Dionysus’s gift – the noble grape by Andrew Ormerod

Many of the classic grape vines have long and colourful pasts, rather like the Greek God of Wine Dionysus.  Though their histories are often a combination of fact and fiction, in some cases the cultivars stretch almost to the time when the cult of Dionysus was celebrated.  The remarkable thing is that these vines have withstood the test of time and still have a place in our modern competitive marketplace.

Until the nineteenth century only one species out of the 60 that grow round the world played a part in the development of cultivated grapes: Vitus vinifera subsp. silvestris, the wild grape.  This flourishes particularly in warm, damp, wooded lowland valleys from Turkestan, deep in Asia, through Armenia into Thrace.  Wild grape vines were found climbing to the top of plane tree forests, the trees arching like buttresses of a cathedral in moist river valleys – common habitats of wild grapes in the Fertile Crescent. Hunter-gatherers no doubt collected grapes from wild vines.  It is likely that trees bearing particularly productive vines were marked to prevent them from being felled.

Observations from archaeological digs in Pompeii, suggested that vines may have been growing up trees in cultivation in this case olive trees.   Interestingly this natural way of grown vines into trees is still found in some parts of the Mediterranean region notably, grapes for Vinho Verde production in Northern Portugal and Primitivo grape-vine production in Southern Italy.   In common with Portugal the traditional tree is often the elm. We are growing a Primitivo grape-vine from Southern Italy up a tree, in our vine exhibit.

Primitivo by name , ancient by nature, it was long assumed that the Ancient Greeks introduced this vine into Southern Italy. The folk-lore about the origins of many of these ancient grape vines is a big a mythological as the ledgends surrounding Bacchus. It has long been held that Primitivo may be the same as Zinphandel the red wine grape grown in great quantity in California.

Only now is the truth revealed by the modern technique of DNA fingerprinting conducted by Carol Meredeth and colleagues at UC Davies, California, this has revealed that Primitivo from Southern Italy and Zinphandel from California as suspected but that they were both related to a Croatian ancestral variety which was a surprise!

Grape vines were among the first wave of fruit trees to be domesticated about 6,000 years ago.  Wild grapes tend to bear either male or female flowers.  Domestication eventually led to the selection of forms with flowers containing functioning male and female reproductive structures, capable of self-pollinting.  The development of vegetative propagation methods allowed desirable plants to be multiplied, since grape vines do not come true from seed.

One of the earliest centres for vine cultivation and wine production was Armenia. Vine cultivation had reached Egypt and Phoenicia by about 5,000 years ago. The Greeks had been bitten by the bug by about 4,000 years ago. The first epics surrounding Dionysus appeared about 2,700-2,800 years ago, although the basis for the legend may go back further.  In mythology Dionysus son of Zeus is meant to have invented wine on Mount Nysa in the land of Thrace.  (Modern Thrace includes European Turkey and the Dardanelles, northeast Greece and Bulgaria.)

The first word for wine may have been the Hittite word ‘uiian’ which appeared about 3,500 years ago and referred to a drink made from the fermented juice of the grape.  Even contemporary opinion about Dionysus was that he was an ambivalent source of good and evil.  On the one hand he encouraged the cultivation of grapes, on the other he encouraged drunkenness and wild ritual.  Bacchus is often depicted as a bearded young man, however in mythology he was capable of changing into other animal forms – including that of the bull depicted in the exhibit at the Eden Project.  The copper used in the sculpture has another significant link to the vine exhibit, the first fungicide developed for treating grape mildew – (Bordeaux mixture is based on copper).

The Greeks spread the art of viticulture with them to North Africa, Sicily, Provence, Andalusia and mainland Italy. They called this Ointora, ‘The Land of the Vine’, because vines grew so well in Italy.  The Romans not only adopted Dionysus, under the name Bacchus, but also adopted the rituals for a short time until the celebrations got rather out of hand and were banned.  They also spread knowledge of grape cultivation up the river valleys into France and Germany where they found that it had a civilising effect on the local populations.

Was the wine of the ancient Greeks anything like modern wine? The answer is no; it was thick and syrupy, perhaps requiring dilution with hot water.  One legacy of this thick type of wine is Commandria, much praised by the Crusaders and still made in Cyprus.  Many Greek wines contain resin, or retsina, as they did in ancient times, not as a preservative but as a flavouring to complement oily food in the Greek diet.  they had to drink their wine very young as they only had wooden and pottery vessels in which to store it.  The Romans had the advantage of glass bottles.  Although most Roman wines were drunk young, some of the wines produced near Naples were legendary for their keeping quality, apparently lasting for 125 years!  Development of strong bottles and the use of corks in the seventeenth century had the most profound effect on producing the wines that we know today.

The Muscat grape, that classic hothouse grape, when grown in Britain, with the musky perfume, is among the oldest cultivated grape types.  It is likely that the Greeks may well have drunk toasts to Dionysus with Muscat wine.  When they took the art of viticulture with them Muscat grapes came too.  This may explain why Muscat grapes are still used for wine production in Provence.  One of the most widely planted Muscat grapes is Muscat of Alexandria, which originated in Egypt.  It is one of the oldest vegetatively propagated plants in the world and was spread further around the Mediterranean by the Romans.  It is now cultivated around the world, particularly in South Africa, Australia and California, where it is still an important source of dried currents.   Another ancient Muscat variety, Muscat a Petit Gran unlike Muscat of Alexandria is mainly used for wine production. It still survives in some of the areas of the Mediterranean where the Ancient Greeks travelled to. Wine production in certain areas of Sicily stretches back 1000 years and the vines are still used to make the deliciously sweet Muscat of Samos.

Some authorities suggest that Muscat grapes are the progenitors of Pinot grapes, used for wine, or even of all viniferous grapes.  The Pinot grape type (hncluding Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris) is one of the oldest selections from wild grapes, perhaps named because its bunches of fruit resemble pinecones.  Pinot Noir was first grown by the Gauls before the Roman invasion and is still grown to produce the rich red wines of Burgundy and as an important component of champagne.

There is a link between Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – a white wine grape of global significance, which is relatively easy to grow and to make wine from.  It is the result of a liaison between a Pinot grape and a completely unrelated vine, Gouais Blanc, some time in the Middle Ages.  16 venerable wine-grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Aligote and Gamay noir, are the direct offspring of the classic Pinot variety.  The different origins of the parents may well have contributed to the hybrid vigour of Chardonnay.  Gouais Blanc is apparently such a poor grape variety that the French tried unsuccessfully in the past to ban its cultivation on two occasions.  It was thought to have been brought to France by the Emperor Probus who is also supposed to have introduced the recently fashionable vine Viognier to France around A.D. 281.  Traditionally this vine has only been grown in a small area of the Upper Rhone valley in France to produce some of the most expensive wines such as Condrieu and Chateau Grillet. In the last few years there has been an increase of Viognier planting, particularly in the South of France (the Languedoc), in California and more recently in South America and Italy.

Another white grape with a colourful past is Malvasia, a vine of ancient Greek origin now grown throughout the Mediterranean region.  It forms the basis of Malmsey, in which the unfortunate Duke of Clarence was supposed to have drowned in 1478.  Malvasia is important in Italy, being one of the four grapes laid down in the nineteenth century as being essential for making Chianti.  It possibly arose near the town of Monemvasia in the Peloponnese in Greece, for which the names Malmsey, Malvasia and its French name Malvoisie are derived.

Cabernet Sauvignon with Chardonnay are the two most important and highly-prized grapes in the world; 25% of the production is from France and 10% from the USA. Results of DNA fingerprinting have indicated that it is the progeny of a chance cross between the spicy red Cabernet Franc and zesty Sauvignon Blanc, probably occurring before the 18th century.

Syrah is a red French wine grape allegedly introduced to the Rhone region from Shiraz, Persia, one of the oldest centres of grape cultivation in the world, by the 14th-century crusader Gaspard de Sterimberg.  It is blended in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which boasts a heritage that reaches back to the 14th-century sojourn of the Popes in nearby Avignon.  In Australia it is known as Shiraz and is the most widely planted red grape.

Tempranillo is Spain’s most notable red grape, particularly associated with Rioja. It is capable of producing wines worth ageing. In Portugal Tempranillo is used to produce port.  It may originally have been brought from monasteries in France by pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela.

Beside Muscat of Alexandria, two other cultivars with long histories are grown for dry fruit production.  The Monopyrena group of grapes, of which Black Corinth is a member, have tiny sweet and juicy fruit.  The name currant is a corruption of raysouns of Courance, or Corinth.  This refers to the small dried grapes imported in to England from the Middle Ages onwards from the Mediterranean area around Corinth.   The Sultana, or Thompson Seedless cultivar, was named after William Thompson.  He introduced it into California from Europe in 1872.  It originated in the Middle East, most probably Iran and is also known as Oval Kishmish.  It was the most popular table grape in the United States and the UK for many years.  In California it is the most important dried grape.  Its adaptability in cultivation and versatility as a ‘multipurpose’ grape means it will remain an important variety, used as dried and fresh fruit and for wine production.

In many countries in Europe at the end of the 19th century vines suffered an attack of Philoxera an insect which originates in America which attacks and destroys the root system of susceptible vines and caused havoc in the European wine industry in the 19th century. The industry recovered by grafting vines on to resistant root stocks derived from American grape species that are resistant to Philoxera. The choice of root-stock is also important, root stocks vary in levels of resistance to Philoxera and also in vigour and suitability to different soil conditions.

Based on an article originally in Eden Project Friends magazine No. 3 (June 2001)

Andrew Ormerod 2014



About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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