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Medieval Wine Trivia

The cycle of the vineyards and man’s enjoyment of wine has continued throughout the ages
with some of these intriguing differences…

ONCE UPON A TIME

Roman civilization was well versed in viticulture and wine making, but then the Barbarians
ruined their vineyards and turned them into pastureland and cornfields. Luckily,
Benedictine and other monks kept the art of viticulture alive at their monasteries. By the
12th century, viticulture was fully revived.

THEY WEREN’T SO FUSSY

One of the major differences between today’s wine connoisseurs and medieval man was that
back then they weren’t so concerned with which exact vineyard a wine came from, but rather
the general area. The body of the wine was more vital than it’s subtle flavors and
aroma.

JUST BEING PRACTICAL

Wine was mostly the drink of the upper classes and rich merchants, while the lower classes
generally drank beer, cider or mead.

Also, in medieval times, much of the water was tainted by sewage, so naturally, people
preferred to drink wine.

OTHER USES

Wine also served to relieve minor aches and pains.

In 1166, the vintages were so plentiful and there was such an over production of wine, that in
Franconia (a part of what is now Germany), they mixed wine with lime for use in building
construction.

DRINK UP BEFORE IT GOES BAD

In medieval times, the aging of wine wasn’t vital. This was partly due to the fact that
much of the wine was too unstable to age well anyway, and if air hit it, it might turn to
vinegar. One way to combat this problem was to use a thin film covering of olive oil. Other
methods included adding burnt salt, mixing in cloves, or plunging lighted torches dipped in
pitch into the wine.

Vintners and wine sellers often just mixed excellent wine in with terrible, at least until the practice
was later forbidden. Others place cloves in wine to keep it from spoiling.

A major advance of medieval wine making was the discovery of sulphur by the alchemists.
This was now used to preserve the wine.

A PINCH OF THIS AND A PINCH OF THAT

Spices were added to wine for the same reason they were added to food: for variety and to
disguise it’s lackluster or terrible flavor. Spiced wines were called Piments.

When terrible weather resulted in poor ripening of the grapes, flavors and herbs were often added
to the wine. The resulting beverage would then take on the taste and character of these
added ingredients. If the poor crop yielded grapes low in sugar, medieval man sometimes
added cooked grape juice or honey to bring up the sugar levels so the final alcohol content
would increase.

To clarify the wine, they used eggs, pine kernels, peach stones or river pebbles. Honey was
sometimes added to maintain the proper color.

Because their was so much unstable wine, many medieval vintners diligently tried to keep
their barrels and wine vessels as clean as possible. Various methods to clean them were
used, including scouring with cold water, ancient wine or salt water. Sometimes they would then
fumigate them with rosemary or cedar wood.

MEANWHILE, OUT IN THE GRAPE FIELDS

Medieval viticulture’s drawbacks were partly due to slow technical progress in general during
that time, and the cultivation of the vineyards was not as advanced as it had been in Roman
times.

One new development for the time was the use of the “low vineyard”. Vines started to be tied
to upright stakes and weren’t allowed to be grown over 4 feet high.

FROM MALMSEY TO MERLOT

The most well-known of medieval wines was Malmsey. This was a sweet wine made from grapes
grown primarily in Crete or Cyprus. We still have a form of Malmsey today which is basically a
sweet type of Madeira wine. But today’s wine drinkers generally prefer drier, more complex
wines than their medieval ancestors had access to.

Laura Eggers operates the website experience-wine-country.com experience-wine-country.com, a guide to the wineries and wine regions of California and beyond.

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