gives an excellent recipe for gooseberry wine as follows:' 8 Ib. gooseberries neither too ripe nor too green, bruise them well, but do not mash. Pour on 1 gallon of water, cover and leave to stand in a cold place for 24 hours. Then put all in a strong canvas bag and press out the juice. Measure the liquor and add d Ib. fine sugar to each quart and stir till dissolved. Cover again and leave in a coal place else it will sour. Let it work 3 weeks or a month. The wine should be in a vessel filled full and covered close. After it is well wrought and settled let it be drawn off into smaller casks or bottle up and leave in a cold place. But do not cork too firmly at first.'
Worth also describes the custom of putting 'small wines' on rich lees and feeding the wine with 'sweet flesh'.
Seventy-eight years later in 1769 the Rev. Mr. Stevenson wrote a book called the Gentleman Gardener. He declared that elderberry wine well made was not inferior to 'Hermitage Claret'. His recipe was: '1 peck elderberries clean picked from their stalks and boiled till they begin to dimple. Strain and to every gallon of liquor put 2 Ib. of Lisbon sugar and boil it 1 hour. Let it cool in a tub not in the Thing that you boil it infers that will make it taste ill. When cool, make a toast of white bread and spread Yeast upon it and put it to the liquor to work for three days, stirring in once or twice every day, then turn it into a vessel that will just hold it. Add to every gallon of the liquor 1 Ib. Raisins of the sun and let them lie in the wine till bottled in 7 or 8 weeks' time.'
One can well imagine that this recipe might very well make a medium dry wine, though some lemon juice, a pure yeast and a fermentation trap would improve the wine considerably,
The cause of fermentation was being investigated by many students. Some old recipes included three tablespoons of flour instead of yeast. It was realised that the wheat germ contained the 'spirit', but it was not known for certain until the last sixty years or so that it was two enzymes in that wheat germ which facilitated fermentation.
One hundred and fifty years ago, 1814 to be precise, a somewhat pompous fellow called GUSHING wrote a treatise on family winemaking and said of vinous fermentation: 'This may be said to be a Divine operation which the Omniscient Creator has placed in our cup of life, to transmute the fruits of the Earth into wine for the benefit and comfort of His creatures.' And this was the general view of the day.
There were a great number of recipe books now available for the home winemaker, but few contained much of solid scientific value in the way of advice--apart from racking, which was the panacea for all ills. But, shortly, two really first-class books were to come. The first in 1816, by JOHN MACCULLOCH, was addressed to the Caledonian Horticultural Society and was a clear and closely reasoned study of the science of winemaking as then known, though even MacCulloch admitted that very Little was known about yeasts. He condemned the addition of brandy and said that unless it was added during fermentation the wine would soon go flat since the brandy only remained in solution and did not integrate. He condemned excessive use of sugar and raisins and gave good reasons for all the practices that we now follow today. He was a great theoretician. Oddly enough, he also recommended dry, cold weather for racking, as it is only then that wines are clear. They are generally turbid in damp, close weather and in southerly winds.' One is tempted to wonder whether there is something in this after all.
MacCulloch studied every ingredient of wine in great detail. He knew that there was a fermenting substance in vegetable and fruit mucilage and in the germ cell of wheat. He knew that chemists had isolated a substance in these mucilages called 'azote' and that azotic gas was given off during fermentation. Another substance newly known to the research chemists was 'gluten', from where we get the word glutinous--thick and sugary. This substance was also found in the mucilage and so MacCulloch guessed that azote and gluten were essential ingredients in fermentation. Much of his work is of this detailed and careful kind and to the student is a real joy to read.
The other great book was by w. H. ROBERTS, a student of MacCulloch, who wrote the British Winemaker in 1835. On the first page of this excellent book Roberts refers to 'The Amateur Winemaker', and if anyone thinks this phrase is new, then I can confirm that it was in use at least 130 years ago ! Roberts recommended the use of the saccharometer and condemned the over-sweet wines that were made by those who did not use this instrument that could at the time be bought for 7s. He worked from a maximum specific gravity of 1.120. First he pressed his fruit and checked the specific gravity of the juice. Then he added water amounting to twice the weight of the juice he had and checked the specific gravity again, although he could easily calculate this, of course. Then he added the necessary amount of sugar on the basis of 1 Ib. sugar per gallon to raise the specific gravity by 35. He checked the specific gravity every day and he could tell when fermentation began because the specific gravity began to fall. In like manner he knew that when the specific gravity remained steady fermentation had ceased; then he racked and stoppered his wines, maturing them for several years.
By way of summary one can say that excellent principles have been known for hundreds of years, though through inability, and perhaps even unwillingness, to read, the knowledge was not as widespread as the custom of making wine. Even today one meets people who make wine without really studying the principles sufficiently carefully,
Mrs. Beeton compiled hex first recipe book in 1861 and unfortunately knew almost nothing of the principles of making wine. Her recipes make a sweet syrup to which she added brandy to provide some alcohol.
This kind of recipe makes very poor wine of the quality we know so well today Jane Austen could have helped her, she was a dab hand at making orange and gooseberry wines at least.
As the nineteenth century drew to its close and the industrial urbanisation reached a peak, winemaking fell into a decline and the ancient craft was maintained only by a few stalwarts living in the countryside. I was first taught how to make wine in 1945 by a great-aunt, then seventy years old, who had been making a few gallons a year all her life. She had been taught by her mother, who had previously learned from her mother.
Soon after sugar came off the ration in 1951 the craft of making wine at home began to spread. In this scientific age it is natural that the old recipes should be questioned and new improvements discovered. Nowadays we can inhibit the development of bacteria with the aid of Campden tablets. We can closely control the alcoholic content of our wines by using the hydrometer. We can ferment our wines to dryness by adding some yeast nutrient. We have a higher standard of hygiene and we can use a pure culture of the yeast of our choice. We know how to protect our wines from the depredations of the vinegar bug and we have all the advantages bestowed by the air lock. Indeed, however good the wines were in days long gone by, you can, with the knowledge you will find in the panes that follow make infinitely superior wines that you can enjoy on all occasions.