Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Medieval wine

In an earlier post I discussed beer in the Middle Ages, the all-purpose drink.  Today I will discuss wine, the other alcoholic drink then.  There were no distilled spirits (whiskey, bourbon, brandy, gin, etc.) until the invention of modern distilling and bottling methods after the end of the Middle Ages.

Wine was a more aristocratic drink than beer, more expensive and scarcer.  Almost any region in Europe would grow barley, but grape vines are more finicky.  They need a warmer climate and the right mix of sun and soil.  Then, as now, the best wine-growing areas had worked out by the twelfth century that it made more sense to produce a whole lot of wine and sell it than to try to grow all food locally.  Burgundy and Alsace have been major wine-producing regions for a very long time.  Burgundy was especially well situated, because it is downriver from there to Paris, so barrels could be loaded onto barges and easily transported.

Beer can be made essentially year-round, but wine can be made only when the grapes are ripe, in the fall.  Since ancient times, when the grapes were ripe everyone came together to gather them and press them to get the juice out, which was most fun if done by stomping. The grape juice was then put in casks and allowed to ferment.

The new wine was greeted with great excitement, and those selling wine to big cities could command a high price, because without modern bottling wine will turn to vinegar.  By late summer the wine was almost undrinkable, unless one perked it up with a lot of spice.

As well as being a sign of aristocratic status, wine was necessary for the liturgy.  Communion was bread and wine, not bread and beer (although in some parts of Scandinavia they might substitute).  This meant that parts of Europe really unsuitable for wine grapes, like most of Britain, would still try desperately to grow at least some.

In regions like Burgundy where vineyards could be very profitable, landlords and peasants worked out a system called complant.  This was a way for a landlord to turn some of his land into profitable vineyards without having to do the work himself, and for a peasant to acquire a vineyard without having money upfront.  The lord would buy the rootstock and the necessary tools and provide the land, and the peasant would use them to establish a vineyard.  Once it was producing, usually after about four years, the peasant would start paying rent, but if he had done a good job his vines provided him an excellent income.

© C. Dale Brittain 2016

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article. I had no idea the wine back then basically had a shelf life of less than one year. Now it is available to anyone and affordable year-round. We do live in an amazing time.